Saturday, December 01, 2007

On white plagues and black magic

Since it is World AIDS day. The old thesis that Haiti was responsible for bringing the dominant HIV strain to the United States and Europe has been resuscitated. The scientists behind it say that they may now be able to trace its origins back to the Congo, and find a cure. As these authors point out, the theory is dubious, and the last time this accusation was in vogue was when Haitians were labouring under a US-imposed dictatorship in the 1980s. The scientific work behind these claims, and the nature of their presentation, is questioned only in some of the mainstream coverage. In fact, as William Bowles points out, the study is months old and has been gravely criticised by leading scientists in the meantime, not least because some of the speculations offered as conclusion rest on the irrational and dangerous mythology of a single identifiable transmitter of the virus. Given the trends in sex tourism, AIDS might as easily have been transmitted from any part of the United States to any part of the Carribean (although, curiously, Cuba has largely averted the pandemic). However, part of the significance of these claims is in part the ideology they slot into, that being the Kaplanesque drama of decivilisation in which Africa is the source of disease, crime and political instability.

One of the most powerful challenges to this dogma is also one that has been attacked most vitriolically, though praised handsomely by some highly qualified peeps. Edward Hooper's work of reportage and detection, The River, traces the origins of AIDS to polio vaccinations in the Belgian-ruled Congo in the 1960s. The vaccinations were, in Hooper's view, probably contaminated with SIV from chimps livers harvested (often through live vivisection) by the medical centre in question and used to cultivate the vaccine. If Hooper is right, then AIDS is one further tragedy of colonialism. No wonder, then, that such invective has been poured on the book by some: it's sanctimonious, boring, doctrinaire, hysterical, etc (one of Hooper's hostile critics happens to be the lead author of the latest study). Hooper mildly terms this mixture of condescension and derision a "defensive response". Even if Hooper's basic thesis turns out to be wrong, which seems unlikely, there remain huge questions opened up by Hooper's reporting - strange gaps in the record, missing documents, the problems with the way in which science has been conducted, the narrow avoidance of transmission of other dangerous diseases through the same practises etc. That the alternative theory, that infected chimp meat was ingested by hunters, is widely believed among virologists tells us a great deal more about the status of science in the ideological field than it does about the status of the theory.

Even if Hooper was wrong, we would be left with the question of social justice. Capital's systemic opportunism is such that, while AIDS has killed tens of millions of people, most of whom are Africans, Western pharmaceutical capital has located unprecedented profit opportunities in the holocaust. Its most aggressive political auxiliaries now in command of the White House, relying on an opportunistic coalition between the Christian Right and Wall Street, are pushing policies designed to intensfy the problem with a sadistic insistence on 'abstinence education' which substantially blunts the effect of a victory won by activists in 2001, specifically in their demand that Third World countries should be permitted to break the intellectual property claims of medical giants. So AIDS, a holocaust inflicted by colonialism, is now one that is perpetuated by capitalism. Some people might ask, as a certain oleaginous American politician did on Question Time a few years back, if we will leave anything to be settled outside of politics. Isn't this one of those things that politics doesn't touch? Can't you leave well enough alone? Can't you resist dirtying everything (even fatal disease) with your politics? The question is analogous to the older one: is nothing sacred? The obvious answer is, of course not.