Although no universal definition of terrorism exists, a universal understanding of terror does. Unfortunately, that understanding predates September 11th. And the flames of destruction, or the hopelessness of death, are not the sole elements that constitute this understanding; it must also be accompanied by a certain silence that ensures destruction and hopelessness continues unabated.
With that in mind, nothing could be more terrifying than the epidemic of AIDS. Despite wide recognition of the devastating toll AIDS has taken, translating that recognition into political will and popular support for treating HIV/AIDS hasn't been easy, and still faces tremendous obstacles.
That's why AIDS activist Asia Russell says, "Really, people living in the
trenches are people with AIDS."
Russell is a part of the Health Global Access Project (GAP). Health GAP was formed in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in "developing countries." Specifically, Health GAP focuses on access to treatment for millions of Africans living with HIV/AIDS.
Last year, almost 2.5 million people died from AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. The problem is most acutely felt in South Africa where it's estimated that 4.6 million people have HIV/AIDS, and barriers imposed by Western countries to protect pharmaceutical profits have led to a new kind of apartheid -- global apartheid.
The main barrier is TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), an agreement under the World Trade Organization (WTO) whereby access to pharmaceutical patents is restricted to protect corporate interests. However, public health crises such as AIDS should override profit, at least in theory.
Western countries, most notably the United States, have used the WTO to prevent the manufacture of generic drugs in developing countries. But is that fair? Mark Milano, who has lived with HIV for 20 years and works with the AIDS activist group ACT UP/New York, said, "The idea that the same rules apply to sneakers that apply to life-saving drugs is unconscionable."
The application of TRIPS to life-saving medications is not only
unconscionable, but also hypocritical. Consider the current decision by the United States to pressure Bayer into greatly reducing the cost of Cipro because of anthrax attacks, which have claimed four lives in the United States. (The need to pressure Bayer would have been averted had Bayer not bought off generic Cipro manufacturers in early 2001, according to Milano.)
Neither anthrax victims, nor HIV/AIDS victims should be denied treatment. But when comparing the two, the dimensions of HIV/AIDS in Africa may as well be the equivalent of several million anthrax-laden letters.
The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most profitable industries in the United States, and Africa is a small percentage of their market. So what do pharmaceutical companies have to lose from generic competition?
Pricing. Without competition from generic manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies can essentially choose a number out of the air and say that's the price, creating inflated prices that don't reflect the actual costs. Generic manufacturers would blow the lid on the astronomic mark-ups on drugs, infuriating all drug consumers.
While just compensation for such a valuable service as creating and distributing medication is desirable, corporations just compensating themselves at the expense of life and hope is nothing short of corporate fundamentalism -- a brutal indifference to anything that threatens profits.
Recently the WTO convened in Doha, Qatar. Under pressure from a unified-African and Brazilian-led initiative, Western countries had to step back from their corporate fundamentalism and a declaration was made that, in the words of Russell who attended the session, says, "Public health trumps TRIPS."
Still, the US-built coalition, which included Japan and Switzerland, was
able to soften some of the language making the declaration less legally binding, according to Russell.
For shame, if the recent tragedies in the United States have taught the
world anything, it should be that human suffering "trumps" fundamentalism of all shades and stripes.
The declaration at Doha should be accepted as a starting point for ending the AIDS crises in developing countries, but the real task is to press ahead with manufacturing treatments and demolish barriers to getting those treatments to people in need. The most powerful weapon against terror is and always has been that thing which rivals destruction and ruptures silence -- hope.
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