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Stephen Lewis

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My autographed copy of Stephen Lewis’ book “Race Against Time” has sat proudly on my different bookshelves as I’ve moved around the world since I heard him speak at Haverford.  The former UN ambassador from Canada spoke about his experience dealing with the HIV epidemic around the world both through his diplomatic work and with his foundation, AIDS-Free World.  One of the most moving parts of his talk was his focus on how HIV affects grandmothers around the world, who have assumed care of their grandchildren, particularly in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, after their parents have passed away.  His stories about these “unsung heroes” were so powerful because they really highlighted the ways in which diseases like HIV can have much more pernicious societal effects than what is readily obvious.  And, like with many other global crises, such as famine, women sometimes shoulder an uneven burden.

Lewis also talked about the importance of viewing the global AIDS epidemic as a major affront on peace and human rights, and not just a medical or public health emergency.  He argued that the reason for this classification is two-fold: that, first of all, many AIDS-related deaths could be prevented if only for better access to medication, less sexism, and less international barriers.  Even in some of the poorest parts of the world, HIV could already be a chronic illness rather than a fatal one.  Lewis’ arguments very much reminded me of Amartya Sen, who has written similar analyses of famine, explaining that the problem is often not a lack of food, but political barriers, that cause people to starve.  Lewis’ emphasis that HIV and other global diseases need to be thought of with real gravity again seemed to channel Sen’s writing on the “capabilities approach.”  Sen argues that global problems cannot be understood by looking at negative freedoms, or the fact that somebody is allowed to do something, rather than positive freedoms, which looks at whether or not somebody can actually do what is they need to do.  People around the world theoretically have access to HIV medication, but, as Lewis stretched, there are often too many political and societal barriers that stand in the way of them actually getting it.

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