Genocide of neglect
(Morning Star, Tuesday 15 July 2008)
Over 25 million people have died of Aids since the first identified cases in 1981. With the advent of antiretroviral therapy, HIV/Aids has become a manageable, "chronic" disease.
But between 2 million and 2.5 million people still die of the disease every year, despite the existence of medicines largely capable of preventing these personal and community tragedies. About 66 per cent of the infected live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Mortality rates highlight stark differences in access to treatment, as well as access to and education about prevention.
Under International Monetary Fund "structural adjustment programmes," underdeveloped countries are forced to service debts rather than concentrate on the development and social services vital to combating HIV/Aids.
At the same time, the epidemic is having a crippling effect on the economies of poor countries. It is wiping out the most economically productive age groups. The sub-Saharan region is said to have experienced a 2-4 per cent decrease in economic growth due to Aids.
"In 2001, only 30,000 of over 28 million infected people in sub-Saharan Africa were on treatment and over 2 million died of Aids," reports South African doctor Shereen Usdin in her No-Nonsense Guide to HIV/Aids.
Only when it became obvious that the epidemic was threatening global security did HIV/Aids become an international issue. Only the goal of preserving the stability of a system which produces so much human tragedy could finally mobilise global elites.
"The Aids pandemic has taken more lives than the Black Death in Europe of the Middle Ages ... HIV/Aids ... has infected over 60 million people, claiming almost 22 million lives. This is the equivalent of 7,000 World Trade Centre 9/11 disasters, four Holocausts and more than 22 genocides in Rwanda. By the time you read this, it will have risen even higher," says Usdin.
The spread of the epidemic has been aided by the catastrophic and callous stance of religious institutions and leaders, most notably the last pope, against the use of contraceptives. The US administration is also perversely exploiting the Aids crisis to promote abstinence and sexual conservatism internationally.
The gains made during the largely inauthentic but nonetheless hopeful African road to socialism era have mostly been nullified.
Average life expectancy in Swaziland is now below 32 years. In Botswana, where 39 per cent of adults are HIV-positive, life expectancy has fallen to pre-1950 levels of only 39 years. The average life span for Botswanans without Aids is 72 years.
UNAIDS estimates that 68 million people will die prematurely due to Aids between 2000 and 2020. The level of suffering is unquantifiable.
The astonishing lack of urgency towards the growth of this epidemic - despite 5 million newly infected people in 2003 alone - is possible only in a system in which profit and power are put before living, breathing human beings.
Even where they are in place, WTO epidemic control strategies have concentrated on cost effectiveness.
"World Bank policy-makers have argued, for example, that poor countries should not consider providing treatment to the afflicted and that prevention programmes should come first even if people were dying in absolute agony," writes health expert Susan Hunter in her book Black Death: Aids in Africa.
Pharmaceutical giants maintain their monopoly on the market through patents which have prevented the production of cheaper generic medicines.
Drug patents and intellectual property laws are enforced globally by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement known as TRIPS, the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.
The US, along with France, Germany and Switzerland, used its might to close TRIPS "flexibility clauses" and tighten intellectual property rights rules as the epidemic exploded. It also intimidated and blackmailed countries that wanted to produce cheap generics, like South Africa and Brazil.
Recent initiatives for greater accessibility of treatment have been uncritically hailed as a solution to the crisis.
The smug, self-congratulatory stance of the political elite and their corporate media, particularly in the US, was epitomised on Yahoo News recently.
Immediately after noting that a quadrupling of funds would be needed for universal access to Aids treatment, the article concluded in classic Orwellian fashion: "Today, the terror of Aids that prevailed 25 years ago has disappeared."
In fact, as leading French researcher Olivier Schwarz says: "In Africa, not even 10 per cent of the people who need treatment are getting it."
The struggle for access to medicines as a basic human right is still being fought all over the globe. In the context of the Aids pandemic, huge but insufficient price reductions and legislative changes have already been won.
The important steps forward that have been achieved so far, including the concept of freedom of access to medicines itself, would be significantly less likely without civic participation and self-organisation.
Wider demands for debt relief, protection of public services and for the freedom to import generic medicines have to be coupled with restorative elements of community empowerment, promotion of education and gender equality, mutually respectful relationships and early realistic, non-moralistic sexual education.
The stigma, ostracism, hysteria and fatalism have to be overcome through openness and greater determination to fight back, both against the disease itself and the corporate Machiavellians who profit from it.
The indifference of our rulers and the "international community" to the suffering of millions upon millions of women, men and children is a bleeding wound on the body of humanity. But the courage and compassion of those fighting for justice leave hope on an otherwise bleak and brutal horizon.