I’ve been watching the documentary Fire In The Blood on Netflix slowly over a number of days in the past fortnight, on how multinational pharmaceutical companies deliberately prevented low-cost antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) reaching those who needed them in Africa and other parts of the global south in the 1990s and early 2000s. I had to watch it slowly because it shook me more than I was prepared for, and I’m not exaggerating when I say once the credits were rolling I cried real tears. For those of us born in the 1980s and after, for whom HIV/Aids has always been a reality, it is sometimes difficult to grasp how much work was done, for years, against impossible odds, to get ARVs to those who needed them in Africa.
What was more bewildering was the arguments that Western drug companies were making to justify this crime against humanity. One of the most inane was that people in Africa don’t own watches and/or don’t know how to tell the time, and with ARVs needing to be taken on a strict timed schedule, Africans wouldn’t take the drugs properly, thus leading to drug resistance… and then a mutated, drug-resistant version of the virus could potentially find its way to Europe and America. So, to forestall this hypothetical situation, the US government and Big Pharma stubbornly defended patents of ARVs, leading to the deaths of some 10 MILLION people.
The parallels with the current Covid-19 pandemic are clear. Vaccine nationalism is patently unjust, wrote Nanjala Nyabola in March; over the past six months, rich countries have hoarded vaccines, blocked temporary waivers of patent protections, and “advised” poor countries to avoid vaccines from Russia and China. There was a small victory this week, when the Biden administration said it would support a move at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily lift patent protections for coronavirus vaccines. Still, if the fight for ARVs is anything to go by, it’s not cause for celebration yet. The pharma companies are now saying that lifting Covid-19 vaccine patent protections won’t really help poor countries, that it is akin to “handing out a recipe without sharing the method or the ingredients, and could lead to quality issues and less efficient production”.
I say all this to say, watch Fire in the Blood. It is, in my view, one of the most powerful I’ve watched in a long time, the best kind of storytelling in the public interest. And take a moment to grieve the many million lives needlessly, cruelly lost, in the interest of profits before people.
Now that you know what We’ve Been Watching, here’s:
- What We’re Reading: This month The Guardian UK is celebrating 200 years and will be sharing the best of their high-impact journalism all month long, but for now we’re reading What we got wrong: the Guardian’s worst errors of judgment over 200 years – from supporting the Confederate cause in the American Civil War to a 1927 article supporting the virtues of asbestos.
- What We’re Listening To: “Until Everyone is Free”, a Kenyan podcast that explores the political assassination of Pio Gama Pinto in 1965. Pio Gama Pinto was a freedom fighter who became one of Kenya’s first political assassinations. The question his story raises, and is still raising, is: “How did the country of Kenya become free…without the people of Kenya getting free?” We’re very excited to see this podcast in the world.
As always, I remain yours,
Curator | Baraza Media Lab