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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Left Edge: Fight HIV, Aids and the Drug Barrons

As the South African version of the popular children’s television show Sesame Street introduces a new HIV infected character, the United Nations estimates that 68 million people could die of the Aids disease by 2020.

Both Aids and infection with the human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV), which causes it, are spreading faster than predicted. 40 million people already have Aids, the most serious outbreak of illness in human history. Three million died from it last year.

The disease is more widespread than had been thought in the worst hit countries – particularly sub-Saharan Africa (in Botswana, for example, it is predicted that a baby born in 2010 would have a life expectancy of only 27 years) and spreading into new populations in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.

A new UN report says Aids could kill up to 70 million people if the world’s richest nations don’t more than triple the money they spend to curb the epidemic.

The UN calculates that the poor countries most at risk would need to spend up to $10 billion to tackle HIV/Aids. So far only about a third of that had been forthcoming from countries plagued by ‘debts’, drought, famine, warfare and other problems.

Aids agencies have given advice on how to stop the disease spreading. But the main obstacle to tackling HIV/Aids is the activities of profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies.

Only 1% of new pharmaceutical treatments developed over the last quarter of a century were for diseases normally found in poorer nations. But drugs are available to ameliorate the lot of HIV/Aids sufferers – they were developed because there was a market in the West.

These drugs though are expensive to buy as the world’s top pharmaceutical companies make huge profits out of them. And while millions face a painful death, the drug firms protect this right with laws forbidding cheap ‘generic’ substitutes.

When Brazil used a loophole in these laws allowing cheaper alternatives (“in a national emergency”) to produce and distribute its own anti-AIDS drug at 75% below prices in Europe, it cut Aids-related deaths by 40% in five years.

Last year the world’s top drugs firms tried to stop that happening again by suing South Africa’s ANC government over cheap generic Aids drugs, which it bought or made. The drugs giants said South Africa was violating intellectual property rights. They were really worried that if poorer countries could get cheaper drugs, it could push down profits in their biggest markets – North America, Japan and Europe.

The South African government won a victory over the drug companies after the courts asked the drugs firms to explain why their prices were so high.

After this court case, the cost of a three-drug cocktail went down from $1,500 a year to $300, raising hopes that poor countries could now afford them. But, says medical charity Medicines sans Frontieres, the drugs are still too dear, they want the cost to go down to $50 a year.

The UN aids body had set up a scheme to supply discounted drugs to countries in Africa. So far it has only enabled 22,000 extra people in eleven countries to get drugs, which are still too expensive and discounts are only available for a limited number of drugs.

It is no coincidence that Africa has borne the brunt of the AIDS epidemic. Mass poverty, political corruption, and decaying social infrastructure create ripe conditions for the spread of epidemics. Despite the acres of newsprint bewailing the “inadequacies” of Africa to “help itself,” imperialism and the corrupt capitalist regimes are responsible for the growing disease, the huge army of poor, and the horrific wars ravaging the continent. It was the colonial powers that invaded, enslaved, plundered, and carved out “spheres of influence” which cut across living bodies of nations and peoples and set a time-bomb for the ethnic conflicts, which have exploded, on the continent.

The central issues facing Africa are its crushing debt burden and the incapacity of capitalism to develop the huge potential of the continent. In the words of the Wall Street Journal, voice of corporate America: “Who cares if Africa has fallen off the edge of the global marketplace? With the end of the Cold War it has lost its strategic significance… it is too poor to matter… Africans do not have the money to buy Coca-Cola. They lack the education and use of Windows. The continent cannot pay its debts… it is a place best left to mercenaries and missionaries.”

The fierce globalization of the last decade brought a dramatic restructuring of African economies. The IMF and World Bank forced countries to sell off state-run enterprises to qualify for debt relief, resulting in mass layoffs and declining government revenue. What limited economic, health and labor protections existed were dismantled under the loan agreements. Today, sub-Saharan Africa spends nearly five times as much on debt payments as on healthcare every year.

Between 1985 and 1995, Africa’s debt burden climbed from $90 billion to over $200 billion. Meanwhile, Africa’s share of global foreign direct investment was halved in the 90s, with most of it going to a few countries. Average income per person stands at $500 a year, with most people considerably under that mark.

The pharmaceutical industry is the most profitable industry in the world. The combined wealth of the top five drug companies, who were among the 39 suing South Africa, equals twice the GDP of sub-Saharan Africa. In the US, they are regarded as one of the most powerful lobbies. The industry threw an unprecedented $24.4 million into the 2000 election, favoring the Republicans with 70% of their gifts. Beyond that, they set up a front group called “Citizens for Better Medicare” to funnel $35 million into ads for their candidates. The investments paid off. Industry reps now gloat over all the key congressional positions their most pliant servants hold.

Emergency action is needed to halt the spread of HIV/Aids. That must include fighting to take the whole pharmaceutical industry worldwide into public ownership, under the democratic control of workers and service-users.

[Patrick Ayers and UMB Socialist Club can be contacted at [email protected]]