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Sloppy Homework

Gordon Nary

August 1999

The media attention given to the disruption of Vice President Al Gore's June 16 announcement of his presidential candidacy by a handful of AIDS activists was possibly the most media attention that the Vice President has received in the past few months. A few AIDS activists disrupted the otherwise placid event shouting headline-grabbing hyperboles that millions of Africans would die as a consequence of Gore's alleged support of possible trade sanctions against South Africa to bolster the pharmaceutical industry's opposition to South Africa's 1997 Medicines Act.

Very few people take the time to read and reflect on the specific consequences of proposed and actualized legislation. I doubt that 99 percent of the activists speaking out or the media reporting on the Medicines Act issue have read the document. When journalists pontificate on the Vice President's position on the Medicines Act and then misstate the legislation's actual provisions, they contribute to the increasing lack of understanding of the issues and to the growing cynicism about much of what is reported in the media. Even many of the "reliable" media sources who followed up on this story by quoting the Vice President's official position statement on these complex issues failed to research the documentation that would support or conflict with Gore's statement.

Some activists have unfortunately become as intellectually lazy as the journalists that they tantalize with their placards and shouts. Some use their red ribbon righteousness to justify their often well-meaning but uninformed pronouncements. Having HIV or serving as an advocate for someone with HIV does not exempt one from professional responsibilities. How many Africans' lives are and could be compromised by the World Trade Organization's heavy handed and morally questionable trade policies is speculative. Compulsory licensing and parallel importing of AIDS drugs could by many rational estimates save thousands of lives. But how many? And exactly how? The direct and indirect consequences of the World Trade Organization's policies on lives in South Africa and in other resource-limited countries is complex. Therefore, simplistic rhetoric devoid of fact-based substance and insight may do great harm to those whose cause activists champion. The Medicines Act, compulsory licensing, and parallel imports address only a fraction of the obstacles to a more humane response to the challenges of disease, poverty, and human rights in South Africa.

This millennium ends with unfathomable numbers of lives lost to and at risk of AIDS, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and other diseases that rival the seven plagues of Egypt, and with millions more lives compromised by poverty unimaginable by most of us in the industrialized North. We live in a world in which irrational debts cripple the poorest of nations, a world marked by the systematic erosion of human rights, genocide, ethnic cleansing, violence against women, forced prostitution, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and often non-existent or fragile healthcare infrastructures that often cannot support access to the pharmaceutical and diagnostic advances that too many of us take for granted. Each of these challenges may well compete with the World Trade Organization's trade policies as a cause of unnecessary suffering and untimely death.

Solutions to the problems of global healthcare access must address the economic and ethical roots of these diverse but interlaced challenges and be forged through that increasingly rare quality of leadership in which the mission and not the missionary is paramount.

Gordon Nary is the Editor of the Journal.

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