Feature address by Dame Pearlette Louisy,
Governor General, Saint Lucia
At the Opening Ceremony of
the 8th Annual General Meeting of the
Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV and AIDS (PANCAP)
29 October 2008, Montego Bay, Jamaica
* Mr. Chairman
* Hon. Rudyard Spencer, Minister of Health, Jamaica
* Hon. John Fabien, Minister of Health and the Environment, Commonwealth of
Dominica and Chair of the Regional Coordinating Mechanism of PANCAP
* Ministers of Government and Parliamentarians of other Caribbean States
* Dr. Edward Greene, Assistant Secretary-General, CARICOM Secretariat
* Dr. Kevin Harvey, Chair of the Caribbean Coalition of National Progranmme
* Members of the Diplomatic Corps
* Members of PANCAP
* Members of the Media
* Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen
It is for me a profound honour and privilege to be afforded the opportunity to
address this august gathering on the occasion of the official opening of the
Eighth Annual General Meeting of the Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV and
AIDS (PANCAP) that will unfold here over the next two days in this beautiful
resort town of Montego Bay, Jamaica.
It is my understanding that more than 160 participants registered for this event
making it the largest-ever Annual General Meeting convened by PANCAP in its
eight year existence and I am particularly pleased to be associated with this
To my mind, the theme of the Meeting “Leadership: Uniting Vision and Purpose”
lies at the heart of a successful national and regional response to the stern
developmental challenges posed by HIV and AIDS. For if indeed, HIV infection has
now taken firm root in the general population as evidenced by the growing
feminization of the epidemic; and if in fact, AIDS has evolved has the leading
cause of mortality among the most productive sector (15-44 years) of our
population; and if in reality, the cost of responding to the AIDS crisis in the
Caribbean is in excess of US$200 million a year as postulated by our health
economists; then I submit that visionary and purposeful becomes a most crucial
and inescapable ingredient in the pursuit of a successful national and response.
The creation of PANCAP by the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community in
2001 is a telling example of proactive and visionary political leadership and
the very positive results are well documented. Indeed, I was fascinated to learn
that while still in its fledgling stage, PANCAP won the acclamation of UNAIDS as
an “International Best Practice” and that the experiment has been replicated in
many other regions of the world, as far away as Central Asia. By itself, this
type of recognition of PANCAP by the international community must be a
vindication of the vision of our political leadership whom we sometimes love to
It is said that comparisons are odious and I attempt none on this occasion.
However, I do crave your indulgence to make allusion to a few persons who I
believe have demonstrated the finest qualities of vision and purpose and
leadership in the Caribbean regional dynamic against HIV and AIDS.
I refer first of all to the indefatigable Prime Minister Denzil Douglas of St.
Kitts and Nevis who, perhaps more than any other, blazed the trail for the
successful evolution of PANCAP from the day of its birth in 2001. At another
level, the dexterity and commitment shown by Dr. Edward Greene, Assistant
Secretary-General, CARICOM Secretariat, in nurturing PANCAP through the
uncertainties of infancy and the vagaries of early childhood must qualify as an
award winning performance in organizational engineering.
The name of Dr. Carol Jacobs is not only a household one in the Caribbean but
her exploits in leading the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria
through a challenging period of its existence have been recognized
internationally as well and deserve our applause. Of course, you would know that
Dr. Jacobs has been the first and only recipient to date of the Gold Award for
highest national achievement offered by the Government of Barbados and this for
her stalwart leadership in the field of HIV and AIDS.
Add to that list Ms. Yolanda Simon of Trinidad and Tobago, advocate par
excellence for people living with HIV and AIDS for more than a decade, consider
the driving force in transforming the HIV and AIDS landscape in Jamaica that is
Prof. Peter Figueroa, and contemplate the pioneering work of Dr. Perry Gomez of
the Bahamas and one begins to appreciate the embodiment of true Caribbean
leadership in full bloom in the field of HIV and AIDS.
These men and women have been some of our true “Champions for Change”. Put in
biblical language they are “the salt of the earth” or if you prefer the Jamaican
vernacular, they “tallawah”.
It is this type of leadership, pregnant with vision and purpose, that has
provided the platform for the successes that have been achieved in the region in
the past and will take us to the next plateau.
The recently published evaluation of the first-ever Caribbean Regional Strategic
Framework on HIV and AIDS confirmed a number of very significant areas of
advancement in the Caribbean regional dynamic against HIV and AIDS over the past
five years. For example, it evaluation report confirmed that:
The prevalence of HIV infection had stabilized across the region and, in fact,
had shown early signs of decline in at least three countries;
Mother-to-child transmission of HIV infection had declined in all countries of
the region, with no exception;
Although much remained to be done, moderate progress had been made in aspects of
treatment, care, and support; while
The level of knowledge about the cause and consequences of HIV infection had
risen exponentially across the region, although significant gaps remained in
translating such cognition into desirable attitudes and behaviour.
So we do have much to celebrate and we must not be inhibited in doing so. At the
same time, we must not forget and the region must not be allowed to forget that
our HIV prevalence rate is still 1˝ times that of the global average, twice that
of North America and Eastern Europe, and more than five-fold that of Western and
In a region as small as the Caribbean, the occurrence of as many as 17,000 new
HIV infections and the demise from AIDS of more than 11,000 persons per year
must keep us sober, and the projection that life expectancy at birth would have
declined by as much as 9-10 years in some countries by 2010 attributable to the
disease must keep us honest.
In the objective circumstance, the statistics remain grim and must serve as the
impetus for even greater dynamism in leadership and more commitment to
high-value actions as we aspire towards the achievement of universal access to
HIV and AIDS-related prevention, treatment, care and support services in the
In this regard, the newly-developed Caribbean Regional Strategic Framework on
HIV and AIDS, 2008 – 2012 is a quantum leap forward and provides the authentic
basis for such action and I would like to cite a few areas which I believe could
bring high-value rewards for effort. In general terms, I will posit that placing
renewed emphasis on prevention of HIV infection, enhancing and sustaining
anti-retroviral therapy, dismantling the blight of stigma and discrimination,
halting the increasing feminization of the epidemic, ensuring sustainable
financing and building a culture of evidence-based decision making will pay huge
dividends in accelerating universal access. However, I would like to focus more
closely on a few areas that I consider to be ripe for political and community
leadership in making a difference.
I invite you to consider with me the role of what I call “compassionate
leadership” in advancing human rights and human dignity and human welfare around
HIV and AIDS. Each one of can testify to the role of stigma and its sinister
companion discrimination in driving the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean.
In our Caribbean societies, the evidence of HIV/AIDS-related stigma and
discrimination is stark. An indeterminate number of people living with HIV/AIDS
opt not to seek treatment, even when within their grasp, immobilized by their
palpable fear of stigma and discrimination. People living with or suspected to
be living with HIV/AIDS, all too often must suffer the thinly veiled
indifference of our health care systems and health professionals, are shunned by
friends and colleagues, evicted from their homes by their own families,
abandoned by their spouses, ostracized by their communities, denied employment
and access to other social benefits, turned down for insurance coverage or
refused entry into other countries.
The litany of intolerance is unending and is an area that cries out for strong
political and community leadership in the adoption of affirmative policies,
modern legislation and inclusive action to reverse the trend. Perhaps this
coming World AIDS Day that will be observed on 1 December under the theme of
Stigma and Discrimination will present a golden opportunity for Caribbean
political and community leaders to step up to the plate and perform some deed
that will be a legacy in this area. Certainly, persons affected would love them
I would also like to address the emotive issue of societal response to the
so-called vulnerable groups and, in particular, men who have sex with men, sex
workers and substance abusers and in doing so to situate them in the context of
the epidemiology of the disease in the Caribbean.
The evidence is incontrovertible that the prevalence of HIV infection is several
fold higher among these groups of persons than among the general population. In
fact, while general prevalence rates are between 1 and 2% in most countries of
the Caribbean, prevalence rates among some of these sub-groups rampage to as
high as 30%. These are grim statistics that are irresistible and although I
offer no prescription of my own, I certainly implore strong and urgent political
leadership, balanced technical and professional guidance and non-pejorative
community dialogue as the foundation for responsible action. For act we must and
time is not on our side.
I am advised and, as noted before, that the estimated cost of responding to the
HIV and AIDS epidemic in the region is in the order of US$200 million annually.
Clearly, this is an impossible burden for the region to bear alone, especially
in the face of the many other stern social and economic challenges.
This means that the region must continue to rely on support from international
partners in the form of grants or very concessionary loans, if it were to
continue to battle this global threat successfully. I am pleased that so many of
our development partners are with us today and I plead the case loudly for your
continued empathy and support for the Caribbean cause.
Chairperson, I note with more than passing interest that one of the main agenda
items of the Meeting speaks to innovative approaches applied to the HIV and AIDS
response in the Caribbean. I must let you know that I am a convert to the
imperative of innovation and change in building bridges, challenging frontiers
and solving difficult problems. I am therefore very pleased to note this
emphasis. My hope is that through careful research and bold innovation the
Caribbean will continue to find new answers to this most difficult problem that
affects all of us.
As I close, I wish for us to remind ourselves that the race in which we are
engaged is one that calls for endurance. There is no quick fix and no magic
bullet and none appears to be looming on the horizon. This race is not like the
one in which Usain Bolt has excelled and brought so much pride and glory to his
native Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean.
This one requires stamina and resolve, visionary leadership and purposive
action, and the marshalling of all the forces at every level to breast the tape
and win the prize.
The people across the region - from Back River and Yallas in Jamaica, to Vielle
Case and Grand Bay in Dominica, to Port-au-Prince Haiti and the the Bateyes in
the Dominican Republic – depend on us to guide them to the promise land of
universal access to HIV and AIDS-related prevention, treatment, care and support
services. Let us not fail them.
I thank you.