Health, Law and Human Rights Conference
Philadelphia, 10/01/01 Closing Conference Remarks
by Eric Sawyer, founding member of ACT UP NY

My name is Eric Sawyer and I have been living with HIV for a very long time. Twenty years have passed since Feb. 1981, when I developed shingles, one of my first HIV related symptoms. I am alive today because I have had access to the latest treatments as soon as they become available.

I am alive today because I fought to have the US government and US based drug companies respond to the HIV epidemic in a responsible way. I am alive today because I decided that I deserved to live, even though I had a fatal illness.

I am alive today because I put my body in the streets protesting as an AIDS activist. I am alive today because I put my body into drug company clinic trials to test new drugs for HIV. I am alive today because I fought for my right to health.

More importantly, I am an international treatment activist today I was born with a sense of humanity and the conviction that every life matters and deserves to be fought for.

And I am mad as hell that almost 10,000 of our brothers and sisters around the world are dying from AIDS every day ­ because they lack access to their Human Right to Health.

I am mad, as hell that 10,000 people die every day, because AIDS drugs cost too much and because governments in the 1st world value money more than the lives of poor people in the developing world.

I am mad as hell that 16,000 people get HIV every day because our world leaders are heartless cowards who can't admit that people have sex or use drugs.

I am mad as hell that 20 years into this epidemic some people still think treatment and prevention are separate and the prevention is more important than treatment.

I am mad as hell that my government ­ the all-powerful USA thinks -- it can tell developing countries that they can not produce affordable generic drugs.

I am mad as hell that the patent holding drug companies think they can tell poor nations to buy their over-priced drugs or let their poor people die.

I am mad as hell that my government can find more than a trillion dollars for a tax cut, but says it can't afford 3 billion dollars to treat people with AIDS in the 3rd World.

I am mad as hell that my President can find 15 billion dollars - literally over night - to the save the airline industry from certain death; and to protect the financial investments of Airline Stock Holders. Yet he can not find one billion dollars to save the lives of the current generation of people with AIDS on the African Continent or to protect the future of the next generation of people in Africa.

Please, don't take offense at that comment - the events of September 11th are a huge tragedy. Someone I dated in the early 1990's in among the missing. One of the scheduled speakers from Sunday's session lost his sister. We all know that almost 6,000 people died on September 11th. But almost 10,000 people will die today from AIDS. Will the world take notice?

One might ask "Do I have any hope for the future of people with AIDS around the world? I must say with deep conviction that I do. For we have made vast progress in the last four or five years.

At the opening Ceremony of the 1996 Vancouver AIDS Conference I was asked to sound a wake up call to the media which was making the mistaken pronouncement that the new "AIDS Cocktail was the cure for AIDS." I was dispatched to instead pronounce that the cocktail was a continuation of racial and class genocide against poor people with AIDS because 95% of PWAs could not afford aspirin.

I stated that drug company greed was killing people with AIDS by prioritizing profits over human lives.

I stated that governments were killing people with AIDS by limited international AIDS funding to prevention efforts and prohibiting
expenditures on AIDS treatments.

I stated that stigma and discrimination fuel the spread of the epidemic in dangerous ways. And that stigma, discrimination and human rights protections must be built into the global response to AIDS.

I also delivered the several demands I collected from my colleagues with AIDS from around the world. Three of these demands have become the backbone of the global response ­ these demands were as follows:

Demand #1:

"To the drug companies People with AIDS say you must drop your prices. You must consider a system with two tiers of pricing that allows
reasonable profits from the rich, but provides AIDS drug to poor people in the developing world at cost. If you do not we will fight to take your patents away from you."

Demand #2:

"To the development agencies, UNAIDS and USAID people with AIDS say "we need a Global initiative to get treatments to poor people, especially in developing countries."

Demand #3:

"To the governments of the world People With AIDS say you must stop lying. Governments lie to us in declaration like the (then recent)
Paris Summit Declaration promising to fight AIDS more responsibly. Government promises don't save lives, but governmental programs and funding can." Then I said, "Bill Clinton if you care about AIDS ask Congress for 3 billion dollars for global AIDS programs, not 130 million dollars."

History has shown us that much of what people with AIDS demanded in 1996 has been fought for and obtained. Tiered pricing has been accepted by drug companies; the Treatment Access movement is thriving; and Kofi Anon has called for a ten billion dollar AIDS and Health Fund. But as Judge Kirby and Prudence Mabelle pointed out in the opening of this conference, the events of September 11th will present new challenges to move us forward towards a better global response to AIDS. A few of the challenges that have come to view as a result include:

Challenge #1:

How can we re-introduce AIDS, other infectious diseases and public health into a public discourse that is totally pre-occupied with war, security and retribution against terrorism? And how do we do so with out appearing insensitive and opportunistic.

I believe we can do this if we find a way to expand public compassion for the pain and suffering of those affected by the events of September 11th -- Expand this compassion to identify with the pain, suffering and consequences of poor people living with AIDS who lack access to treatments.

Challenge #2:

How can we also then develop the same level of desire to mobilize public resolve and resources to fight AIDS as have been mobilized to combat terrorism and mitigate the consequences of the events of September 11th.

Challenge #3:

How do we find a way to encourage the public to compel our rich governments, institutions and individuals to quickly find the billions needed to save the lives of those currently infected with HIV, TB Malaria and other diseases. And to find those billions with the same speed that 15 billion was found to ensure the survival of the airline industry.

Challenge #4:

How do we find a way to help reawaken mankind's sense of humanity. - Surely a sympathetic public can be encouraged to again value
human life above property.

Many questions must be asked about how we accomplish these challenges. Do we institutionalize, though regulations, the practice of tiered pricing of drugs? Do we fight for a mandated governmental level of contribution to the health and educational sectors of all countries? Do we demand cancellation of all poor country debt? Do we fight for price controls on drugs and health services? Do we call for mandatory contributions to a public Research and Development fund though taxes on drug company profits? Do we tax health insurance premium revenue and health care service fees to be reinvested in the development of health care system capacity?

How do we obtain full funding of the UN Fund for Health, TB, Malaria and AIDS? Do we fight to reform the WTO TRIPS Agreement to exempt from patent protection the sale of essential medicines to the poor in the developing world? How can we use Human Rights Laws to fight for Universal Access to Health? Should we fight for public funded health care for every person on earth? Should we fight to have the pharmaceutical industry de-privatized and placed under government control?

Many may think that all of these things are not obtainable. But did anyone think that drug companies would agree to tier pricing in 1996?

I am not suggesting that all of the issues I have raised above will become the priorities of the AIDS activist, public health and human rights movement in the next few years. But I am stating that is time that we recapture our sense of humanity and return to the fundamental truth that every life matters.

And most of all, I want to close by saying what I believe Jonathan Mann would be saying if he were here today. ­ That being, that in the year 2001, it is time for the legal, medical, public health and activist communities to join together to pursue a principled fight for the human right to health.

Working independently we have won many battles; By uniting, I believe, we can win a universal human right to health.

May God bless us all.

Health, Law and Human Rights Conference Closing Remarks
by Eric Sawyer, Philadelphia, 10/01/01

 

 



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