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Roundtable: AIDS, FEMA, Bush on Iraq

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Roundtable: AIDS, FEMA, Bush on Iraq

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Roundtable: AIDS, FEMA, Bush on Iraq

Roundtable: AIDS, FEMA, Bush on Iraq

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Friday's topics include HIV and AIDS in the African-American community; a court order that FEMA continue payments to Katrina victims; and President Bush's remarks on military turnover in Iraq. Farai Chideya's guests are Penn history professor Mary Frances Berry; Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post and Nat Irvin, president of Future Focus 2020.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable we have got a judge ruling that the federal agency FEMA has to show Katrina victims the money, and President Bush agrees to turn over military authority in Iraq as soon as possible. That's at least one interpretation.

Joining us from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., Joe Davidson, an editor for The Washington Post. At Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. And Nat Irvin, president of Future Focus 2020, professor at the Babcock Graduate School of Management of Wake Forest University. He's at member station WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

So I'm going to get to the Iraq issues in a second, but I wanted to start out following out of our earlier segment on AIDS in the African-American communities around the nation.

There's a couple of new studies. One said that young black adults are much more likely to be infected with an STD, including AIDS or HIV, than young white adults even if they engage in the same or even safer sexual behavior. And also former President Clinton teamed up with two Indian pharmaceutical companies to cut prices of HIV and AIDS treatment for children, so making those drugs more accessible. Those will be drugs for HIV-positive children for as little as 16 cents a day.

Let's me start with you, Nat. Are we making some advances here? Or, I mean it seems as if these two bits of news, the infection rates of young African-Americans and the Clinton cost cutting for kids' drugs, they're positive and negative. Where is - what's the overall picture?

Professor NAT IRVIN (Wake Forest University): Well, Farai, on any given day, you can say it's both positive and negative. I think that when you think about it globally, you're looking at the spread of the epidemic. It is - we have within the continent of Africa for one while it was completely out of control, but now you can see some countries are starting to get a grip around it. In certain parts of Africa there's been as many as a third of the population, 20 percent in some other places.

But we're starting to see globally the spread of AIDS, as you noted, with India, Thailand, other places in Russia. It's extraordinary; it's growing rapidly. Globally, you can just say - I think you can say that the world is starting to recognize that this is a serious problem from a financial standpoint, which is why I think the Clinton Initiative is important.

It's recognizing that there is a need for a partnership between the pharmaceutical companies and governments and communities to try to bring someway just to try to use the technology, the science that has extended life and tried to get that to the younger populations, so that you can stop the spread of AIDS. So in that sense, there's something good.

On the negative side, when you look at the black community in this country, we've got some adjustments to make. I'm not - I mean I am concerned because this newest study suggests that even if young people do the right thing, even if they do the right thing that there's a 25 percent chance - 25-times more likely to wind up with something more so - with a sexually-transmitted disease or even HIV.

So that's a serious issue, and it says that our institutions have got to come to grips with the identity of AIDS. We've got to come to grips with the need to have more testing, testing, testing, testing. Prevention is the only key, and we've got to change our ideas, our understanding. I think your two guests in the early segment captured it very nicely. We've got to have our institution become more honest, and that means the church, all of our institutions. This is not a plaything here.

CHIDEYA: Mary, I...

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (University of Pennsylvania): Farai, there's a - Farai, there's a piece missing from all these about the AIDS discussion. For the worldwide crisis - thank God for Bill Clinton and his post-presidential activities on this issue - because in the daily lives of people I see in Africa and in Asia, just as we think about terrorism all the time, they think about AIDS all the time in many of these countries.

The scourge, the intergenerational scourge is just, you know, unimaginable so that anything anybody can do on a worldwide basis. But as for what's going on here in the United States, what's missing I think in the discussion about testing and about all these things and the people that I talk to, the young people, is that many people don't want to get tested.

And they don't want to get tested no matter how many testing programs you have and how much awareness, because for many people they don't believe that any kind of real treatment and drugs and of the kind - the cocktails and all these things are available, especially poor people that I talked to and poor women. Black women that I have talked to who have sex for a variety of reasons with partners - one, they've got to have relationships, and two, there are only certain people who are available.

And they get it from somebody. Whoever gets AIDS gets it from somebody, and that person has it. And so if we were able to figure out a way to let people know, not only do you get tested - please get tested - but there is treatment at this place readily available once you are tested. If you have any network that will help you to get through this, and that does not exist. So just testing - some people just don't want to deal with it because if they get tested, they will find out they have it.

CHIDEYA: You know...

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, Washington Post): But, you know, the other...

CHIDEYA: And I think that's definitely true. At the same time, you know, there's no question that the drugs are so much better. I mean I've lost people in my family both in the U.S. and in Africa to AIDS. And, you know, I get tested every year even though I have what I consider low-risk behavior. I'm just like, you know what? There's no time like the present for a reality check. You know, because I, you know, God forbid, if I got AIDS I would be able to live, hopefully, for years. And I think that message has to get out.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Right, you know, I think that's the safe side of it. And I think some people feel that now that people with AIDS can live for a number of years, that the specter of death isn't necessarily as prevalent as it once was. And there certainly have been reports of people within the gay community of taking risky behavior because they see their friends on the street living with AIDS for 25 years, for example, and healthily. I mean they are robust. They aren't weak. They aren't peaked. They aren't thin.

So I mean I think this is a multi-layered situation with many new nuances. I think that this current report that we're discussing now that just came out is really disturbing in a number of ways. I mean because it does show that low-risk behavior within the African-American community doesn't mean that you are not going to get AIDS. You're still more likely to get it than white people who have high-risk behavior.

So what is the answer to that? At the end of the study it says that prevention efforts focused on personal behavior for whites' work, but they need to be focused at the population level for the black community. I don't know exactly what that means in operational terms, but I think it's clear that we need some new approaches, some innovative approaches, because what's out there now apparently is not doing the job.

CHIDEYA: What about - very briefly before we move on, Professor Berry, what about the Clinton Initiative, low-cost drugs for kids, is that going to make an impact?

Prof. BERRY: Oh it absolutely will, because the cost of drugs, both here and there, around the world, is the major thing. Getting them to the right people and people who are aware of being able to afford them. And I think that we will save maybe a generation if we do this.

So I think that they are of - the $15 million, I guess it is, that the Clinton Foundation is giving and $35 million from these other countries, that's not enough. And there should be more done. But as many of these arrangements as he can make I think the better off we'll be. And so I think it's really great that this happening and it will have an impact.

CHIDEYA: Anyone else?

Prof. IRVIN: You know, I think that obviously cutting the cost of drugs helps a great deal. There's always this question out there about the delivery. Even if the drugs are very cheap, will they - is the infrastructure there to get them to the people who need them?

And I think in many cases that infrastructure is there, but again, just like in this country, you do have the issues of educating the population, making sure they know these drugs are available and getting them to the people who need them.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, we're going to move on, but this is definitely a topic dear to my own heart and I think that everyone just has to plug in, World AIDS Day or the day after, or the month after, or the year after.

Let's move on to Katrina housing. The government is trying to figure out what to do next in a sense that a federal district court judge ruled that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, mishandled the transition from short-term to long-term housing. And I saw something really interesting. There's a group called the Center for Public Integrity that compiles articles on Katrina-related issues, and said that more people were actually in trailers this Thanksgiving than last Thanksgiving.

In some cases, families are burnt out or checks have run out. And so now there's this ruling that FEMA mishandled this transition, lacked clarity, deprived evacuees of their rights of due process. And this could result in more money or more trailers, or both. Joe, is this going to make a big difference to the people who were on the ground in Katrina?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, you know, I guess time will tell on that. I mean I think one thing that should make a difference in is the level of bureaucracy that people have to go through in order to get assistance that they're entitled to. I mean the judge in this case, you know, he spelled it out when he talked about how Kafkaesque this whole situation is with people getting letters indicating they've been denied service with something called reason codes as oppose to actual, actual reasons.

And sometimes there were conflicting codes or information that was just wrong. I think it's, you know, it seems like the system that the government put in place was something that the recipients, that people who are supposed to be the recipients of aid found so bizarre that many times they could not get - jump through all of these hoops.

And so if nothing else, I think that this is a wake-up call to the government - administration that talks about small government, for example, to make some of these issues that people have to confront much smaller, instead of having kind of a large bureaucracy that they have to find their way through.

Prof. BERRY: This is a dangerous thing that's going on, because the FEMA hasn't decided yet whether to appeal or to ask for a stay. So they're still fighting, trying to do anything about the problems. And all these people living in trailers and having no place to live, the crime rates have gone up in New Orleans, a lot of it is domestic violence, people getting on each other's nerves and going crazy in those trailers and with nowhere to live - all of the federal agencies, HUD has been selling housing projects out from under people, like on common ground who've been trying to rehabilitate them for housing.

The whole place is not coming back the way it should. This just adds to it, if they do appeal. And if they don't appeal, knowing the bureaucracy, they will come up with some other letter with some other codes that will delay things. It seems like one of these issues, like the Iraq one, that - which is really not we're going to drag through the whole Bush administration without ever coming to grips with doing exactly what is needed around New Orleans and the Gulf and Katrina, with people suffering and all these delaying tactics and incompetence, and until we get some kind of change, that nothing really fundamental is going to happen.

CHIDEYA: Nat, briefly comment before we move on to our last topic.

Prof. IRVIN: Oh, just doing a heck of a job, Brownie, just a heck of a job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. IRVIN: Sorry. But you know, I was really heartened by the response of the mayor of Houston, Mr. Bill White. You know, not only did he welcome, you know, I think we can all remember when after Katrina happened and all those folks were evacuated, some of them to Houston, how he opened up the city and how he made - I think it was one of the bright spots for America during that time.

But you know, he's continued his intervention on behalf of the folks and it's largely because of the mayor that FEMA actually finds itself having, and the judge having made the ruling that he has made, that you have one mayor who said, look, this is not right, and I guess it just reflects, I think, what Mary and Joe have already said, is just how the operations of our federal government have just been so totally ineffective.

This is, you know, this - I think - I'm hoping that out of this Katrina disaster that some of our major institutions, our public policy institutions will really help the government to become more effective in the way that it is organized around a disaster. This is not the only disaster we're going to have, but we can readily see now that we're not really ready to handle it.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. Well, we have one last topic. President Bush said after a meeting with Iraq's prime minister that the U.S. will help facilitate a speedy turnover of security responsibility to Iraqi forces. Now, that turnover requires that there be people who can actually take the responsibility. But anyway, the president reiterated troops won't leave until the mission is complete.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I want to hear all advice before I make my decisions about adjustments to our strategy and tactics in Iraq to help this government succeed.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, that's the short and succinct of it, and we have to be short and succinct. Does this actually mean anything in terms of a timetable?

Prof. BERRY: It's another disaster, Farai. They're talking about disaster. This is a disaster. Bush has got us in this mired muck and he's blowing smoke now because he doesn't know what to do. We're in it. Nobody can come with any good way to get out of it. Turn it over to security forces. As you said, who are the security forces you're going to turn it over to?

Anybody who sees the facts on the ground, and as much as we can see in the media that comes back here, knows that the whole place is in chaos. It's a disaster. There's no security forces to turn anything over to. And the only real question is, until Bush is out of office, how many American soldiers and how many Iraqis are going to have to die, just day after day after day, because he can't figure out what to do and is even now talking about he doesn't care what Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton and that study group comes up with. And his hand won't be forced.

CHIDEYA: We'll hear that next week.

Prof. BERRY: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Well, Joe, let me ask you. What is the mood in Washington right now around the president's trip, the war? I mean...

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, the mood seems to be - seems like it will coalesce around this report that will come out next week from the Iraq Study Group. In the Post this morning there's a report that says that that panel will urge a pullout of combat troops by 2008.

Now, that's more than a year from now, and so a lot can happen in that time period, both good and bad, I suppose. But it looks like that - once that report comes out, it will give political cover to both Republicans and Democrats to perhaps coalesce - coalesce on a withdrawal strategy that's far enough in the future that almost anybody can agree with it. And it also...

CHIDEYA: I'm going to have to go to Nat because we're almost out of time. Any thought?

Prof. IRVIN: I'm just struck by the fact that so many people now consider our president to be basically delusional, to be completely out of touch with this country, that we have something like 68 to 70 percent of Americans think that the direction we're going in Iraq is completely wrong.

You have no support even among Republicans, Democrats, worldwide. We've turned our back completely against the world. This is an extraordinary moment in world history. We've never had a person as president who has been so completely out of touch with the country and is leading the free world.

CHIDEYA: All right, on that note, Nat Irvin, president of Future Focus 2020, and he's also at the Babcock Graduate School of Management at Wake Forest University; Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; and Joe Davidson, editor at the Washington Post. Thank you all so much.

Prof. BERRY: Thank you.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: And as always, if you'd like to comment on any of the topics you've heard on our Roundtable, you can call us at (202) 408-3330, that's (202) 408-3330. Or you can send an e-mail. Just log onto npr.org and click on Contact Us. And please be sure to tell us where you're writing from and how to pronounce your name.

Next on NEWS & NOTES, a Ugandan doctor tells how focusing on her AIDS patients shapes her life and her nation's life. And the brother duo Nuttin' But Stringz put a little bump into classical music.

(Soundbite of music)

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