A soft, melodious ringing drifted across University College on Tuesday, Dec. 1 as the bells of Soldiers’ Tower ushered in World AIDS Day. The tolling also began a series of musical performances, followed by an address from professor, doctor, and author Prabhat Jha in Hart House’s Great Hall.

The choice of music set the tone for the evening.

After law student Roy Lee’s tolling of the bells, Michael Thibodeau, a piano grad student, played Chopin’s “Fourth Ballade in F Minor, Op. 52.” a piece chosen for its moments of gladness but also sorrow. Opera student Lindsay Barrett, a soprano, belted out “Morgen Opus, 27, No. 4” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Both songs contained themes of looking beyond one’s current situation and believing that a bright future is in reach. Throughout the performances, black-and-white photos taken in Africa and South Asia, some of ill patients and others of children and adults laughing and smiling, were projected on a large screen.

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An upbeat number by U of T’s 2009 Dance and Drum Ensemble, led by percussionist and faculty of music instructor Kwasi Dunyo, rounded out the musical acts. Called Bambaya, the dance originated among the Dagbamba/Dagbani people of northern Ghana to give thanks to divinity at harvest time.

Keynote speaker Prabhat Jha, the medical world’s equivalent of a rock star, is a professor at U of T’s school of public health. His speech addressed the sobering reality of the global AIDS pandemic but also left a glimmer of optimism. A founding director of numerous medical institutes, Jha has written several books on the economics of tobacco use and the potential for a public health care system in India.

Jha related his experiences in a Madras hospital when he realized he was surrounded by deathly ill people who were mostly younger than him. “As a physician, I was prepared to see the tragedy of death,” he said. “But I was unprepared to see the tragedy of helplessness, sorrow, and resignation.” As Jha sees it, pandemics can change the course of history, often for the worse, but doctors and researchers can work to bring sound science to the ill and make positive change.

AIDS once threatened to create a disaster in India, but the Indian government and the World Health Organization realized the role of sex work in spreading the disease and made efforts to increase awareness and condom use. “[It] changed a potential catastrophe in India into a manageable public health problem,” said Jha, adding that rates of infection have gone down in south India by half.

Jha called AIDS the “first big challenge in the irreversible era of globalization.” But if universities keep the pandemic a priority, he said, there may be hope on the horizon.

This Thursday, the U of T chapters of Oxfam and UNICEF will host directors from various HIV/AIDS relief and advocacy organizations. The event, “Withholding Hope: Canadian red tape and the fight to get AIDS medicine to Africa,” features Canadian and African perspectives on the challenges to exporting medicine. The discussion will be followed by letter-writing to MPs. The event runs Dec. 3, from 6:30–8:30, at OISE room 2295.

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