INTERVIEW Interview

‘India must ensure cheap drugs for Africa’

NEW DELHI, 04/07/2011: Michel Sidibe, Executive Director, UNAIDS at the inaugural session of National Convention of Zilla Parishad Chairpersons and Mayors on HIV and AIDS, in New Delhi.Photo: V.V. Krishnan  

Speaking on the sidelines of the India Africa Forum Summit, Michel Sidibe, Executive Director, UNAIDS, admitted to being ‘scared’ as pressure mounts on India to relax norms, allowing patent protection. In a conversation with Vidya Krishnan, Mr. Sidibe also spoke about the weakening of the global HIV/AIDS movement, the influence of the right-wing government in India on the national AIDS policy, and said that the HIV movement had become a victim of its own success.



Vidya Krishnan
Do you think a right-wing government in India, in addition to budgetary constraints, is leading to a collapse of the national HIV/AIDS programme?

India, without any doubt, needs catalytic funds from abroad but main investments needs to come from the Indian [financial] budget today. I am not running away from responsibility because we will never win against HIV if we don’t put people at the centre. If you start driving people underground, if people start hiding themselves because of their sexual orientation or drug abuse, we will never end HIV because we will not reach people. We are seeing a decline (in new infections) in almost every part of the world today, except places where people are being discriminated against due to their social status. I, personally, feel that India’s policy has been very well received globally because it has always centred around people. We need to continue to push those types of policies to be implemented.

India’s HIV community has been vocal and well organised, but that has changed since this government came to power. You think the political environment is affecting our AIDS outreach?

We are facing a global problem with HIV networks all over the world — from South Africa, where the activists took the government to court for access to treatment. All those movements against HIV are facing problems. If we are not careful, we will lose the social movement which could help us to work towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). If we want to have a people-centred approach in the future, we need to start thinking of health as inclusive of sanitation and climate, and we need a social movement. We need people at the grassroots, to be able to ask for social change and fight for their rights. That movement should not die. I am scared that from Soweto to New Delhi to Mumbai, we are seeing the HIV movement weaken.



Why are leading global voices, such as yours, silent on this?

We are victims of our success. For a long time, people were dying, hospitals were full of sick people. We did not have drugs and we did not know what to do. Today, we are seeing this complacency setting in everywhere. In some way we are victims of our own success. We need to take AIDS out of isolation. AIDS needs to be looked at in a broader framework — with links to cervical cancer, maternal and child health and to broader social movements, non-communicable diseases, prices of Hepatitis-C drugs. The drug costs $84,000 — how will we pay for African HIV patients who also have Hepatitis-C?



Are you worried about what is happening in India given the current government’s stand on the extant global intellectual property regime?

I am scared for the simple reason that India has been one of the first countries to demonstrate solidarity with people without options, and who have been left behind. India has been able to use all the flexibilities under TRIPS to deliver affordable generic drugs. Thanks to India, we have been able to save more than 10.5 million African lives. I am convinced that we are at a particular moment where we are gunning for ending AIDS. We have nearly 15 million people in Africa who need treatment but don’t have treatment today. Without India’s support, this will mean a collapse of all the investment made in these years. So, I am scared to lose all the investments made during the last 40 years.

What happens if India shifts position and tightens its stand on pharmaceutical patents?



We need to ensure that whatever mechanism will be put in place, India will continue to protect TRIPS flexibilities by continuing to make sure access to affordable and quality medicines, which will not be compromised in the new regulatory framework. If we lose those, we are losing people. I raised our concerns with the Health Minister. If it happens without any transitory measure, may be a 10-year framework, it will result in disaster for the people in Africa.



The dialogue with the Indian government is happening under the looming shadow of various trade dialogues with the developed world. Does that worry you?

The bottom line is very clear — the right to health needs to be protected. To protect the rights of the millions of people who are deprived, we should not accept any treaty or any new mechanism which will not help Africa in the transition period to continue to move towards universal health coverage. It means making everyone equal — to protect the right of the poor to access medicine.



vidya.krishnan@thehindu.co.in

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