A voice for the poor in AIDS battle

A voice for the poor in AIDS battle

''Does the world care enough? The global spending for HIV/AIDS is $4.7 billion. The global military budget is $956 billion, or $2.6 billion a day. Does such a world promote access for all? Does spending of this kind speak of an ethical world?"

Perhaps the world does not care enough about HIV/AIDS with its paltry spending of $4.7 billion comparing to military expenditure ($956 billion), however, as long as Reverend Michael J. Kelly and many other like him selfless human beings are alive and waging the battle against AIDS, other diseases and against social injustice around the world, there is still hope for the mankind.

Here is the full article published in The Boston Globe:

A voice for the poor in AIDS battle
Priest focuses on orphans, elderly
By John Donnelly, Globe Staff July 19, 2004

BANGKOK -- At the end of the day, he shuffled from meeting to meeting. His back was bent. People passed him on either side, paying him no attention.

The Rev. Michael J. Kelly, 75, an Irish-born Jesuit priest and retired university professor in Zambia, deliberately moved toward his destination, a conference room at last week's 15th International AIDS Conference, so he could drop his next bombshell.

He smiled in anticipation. ''Maybe it's my age," he said, a light shining from his eyes. ''But I feel I'm able to be bold and challenging."

Although Kelly is little known to the world outside the AIDS community, his writings, lectures, and gentle one-on-one coaching of those working on AIDS prevention have had great impact on the fight against what may become the world's deadliest pandemic ever. Many view him as one of the movement's great thinkers.

Long ago, he warned about AIDS threatening farm production and schoolhouses because it would kill so many in the prime of their lives; he called for a greater focus on orphans, and he spoke out about the need to treat mothers after they receive a dose of medicine to help prevent the transmission of the virus in childbirth.

Now, he wants much more attention given to the dire situation of the vast number of grandparents who are taking care of orphans, their grandchildren, on their own.

At the AIDS conference, he delivered five lectures. In each, he said, he tried to challenge conventional wisdom.

On orphans, he said at one seminar late in the week that no one was paying attention to the longer-range issues of caring for them. ''We are now being deluded by one of those AIDS myths," he said. ''The myth that families are coping, that communities are coping."

On the elderly, he asked: ''Who will be guardians for the guardians? Who will care for the caregivers? Their pictures are not nearly as appealing as the pictures of the children, and not nearly as appealing as pictures of some women."

And then he had more basic questions: ''Does the world care enough? The global spending for HIV/AIDS is $4.7 billion. The global military budget is $956 billion, or $2.6 billion a day. Does such a world promote access for all? Does spending of this kind speak of an ethical world?"

Kelly was born in Tullamore, Ireland, one of seven children of a company secretary and a housewife. Three of the Kelly brothers became Jesuit priests. In 1946, he started his religious and educational training, and served in his order until the mid-1950s. He received his wish to go overseas and came to Zambia. He is still there, 40 years later, a Zambian citizen.

In the late 1980s, he began to think much about this new disease in Zambia that caused a body to shrivel. He first noticed his students becoming ill. And then a son of President Kenneth Kaunda died, and the president acknowledged that AIDS had killed him.

Kelly became interested in the disease. He knew that those with HIV and AIDS would soon need help.

''I have a strong commitment to work for the poor, for justice, for marginalized groups," he said. ''Here was a new class of people emerging who were quite likely to be marginalized."

Kelly, who had retired from the University of Zambia, began researching and writing about the issue, and his work became well known to the relatively small circles of those who were closely watching AIDS. In 2000, at the AIDS conference in Durban, he was invited to speak to the assembly.

At first, he wasn't sure he was up to it. ''I felt like I was a small farm boy who would be far better off digging in the garden," Kelly said. ''Instead, I was being part of the political agenda, the global agenda of AIDS."

He is part of the faith-based and civil society leadership against AIDS. He helped start a 17-member Mobile Task Team, a group of people for many disciplines that is trying to help governments in southern Africa cope with fixing educational systems.

Peter McDermott, chief of the HIV/AIDS section at UNICEF, lived in Zambia during the late 1990s and often sought out Kelly for advice.

''He saw HIV coming in and affecting children long before anyone else," McDermott said, adding that Kelly's writings on AIDS' impact on education in the 1990s was ''seminal to this day."

''He pushed me a lot on orphans," said McDermott, who worked for UNICEF in Zambia. ''And he pushed me on mothers. His mantra was: 'You're missing the point. You need to keep the parents alive.' "

Stephen Lewis, the special envoy on AIDS in Africa to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, said that during his three years on the job, Kelly has been a mentor to him.

''He is the most principled and lovely human being I have met in my journeys of the last several years," Lewis said at the AIDS conference. ''He is incredibly knowledgeable, particularly in the field of AIDS and education. He gives Jesuits one of the best names they ever had."

But now Kelly seems weighed down. It's the pandemic, he explained, and the inability so far to stop it.

Even though some who went to the conference left feeling optimistic about turning back the epidemic, Kelly decried people's high expectations: ''They expect us to get things done in three or four or five years. It's not going to happen."

He also said he yearned to go home to Zambia. ''When I get there, I feel I am coming back to real earth, to real people," he said.

One of the first things he will do upon returning, he said, will be to look up three HIV-positive staff workers at the Jesuit housing in Lusaka and see how they are faring. Then he will get back to his writing, even if he is feeling depressed.

''I have a passion to do something," he said. ''Anything that will save one person is worth all the effort."