World AIDS Day represents one step in a long battle

December 03, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

We had World AIDS Day on Wednesday. And as world days go, it was a wild success.

It was the only world day on which you could see a giant pink condom encase a 75-foot obelisk in Paris while, an ocean away, the president of the United States calmly listens to a heckler accuse him of hiding behind AIDS quilts.

Certainly, there was great theater. The White House dimmed its lights to honor the dying. Liza Minnelli sang at the United Nations. Around the world, there were speeches and parades and street-corner condom handouts.

If the idea of World AIDS Day was to focus attention on the disease, it worked wonderfully well.

For that day.

And then we moved on.

That's the nature of the game. It has nothing to do with short, MTV-like attention spans, either. It has everything to do with a world so crowded with problems that no tragedy holds the stage for long.

As you might have noticed, there is much to worry about these days. Look at the front page of your newspaper. Heck, just look out your window. You know the list: Crime, failing schools, Lorena Bobbitt. Teen pregnancy, Somalia, NFL expansion. Tragedy mixes easily and naturally with absurdity.

Tell me, how much thought have you given to Bosnia today?

On World AIDS Day, Clinton was giving his standard, I-feel-your-pain speech at Georgetown Medical Center when the heckler jumped in, calling him Slick Willie to his face. The heckler wanted to know what happened to all the AIDS-related campaign promises Clinton had made.

Instead of shouting the young man down, Clinton listened.

He listened. He heard. He tried to explain. He conceded that, though he was trying, he wasn't doing enough, which was the honest answer.

There's a subtext here.

On the Sunday before in the New York Times magazine, Jeffrey Schmalz had written a cover piece in which he said: "Once AIDS was a hot topic. But now the world is moving on, uncaring, frustrated and bored, leaving by the roadside those of us who are infected and can't help but wonder: Whatever happened to AIDS?"

It was a voice literally from the grave. Schmalz, who wrote about AIDS for the Times, was an AIDS victim who died before the story ran.

He was right, up to a point. AIDS was a hot topic. The world is moving on. People are frustrated, too.

But is the world also uncaring and bored?

Once, much of the world was uncaring, but hardly bored. Those were days when benighted folks would actually burn down the houses of people whose children had AIDS. That seems like a long time ago.

Of course, there are still those who believe AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuality. But the numbers are diminishing. think most Americans see AIDS simply as a horrible disease without a cure or vaccine in sight.

Research is a frustrating process. And so we are left with symbols. In Hollywood, everyone wears red ribbons. And, in the White House, Bill Clinton says AIDS is everyone's problem.

Clinton literally embraces AIDS patients. He has also pushed for more money to be spent on AIDS research -- up to $1.3 billion -- and care. Most important, he has proposed a health-care package that would cover AIDS victims.

Clinton doesn't condemn. Instead, he appoints an AIDS czar and a surgeon general who preaches the value of education in attacking the disease. It's a far cry from the Reagan-Bush days.

Is Clinton doing enough? No.

Can there be enough until there's a cure or a vaccine? Of course not.

Is there enough being spent to fight breast cancer? Most women say no.

The list goes on. There's not enough money to feed the hungry or fix up the schools or put enough cops on the street.

AIDS is not the hot topic it was. But it isn't being ignored either. In the last 12 months, there were 660 stories in The Sun in which AIDS was mentioned.

It would be a hot topic again if there were a medical breakthrough. Or if there were another blood scare. Or if another star along the lines of Magic Johnson or Arthur Ashe turned up HIV-positive.

In the meantime, the sick keep dying -- AIDS is the largest cause of death among American males age 25 to 44 -- and the disease grows into a worldwide calamity. Much more must be done.

But as Schmalz also wrote: "At its core, the problem isn't a government. It's a virus."

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