A group of activists caught some attention at last week’s AIDS conference in Toronto by protesting that the attention was too much on “celebrities” — Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Richard Gere — rather than on the specifics of the disease and its effects.

Activists are always making a fuss, but I must admit that as I sought to make sense of the conference, the thought had already crossed my mind that the exercise is far more about “us” — the dominant people of the Earth — than about “them” — the afflicted.

What’s about “us” is not just the accent on celebrity, but the ideological backdrop of the event. This could be described, in simplified form, as “abstinence versus condoms.”

These are both loaded words. The U.S. government has promised up to $15 billion to fight AIDS in Africa, on condition that it be used to promote sexual abstinence. Behind that policy is the very political and highly judgmental religiousness of U.S. Christian fundamentalism, the underpinning of the Republican party. “Abstinence,” in this context, is a trigger word that for opponents evokes pretty well everything else the Bush government stands for.

“Condoms,” on the other hand, stands accused of being a rallying cry for “keep the sexual revolution going at all costs,” and a battle ensign against any thought that refraining from promiscuous sex could be anything but right-wing craziness.

This simplifying polarization crops up on virtually every social issue in North America — abortion, gay marriage, even day care — and is an unfortunate distraction when the problem at hand is the greatest plague the world has ever known.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these distinctions are lost on the afflicted — 40 million of them worldwide, 25 million already dead (starting to rival the Second World War in that category), nearly three million dead and four million newly infected last year alone.

As for condoms versus abstinence, wherever UNAIDS, the United Nations HIV/AIDS agency, reports progress against the scourge, especially in “some sub-Saharan countries,” it cites (in its 2006 spring report) “behaviour changes including delays in first sexual contact and increasing use of condoms by young people.” In other words, in the real complexity of life, both. When life and death are involved, how can we argue with whatever works?

“Some sub-Saharan countries” would include Gambia and Sierra Leone, where a remarkable Nova Scotia-based organization, the Nova Scotia-Gambia Association, has been non-judgmentally (that is, without white-man finger-wagging) teaching young people to protect themselves from AIDS and other infectious diseases through a peer-education program originally pioneered in Halifax schools. It’s in all Gambian secondary schools, is now moving to the primary level, and it appears to have had a dramatic effect.

Gambia’s HIV prevalence is now down to little more than one per cent (it’s 30 per cent in some African countries). The NSGA also proudly reports that Gambia has the highest rate of AIDS awareness in the world — with 97 per cent of Gambians over 15 having “some awareness.” The NSGA programs are now moving into Sierra Leone where, in addition, the organization has struck a deal with the Sierra Leone Truckers Association to teach them AIDS awareness — long-haul truckers being notorious transmitters of sexual diseases.

The last time I spoke to Burris Devanney, the former Halifax school principal who founded the organization, he was telling me how easy it all is — “the Gambians do it themselves.” I can’t help but think that it is, if you can park screaming politics at the door and approach it in a practical way, something that’s so problematic at the higher level.

Also “about us” is Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s refusal to attend the AIDS conference and the government’s pathetic attempt to stitch together a last-minute policy, which it abandoned. This, of course, is not unique. Many governments are being faulted for their failure of leadership on the issue, and especially the failure to deliver on large promises made at the G8 conference at Gleneagles, Scotland, last year.

What’s the problem here? Are we squeamish, like some of those benighted tribal chieftains? Are we saying that because, in our society, AIDS is more prevalent among promiscuous gay men and intravenous drug users, it’s universally a “self-inflicted” disease — victimized Third World women and all?

Here’s my conclusion: Africa, Haiti, the poorest of the poor, are also “about us.” Let us stop our fastidious avoidance, our petty politics, and resolve to do our duty.