In one of his first interviews after being sworn in, Mwanawasa told the Reuters news agency that one of his top priorities would be addressing the needs of Zambians living with HIV/AIDS. He proposed a multipronged approach to treat those infected with HIV/AIDS and to prevent the further spread of the disease. "AIDS is a national disaster and it must be looked at it in that way," he said. "We will be examining all options on getting cheaper drugs to those of our people carrying the virus. We are encouraging national awareness." An estimated 20% of the adult population in Zambia has AIDS, where 200 AIDS-related deaths occur daily and life expectancy has dropped from 50 (as of independence in 1964) to 37 years; more than 650,000 Zambians have died of the disease since the late 1980s, when the government began keeping records. The government reported that orphaned children of AIDS victims number over 800,000 as of 2002.
In April 2002 Mwanawasa sought $19 million in funding from the UN Global Fund for AIDS, and received a pledge for $42 million in aid from the World Bank. The World Bank aid comes with the requirement that the Parliament pass a national AIDS policy, guaranteeing access to drugs for those who need them. A previous bill criminalizing the deliberate spread of HIV languished in the session of Parliament that adjourned in November 2001.
Government privatization efforts during the decade from 1991-2001 had begun to show results, but for many Zambians the results came at too high a price. Mwanawasa faced a situation where 80% of the people live in poverty and were desperate for government aid to achieve subsistence. In early 2002 he reintroduced free education and selected agricultural subsidies. Both of these were measures that international lending organizations discouraged. The following year, anticipating that Zambia would meet the requirements set forth by the World Bank under the Highly Indebted Poor Country initiative, the World Bank pledged $150 million in aid for government programs, $50 million of which was for the Emergency Drought Recovery Programme.
President Mwanawasa has sought to develop Zambia as an eco-tourism destination. In 2003 he encouraged his people to become involved in tourism locally, while he also sought foreign investment that would bring North Americans to his country. Giving the opening address at the 28th Africa Travel Association congress in 2003, he called upon African nations to join together in promoting and developing Africa as a tourist destination, stating that all would benefit from the cooperation. He described tourism as an industry that would provide jobs and economic diversification, while also preserving the biological diversity of the region.