Notes From a Small Planet

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Patent suspending

This week in the United Nations, something wonderful happened: something that went dramatically against the general way of the world these days. There was a conflict between the preservation of corporate profit and the preservation of human life - and the preservation of human life came out on top.

At the UN general assembly's special session on AIDS, the United States trade representative Robert Zoellick dramatically withdrew a trade complaint the US had been pursuing against Brazil, over the Brazilian government's policy on medicines.

In February, the US government had complained to the World Trade Organisation over what they apparently saw as outrageous behaviour by the Brazilians. The complaint was that the Brazilian government had been providing free treatment for its HIV-positive citizens by allowing local pharmaceutical companies to manufacture cheap copies of anti-AIDS drugs patented by multinational companies.

The American pharmaceutical industry was furious, and put great pressure on Mr Zoellick and his predecessor, Charlene Barshevsky, to throw the book at the Brazilians. They took care to explain that they had every sympathy with the stricken South Americans, but that those Brazilians couldn't be allowed to be treated without someone making a lot of money out of it. After all, why should they continue to research and develop new drugs if they weren't going to be permitted to extract every last possible cent out of the plight those who needed those drugs? (I'm paraphrasing here, but that did seem to be the gist of their argument).

The dispute was a test case. The World Trade Organisation's policy on intellectual property rights, which goes by the catchy acronym "TRIPS", includes a clause that allows a national government to licence the production of "generic" copies of a patented medicine in the event of a health emergency. The Brazilian authorities argued that the clause covered their action, since AIDS was the biggest health emergency humanity had witnessed in living memory. That argument has now won the day.

So, the right conclusion has been reached; but only after some quite amazing arguments had been put forward by the US pharmaceutical lobby as they tried to prevent governments around the world from invoking the clause and sanctioning the manufacture of life-saving drugs. Incredibly, they seriously argued that it would be a waste of time to distribute anti-AIDS drugs to Africans because the Africans would be too stupid to take the drugs when they should. Worse, this essentially racist argument was endorsed by at least one key official in the Bush administration.

In an interview with the "Boston Globe" newspaper earlier this year, Andrew Natsios, the head of the US Agency for International Development, said earlier this year:
'Many Africans don't know what Western time is. You have to take these drugs a certain number of hours each day, or they don't work. Many people in Africa have never seen a clock or a watch in their entire lives.'

To give Mr. Natsios his due, he did at least appear to realise how outrageous this line of argument was. In a telling remark later in the same interview, he insisted that US government's preferred approach to combating the spread of AIDS in Africa would be to
'...Just keep talking about prevention. That is the strategy we're using - even though I'll be beaten up and get bruises all over me from the fights on the subject.'

Those hardly sound like the words of a man who had real confidence in the position he was defending. Perhaps he knew that anti-retroviral therapy can now be made simple, with patients simply required to take their medication in the morning and in the evening.

So, while this is a story with a happy ending, it certainly isn't one that should encourage complacency. The Bush administration has finally done the right thing on this issue - but only after tying logic in knots and resorting to some ugly racial stereotyping in its attempts to justify doing the wrong thing. It seems as though they'll say almost anything before they'll admit that sometimes some things are more important than commercial interests.

The logo-spangled banner

All of which leads neatly on to news of a protest being planned by angry Americans for this year's Independence Day. It is, of course, traditional to fly the Stars and Stripes each July 4. But many protesters are planning to fly an alternative version of the flag designed by Adbusters, the brilliant "culture jamming" organisation.

Adbusters' alternative flag is a brilliantly simple piece of conceptual art. It's a Stars and Stripes, but with the stars replaced by corporate logos - Microsoft, McDonalds, Playboy, Nike, all the usual suspects.

A statement on Adbusters' website explains:
'A blast of symbolic disobedience on this occasion will force America to think hard about the meaning of its original revolution, and its subservience to corporations today. And though we're aiming at the heartland, the question is global. What counts as 'independence'? And when will we win it back?

'Where yesterday flew the Stars-and-Stripes, today will fly the Brands-and-Bands.'

It's an audacious gesture, but a pertinent one. There was a depressingly poor turnout in the recent UK General Election, in keeping with an international trend across the Western world for decreasing participation in the democratic process. One of the reasons for that must surely be that many people believe that those who really control their countries are in boardrooms, not in government...

What could we call the British version of the Adbusters flag, I wonder? The Union-busting Tack, maybe?

Football mad

I shall be taking a keen personal interest in the findings of a new study being carried out by researchers at the University of Nottingham. It's a project entitled: "Is Watching Mansfield Town FC Good For Your Mental Health?"

To help with the research, MTFC fans will be asked to keep diaries detailing their feelings as Mansfield play three matches at the start of next season. Interviews with the fans will then take place, in an effort to establish why they do it: what emotional rewards keep them coming back to watch a small and frequently struggling soccer club.

For those unaffected by football fever, I should perhaps explain that Mansfield - or "The Stags", as their devotees call them - are not exactly giants of the game. They compete in the Nationwide League Division Three, the lowliest fully professional soccer league in England. Their moments of glory have been rare indeed. So what do the fans get out of it?

Alan Pringle, the health lecturer who's taking charge of the project, believes that it may be something to do with regaining a sense of community, in towns where the socio-economic climate has left a lot of people feeling isolated.

'In a town where many people, especially men, have lost the traditional avenues they had for getting together and feeling a sense of belonging or inclusion, it may well be that clubs like Mansfield Town have got a role to play in helping people stay mentally healthy,'

Pringle has suggested.
'Most of the fans who go to matches actually seem to get something positive from the experience - including Stags fans.'

Mr Pringle is still looking for more Mansfield fans to take part in the study. Any Stags supporters who want to volunteer should contact him at the university on 01623 465600.

I feel well qualified to comment on this subject, having followed Bradford City FC through all four levels of the English professional game. When I was living in London and missing my regular football fix, I made a deliberate decision to adopt a small club as my second team. I chose Leyton Orient rather than Arsenal or Chelsea, partly because supporting Orient was much cheaper, but also because Mr Pringle is right. There is much more of a sense of community at a small club. You feel that, while Manchester United and Arsenal will never run short of supporters, your team needs you. You bond together with your fellow fans to face the amazement and ridicule of outsiders at your choice of club. If the team does well, it restores your faith in the idea that life can hold pleasant surprises; and when they do badly, you often get to relieve stress by venting your frustration at some quite spectacular ineptitude.

I followed Orient through thin and thinner: through the time when their then chairman offered to sell the club for £5 to anyone who could take over its mounting debts, and the time they lost at home in the FA Cup to the semi-professionals of Hendon, the winning goal coming when a computer salesman finished off a move begun by a pest control operative. I retain a great affection for the club, and I look forward to seeing them again when they visit York City in August.

And I, for one, am certain that supporting struggling soccer teams is perfectly compatible with sound mental health. Why, I'm as sane as the next eight-foot turquoise hamster!

Grinning and bearing it

Finally, I am sorry to hear of an industrial injury suffered by Kym Marsh of Hear'Say, the pop group publicly manufactured in the "Popstars" TV series.

Poor Kym complains that she's suffered discomfort ever since the group was launched, because:
'All the smiling makes your face really ache.'

I sympathise. I too find Hear'Say a pain - though I wouldn't necessarily call them a pain in the face...


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