World AIDS Day Remarks
December 1, 2005
The other night on television, Prime Minister Paul Martin articulated a vision for Canada that saw our nation as the conscience of the world, to lead other countries with our commitment to equity and social responsibility. That’s an appealing vision. Of course, given recent events, all party leaders will now face the conscience of Canadians before they can press any grandiose claims to guide the rest of the planet. But today, on World AIDS Day, I hope that we can agree that Canada could play a special role, a bigger role, than the one it currently plays on the world stage. As a nation, we do have an opportunity to recapture our role as the respected interlocutor among the fractious old powers of Europe now tentatively reunited, the declining but still vibrant American empire, the emerging superpowers of India and China, and the many nations where grinding poverty and relative absence of basic public infrastructure is a fact of daily life.
And if that is a role that Canada might play, then surely our University – the University of Toronto – might also play a larger role in international affairs. Among our duties in that regard, I would argue, is that we serve as a catalyst in propelling Canada forward as a world leader in the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
This year’s World AIDS day has four primary areas of focus:
- Accelerating the global response to HIV & AIDS
- Preventing new infections
- Promoting equal access to treatment
- Mitigating the impact of AIDS
I believe that our University has a role to play in each of these aspects locally and internationally. Various divisions of the University and members of our community have contributed uniquely to each area. The research activities of colleagues and students along with tangible and personal assistance from faculties and departments of the University, have helped countless individuals and made an incredible contribution to the global battle against AIDS. This effort at the University of Toronto encompasses multiple faculties — Law, Pharmacy, Nursing, Medicine,Arts and Science, Engineering and Applied Science, even Architecture. I am very proud that so many have committed so much time, talent, and creativity to helping fight the pandemic.
Our students, as evidenced from the many faculties represented on our World AIDS Day Organizing committee, are determined to play their role in changing the course of history and to make their mark in helping to avert an even greater tragedy.
In short, members of the University of Toronto family are stepping forward, and making meaningful strides in fighting the AIDS epidemic. I am glad that while we must focus on the remaining challenges, we can also celebrate the progress that we – collectively – have made.
In fact, AIDS is spreading relatively slowly in most Western countries. Recent minor upturns in case counts remind us that while the worst of the epidemic in the industrialized world may have passed, there is a recurrent danger from complacency. Today, we must remind ourselves that HIV and AIDS continue to blight and take the lives not only of many around the world, but also some of our friends and loved ones right here at home – among them, members of our own University community.
The burden of AIDS here in western nations, however, is modest compared to the great tragedy that is unfolding in Africa. Throughout subSaharan Africa in particular AIDS has decimated the social fabric, and the created an unprecedented generation of orphans. In several countries about 30% of adults in the age range from teens to middle-age are HIV positive. The result is a near-total loss of the productive backbone of these societies.
The result is a vicious cycle of poverty and HIV/AIDS, whereby poverty-stricken households and communities are more susceptible to HIV/AIDS epidemics, and where households and communities ravaged by HIV/AIDS are more susceptible to poverty. But the spread of HIV in Africa as elsewhere is also compounded by social norms that fail to value women, respect their autonomy, and support their independence of sexual decision-making.
What is now unfolding in Africa is a massive holocaust that has already taken millions of lives. Our century has seen genocide in various forms on an unprecedented scale. In those instances, we confront evil as an act of collective commission. Indeed, the challenge of comprehending these mass acts of evil is greatest when they involve vast numbers of perpetrators such that the usual metrics of individual accountability are harder to apply. In the case of HIV/AIDS, the converse applies. There are few easily identifiable villains. There is only a virus, passed from one person to another, a biological phenomenon, devoid of motive, impervious to judgement, efficient and relentless. And so it is arguable that the tragedy mounts owing to a collective failure to respond, an epidemic of indifference, rather than specific acts of evil.
But there is, as we all recognize, a moral imperative. It arises from the reality that prevention is possible, that misinformation about AIDS is rampant, and that too little has been done to help women and children in Africa to protect themselves. That moral imperative arises, too, from the reality that treatments are available that will change the natural history of the disorder, prolong the lives of millions of victims, restore the quality of those lives, and prevent transmission to thousands upon thousands of newborns.
I said earlier that there are few identifiable villains in the HIV/AIDS crisis. Fortunately, there are many identifiable heroes.
One of them is our keynote speaker tonight, from our University’s own Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Philip Berger. Professor Berger is family physician in chief at St. Michael’s Hospital. He has a phenomenal record is one of leadership in championing the health needs of vulnerable populations ranging from persons with addictions, sex workers and prison inmates, to lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgendered persons, and especially persons with HIV/AIDS. Dr. Berger was a founding member of the Toronto HIV Primary Care Physicians Group in 1987 and was Chair of that group for six years. He has received various awards for his leadership in the fight against AIDS locally, including induction in 1996 into the Ontario AIDS Network Honour Roll. In late 2004, Dr. Berger began an incredibly selfless 7½ month assignment as Team Leader of the Ontario Hospital Association’s AIDS initiative in Lesotho. Many of us were riveted by his electronic bulletins from the front-lines — documenting the extraordinary challenges that he and his colleagues faced, along with the suffering and the bravery of the people of Lesotho that they treated. Philip Berger stayed on well past his scheduled return date, and made a major difference to AIDS care in one part of Lesotho. He is living proof that collective responsibility is best galvanized by acts of great individual leadership. It now gives me great pleasure to ask Dr Philip Berger to deliver the evening’s keynote address.
Check against delivery.