‘The Lazarus Effect’

Ask Americans what they’re willing to cut from the federal budget and, invariably, “foreign aid” is the most popular target. We’re occasionally reminded why that would be a mistake.

The Biblical story of Lazarus is happening again in Africa. At least it looks that way.

One moment, men, women and children suffering from AIDS are lying at death’s door, barely able to move, open their eyes, or speak. Then a few days or weeks later, they are walking, talking, laughing; truly appearing to have come back from the dead.

This astonishing transformation has been repeated all over the continent thousands of times over the past decade. And, since 2003, America has been helping to pay for it.

But a budget-slashing effort in Congress this year threatens to bring much of that progress to a sudden and catastrophic halt.

I agree with conservative columnist and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson on very little — as I recall, he referred to me as an “idiot” a few months ago — but on this issue, he’s done terrific and important work. Indeed, it was Gerson’s former White House boss who started this funding, and now the columnist has helped put together an HBO special called The Lazarus Effect in the hopes that members of his own party will back off the proposed cuts.

In 2003, Bush started the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR — an unprecedented, $3-billion a year program to help the world fight AIDS and has resulted in an 80-fold increase in the number of Africans receiving life-saving AIDS treatments since the program began.

In 2008, Bush led the charge for renewal and expansion. “We can bring healing and hope to many more. So I ask you to maintain the principles that have changed behavior and made this program a success,” Bush told Congress in his State of the Union address that year.

With bipartisan support, PEPFAR grew and saved many lives. President Obama continues to back the program, but Republicans have turned on it, despite the lives it saves, despite the goodwill towards the United States it creates in many parts of Africa.

Here’s hoping Gerson’s lobbying efforts are successful. The odds appear long that GOP lawmakers will do the right thing, but millions of people are counting on them to change their minds.