- President George W. Bush dined with top pharmaceutical
company executives at the ritzy Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington
D.C. Wednesday night, while activists protested his newly announced $500
million AIDS initiative outside.
- AIDS activists and their supporters in Congress are calling
Bush's global AIDS plan -- which he announced earlier the same day -- a
"hoax" that offers no new funding. "The plan is all for
show," complained a number of activist groups, including ACT UP, the
Global AIDS Alliance, and Health GAP, in a statement released Wednesday.
- Bush's new plan, called the International Mother and
Child HIV Prevention Initiative, earmarks $500 million dollars in bilateral
aid over the next two years to cut mother-to-child HIV transmission rates
by some 40 percent in 12 African countries and the Caribbean. "One
of our best opportunities for progress against AIDS lies in preventing
mothers from passing on the HIV virus to their children," the president
said, while unveiling the package at a White House Rose Garden ceremony
- Worldwide, close to 2,000 babies are infected with HIV
every day during pregnancy, birth or through breast-feeding. One drug,
nevirapine, can cut transmission rates by as much as 50 percent.
- But critics immediately charged that the initiative was
not only too little too late, but also too narrowly targeted. The package
is also potentially skewed towards helping the very same companies that
feted the president at Wednesday night's mega-fundraiser -- which was sponsored
among others by GlaxoSmithKline CEO Jean Paul Garnier.
- Of the $500 million, $200 million has already been appropriated
by Congress as part of this year's emergency supplemental spending bill.
Worse, the remaining $300 million -- the only "new" money under
offer -- will not become available until at the fiscal year 2004 at the
earliest. AIDS activists are demanding that Washington instead contribute
at least $2.5 billion a year to the new Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and
Malaria. United Nations and independent experts believe the new multilateral
program, if adequately funded, could play a decisive role in containing
the AIDS epidemic in poor countries.
- HIV/AIDS, which has claimed an estimated 23 million lives
since its discovery 20 years ago, kills some 8,000 people each day, almost
all of them in poor countries whose health systems are least able to cope.
- "Despite the fact that the AIDS problem will grow
dramatically next year, the President's plan doesn't proposes any new money
for 2003," says Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill), who co-sponsored a failed
amendment with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) to the emergency spending bill
to immediately provide $700 million to the Global Fund. "It is all
held in reserve (instead) until 2004 -- by which time nearly six million
more men, women and children will have died of the disease," he points
- Durbin has reason to feel especially bitter, because
his amendment would likely have been approved by the Senate two weeks ago
if Bush had not persuaded Sens. Bill Frist (R-TN) and Jesse Helms (R-NC),
co-sponsors of another anti-AIDS amendment, to oppose it. Bush also lobbied
the senators to reduce the amount of money that would have been provided
under the Frist- Helms amendment -- targeted primarily on mother-to-child
transmission -- from $500 million to $200 million. The White House wanted
Bush's new plan to dominate the media spotlight in advance of next week's
Group of Eight summit meeting in western Canada, where AIDS is a prominent
feature of the proposed agenda.
- "Obviously, the timing of the announcement was designed
to pre- empt criticism at the Summit by announcing something in advance
that makes it look like Bush is serious about poverty and AIDS," says
Africa Action director Salih Booker.
- Frist -- who is rumored to be Bush's favored running-mate
in 2004 if Vice President Dick Cheney decides to retires -- ceded to the
White House's wishes, paving the way for Wednesday's Rose Garden ceremony.
- "Had Senators Frist and Helms and President Bush
simply sat on their hands, the Global Fund would have received $700 million
in urgently needed new funding from the Specter/Durbin amendment,"
says Paul Davis, director of government relations at Health GAP, a major
anti-AIDS lobby group. "Many more people with AIDS worldwide will
die because the Global Fund will have to turn away many solid proposals
before the end of the year."
- U.N. and independent experts say the Fund needs at least
$7 billion to $10 billion a year to effectively contain the spread of the
epidemic, especially in Africa, where about 30 million of the estimated
40 million people with HIV/AIDS live. So far, however, only donors have
committed only $2 billion to the Fund's first two years of operations.
Of the total, Washington has so far donated a mere $300 million, although
the administration is asking Congress for $200 million more next year.
- Given the relative size of its economy, however the United
States has traditionally provided at least 25 percent of the budget of
most major multilateral programs. Arguing that other donors are unlikely
to open their own pocketbooks unless Washington takes the lead, activists
are insisting that Congress and the administration pony up $2.5 billion
to give the Global Fund a fighting chance of turning the tide against the
epidemic. "When the U.S. came in with only $200 million last year,
all the other donors came in with lower pledges," claims Paul Zeitz,
co-director of the Washington-based Global AIDS Alliance (GAA). The result
is that countries applying for grants from the Global Fund "have already
been told to scale back their project proposals because of the lack of
funding." Indeed, the fact that Bush's package does not allocate any
funds to the Global Fund -- which is generally seen as the most innovative
and potentially efficient mechanism for fighting AIDS in poor countries
is perhaps the most disappointing -- if not surprising -- aspect for activists.
- But the Bush administration is not terribly concerned
about the shortfall, in part because it has its own priorities when it
comes to the fight against AIDS. Booker describes the package as "a
totally bilateral program." "That means most of the money will
wind up being spent on American goods and services and patented drugs,"
he says. The Global Fund, on the other hand, would have been free to "spend
the money on goods and services and generic drugs that may be obtained
more cheaply and efficiently from somewhere else," he says. "(T)he
pharmaceutical companies at the Mayflower would not like that."
- Bush's new initiative is also consistent with the agenda
of his other key electoral constituency -- the Christian Right. While the
Christian Right has become increasingly focused on fighting AIDS, it is
less supportive of treatment programs that prolong the lives of HIV/AIDS
victims whose life-style they still disapprove of. Preventing the spread
of AIDS from mother to child -- rather than providing anti-retroviral (ARV)
drugs for adults with AIDS -- remains therefore the most politically appealing
and safest option for an administration that obsessively cultivates its
- Critics claim the new package is yet another example
of the White House putting greed and political advantage ahead of human
life. Senator Durbin warns, "If we follow the course the White House
has charted, in just a few years, we will be dealing with million more
poor, hungry, desperate orphans whose mothers have died from AIDS because
we did not address treatment as well as prevention."
- Jim Lobe writes on foreign policy issues for AlterNet,
Inter- Press Services and Foreign Policy In Focus.