LectureHop: Clinton Returns to Columbia
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog Serious Health Issues Bureau Chief Mahrah Taufique clung to a precious seat in Roone to hear from President Clinton and others on World AIDS Day. You can watch the archived webcast at the Clinton Foundation’s website.
With a lot less fuss, security and publicity than one might have expected, President Bill Clinton dropped by Roone Arledge Auditorium this afternoon to take part in a panel discussion entitled “Awareness, Access, Action – The Global and Domestic State of AIDS.” Co-hosted by the Mailman School’s International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs (ICAP) and the William J. Clinton Foundation, the panel was part of an all-day symposium commemorating World AIDS Day 2009.
The undergraduate attendance was unsurprisingly low, with Mailman and J School students making up the majority of the audience. However, the crowd was not short of notable guests as President Clinton brought along his friends U2 guitarist the Edge, Kenneth Cole and ex-mayor David Dinkins.
The event started off with the usual public relations pitch: in this case, a clip tooting the successes of the Clinton Foundation’s initiatives against HIV/AIDS. With due solemnity, PrezBo introduced the World AIDS Day discussion, pointing out that today is an opportunity not only to raise awareness but also to “take stock of our collective work in combating HIV/AIDS”. He introduced the panelists, which, in addition to President Clinton, included Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, Director of Mailman School’s International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs (ICAP), former Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, Kali Lindsey, Senior Director for Federal Policy for the Harlem United Community AIDS Center Inc., and the moderator, Stephen Lewis, Co-Director of AIDS-Free World.
The panel began with the question of the importance of World AIDS Day. President Clinton responded that firstly, this day helps combat the growing complacency in Americans towards challenges such as AIDS, and secondly, it reminds people that, despite the apparent increase in initiatives against AIDS, the world is a long way away from solving the problem; in fact, there are many “discreet populations” in which AIDS is seeing a dramatic increase. Dr. El-Sadr added that it has taken a tremendous effort to get to where we are now, and officials need to build and capitalize on what has been achieved so far.
Stephen Lewis then raised the issue of funding, and the common perception that too much money goes towards AIDS relief at the expense of other alternative initiatives. Virginia Fields responded that this argument is detrimental and severely divisive, declaring that all who share a commitment to health care are on the same side. She pointed towards the “discreet populations” – women of color and gay men, for example – which have experienced disproportionate rates of infection. It is imperative, she argued, that resources go to these areas of great need. Getting slightly more specific, she suggested redefining relationship structures, pushing for safe sex, getting people tested, and providing sexual education.
Indeed, progress seems to have stalled specifically in the female population – a matter which Fields argued should be addressed through a message that relates to all women of all ages, economic, geographic and social backgrounds. Dr. El-Sadr added that the causes of such vulnerability also need attention, as interventions are often too narrowly focused. Thus the education of children and a change in the attitudes of men are equally important in bringing about real change.
So far, the discussion had mostly lacked any contentious spark, with most of the panelists in agreement with each other, but the discussion was enlivened by what Lewis called a “heckling spasm,” when a member of the audience boldly yelled out a question for President Clinton about health care reform. Unfazed and apparently quite amused, Clinton did not disappoint in his answer. “I am very sympathetic to the president,” he responded, “They are trying to reform the health care system. You can’t have universal health insurance that does not benefit people with HIV and AIDS. I think if we get universal health care out there, it will help a lot to fund the network that we need that will improve care for people with HIV and AIDS.”
He admitted, though, that there are budget difficulties: “the president has a nightmare economic situation, and the Congress is coming down on him day and night, while he’s trying to get universal health care. And he’s also cut back on Hillary’s development budget, which I didn’t like. But I’ve been there and somehow you’ve got to deal with it.”
One final question, about needle exchange, again elicited a range of policy responses. Clinton suggested leaving the decision with local government, while other panelists focused on deeper causes like education and spending on prevention. But notes of disagreement remained mostly absent. The message of the day was best summed up in Mailman School Dean Linda Fried’s closing, “no one solution is sufficient but everyone is needed.”