Maureen Freely: We must take a long-term view of this horror story

'The campaigners hope that having woken up to Africa's Aids epidemic, we'll stay awake'

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For twenty years now, the death toll has been rising, rising, rising. But the African Aids epidemic has only very rarely made it to the front page. And even when it's managed to get there, it's never captured the public imagination for very long. Now, finally, the news desks of the West have decided to make up for past lapses. The 13th International Conference on Aids, which opens today in Durban, South Africa, is getting saturation coverage. Why the sudden change of heart?

For twenty years now, the death toll has been rising, rising, rising. But the African Aids epidemic has only very rarely made it to the front page. And even when it's managed to get there, it's never captured the public imagination for very long. Now, finally, the news desks of the West have decided to make up for past lapses. The 13th International Conference on Aids, which opens today in Durban, South Africa, is getting saturation coverage. Why the sudden change of heart?

To a large degree, it's because a lot of very important people have discovered that it's an "us problem" - and not just because the epidemic is spreading in every direction except the South Pole. And then there is the E word. In the run-up to the Durban conference, there has been a flurry of NGO and World Bank sponsored research showing the effects the epidemic is having on economic infrastructures, the school system, and family and community networks. By 2005, the GDP in most Aids-affected Sub Saharan countries will drop by 14 per cent.

If these are the statistics that are making politicians and economists sit up and take notice, it's the latest range of "people" statistics that have put the epidemic at the top of the news agenda. Twenty-three million people in Sub Saharan Africa are HIV positive. In the next 10 years Aids will kill more people in the region than all the wars of the 20th century worldwide.

Technically speaking, these figures may not qualify as news. But (as so many long-ignored experts are suddenly being quoted as saying) they are every bit as shocking as the ones generated by the natural disasters that get so much more coverage. What the campaigning experts are hoping now is that we will all do what we do whenever there is a terrible landslide or earthquake and put pressure on our governments to send aid while also digging into our own pockets. They're also hoping that, having woken up to the problem, we'll stay awake. However, a major obstacle to the sort of sustained engagement they want lies in the very way they, and we, tell the story.

To be fair, we/they have little choice in the matter. Ask anyone who's ever worked for a relief agency. Ask any journalist who has ever covered a disaster. Even better, ask someone who tried and failed to get the public interested in the devastating but oh so far away Orissa Cyclone. The farther away the disaster is, the harder it is to get anyone interested.

To bridge the "indifference gap", you need statistics that make all previous disasters pale in comparison. You need a good story-line and you need an arresting image that sums it all up - a family stranded in a tree, a child's hand just visible between two slabs of concrete.

Pull together these ingredients and you have a fund-raising winner. And why knock that? A well-told disaster story can create an emotional link between victim and viewer. It can also set out a clear and simple plan of action. All you have to do is ring this number, and turn your pang of empathy into pounds and pence. But there is a downside to turning disasters into beggars' tales. The ease and brevity of the interchange does little to encourage the long attention span. Because once you've responded to the story and thrown a few coins into the hat, you can put the whole thing out of your head.

If ever there was a disaster that did not need this easy exit clause, it has to be this one. As Alvaro Bermejo of the Red Cross pointed out in its new World Disaster report, the Aids epidemic might be overwhelming, but it is different from most droughts, famines and wars in that it is preventable. However, as he went on to say, an effective programme is not going to happen unless all involved agencies agree to change their "mindset".

And that is not all. Cultural mores have to change, too. As a number of experts have pointed out this week, many women in Sub Saharan Africa have become infected because they have little economic power and are afraid to say no to sex with infected men for fear of losing male support. The obvious solution, then, is to raise the status of African women. But how exactly do people hope to achieve such a miracle? When does sound advice turn into missionary interventionism? If funds are limited and medicine is expensive, who gets treatment and who doesn't? Relief work is riddled with ethical dilemmas. Where "good practice" is at odds with vested interests and entrenched values, it can even be politically subversive, and so politically dangerous.

However, if you know the background, and the players, and the issues, the story that unfolds week by week is vastly more interesting than a shock horror cartoon that swamps the news on Tuesday, only to disappear in a gust of compassion fatigue by the weekend.

mfreely@rosebud.u-net.com

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