back to front: help yourself


IN THE 20 years since the identification of the HIV virus, the AIDS epidemic has ravaged sub-Saharan Africa, where in many countries it is the major cause of adult death. AIDS is a massive problem almost everywhere in the world (including now in China), a challenge to public health and to science.

The pharmaceutical companies love a major disease. Let’s face it, without disease they would be out of business. So the onslaught of AIDS brought with it R&D programmes as the companies raced to find first diagnostic tests, then drugs to treat AIDS.

It is a tribute to human ingenuity that a range of drugs have been produced that, between them, have the ability to markedly extend the life expectancy of people with HIV. There is no cure, but people are living far longer – that is, if they have access to the drugs.

But the cost of drugs is only one aspect of human health. And last month, the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver, Colorado, heard about the other aspects.

In front of an audience composed mainly of scientists, Dr Byron Barksdale from the American Cuban Aids Project explained how Cuba, alone among the so-called "developing countries", had contained and reduced the spread of HIV through concerted public health measures allied to modern drugs.

It came as a surprise, apparently, that little Cuba had itself developed three antiviral drugs which it used in the fight against AIDS. In fact, Cuba decided many years ago that it had to develop its own pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries – either that, or be at the mercy of foreign multinationals.

Instead of complaining that capitalists were acting in their class interest, Cuba’s workers decided to act in their own class interest. As a result, Cuba has one of the lowest levels of AIDS in the world. Mortality is 7% instead of the "expected" 25%; and transmission from infected needles, from blood transfusions or from mother to child is virtually unknown.

Oddly enough, this, the exercise of workers’ power through socialism, is seen as "utopian" by many.

Yet the same people who call Marxists "utopian" seem quite happy to embark on a propaganda war in an attempt to convince pharmaceutical companies to start behaving as charities. It is as though the inhabitants of Hell passed a resolution calling on the Devil to turn down the flames – poignant, but hardly powerful. When workers fail to take responsibility for their own futures, why should they be surprised that capitalists refuse to take responsibility for what happens to workers?

There is a solution to bad health, greedy drugs companies and venal governments, and it has been available to workers throughout the world ever since the Russian Revolution of 1917, no less so to the working people of Africa or Britain than those in Cuba. Take charge, take control. Don’t call for aid, help yourself.