Passion on the Radio

If you missed Stephen Lewis on CBC Radio 1’s Sounds Like Canada today – and most Canadians do – then you missed something spectacular, Wagnerian, Olympian. That is, if global indifference to massive suffering is your idea of greatness. (Yet it is “great”, in the sense of “of enormous scale or importance”, in the sense that World War I was the “Great War” until its sequel arrived. Not so much, I admit, in the low-impact vernacular “Great party, eh?” sense. End of Great Paranthetical Remark.) If you’re interested in more, I wrote “We Should All Be Listening” for Wednesday journals. So far, no takers.

We Should All Be Listening to Lewis

Yesterday morning, I certainly had other work to do, but I got waylaid by the words of Stephen Lewis. Again. My wonky CD player refused to play, so I flipped to radio instead. Before I could find a music station, there was Stephen Lewis, Canada’s closest thing to public service sainthood. (And, not just by the way, there was the Mighty Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio 1. ‘Bout time, but I’m grateful anyway. Hello again, Shelagh!)

Sounds Like Canada was the program, and if only the public voice of this country was consistently as eloquent, as impassioned, as ferociously good as Stephen Lewis’s is, we would be the conscience of the world. We’d be changing it. If you don’t know who he is, you should. He was a New Democratic Party politician, one of Ontario’s youngest elected Members of Provincial Parliament, and the party’s leader for a time. He is someone that thoughtful Canadians have loved to listen to, even when they were on the opposite side of the political fence. He is well beyond politics now. After all, can you name a party that is in favour of disease and death?

Lewis has more recently been Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, a key guy at UNICEF, and for the last few years, he has put his entire being on the line as Special Envoy to the U.N.’s Secretary-General for AIDS in Africa. He is a voice crying in the wilderness, it must sometimes seem to him, but what a voice!

Here is what he said about another of our Canadian heroes of noble frustration, General Roméo Dallaire. Lewis was reviewing Dallaire’s Shake Hands With the Devil, his witness to the Rwandan slaughter. Lewis wrote, “Here was a man who screamed into the void. No one listened, no one cared, no one heard. But he never stopped screaming. He valued every human life. He wept for every human loss. He never gave up.” It takes one to know one, I’d say.

Stephen Lewis speaks in gorgeous sentences, even paragraphs, so his is a peculiarly artful scream about another African holocaust, where more than half the world’s HIV-positive people live and where hundreds die every day. “I have spent the last four years watching people die,” Lewis says. “Die unnecessarily,” he adds for what must be the ten thousandth time. And people are listening, people and governments do care, but the pace of response is maddeningly slow.

He reels at the lack of urgency in rolling out effective medications that are available right now. He rages that promised resources from Western governments are filtering through at only half the pledged rate. He rails at his own employers, the United Nations, for not quickly taking advantage of the international trust and the talent at their disposal. And it is a source of rueful pain to Stephen Lewis that his own country, the one that challenged the world’s wealthy nations to commit 0.7 percent of their Gross Domestic Product to international development, is nowhere near this development goal. Our great statesman Lester Pearson first suggested this target in 1969, but only a few northern European nations actually meet it. “The United States thumbs its nose at it”, Lewis says, and Canada doesn’t do much better in this commitment to global justice. And he can’t understand why.

The entire social fabric of a continent is unravelling. Whole generations of teachers and doctors, mothers and fathers are disappearing. “In Malawi, which has, what, 10 or 12 million people, there are two pediatricians left!” Lewis tells of visiting a hospital there. On the night shift, caring for 60-70 patients at the end of their struggle with AIDS – “patients who would be in intensive care in Canada” – was ONE nurse. One. He is obsessed and exhausted by the overwhelming flood of numbers like this and stories like this, stories of people that he has visited and comforted and profoundly mourned. I’ve heard him speak in person three times in the past two years. Each time, I have wept desperately and wondered, How long can he keep doing this?

I wept again yesterday morning. Shelagh Rogers, I think, managed not to, but she had the same question. Lewis says he wants to stay at it until he sees the tide turning on this pandemic, which will kill tens of millions if it doesn’t turn soon. He looks for that point where the masses of infected and affected people – poignantly, the burden is disproportionately carried by women and by innumerable orphans – can have some hope that help is indeed coming. He thinks that could be in the next 18 months or so, if the lumbering apparatus of international action could be moved to act. Disasters on a far smaller scale – the Indian Ocean tsunami, hurricanes in the southern United States, and the Pakistan earthquake – prove that the world can be a compassionate and responsive place. The pandemic of AIDS, though, unfolds more slowly, with fewer dramatic images, and for many reasons seems to require more planning, and a more humane and more concentrated kind of imagination.

And Mr. Lewis’s plans? His disposition, and his political upbringing, tell him to “keep on fighting!” Well, last night [October 18] in Vancouver, he gave the first of his five Massey Lectures. Winnipeg, Montreal, Halifax and Toronto will follow. He titles the lectures “Race Against Time”, and it is his current survey of the situation faced especially by sub-Saharan Africa in dealing with the AIDS pandemic. “Don’t ever think the African nations can’t do it themselves, if they are given the help they need,” he says. And will keep on saying. Over and over again. In that erudite, cracking, not-quite-despairing voice that is one of Canada’s great gifts to the world.

The Massey Lectures will be on CBC Radio’s Ideas program in the week of November 7-11. You can find out more about AIDS in Africa, and how you can help, at .