Emotional Visit For Bono, O'Neill

Irish rock star Bono plays with 11-month-old HIV-positive baby Thomas Gqubile, during a visit to South Africa's HIV-AIDS clinic at the hospital in Soweto, May 24, 2002.
REUTERS
Irish rock star Bono's voice cracked Friday as he tried to explain the emotions he felt talking to a group of mothers infected with the AIDS virus.

The Irish rock singer and U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill took their roadshow on Friday to the world's biggest hospital in South Africa, where they were told how aid for HIV/AIDS victims had been wasted.

"This is an amazing place, amazing people," he said at the prenatal HIV clinic at Soweto's Chris Hani Baragwaneth hospital. "This is very, very hard for an Irish rock star to admit. I'm actually speechless."

Bono and O'Neill met with some of the patients who are among the 4.7 million people infected with HIV in South Africa as part of their 10-day tour of the continent.

At a private briefing at Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital, staff and donor agency officials told them that although $50 million came in yearly for AIDS, most of the 2,000 HIV positive mothers at the unit, who would need just $2 million for treatment, remained untreated.

The drug Nevirapine, developed by private German company Boehringer Ingelheim, has been shown to cut by half the risk of an HIV-infected mother passing the virus to her baby.

South Africa is the epicenter of the HIV/AIDS pandemic hitting Africa with estimates of one in nine South Africans infected with HIV/AIDS — around five million people — and 70,000 to 100,000 babies born HIV-positive each year.

O'Neill, his voice quivering with anger, told reporters: "This whole business about having so much money ... and it not going primarily to treatment is just a stunning revelation."

"Before we ask for more money, for God's sake what are we doing with what we've got?"

Later Bono, the lead singer of U2, gave an impromptu performance at a shantytown in Soweto. A group of students had begun doing a dance to the U2 song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" when their radio broke. Bono continued the song accompanied by claps and a man playing a traditional drum.

Bono and O'Neill are touring several African countries in what has been billed a fact-finding mission by the Treasury, and as an exercise in persuasion by the Irish pop legend.

The tour is the result of a meeting a year ago when the two men met in O'Neill's office. Initially reluctant to meet, O'Neill later said he was impressed by the singer's knowledge of Africa.

Bono has said he was determined to show O'Neill that aid can be put to good use in Africa.

Both men hope the tour will bring worldwide attention to the devastation HIV is bringing to Africa. O'Neill said he was astounded to find out that so much of aid money coming into the country was being used for prevention instead of treatment.

"There is something wrong when the system does not take care of the here and now," he said.

O'Neill's recommendation that treatment come before prevention flies in the face of most AID programs around the world that make preventing more infections the top priority.

Bono appeared to use flattery to try to publicly pressure O'Neill to give more money for development in Africa and the battle against HIV.

"He is getting angrier by the day as he sees the great potential of this continent and how it is not being used," he said as O'Neill stood by his side.

Referring to AIDS he said: "The secretary will be able to send one message back to the president. This is an emergency what we have seen today."

O'Neill responded: "We the world have got to deal with this problem....This is doable."

Earlier Friday, O'Neill and Bono toured the Ford motor plant in Pretoria, the biggest auto assembly plant in sub-Saharan Africa with a workforce of 3,500 workers. It is considered to have an exemplary HIV/AIDS policy.

"I am saying to Bono, it's great when you have big industrial companies like this working on the (HIV/AIDS) problem," O'Neill told reporters during a tour of the plant.

Bono replied: "I love hearing the secretary like this."

Friday, O'Neill defended himself against reports that that he was against foreign aid to poor nations.

"I am reading quotes that say 'O'Neill against foreign aid'. It's never, ever been true," he said.

Bono and O'Neill met about a year ago and agreed to a tour of Africa, originally set for late 2001 but delayed because of the Sept. 11 attacks on America.

O'Neill, an ardent advocate of private enterprise, said he had already seen enough in the opening part of his four-country visit while in Ghana to show that easy and practical solutions to some basic needs were readily available.

Bono and O'Neill are to visit Uganda and then Ethiopia after South Africa, where they were also due to spend the night in a game park. O'Neill returns to Washington on May 31.