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Jewish World Review Jan. 18, 2000 /11 Shevat, 5760

Chris Matthews

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AIDS dooms 1 in 4 in tiny Swaziland -- SWAZILAND IS A SMALL KINGDOM in Africa. Tucked between the Republic of South Africa and Mozambique, it has faced the oppression of apartheid on one border, stubborn colonialism on the other.

Today, it faces a specter more imminent, more tragic, more deadly: AIDS. The numbers are staggering. Swaziland has just under a million people. A quarter of them are HIV positive.

"The situation is quite bad," Ambassador Mary Kanya explains. "Swaziland is either No. 3 or No. 5 among the sub-Sahara countries hardest hit. In our hospitals, 50 percent of the people are HIV positive."

The epidemic is not limited to the poor.

"It's hit a cross-section," she says, offering the sad accounting. "We're losing some of the most productive population of the country.

"For a long time, we have been in denial. The people have been unable to accept the problem. We looked at AIDS as a foreign problem, involving white people, foreign people.

"Secondly, we saw it as a problem for homosexuals, which we thought was not really a problem for us.

"Then, when it hit Africa, people looked at AIDS as a problem to the north and east. When it made it to Zimbabwe, we thought it was a problem that was on the other side of the Limpopo" (the river separating Zimbabwe from South Africa).

Like Zimbabwe, Botswana and other countries in southern Africa, Swaziland now suffers the full force of the AIDS virus. Life expectancy, which had risen by 20 years, is back to where it was in colonial times.

King Mswati, 31, who rules Swaziland, has declared the situation a "national disaster."

While Ambassador Kanya admits that the "denial is not yet over" in her country, people are clearly waking up to the AIDS horror, to talk openly about it.

So is the world. This week at the United Nations, Vice President Al Gore elevated the AIDS pandemic, especially in Africa, as an international "security" matter. More people will die from the disease in this coming decade, he underscored, than from all the wars of the 20th century.

Gore used the U.N. speech to promise $150 million in new American help to Africa. Experts say the challenge demands 10 or 20 times that commitment.

The question for little countries like Swaziland is how much of the relatively little U.S. help will trickle down to them.

"We're talking about people dying," Mary Kanya says in sad frustration. "I am always skeptical about these grand announcements. I worry that the money will never get to us."

Whatever Swaziland gets, she says, would be well spent on "grassroots" education and other top priorities. Videos and brochures made for European or American audiences simply don't do the job.

"We would like to produce something indigenous to the Swazi people that would change their behavior. We would like to help the children who are being orphaned. We cannot afford the medicines. We have such things to attend to."

As Gore said in the U.N. Security Council, so do we. Of the 16 million people who have died of AIDS, 14 million have been African.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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