In this horrible year, it has been really tempting to despair. From Syria and ISIS to Brexit and Trump, it sometimes feels like we're being tugged together over a cliff. But when I feel that sense of bleakness coming, and I want to give up, I remember something that happened to me, a long time ago now. I want to share it with you, as a small candle in the darkness of 2016.
Eleven years ago, I went with my boss Elton John to a private hospital called McCord's in Durban, South Africa. At the time, a thousand South Africans were dying of AIDS every single day, and day after day. People in the UK could get HIV medicine through the NHS by then, but not patients in Africa. Why? African governments said they couldn't afford the thousands of dollars it would cost to treat each patient, drug companies said they couldn't lower the prices and Western governments said it was too difficult to arrange. Andrew Natsios from the U.S. Agency for International Development, even implied there was no point: the drugs had to be taken at a certain time of day, and Africans couldn't tell the time.
So Elton and I went to hospices, townships, orphanages and slums and listened to the simple human story of people saying they felt shame, sickness, and resignation. Towards the end of the trip we visited a group of people living with HIV who were paying a small fee to McCord's Hospital to get the drugs that would save their lives: the difference was being covered by campaigning groups like ours. About thirty people were sitting in a big room at the back of the hospital. Over the tables and chairs they had balanced paper lamp shades, cushion covers, necklaces, dolls and the kind of batik shirts Nelson Mandela used to wear, all of which they sold to generate income. All the people in the room looked well. It was the first time on the trip that we'd seen any people whom we knew were infected with HIV who weren't bedridden and dying.
Elton noticed a tall, handsome woman in her early thirties, who I'll call Nakima. He asked her why she had joined the group. "I was diagnosed with HIV when my husband died," she said. "I'm a University lecturer, so I came here to pay for HIV treatment." By her side was a little girl about four years old. "This is my daughter", said the women. "She also has HIV. When I found out I asked the doctors to give my tablets to her, because I couldn't afford two lots of treatment. They told me without medicine I would die. My relatives live far away. They would not take my daughter if I die, because of the stigma of AIDS."
My eyes started to sting. I too had a little daughter. The idea of having to make this kind of choice made the room spin. "Then, I joined this group," the woman said "and now I can just afford treatment for us both". She asked if Elton would like to hear the group sing. Huge tears balanced in his eyes too, as we danced together, these HIV survivors and us.
The Elton John AIDS Foundation funded the McCord group, and dozens like it, until HIV treatment became available through the South African public health system. We also provided shelter, food, schooling and care for over 300,000 children whose parents didn't survive AIDS. But that's not the candle in the dark I'm talking about. No. As the ground crumbled away from thousands of people beyond our programs, it felt so desperate being able to do so little.
So this July, Elton and I went again to Durban, this time for the International AIDS Conference. On our last day, we visited the KwaZulu Natal Children's Hospital where a group of adolescents were waiting to meet Elton. One by one, the teenagers greeted us. Relaxed and warm, they told us how proud they were to be open about their HIV status. Suddenly one of the doctors stood up. "Excuse me for interrupting" she said, looking at Elton. "I was a nurse at McCord's when you visited there in 2005". Her voice was shaky. "I have to tell you that these amazing children" - she pointed to several of the older teenagers - "were the little ones you met then. "
Since we visited that clinic, when treatment was rare in South Africa, there has been a transformation: now over 3 million people living with HIV are on treatment through the South African health system and HIV transmission from mother to child is under 2% in much of the country. At the Elton John AIDS Foundation we do so much more today than make death less painful, choices less agonizing or orphan hood less frightening. We get people (almost half a million people at last count) onto life saving HIV treatment by making sure patients, doctors, nurses, community workers, activists and people at risk get every ounce of value out of good HIV testing campaigns, truly affordable medicines and stronger, more reliable HIV care. This isn't a dream any more.
We are living in dark times. Ending AIDS is still a huge challenge. But amidst the darkness, some amazing things are happening. For over a decade, I visited hospitals across Africa and Asia where everyone with AIDS was doomed to die. Now, hospitals are surrounded by people getting treatment. It didn't happen because people got pessimistic. It happened because people dared to hope. In 2016 - especially in 2016 - we need to keep hoping, and keep fighting. Nakima didn't give up. Nor should we.
Anne Aslett is Executive Director of the Elton John AIDS Foundation
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