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Smokescreen of Compassion

Joel Bleifuss

With much fanfare, President George Bush has committed the United States to fight AIDS. 

The suffering in Africa is great. The suffering in the Caribbean is great. The United States of America has the power, and we have the moral duty to help,” Bush said on May 27 as he signed the Initiative To Fight AIDS Abroad. His largess beamed around the world, Bush was infused with the glow of compassionate conservatism. Increasing funds to treat and prevent AIDS is a good thing. Yet giving kudos to Bush for his AIDS initiative is like praising Dracula for visiting a Red Cross blood bank.

An estimated 40 million people in the world now have AIDS. By 2010 that number is expected to reach 100 million. The spin on the initiative was that Bush has set a standard for caring that the rest of the world is now challenged to match. But like so much about this administration, what you see, via the media, is not what you get.

Bush’s proposal, which provides $15 billion over five years to help 14 AIDS-plagued countries (12 in Africa and 2 in the Caribbean), has three critical flaws.

First, it is a sop to Christians who are fundamentally opposed to the use of condoms, the most effective tool in preventing HIV infection. Under the package passed by Congress and signed into law by Bush, Christian missionaries will be allocated $1 billion to teach Africans the virtues of abstinence.

Second, under the Bush plan only 2 million people with AIDS — a small fraction of those with the disease — will be provided with life-saving anti-retroviral therapy.

Third, Bush’s AIDS initiative is designed to give political cover as the administration works to protect pharmaceutical corporations from attempts by developing countries to obtain affordable, generic AIDS medicine. Were generic anti-retroviral drugs readily available, the price of treatment, in some cases, would fall from $15,000 per year per patient to $150 to $300 per year per patient, according to Health GAP (Global Access Project). In effect, the administration has been working on all fronts to protect property rights (drug company patents on AIDS drugs) at the expense of human life (the millions of people with AIDS who will die because they do not have access to AIDS drugs).

At the 2001 WTO meeting in Doha, Qatar, all participating countries signed the Doha Declaration, which permitted AIDS-plagued countries to put public health needs over the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies. However, the developing world has been battling the United States, the European Union, Japan and the pharmaceutical industry over a WTO restriction that limits the right of countries without pharmaceutical industries to import generic drugs from countries that have such industries.

The United States is now attempting an end run around Doha and WTO, via the current negotiation of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). The Bush administration is demanding that FTAA contain provisions that supercede any WTO agreement and protect the intellectual property rights of drug manufacturers. In addition to making it much more difficult for Latin American nations to provide affordable generic AIDS drugs to their own populations, the current version of FTAA would make it impossible for South America’s pharmaceutical industry to export affordable generic anti-retroviral drugs to Sub-Saharan Africa, as is now planned.

In a letter to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Health GAP’s Asia Russell put it this way: 

Bush’ AIDS policies make life a commodity, something you can purchase if you pay the price.
Current U.S. obstruction of a workable solution at the WTO on the issue of access to generic medicines for countries with pharmaceutical markets too small to permit efficient domestic manufacturing … indicates that the United States is not committed to upholding its commitment at Doha, and the second draft FTAA text confirms that the United States intends to support an agenda which would prioritize the interest of U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers over the public health needs of the 32 developing countries negotiating the FTAA.
In essence, Bush’s AIDS policies make life a commodity, something you can purchase if you can afford the drugs that could keep you alive or something you are granted by a beneficent ruler through programs like Initiative To Fight AIDS Abroad. And that is neither compassionate nor conservative; it is evil.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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