VIENNA – Unlike any president before him, President Barack Obama has announced a national HIV/AIDS strategy, something AIDS activists had been demanding for more than a decade. Instead of being perceived as a president in a class by himself, however, Obama is being unfavorably compared to another U.S. president – George W. Bush.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the largest non-government provider of HIV/AIDS medical care, launched an ad campaign against Obama earlier this month. The centerpiece of the campaign is a composite photo – one half of the face of Bush merged with half of Obama's face – with the inscription: "Who's Better on AIDS?"
In case that question stumps anyone, Michael Weinstein, president of the foundation, will eagerly supply what he argues is the correct answer: George W. Bush.
Weinstein criticized Obama's "laggard approach" to the AIDS epidemic as well as his recently unveiled national strategy.
"The strategy is a day late and a dollar short: 15 months in the making, and the White House learned what people in the field have known for years. There is no funding, no 'how to,' no real leadership."
Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, the only African-American think tank on HIV/AIDS, believes Obama is far better than Bush on policy issues, including fulfilling his campaign pledge to create an HIV/AIDS national strategy. He said the president will be ultimately judged on whether he and other leaders reduce the HIV infection rates, especially among African-Americans. Although Blacks are only 12.8 percent of the U.S., each year African-Americans represent almost half of all new HIV infections.
Ironically, Obama is being criticized for doing something he refused to do last year – direct federal resources to targeted groups most in need of help.
Rejecting such suggestions at the time, Obama said: "The most important thing I can do for the African American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is to get the economy going again and get people hiring again."
He added, "It's a mistake to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together."
We are all in the HIV/AIDS morass together, but to different degrees. The president's National HIV/AIDS Strategy recognizes that reality and boldly states: "While anyone can become infected with HIV, some Americans are at greater risk than others. This includes gay and bisexual men of all races and ethnicities, Black men and women, Latinos and Latinas, people struggling with addiction, including injection drug users, and people in geographic hot spots, including the United States South and Northwest, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Island. By focusing our efforts in communities where HIV is concentrated, we can have the biggest impact in lowering all communities' collective risk of acquiring HIV."
It noted, "Resources will always be tight, and we will have to make tough choices about the most effective use of funds. Therefore, all resources allocation decisions for programs should be grounded in the latest epidemiological data about who is being most affected and other data that tell us which are the most urgent needs to be addressed."
The administration's strategy plan does not call for increased funding, a sore point with some AIDS activists.
Bill Gates addressed the funding issue Monday in a speech here.
"Today, the skeptics look at the struggling economy and say: We can't beat AIDS unless we can treat more people. And we can't treat more people without more money. So if we don't raise more money for treatment, we'll lose the fight against AIDS. It's hopeless," says Gates, who knows a lot about money.
"The skeptics have a point," Gates said. "This is a tough economic environment. Right now, there isn't enough money to simply treat our way out of this epidemic. If we keep spending our resources in exactly the same way we do today, we will fall further behind in our ability to treat everyone."
Gates' answer: "…Even as we advocate for more fundng, we can do more to get the most benefit from each dollar of funding and every ounce of effort."
A study by the Black AIDS Institute, titled, "At the Crossroads: The State of AIDS in Black America, 2020," says additional allocations will be needed even after the belt-tightening.
"Despite all the many advances that have occurred in the AIDS fight over the past year, discretionary federal funding for fighting AIDS is barely keeping pace with inflation," the report found. "Many states have begun to cap enrollment in the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, effectively telling low-income Americans who urgently need HIV treatment that they will simply have to wait. As a nation, even in tough economic times, we can do better."
In order to be successful, Obama must meet some measurable goals.
"Black Americans have a greater stake than any group in a successful national AIDS response, and it is critical that Black advocates and stakeholders remain engaged as the new strategy is released, implemented and monitored," the report said. "At the end of the day, the strategy will be meaningful only if it leads to concrete positive change in the national fight against AIDS, including reductions in new HIV infections and AIDS deaths."
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service.