TCS Daily


This Should Have Activists Seeing Red - Or Not

By Richard Tren - July 22, 2004 12:00 AM

JOHANNESBURG -- The histrionics of the AIDS activists at the UNAIDS conference in Bangkok last week matched the events two years ago in Barcelona. Among other stunts, activists besieged GlaxoSmithKline's stand and also poured blood (or rather fake blood we are assured) over pictures of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Bush and Blair have probably experienced worse insults, the real worry is that the activists may feel and the public may think, that the activists are actually doing some good with these theatrics. They are not; for the activists have entirely missed the real drama surrounding healthcare in poor countries.

So busy have been the activists that they probably missed the tragicomic reports on AIDS and healthcare recently coming out of Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe, the murderous leader of that country, has banned the colour red from the country's television broadcaster. It must be a difficult decision for any socialist to turn their back on the colour red, but Mugabe has a good reason. Red is the colour of the opposition MDC party, the party that would be in power had Mugabe not violently fixed the election in his favour. Thus, bizarrely, panelists discussing AIDS on a recent programme were requested to remove their red AIDS ribbons as wearing those ribbons might be construed as somehow supporting Mugabe's political opponents.

Recently Mugabe announced that HIV/AIDS was one of the most serious challenges facing his country and, unlike many other African leaders, admitted that some of his extended family members have been "affected" by HIV/AIDS. Admittedly this is an improvement from when Zimbabwe's illegitimate leader blamed AIDS on homosexuals, whom he considers to be "un-African."

But Mugabe's new found hatred of the colour red and views on sexuality aren't the only things harming the fight against AIDS and efforts to improve healthcare in general in Zimbabwe. Because they cannot afford to run electric or diesel engines, the country's railways have recently had to bring back their old steam trains. This transportation change can only hamper whatever trade exists in Zimbabwe and will surely make it more difficult to get drugs and medical resources out to areas that need them.

But it doesn't end there. In rural areas the government has replaced ambulances that rely on that modern marvel, the internal combustion engine, with carts drawn by oxen. It isn't yet clear what sort of Heath Robinson contraption will be rigged up as the siren. Perhaps the cart driver will have to keep a noisy, agitated bird in a cage, as flashing lights would require too far much energy to be an optional extra on the Mugabe-oxen-ambulances.

In 2002, in a move about efficient as the country's new oxen technology, Mugabe's government announced that it had declared a 6 month state of emergency and would authorise the importation of generic AIDS drugs. That particular stunt made no difference to people living with HIV/AIDS because it didn't address the fundamental problem of a rapidly deteriorating health system. Moreover, only half of the available AIDS medicines are patented in Zimbabwe anyway, and those that are patented have either been offered for free or at discounts of around 90%.

Yet western activists -- including, in what can only be considered a serious lack of judgement, the Nobel Prize winning organisation Doctors Without Borders -- praised and lauded Mugabe's "bold" move. If the activists had bothered to listen to Zimbabweans, they would have been far more circumspect. At the time of the declaration, Zimbabwean Aids activist Jefter Mxotshwa questioned whether the six month emergency would result in wider access to drugs and urged the government to concentrate on improving health infrastructure.

But only last month, western activists had an opportunity to celebrate another Mugabe-style AIDS victory. The Harare based generic drugs company, Varichem, announced that it would begin manufacturing generic versions of nine different antiretroviral therapies (ARVs). Varichem state that they have the plant, machinery and expertise to produce the medicines. That may well be, but one could be forgiven for being slightly sceptical given that the rest of the economy is in freefall. The Romans transported their ill more efficiently than Mugabe's government and when basic commodities such as petrol are hard to come by, one should carefully assess any claim that Zimbabwe can produce expensive and complex therapies and that doing so will be cheaper than importing them from India or the US.

During and after Bangkok the activists will continue their theatrics. The world's media will continue to lap it up, blaming drug companies for the lack of treatment while Africa's many vicious and corrupt leaders will continue to be the real problem. Is it the stuff of fantasy to think the world's attention will finally turn to the real barriers to drug access? For the sake of millions of unfortunate Zimbabweans, I hope not.

Tren is a director of the health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria and is based in South Africa. He recently co-authored with Dr. Roger Bate a study on the real barriers to AIDS treatment for the American Enterprise Institute.


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