News

Lewis urges public to fight disparities

by Lana Haight, Saskatoon Star Phoenix April 4, 2007

Call him an idealist or a romantic, but Stephen Lewis says he just can’t get over the disparities in the world.

“What has happened to the moral anchor of the world?” asked the internationally recognized diplomat and former United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Speaking to more than 1,500 students, faculty and guests at the University of Saskatchewan on Tuesday in recognition of the university’s 100th birthday, Lewis pointed out that disparities exist in Saskatoon, as well.

“Low-income neighbourhoods were much more likely to suffer from a wide range of diseases and disorders in comparison to middle- and high-income neighbourhoods,” Lewis read from a Saskatoon Health Region report on health disparities based on income.

At least there is hope in Saskatchewan, where people understand the importance of community intervention in solving such disparities, Lewis said.

He commended the university’s college of nursing and the RBC Foundation, which has donated $750,000 to the college, for trying to make a difference by getting involved in community development projects at home and abroad. But he didn’t have kind words for the broader international community.

“What is it about Africa? Why are these people dispensable?” he implored.

Lewis expressed frustration with the lack of action on the part of the United Nations in the Darfur region of Sudan, where at least 200,000 people have been murdered after being brutalized and raped, while millions more have been displaced from their homes.

“For four years we have watched what everyone acknowledges is a genocide in Darfur and the entire world has yet to rally to the salvation of those people.”

Lewis also painted a dismal picture of HIV/AIDS ravaging African families. He told stories of young children, in many cases infected themselves, being raised by their grandmothers.

Worldwide, 40 million people are dying from HIV/AIDS. As many as three million children are infected with the deadly virus contracted most often from their mothers during birth. If not treated, 50 per cent of these children will die before they are two years old. By age eight, only 20 percent will still be living. And the treatment, commonly available in the western world, is not complicated. A tablet of the drug nevirapine given to the mother while in labour and a liquid dose given to the infant within 72 hours of being born reduces the transmission by 50 per cent, Lewis said.

“You have carnage among children that is completely unnecessary.”

Tuesday’s public lecture was organized by the college of nursing. Lewis was an obvious choice as speaker to launch the college’s RBC Community Development Program, said acting dean Joan Sawatzky.

“He has a talent for confronting the audiences to whom he speaks with the harsh realities of communities whether it’s local or international. He’s got the credibility to speak with passion to the needs that are out there. At the same time, he can communicate that hope and challenge everybody to say, “What can I do about this?”

And that’s a question the nursing faculty are asking themselves as they determine the kinds of development work they can do with the RBC grant to improve the lives of people living in Saskatoon, in the province and even around the world.

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