Kindness of George W

Bush's efforts on behalf of Aids sufferers in Africa may, in retrospect, be among his most important

President Bush is being told that while his promise to give billions of dollars to alleviate the effect of Aids upon Africans is welcome, he must be kinder to HIV sufferers who want to visit the US.

At present, those who are HIV-positive must apply for a special visa from the department of homeland security before they are allowed to enter America. Even if it is granted, they are allowed to remain for only a month.

President Clinton signed the law forbidding foreign HIV patients entry into America in 1993, part of a wider and generally benign bill that provided funds for Aids research and treatment, after he failed to overturn by executive order a 1987 ban on those with communicable diseases that had been approved at the height of Aids hysteria by President Reagan.

Discrimination against those who suffer from HIV infection also extends to people who apply for a green card to allow them to work in America. They face a mandatory Aids test; if they prove HIV-positive, the green card is automatically refused.

America finds itself in the embarrassing company of Armenia, Brunei, China, Iraq, South Korea, Moldova, the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia, the only other countries that discriminate against visitors with HIV.

The American ban has caused outrage among homosexual rights groups worldwide and has led to incidents where prominent foreign figures have been forbidden entry to the US because of their HIV status. Since the ban was imposed, worldwide medical conferences on Aids have been relocated from America to more sympathetic countries.

Last month the president went on a goodwill tour of African nations, designed to change his image from that of a warrior to one of a compassionate humanitarian. He promised the United States would provide $15bn over five years for Aids relief, three times the amount provided by the Clinton administration, and he has said he would like to double that gift to $30bn.

This kinder side to Bush is rarely seen, but his efforts on behalf of Aids sufferers in Africa may, in retrospect, be among his most important legacies when he leaves the White House in January.

"We've just never seen this scale of commitment to global health or to the health of other peoples," Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, told Bloomberg News. "When history books get written", the president's commitment to fighting Aids and malaria will "go down as the major positive legacy of his eight years in office".

The president's personal view about ameliorating the Aids epidemic runs counter to many of his socially conservative supporters, who make no effort to disguise their homophobia. Bush has made known his opposition to the ban on foreign visitors with HIV and on World Aids Day in 2006 declared it should be rescinded as soon as possible.

But despite saying he would direct the state and homeland security departments to reverse the ban, the administration's proposed changes increase the burden on visitors to America with HIV. They would be expected to bring with them all the medication needed during their stay, provide evidence of adequate medical insurance, and promise that they would not take part in sexual activities that might "put the American public at risk".

The draft legislation on financial support for African Aids relief currently going through the Senate does not overturn the restriction on travel; it merely switches the burden of checking on the health status of visitors from the homeland security department to US consulates abroad.

Among those leading the effort to overturn the ban outright by inserting a rider in the president's African Aids relief bill is the Democrats' 2004 presidential candidate, John Kerry, who has attempted in the past to introduce specific legislation to do away with it. He described the lifting of the ban as "a reform that is long needed".

American lawmakers have been joined by the Liberal Democrat MEP Sarah Ludford, who is pressing for the European Union to oblige America to change its policy. "Our leaders should not tolerate that their HIV-positive citizens are bracketed with criminals or treated like modern-day lepers," she said in a statement on her website.

"To put HIV on a par with infectious diseases like tuberculosis in any case betrays medical ignorance . . . I am launching with MEP colleagues a petition to the European Parliament to press for inclusion in the European Commission negotiating mandate with the US the objective of full visa waivers for people with HIV."

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This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet