William F. Fisher


by Ruby Comer

Photo Courtesy Clark University
Help is on the way, my cupcakes. Several years ago aids2031 was established and its members are pulling out all the stops. Supported by such organizations as the Gates Foundation and amfAR, this UNAIDS initiative is scanning over the past thirty years of the epidemic to see what worked and what didn’t. They’re addressing today’s budding challenges and creating a long-term view, so that by the year 2031—the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of AIDS—this pandemic won’t exist. They’ve recently published a book, AIDS: Taking a Long Term View.

The initiative has engaged 500 leaders, experts, and activists from the fields of science, economics, and epidemiology, among others. I wanted to get the scoop so I turned to one of these pros, a former professor of mine at Columbia—Dr. Bill Fisher. Currently the director of the Department of International Development, Community, and Environment at Clark University in Massachusetts, his background is anchored in anthropology, social movements and development, and NGOs.

We hadn’t seen each other for a while, but, my, this chap does stay active! Last semester he co-taught a seminar entitled “Responding to AIDS” and in the fall he’ll teach “Transnational Social Movements, Globalization, and the State.” I meet with Bill on this wintry day on campus in a conference room at the George Perkins Marsh Institute.

Ruby Comer: Jiminy-whiz, I’m not used to this bitter weather since I became a sunny Southern California girl! Bill, what comes to mind when I mention the AIDS crisis?
William F. Fisher:
I think of a wide ranging and resilient pandemic that is certain to remain an extraordinary global challenge over the next generation and a leading cause of illness and death.

What impact has the AIDS epidemic had on you? Have you lost anyone close?
I lived in New York City throughout the 1980s. It was impossible not to be affected by the impact of AIDS at that time.

Without a doubt. I was there, too. What propels you to take such a passionate interest in the epidemic?
Over twenty-five million people have died from AIDS and more than thirty-three million are living with HIV. Thirty years after the disease was first reported it remains a challenging problem with global implications. But while the continuing growth of the pandemic is disturbing, I believe that we have the ability to control it—with more efficient and effective programs, continued funding, and long-term strategies to address elements that have not been adequately addressed in current efforts.

That’s what I want to hear! I know you’ve been involved with aids2031 for the past three years; tell me what you do.
Aids2031 is an independent consortium of partners whose mandate was to question conventional wisdom, stimulate new research, spark public debate, and assess social and political trends regarding AIDS.

I was co-convener, along with Geeta Rao Gupta, of a working group examining the social drivers of the pandemic, one of nine working groups convened for aids2031. As the “principal investigator” for a number of aids2031 grants that came to Clark University, I was also responsible for overseeing the work of the team that managed
the complex global activities of aids2031.

Over the past thirty years, what do you think has not been done that would have given us a cure by now and how will aids2031 be more effective?
An immense amount has been achieved in the struggle against AIDS: We have seen scientific breakthroughs, the commitment of unprecedented global funding, and the emergence of new models for human rights and public health. And yet the pandemic continues to grow. Aids2031 asked what we could now do
differently to change the face of the pandemic by 2031.

Makes so much sense, Professor. Do you see the epidemic receding like the polio epidemic did?
We have the ability to turn back the AIDS epidemic. But only if we build upon the strategies we have been using and, with renewed efforts and fundraising, increase our research efforts, redesign our policies and programs to take meaningful steps regarding prevention, and introduce strategies for addressing the root causes of the epidemic.

This seems like a very rational—and strong—approach, Bill. My fingers are crossed. [I pack my gear and Bill escorts me to the front of the building. Through the windows I see it’s snowing! I bundle up even tighter and as I brave the snow, Bill wraps up with a somber tone….]
AIDS is not over. We need to be prepared, Ruby, to respond over the long haul and to constantly consider the long-term implications of our choices.

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]

March 2011