October 3, 2023

United States senators visiting South Africa to assess the impact of a major American-funded HIV/AIDS scheme on Thursday vowed to renew the programme despite Pretoria’s close ties with Russia.

South Africa has forged ahead with highly controversial naval exercises jointly staged with Russia and China and coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The exercises were launched on Wednesday off the eastern coast of South Africa despite calls for them to be postponed or cancelled.

“You do joint naval exercises with Russia and China on the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine by (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, you gonna have problems,” Senator Lindsey Graham told a news conference in Johannesburg.

Despite that, he promised to have the funding re-authorised.

“I think it would be stupid for us in the US to terminate this programme,” he said.

He promised to fight to have the programme refunded and “get a big vote” despite the “problems going on here in South Africa with the Russians”.

South Africa has refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine which has largely isolated Moscow on the international stage, saying it prefers dialogue to end the war.

– ‘AIDS-free by 2030’ –

A group of US senators, accompanied by 75-year-old star British singer Elton John, were visiting South Africa to mark 20 years since the launch of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.

PEPFAR was launched in February 2003 by then-US president George W. Bush to combat the spread of AIDS in some of the hardest-hit areas of Africa and the Caribbean.

With an initial budget of $15 billion over its first five years, PEPFAR has now invested more than $100 billion in HIV-AIDS programmes and saved millions of lives globally in dozens of countries.

Graham, a Republican, expressed the hope that his Republican colleagues will agree that continued funding of the programme is “the right thing to do, it’s national security smart, economically it would be devastating for this disease to come back”.

He was flanked by a Democrat senator, Chris Coons.

Elton John, whose foundation financially supports PEPFAR, said the programme “has turned a death sentence into an opportunity to live a normal life”.

He described PEPFAR as a “turbo engine in a very old car” which brought much hope. Without PEPFAR, the world would have been in “a terrible mess”, he said.

Elton John said his “dying wish” is for the disease “to be finished by 2030 so we can all live… an AIDS-free life”.

John Nkengasong, the US State Department’s Global AIDS Coordinator, said 25 million lives have been saved, while life expectancies have rebounded by between 12 and 15 years, thanks to PEPFAR.

PEPFAR showed how “good public health practices combined with good politics save millions of lives,” he said.

With more than 8.2 million infected with HIV, South Africa has the highest number of people infected on Earth, and more than 5.4 million of those take antiretroviral drugs.


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