6 min

Racing to find time

Stephen Lewis apologizes for neglecting HIV/AIDS battles in Canada

Tim McCaskell. Credit: Adam Coish

Stephen Lewis had only 30 minutes to chat.

The 74-year-old former politician and recipient of the Order of Canada keeps a backbreaking schedule that includes international travel, working as a visiting professor at Ryerson University, and sitting on the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law.

Lewis is perhaps best known for his years as the UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and his book, Race Against Time, in which he criticizes international and UN reaction to the epidemic there.

More recently, Lewis rallied progressive Canadians in a powerful eulogy at Jack Layton’s state funeral.

To commemorate World AIDS Day and the 30th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic, Xtra sent long-time gay HIV/AIDS activist Tim McCaskell to chat with Lewis at Toronto’s National Club.

Lewis was speaking on Nov 22 at an event hosted by Give a Day, a grassroots Canadian group that challenges Canadians to recognize World AIDS Day by giving one day’s pay to an organization fighting against HIV/AIDS.

Tim McCaskell: The bulk of your AIDS work has been in the developing world, specifically raising funds for projects in Africa. But in parts of Canada, particularly in many First Nations communities, people are living in similar third-world conditions that fan the flames of the epidemic. How should those responsibilities be addressed?

Stephen Lewis: The federal government has dropped the ball on this, just as they’re dropping the ball on foreign aid and on the manufacture of generic drugs. There is no sense of urgency to ensure that prevention, treatment and care are provided whenever necessary. This government is not attuned to, nor does it care deeply about, what is happening to people around the world or in Canada.

Does your experience in Africa suggest any possibilities as to what can be done?

One thing I’ve learned from Africa is that at the community level there are tremendous strengths. Communities can be vastly more sophisticated than governments or bureaucrats — the generosity of spirit, the knowledge, the experience, the way that people come together to help each other. This is true in aboriginal communities in Canada as well. It’s crazy to dismiss that simply because of racism or indifference.

In Canada we have learned what has not yet been fully learned in Africa, for example the tremendous value of harm reduction. Insite, the safe-injection site in Vancouver, is saving people, very often aboriginal citizens, from contracting the virus. Africa is also just becoming more aware of men who have sex with men populations. So we’ve learned things in Africa that can be applied in Canada, and we’ve learned things here that can be applied elsewhere.

The AIDS epidemic has made us aware of how people’s health is affected by social conditions in which they live. For the last few months, the Occupy movement around the world has been drawing attention to how economic policies are contributing to one percent of the population consuming or appropriating more and more resources while the majority of us are sinking. How is this affecting the epidemic?

You are asking about the social determinants of health. Whether it’s lack of healthcare, or a lack of housing, or poverty, or the absence of daycare, or insecurity of jobs and employment, all of these things come together in a kind of conspiracy to undermine individual and collective well-being and make people more vulnerable to disease.

It’s called capitalism. It’s not a mystery to me. It’s an ideological system that is ultimately oppressive, that embraces inequality and that compromises the lives of the majority of citizens. But that’s how capitalism thrives. You do as little as you can for human well-being in order to encourage the profits of the few. And the few have been making obscene profits.

I’m hoping that the Occupy movement has had some impact on raising awareness about the essential unfairness and the essential injustice of the lives that people lead. It’s a powerful glimmer of hope.

One of the major differences in the demography of the epidemic in the developing world and Canada is that here, despite the rapidly rising infection rates among other communities, the majority of infected people are still gay men. From your point of view, what’s the connection between the fight against AIDS and the fight against homophobia?

I’m engaged with an organization in the United States called AIDS-Free World. We’ve been working to overcome the homophobia and anti-homosexual laws that so compromise the lives of gay men and women in developing countries. It drives people underground. They don’t get tested. They don’t seek treatment. They are more susceptible to transmission of the virus because they can’t rely on any of the normal clinics and health centres that are available to society.

In a country like Jamaica, for example, the prevalence rate in the population as a whole is 1.6 percent, but among men who have sex with men it’s 32 percent. That’s a staggering disparity, and it shows the importance of getting rid of homophobic laws. AIDS-Free World has now initiated a legal challenge to those laws in Jamaica before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. When it is heard, we hope to win and change the nature of what’s happening there. But that’s just the first step.

Last April in Montego Bay in Jamaica, at a huge concert, the homophobic reggae singer Sizzla sang a song advocating the killing of gays, as anybody could have predicted he would. The concert was sponsored by Coca Cola, and behind Sizzla was a big Coke Zero sign. We went after Coke in no uncertain terms. Just days ago we wrote to Muhtar Kent, the head of Coca Cola, and copied the entire board of directors. We said that unless Coke took out full-page advertisements in every single paper in Jamaica and apologized and sponsored a gay-friendly concert at the International AIDS Conference in Washington next year, we’re going to go after them internationally.

It’s important to understand that the engagement for human rights around the basic rights of gay men and women is so much more powerful now. This is the moment to turn things around. Even David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister of the UK, said they were going to impose conditionality on their grants to countries that had homophobic laws. I happen to think that that kind of conditionality is wrong. But where a Conservative PM is prepared to say that, it illustrates a new feeling internationally.

There have been criticisms that rich countries use aid to bully poorer countries around homosexuality — that it is neo-colonial and may in fact make homophobia worse. Why do you say you are opposed to that kind of conditionality?

There are so many excruciating violations of human rights. If you said that high levels of sexual violence against women were a condition for receiving foreign aid, you’d be excluding a hell of a lot of countries. To impose financial conditions in a neo-colonial way, that gets worrisome. But to take major principles of the international covenants on civil, political, economic, cultural and social rights, to say that these apply to all people regardless of race, colour, creed and sexual orientation, that’s a given.

Homophobia isn’t just something that happens elsewhere. Here in Ontario the government recently withdrew proposed changes to the sex education curriculum after an anti-gay backlash. Do you see yourself or your foundation having a role in dealing with homophobia on a local basis?

In personal terms I want to speak out more. I’m going to give a lot more time both domestically and internationally around LGBT issues. The foundation would find it difficult because its mandate is raising money for Africa. On the other hand, the foundation does support groups that are involved in LGBT human rights issues there as part of the fight against the virus. So it’s not as if we’re divorced from the issue.

HIV criminalization is becoming a crucial issue in Canada, with two provinces planning to argue in the Supreme Court that people with HIV should always be required to disclose their status even when we don’t pose any significant risk to others. Where do you stand on this issue?

I sit on the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law. Our report will be out in January. My sense is that all of us agree on decriminalization, except when there is intentional transmission, and in such cases we want the existing criminal law to apply.

In jurisdictions like Holland, Norway and Switzerland, such cases are being thrown out when people are on antiretrovirals and they pose virtually no or minimal risk of infecting others. So for Canada suddenly to erase that basis would be to once again go against the current.

My feeling is that the commission’s report will make a very strong and unequivocal recommendation against criminalization. Xtra should give it real focus when it comes out.

I haven’t been involved in the Ontario campaign. I will admit to you that one of my problems is that I’m so involved internationally that I’ve been somewhat delinquent in my own country and my own province. I apologize for that.

Talking of criminalization, the new omnibus “tough-on-crime” bill is proceeding through Parliament. How do you think this might affect the epidemic?

I’m trying to think if there’s anything in that bill that I agree with. I don’t think there is. I think it’s a punitive bill, ideologically driven, completely off base. This whole business of building prisons when crime rates are going down and becoming more mandatory and less flexible around sentencing — even the Criminal Bar Association and the legal profession seem to be united that this bill is nuts.

The punitive atmosphere it sets puts at risk the availability of condoms or treatment for the prison population. At the Commission on HIV and the Law we’ve noted that in many jurisdictions where governments don’t care about prisoners and are increasingly punitive, the virus spreads.

This interview will be published as part of Xtra’s World AIDS Day edition. Do you have any special messages to queer communities?

The queer community, I think, has to focus very strongly on prevention. The rates of HIV amongst the gay community are still going up. One has to make sure that the prevention interventions that apply across the board are equally embraced by the queer community.

Below is a video excerpt of Xtra’s interview with Stephen Lewis.