Saturday, February 16, 2008

Bush Loved By Africa's Poor - US President "Helped Us Live"

Not everyone in the world hates George W. Bush :

They may not be George Bush's natural constituency but Rwanda's prostitutes have good things to say about him. So do poor South Africans abandoned by their quixotic government, and doctors across Africa who otherwise regard the American president as a walking crime against humanity.

As Bush arrives in Africa today at the start of a five-country tour he will be welcomed chiefly for an initiative which has gone largely unnoticed outside the continent but which has saved the lives of more than a million people with HIV.

The $15bn (£7.6bn) President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) is in its fifth year and has been hailed as a "revolution" that is transforming healthcare in Africa and has been praised as the most significant aid programme since the end of colonialism.

Bill Clinton's legacy in Africa was the debacle of Somalia and the abandonment of Rwanda's Tutsis to the 1994 genocide. But with Pepfar, Bush's primary contribution will be greatly extending millions of lives even though the programme has been criticised for emphasising abstinence in Aids education and using religious organisations to deliver care.

"This is the best thing that ever happened to the poor people I work with," said Edward Phillips, a Catholic priest overseeing the distribution of life-saving antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) in Nairobi, Kenya. "It's one of the few times I've seen US government money really reach down to the poorest of the poor. It's kept a hell of a lot of people alive."

Dr Francois Venter, head of the HIV Clinicians Society in South Africa, where Pepfar is providing 200,000 people with ARVs, is one of a number of Aids doctors almost disbelieving in praise of Bush. "I look at all the blood this man has on his hands in Iraq and I can't quite believe myself but I would say it's a bold experiment from the last people in the world I would expect to do it, and it is saving a lot of lives. To intervene on such a scale and make such a difference is huge," he said.

Bush confronted the pandemic under pressure from his then secretary of state, Colin Powell, who warned that Aids threatened to wipe out a large part of the working-age population of some African countries. He saw that as a national security issue. So did the CIA. Bush was also lobbied by American Christian evangelicals with strong and expanding ties to Africa, and conservative Republican senators usually instinctively hostile to foreign aid.

In Rwanda - on Bush's tour and one of Pepfar's 15 priority countries - Dr Agnes Binagwaho, the head of the national Aids council, says the US programme is the major contributor to a tenfold increase over the past four years in the numbers of Rwandans on ARVs to nearly 50,000 people. Today about 70% of Rwandans who need the drugs receive them. "The impact is huge. The average life expectancy of Rwandans has improved by four years because of Pepfar," she said. "The impact is also really big in the health sector because of the equipment and training. It is putting children through school."

In a busy Kigali bar, Linda, a 24-year-old HIV-positive prostitute, explained that she had been afraid to be tested because she didn't want to know that she might soon die. "Then they said they could make us well, they have these drugs. So I got tested and I have the drugs," she said.

So whom does she thank? "The Americans. George Bush has helped us live."