A clearly befuddled and flustered presidential contender John McCain stumbled almost laughingly over a question from an audience member during a townhall talk in Iowa in March 2007. The questioner asked what he'd do to combat the AIDS plague. McCain after several stumbles nervously said that he didn't know enough about the problem and then tossed the ball to his advisors. He said he was confident that they'd come up with some solutions.
The media had a mild field day poking fun at McCains' AIDS bumble, but the issue is hardly the stuff of a bad comedy routine. A few months after McCain's wobble, Obama and wife, Michelle, in a widely shown photo were shown getting their AIDS test. Obama followed this with a public pledge to formulate a national AIDS strategy on AIDS, ramp up government spending on testing, education, and treatment, and expand access to generic drugs in Africa and other poor nations.
This was admirable but unfortunately it was a year ago. He hasn't publicly addressed the issue since. During the campaign, he and McCain have given countless speeches, made statements, issued reports and position papers on the terrorism fight, the Iraq War, the Iran Missile threat, immigration, the housing and banking crisis, a tanking economy, and affordable health care. These are crucial problems and millions of Americans demand that both candidates tell exactly what they're going to do about them in the White House. But as devastating as these problems are to many families, they do not pile up bodies and wreak catastrophic havoc on entire communities — mostly poor Black communities. The AIDS/HIV plague does.
The Black AIDS Institute in a recent report backed up by statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sounded a loud alarm that the number of African-Americans afflicted with the disease is now so high that, if Black sufferers comprised their own nation, it would be the sixteenth most populous country on earth. Blacks make up nearly half of all new AIDS cases in the United States. That figure has remained virtually unchanged for the past few years.
The AIDS plague has long been the single biggest health issue that has screamed for massive action by the government and health agencies in poor Black communities. This is all the more reason for Obama and McCain to speak out on the crisis and then spell out just what they will do about it. So far they haven't done that during the campaign. In a campaign position paper Obama has said he will push for more funds for AIDS treatment, education and testing. But much of his emphasis has been on African and other nations. In 2006 Obama did publicly lambast government negligence in the AIDS battle. But the government was the South African government for its disgraceful head-in-the-sand attitude toward the mounting crisis in that country.
Bush actually went further and modestly delivered on his promise to increase funds for treatment and education programs and push for greater access for therapeutic drugs in Africa. The Black AIDS Institute notes that since then the number of AIDS cases have dropped in some African countries. Even more embarrassing, more African-Americans are afflicted with AIDS than persons in Botswana, Ethiopia, Haiti, Rwanda and Vietnam. These are among the poorest countries on the planet and have been wracked by war, civil war, genocide atrocities, and chronic political unrest. Yet they have managed to reduce the numbers of their AIDS afflicted while the number of African-Americans with AIDS continues to rise.
Meanwhile, McCain hasn't done any more homework on the AIDS crisis since his stumble in Iowa more than a year ago. HIV/AIDS is not even mentioned as an item in the detailed health care plan on his official website.
But even if McCain had boned up on the AIDS crisis and laid out a specific plan to confront the crisis, and Obama had fleshed out more details about confronting the crisis in African-American communities, it's still no substitute for them speaking out on the campaign stump about the crisis and pushing and prodding government, health agencies and private donors to do more to combat the AIDS plague.
Obama or McCain will occupy the White House in 2009; 2010 is the target year that the U.S., along with other international agencies, has set to prevent seven million more HIV infections. The likelihood is good they'll meet the target goal. The Bush Administration did play a role in helping some of the poorest of the poor nations dramatically turn the corner in combatting AIDS, but it happened because Bush reacted to the withering fire he got for not speaking out and doing something to help these nations. Presidential candidates Obama and McCain can and should do no less. They should break their silence now.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson's new book is "The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House" (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).