AIDS IN THE THIRD WORLD – 8 July 2002

[EUROPEAN STANDING COMMITTEE B] 

Dr Julian Lewis: I am certainly no expert on the subject of our debate, but I know a bit about history and past holocausts. When American forces overran such concentration camps as Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau, they found to their horror tens of thousands of people in their final extremity. That terrible problem was tackled with a degree of single-mindedness that could be used to inform today's debate. The hon. Member for Luton, North [Kelvin Hopkins] hit the nail on the head in his recommendations. 

No committees or international negotiations were involved in tackling that horrifying problem; instead, the medical forces of individual countries – principally, general practitioners and others from this country – immediately went to the scene of the disaster and administered help directly. A little later, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was involved in direct handling of the problem, co-ordinating efforts on a longer-term basis.  

In preparing for today's debate, I was shocked by some of the briefing material that I was given. For example, an article in the British Medical Journal states that

''Aids will surpass the Black Death as the world's worst pandemic if the 40 million people living with HIV/Aids do not get life-prolonging drugs.''

It is difficult to see how the deliberations of solemn parliamentarians in their assemblies will lead to the direct application of the emergency assistance that is required, even with the best will in the world. I leave aside the anti-European Union prejudices that some of us may entertain.

I believe that significant progress has recently been made in resolving the litigation involving the companies that researched and developed the drugs. It is impossible to expect scientific firms to research and develop drugs if they know that the products of their research will be sold on for a price that covers only production costs, with no allowance made for their huge investment in urgently developing cures for diseases. If drugs companies, including some in this country, have succeeded in developing drugs that will contain a disease and prevent its spread to future generations, it is difficult to understand why we must go through a roundabout route, via international and European institutions, to get those drugs to those who require them.

That is especially true in an environment in which the application of money to a problem tends to be inefficient, to put it mildly. One cannot be confident that anything like all the money pumped in will reach the destination for which it was intended.

Dr Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): I agree with many of the hon. Gentleman's comments. My mother worked for United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and I know how effectively the post-war crisis was dealt with. I agree with his recommendation. However, we are not in a zero-sum game here. We are debating not whether money should go through the European Union or Britain, but whether the European Union should take action. Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that it should not?

Dr Lewis: What I am saying, in endorsement of the comments of the hon. Member for Luton, North, is that in this situation money is not what is needed. What is needed is the direct application of drugs that are the only hope for millions of people who are under sentence of death. I would feel happier if I knew whether the aid proposed to tackle the terrible prospect of millions more dying was aid in kind – direct aid in the form of drugs, not money. 

Mr Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. Does he not also agree that, in the long run, it might be cheaper for developed nations to provide pharmaceuticals – even for free – than to provide financial aid?

Dr Lewis: It would be not only cheaper but far more effective, because such aid cannot be creamed off and has a better chance of reaching its destination. Perhaps the EU, the UN or individual Government specialist committees should deliberate how chemical plants could be developed and subcontracted in other countries so that the drugs could be supplied domestically, more directly, instead of people having to wait for the largesse of international society before the drugs can be delivered to where they are needed. 

Dr Palmer: I apologise for intervening again, but is the hon. Gentleman not in danger of overlooking all the infrastructure issues? I agree that it is better to send drugs than money to buy drugs, but building the necessary infrastructure to enable drugs to be delivered sensibly can be done only by the countries themselves, on the spot, and they will need money to do that. 

Dr Lewis: I believe that I catered for that slightly longer-term aim in my remarks about the need for local development in such countries in the medium to long term. 

I cannot help wondering why we have such a relaxed, laid-back attitude to the current terrible crisis; that was not the case at the end of the Second World War. There are two possible explanations. The first, which I dismiss, is that it results from latent racialism. There seems to be a belief in some quarters that because the crisis affects people of a different ethnic origin from ours in terribly poor countries where there is a history of people dying well before their time, it is more acceptable than if it were happening in a Caucasian nation where people have a lifespan typical of westerners. I am more inclined to think, however, that it is a matter not of racialism but of geography.

The countries that we are discussing are not on our doorstep; they are far away. The concentration camps were not. Today, it is easier for people to make a gesture by giving a donation and then to turn the page. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Broxtowe [Dr Nick Palmer] indicate his agreement from across the political divide.  

Mr Boris Johnson (Henley): May I suggest another reason why we do not take the crisis in Africa as seriously as we might? There is no longer any geopolitical interest in Africa. The Cold War is over and neither the United States nor the Soviet Union directly supports one side or the other. 

Dr Lewis: I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. I must be careful not to stray too far from the central point of the debate, but if that is the case, it is a short-sighted view for geopoliticians in western capitals to take, because such an attitude contains all that is necessary to create precisely the sort of failed and imploded states that have become bases for the sort of terrorism which we saw only a few months ago. The West has turned its back on other countries once they cease to be relevant to Great Power conflicts, and we have paid the price. Humanitarian considerations apart, it is in our interests to look after the countries that are suffering. 

I want to spend a few moments considering the statistics because, frankly, I find them almost unbelievable. I am told that AIDS has killed 25 million people since the early 1980s, and that an estimated 14,000 people are infected each day with HIV. A further possibility occurs as to why people do not tackle the problem of HIV/AIDS with the same anxiety and urgency as they do death and destruction inflicted deliberately by a foreign power. In this country, HIV is associated with sexual activity and drug abuse; on the sub-continent of Africa, we associate it less with drug abuse than with sexual activity. We are constantly told that the answer is education, but that betrays a lack of urgency in the face of a holocaust occurring day by day.  

My next point is on a theme similar to that of my questions to the Minister. I find it hard to ‘get my head around’ the key priorities selected for action at the world summit on sustainable development. We are told that those priorities are water and sanitation, energy for sustainable development, natural resources such as fisheries and forestry, education, governance and global public goods, whatever those may be. If we considered those problems in detail, we would find that most were recurring themes in any debate in any forum on international development and world poverty in any decade since the end of the Second World War. I find it hard to appreciate how we can seriously talk about them as key priorities when millions of people are dying.  

Mr Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath):  My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech with which I agree. There has been a great deal of press coverage in the run-up to the international conference in Johannesburg, as there was for those in Monterrey and Rio and especially for the preparatory summit in Bali. Has he received letters similar to those that my constituents send to me asking why world statesmen have to fly to such attractive destinations, given that the issues they discuss are those of grinding poverty? As one of my constituents put it, why should the preparation not be done in Barking rather than Bali? 

Dr Lewis: I am tempted to go down the route to which my hon. Friend directs me, but I will resist the temptation. He made the point sharply in his own way, and people will have understood it without further elaboration from me. I do not want to prolong the debate unduly, and I will draw my remarks to a close shortly. 

Something desperate is happening minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day. Imagine that I were a representative of a non-governmental organisation that worked on the ground, and that I had seen people dying at that rate. Imagine – it is a rather unlikely scenario – that I were a representative of one of the communities so desperately afflicted with the diseases. Then imagine that I were sitting at the back of this Committee room listening to us trying to discuss the problem in terms of institutional arrangements for long-term organisation of relief and priorities.  

If I were such a person, I would begin to wonder whether what I heard was at all directly engaged with what was happening. We are in one of those terrible situations in which we almost want to give the legislators a direct view and say, ''See for yourself. This is what is happening. Having seen it, can you really be content with indirect arrangements rather than direct remedies?'' The hon. Member for Luton, North [Kelvin Hopkins] outlined one such remedy in his impressive speech. The prospect would be daunting.  

I opened with a reference to the liberation of Buchenwald, Belsen and Dachau. It might be as well to close by reminding the Committee that in 1945, when Buchenwald was liberated, Parliament sent a delegation to see what had happened. Among the group was a woman MP called Mavis Tate. What she saw so horrified her that subsequently she took her own life.  

I suspect that if any of us were transported to see what is happening on the ground on the scale that has been described, he would be desperately traumatised. We are, fortunately, not in that position, but we would like to hear from the Minister what the objections are to the quasi-military direct aid project proposed by a Labour Back Bencher and supported to a considerable extent by the Opposition.