AIDS and Africa’s Invisible Children

by Zeynep Toufe

In a July 11th article, the British weekly The Economist recounts the latest grim statistics on AIDS, noting emphatically that the 9,000 people who die each day from AIDS represents three times the number killed in the World Trade Center attacks. “If all men are created equal, all avoidable deaths should be regarded as equally sad,” says the editorial, adding that “common decency suggests that the rich world should do whatever it can to help.” The editorial concludes ominously: “Cynics in the West might write Africa off. Are China, India, Indonesia and Russia to be written off as well?”


Africans are poor and black. Thus we (the Economist) realize, dear reader, your greed for profits is not whetted by viewing them as consumers. Nor is your compassion stirred sufficiently by viewing them as fellow human beings. However, be mindful that the fire that has scorched that continent is spreading and is now threatening places populated by people who are prosperous enough — barely, but still above the threshold — to count as potential consumers and pale enough — barely, but still above the threshold — to awaken your caring.

Two daring moves in a world with a cold heart: the bold assertion that all life should be valued equally and the implicit recognition that it is not.

The Economist was responding to the AIDS Conference in Barcelona, held in July 2002, which witnessed protests targeting both the U.S. government and “big Pharma.” The substantial influence wielded by the deep pockets of big Pharma, a fear of setting a precedent that human rights might trump intellectual private property rights, and callous indifference to poor, especially African, life have combined to lead both the Clinton and Bush administrations to attempt to block every reasonable effort by poor countries to obtain generic drugs.

The international disdain for U.S. policy has grown so great that not only was Secretary of Health Thompson booed by protestors the audience gave the protestors a standing ovation — an occurrence made all the more remarkable when one considers that those attending the session were not people from the slums of Soweto or landless Brazilian peasants but included largely government officials and representatives of the elite. While thousands of officials from governments and NGOs, scientists and activists flocked to Barcelona, CNN duly reported a notable absence : “Zackie Achmat, of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, was too ill to attend the conference but, in a video address, he said that despite price cuts the drugs that have drastically reduced deaths from AIDS in wealthy countries were still too expensive for people in developing countries.”

CNN neglected to mention the fact that Achmat is too ill to travel but because, putting his body on the line for his beliefs, the HIV positive Achmat refuses to take anti-retroviral medicines until they are available to all South African HIV/AIDS patients through the public health system.

Achmat’s not hard to reach — I dug up his home phone number in about 10 minutes. Though I knew better than to ask about his sacrifice or ask too much about his ailing health — he would simply point out that he was replicating the experience of millions of poor, mostly black or otherwise not-white people on his continent — I asked anyway, and he said just that. The most personal he got was saying that it was a decision of conscience and that he remains quite comfortable with it.

In the movie version of John Grisham’s novel, “A Time to Kill,” a young white attorney from the “deep South”, Jake Brigance, defends a black man, Carl Lee, who killed the two white men who raped and left his daughter for dead. Carl Lee turns down the hot-shot NAACP attorney, deciding to go instead with Jake. He explains that he needs a white attorney if he is to have a chance to connect with the jury: “See Jake, you think just like them. That’s why I picked you. … When you look at me, you don’t see a man, you see a black man.” In his closing arguments, an inspired Jake asks the jury to close their eyes and to imagine a little girl, raped, beaten, mutilated and left for dead. The jury is visibly moved, some are openly crying. Then, very deliberately, Jake asks them to imagine that she is white.

Eyes pop open, as the jury members are jolted by the awareness that, even while they thought they had reached the depth of the horror they could feel, in fact they had held back. The people in the jury box, as well as the people in the courtroom, come to the painful recognition that they still had an extra reserve of horror for a white little girl.

Yes, that’s fiction. But Jahi Turner and Alexis Patterson are not. Alexis, 7, disappeared on May 3rd and Jahi, 2, on March 25th of this year. To this day, Alexis has been mentioned only six times outside the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and those were all after June 19th, when Elizabeth Smart’s abduction in Utah made national headlines. One of the mentions is in a paper in Singapore and five out of the six are more about the disparities in the coverage between Elizabeth and Alexis — she still functions and appears to us primarily as a black child rather than a missing child. (Oh, did I forget to mention that both Alexis and Jahi are black? And unless you never watch TV or read any newspapers, you already know what Elizabeth looks like.) Similarly, Jahi, who disappeared from a playground in San Diego barely makes the national news, garnering very few mentions outside of California papers.

The disparity in the resources is strikingly clear from even a cursory glimpse of the web pages dedicated to the equally tragic, equally heartbreaking cases. Elizabeth’s page lists two toll-free tip hotline numbers, one toll-free information number, one toll-free fax number, one toll-free number for the search center and one toll-free number for the tips. Alexis’ page, hosted on a freeserver with a pop-up ad, urges you to call the Milwaukee police department while Jahi’s page directs you to the San Diego Police Department. Only Elizabeth’s family has managed to garner the resources to offer a reward — $250,000. Alexis’ page doesn’t mention a reward, and the only offer on Jahi’s page is a gesture to their common tragedy with a prominent link to Elizabeth’s page.

In his statement to the Barcelona Conference, Zackie Achmat said in plain black and white terms: “Just because we are poor, just because we are black, just because we live far from you, does not mean that our lives should be valued any less.” He appealed once again, as activists have been doing for years now, for pharmaceutical companies and the rich governments to stop blocking poor countries from producing cheap drugs. The rich world hasn’t just been miserly and callous, watching a tragedy unfold; we’ve been blocking efforts by the governments of those poor countries and by popular movements to alleviate the situation. The editorial in the Economist exhorts poor countries to emulate Brazil , “which has made good use of the fact that anti-AIDS drugs can now be bought fairly cheaply outside the rich world, thanks to a liberal interpretation of international treaties on patent law (and also to decent behaviour on the part of many drug companies).”

That “decent behavior,” or more accurately behavior that is slightly less egregious than normal for Big Pharma, came only after a sustained and often militant campaign by activists around the world — and it was only last year that the U.S. dropped its complaint with the WTO against Brazil’s insistence on producing its own cheap drugs to fight AIDS and Big Pharma dropped its lawsuit against generic drug imports in South Africa. These lawsuits and threats contributed significantly to delaying the availability of AIDS drugs — which means more deaths, more orphans, and, incidentally, bringing Zackie closer to death.

In a striking example of selective attention of the media, the Dow Jones archival service, which includes the top 50 U.S. Newspapers, many major news publications as well as the the wires, returns 84 hits for the month of July for the word “Toumai” — the name given to the seven million year old humanoid fossil skull that was recently found in East Rift Valley, Chad. Type in “Angola” and “famine”, the keywords for another story from Africa that also broke mainly in July: 57 returns. There were 27 more newspaper stories about a skull than about widespread malnutrition and starvation so grave that Doctors Without Borders referred to it as the worst African crisis in the past decade.

Toumai means hope of life in the local Goran language, a hope that is fading for millions of children in many places around the world. They are barely clinging to a precarious existence while the rich world seems to tenaciously cling to selective blindness and selective compassion.

Zeynep Toufe is a doctoral student in Austin, Texas. She can be reached at zeynep@tao.ca.

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