This week, the UN released a report on the progress of reducing AIDS globally. And, although the mainstream media has painted a positive picture by touting large reductions in cases, a deeper look at the report reveals that only 34% of those eligible for treatment are receiving it. Of the 28 million people in low and middle income countries who have AIDS and who are also eligible for treatment, only 9.7 million people are actually receiving help. So, why is there such an enormous gap?
A recent film called Fire in the Blood by Dylan Mohan Gray explains the nefarious reasons behind this horrible reality – how the capitalist ideology of profit before people mixed with racism to literally cause the deaths and continued suffering of millions of people.
According to the UN report, 90% of people with unmet needs for antiretroviral treatment live in 30 countries most of which are in Africa, but which also include: Brazil, India, Vietnam, Columbia, and China – in other words the Global South.
It was in 1996 that the antiretroviral cocktail that ended the AIDS crisis in the West was discovered. Yet, between 1997 and 2003, 10 million men, women, and children died of AIDS in Africa simply because Big Pharma denied them access to these drugs in an effort to protect their profits. Put into perspective, 10 million is almost 15 times the number of people than who died of AIDS in the United States during the entire 32 year history of the disease.
In America we have mostly been kept in the dark on multinational pharmaceutical company business practices. Pfizer whistleblower Peter Rost says:
It is scary how many similarities there are between this industry and the mob. The mob makes obscene amounts of money, as does this industry. The side effects of organized crime are killings and deaths, and the side effects are the same in this industry. The mob bribes politicians and others, and so does the drug industry—which has been proven in different cases. You could go though a 10-point list discussing similarities between the two. The difference is, all these people in the drug industry look upon themselves—well, I’d say 99 percent, anyway—look upon themselves as law-abiding citizens, not as citizens who would ever rob a bank. Not as citizens who would ever go out and shoplift. And the individuals who run these companies would probably not do such things. However, when they get together as a group and manage these corporations, something seems to happen. Just look at all of these billion-dollar fines—Schering Plough, I think is in the lead now with $1.2 or $1.3 billion in fines; and number two is Bristol-Myers Squibb. It’s pretty scary that they’re committing crimes that cause [the government] to levy those enormous amounts of fines against them. So there’s something that happens to otherwise good citizens when they are part of a corporation. It’s almost like when you have war atrocities; people do things they don’t think they’re capable of. When you’re in a group, people can do things they otherwise wouldn’t, because the group can validate what you’re doing as okay.
Today, there’s virtually no question that Big Pharma’s actions in the AIDS crisis constituted genocide. Hannah Arendt coined the term the “banality of evil” and it is certainly apropos here.
Big Pharma’s claims of simply “not responding quickly enough” and needing to charge high prices to pay for research are designed to hide the truth that they were protecting their patent. The use of affordable generic drugs in Africa only happened as the result of an executive order pledging that trade sanctions would not be levied for offering access to AIDS medications. Big Pharma never provided accessible medications and 92% of drugs used in low and middle income countries are generics made in India. Further, only 1.3% of pharmaceutical company budgets go for R&D; virtually all new drug research is paid for with public dollars.
For at least the last 30 years, multinational drug companies have been tracked crossing moral and legal lines regularly in their pursuit of profit. They have been caught repeatedly engaging in smaller crimes like illegally marketing drugs before FDA approval, marketing drugs for purposes other than what they are approved for, making payments and offering other incentives to doctors, bribing distributors and FDA employees, and even falsifying new drug applications to the FDA.
And they have also been caught engaged in even more serious crimes like hiring investigators to look for dirt on the Nigerian attorney general to pressure him to drop a 6 billion dollar lawsuit against Pfizer for conducting fraudulent, illegal, and unapproved drug tests on children suffering from meningitis – tests which caused 11 of 200 children to die and caused many others disabling injuries from deafness to paralysis to loss of sight.
Right now the pharmaceutical industry is working to enact new laws through trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership and European Union – India trade agreement that are designed to ensure that their patents are better protected during the next crisis. As a result of these pending agreements, as people build resistance to the 1st line treatments that they finally have access to, they will not be able to access 2nd and 3rd line treatments.
Yet, a cause for hope is the stand-alone spirit of activists such as South African anti-apartheid and AIDS activist Zackie Ackmat, who “refused to buy life while others died,” and Ugandan medical doctor Peter Mugyenyi, who defied laws by illegally importing antiretroviral medicine and refusing to leave the airport until the drugs were allowed in. It is because of people like these that AIDS is now a manageable chronic disease for millions of sufferers in the global south. Their actions and the actions of countless others who organized against corporate Goliaths serve as the elixir to the epidemic of human callousness and hate. But, there is much more work to be done.