Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day. Over two decades since the first World AIDS Day was recognized, much has been achieved. But unfortunately the prevention and treatment tools that have been developed still aren’t available everywhere for everyone. The World Health Organization (WHO) has set the day’s theme until 2015 to be: “Getting to Zero: Zero New HIV Infections. Zero Discrimination. Zero AIDS Related Deaths.” But As Kai Wright points out in a post at Colorlines:
Globally, those who have access to social and economic capital avoid the virus or, when infected, live healthy lives with it. Elsewhere, infections and deaths continue to mount.
These three slices of black America—queer men (however we identify), women and transgender people—hold some of the least social and economic capital in this otherwise wealthy and comfortable nation. In fact, what’s true in HIV is true in just about every other aspect of life in the U.S. Pick the indicator of distress, and you’ll find these groups ranking near the top of those who struggle. HIV is and has always been an excellent measure of who societies value and who they don’t.
Stephen Lewis’ Worlds AIDS Day message talks about how looking at HIV/AIDS on a global scale shows the same inequality. The top ten countries with the highest percentage of people living with HIV/AIDS are in Africa:
Two and a half million new infections last year; 330,000 are children. More than 50% infected in Africa are women…AIDS must be restored to the international agenda. The one place where it’s never been off the agenda is at the grassroots in Africa.
Even though more than twenty years of research and tireless work by grassroots NGOs like the Stephen Lewis Foundation have showed us what needs to happen to address what is still a global pandemic, Western governments seem only to be backing further and further away from taking action.
Earlier this week all but seven Canadian Conservative MPs voted to defeat the NDP Private Member’s Bill C-398 that would have made it easier for Canadian companies to produce generic HIV/AIDS drugs (as well as drugs for malaria and tuberculosis) and ship them to developing countries. A similar bill had passed before the 2011 election but died in the Senate when the election was called. The current law, implemented in 2004, has been an epic failure, with only one company ever sending two shipments to one country and afterwards saying they would never do it again due to the immense amounts of red tape. C-398 would have simplified the license scheme and it had multi-partisan support, as well as backing from AIDS advocacy organizations and brand-name drug companies.
One reason given by a few Conservatives including Industry Minister Christian Paradis, is that the bill could breach some of our commitments to upholding intellectual property rights under the WTO. This comes on the heels of an announcement that the drug patent protection the EU wants to write into a Canada-EU trade deal could cost Canadian provinces almost $2 billion per year. Activists on trade issues have said for a long time that these agreements put corporate rights over human rights and public health, and if Paradis isn’t just putting that out as a red herring, his comment basically admits that.
CBC’s The Current had a post-vote panel with Conservative MP Mike Lake (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Industry), AIDS activist from Zambia Mwaka Kaonga, and Stephen Lewis. Lake claims they defeated the bill simply because other mechanisms had been put in place that were actually working better. But Lewis doesn’t buy it, noting that in truth only 28% of the 2 million children in the world living with AIDS have access to anti-retrovirals. The whole thing is worth a listen but here are a couple of quotes.
Lake: “What this bill does is actually strike out some of that carefully-negotiated language in the Patent Act…Canada’s absolutely playing a leadership role in bringing the world together…we’re contributing $245 million dollars and…working with other countries through the Muskoka Initiative.”
Kaonga: “I’ve seen women and children succumb to it, some women having only known one man…In my kindergarten class, two of us live…We have a chance now for AIDS medication and all we demand is access. Is that too mcuh to ask?”
Lewis: “The truth of the matter is, despite his [Lake’s] protestations, that last year 330,000 children were born HIV positive and if they don’t get drugs 50% of them will die before the age of two. 80% of them will die before the age of 5, and this was an opportunity for Canada to ship those drugs that are required to children who so desperately need them…so this business of ‘the drugs aren’t needed because somehow we’ve made magnificent progress between 2003 and 2012’ just does not hold credibility.”
Lewis continued to counter Lake’s claims, pointing out how Lake was over-emphasizing Canada’s foreign aid investments:
“Canada’s not playing a leading role at all. Canada’s playing a marginal role…There’s been a lamentable failure around women…It’s a long, difficult story and what Canada was about to do could have changed the dynamic. There’s nothing in this bill which contravenes intellectual property rights in the WTO.”
We need to recommit to the vision of a world without AIDS, but only so much can be done without government recommitting too. How many more people will contract HIV, how many more will die now because of Western corporate greed?
To conclude I wanted to share a video of one woman’s story, produced by The Sero Project, a not-for-profit human rights organization promoting the empowerment of people with HIV and science-based public health and HIV-prevention policies.