Reporting On AIDS in Africa


Norman Solomon


In Africa, 17
million people have already died of AIDS. In developing countries around the
world, twice that many are now HIV positive. Such statistics are largely
unfathomable, and news accounts rarely explore basic options for halting the
deadly momentum.

But during the
past several weeks, some major U.S. media outlets have taken bold and valuable
steps in coverage of the global fight against AIDS. Mainstream journalists are
making headway in reporting on a crucial issue: How can life-saving drugs get
to poor people who need them?

Time
magazine recently featured a 20-page cover story that combined starkly moving
photos with text about AIDS and its victims in Africa. “We have no medicines
for AIDS,” says a South African doctor. “So many hospitals tell them, ‘You’ve
got AIDS. We can’t help you. Go home and die’.”

While it’s an
important breakthrough for American journalism, the Time spread has
left ample room for improvement in follow-up efforts. The critical acuity is
sharpest—and harshest—when focusing on cultural and political shortcomings
that have contributed to the AIDS disaster in Africa. But the Manhattan-based
magazine is not as tough or explicit when it assesses culpability closer to
home in a one-page closing piece, “Paying for AIDS Cocktails: Who should pick
up the tab for the Third World?”

Noting that
“wealthy countries use multidrug-cocktail therapies that transform AIDS from
certain killer to chronic illness,” the article reported: “Despite years of
evidence of AIDS’s genocidal toll on poor countries, no one has brought these
drugs within reach of ordinary Africans. In fact, the people who make the
drugs—American- and European-owned multinational pharmaceutical
corporations—and their home governments, notably Washington, have worked hard
to keep prices up by limiting exports to the Third World and vigorously
enforcing patent rights.”

Interestingly,
Time failed to name any of those drug companies. But reporter Johanna
McGeary and the magazine deserve credit for raising pivotal concerns in a
high-profile way. “During the tug of war so far,” she explained, “the pharma-
ceuticals and Western governments have prevailed. But increasingly, poor
countries and AIDS advocates are finding ways to shift the balance.” India and
Brazil have manufactured generic copies of AIDS drugs, “selling them at deeply
discounted prices.”

Time’s
reporting comes on the heels of an extensive path-breaking article in the
Sunday magazine of the New York Times, on January 28, by Tina
Rosenberg. “Countries that have tried to manufacture generic medicine have
fallen under debilitating pressure from pharmaceutical companies and from
Washington,” she wrote. Among the firms cited in the lengthy article were
Glaxo Wellcome, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck and Pfizer.

Rosenberg took
an in-depth look at Brazil’s successful innovations. “Since 1997,” she
reported, “virtually every AIDS patient in Brazil for whom it is medically
indicated gets, free, the same triple cocktails that keep rich Americans
healthy. (In Western Europe, no one who needs AIDS treatment is denied it
because of cost. This is true in some American states, but not all.) Brazil
has shredded all the excuses about why poor countries cannot treat AIDS.”

The Times
article pointed out: “On the shaky foundation of its public health service,
Brazil built a well-run network of AIDS clinics…. Brazilian AIDS patients
have proved just as able to take their medicine on time as patients in the
United States.” Brazil’s program “has halved the death rate from AIDS,
prevented hundreds of thousands of new hospitalizations, cut the transmission
rate, helped to stabilize the epidemic and improved the overall state of
public health in Brazil.”

Hopefully,
we’ll see a continuation of the current trend toward clear-eyed investigative
reporting about the global reach of the immensely profitable drug industry.
Each prominent example of such journalism helps to lay the groundwork for
others. In late December, the front page of the Washington Post
showcased a series of fine articles, “Death Watch: AIDS, Drugs and Africa,”
which included close scrutiny of how drug companies have raked in huge profits
while blocking attempts to provide desperately needed medication to AIDS
sufferers.

A parallel
challenge for journalists is to present broader contexts. For instance: When
Time’s cover story mentioned, as a significant cause of prostitution,
that “plenty of women in bush villages need extra cash, often to pay school
fees,” the magazine did not explain why millions of African people have been
required to pay tuition for education. A key fact is that for many years,
beginning in the late 1980s, powerful lending institutions like the World Bank
insisted that African countries require user fees for schools and health
clinics—all part of the push to impose a “free market” for the benefit of
Western lenders and investors.

If a new era of
reporting on the global AIDS crisis is here, journalists will be probing for
deeper questions and answers.            Z

Norman
Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is
The Habits of
Highly Deceptive Media
.