Wednesday, September 16, 2015

When you must fight for what's right

In Dutta's Communicating for Social Change, he speaks of neoliberal governance of global health by powerful institutions such as the World Health Organisation and how their agendas are in line really with the interests and agendas of powerful transnational actors.

This brings to mind an important incident in 2007 after the avian H5N1 flu virus started moving from southern China to parts of the Middle East and Europe. The virus had flared anew the year before in Indonesia. The latter outbreak was worrying to the scientific community because it happened in a single extended family in Karo, Sumatra, where the virus showed sustained transmissibility, passing from relative to relative at least three times over. This opened up the possibility that it may have mutated to becoming more easily spread among humans.

But what shocked the scientific community next was how Indonesia refused to share its seed virus with international scientists. Its argument was that once released, it would be given to pharmaceutical companies which will design a vaccine or treatment that would eventually be priced so high as to become unaffordable for Indonesia.

Jakarta's defiance was at once roundly condemned and I remember how this narrative was the only one in the public domain for at least a full day, until this story surfaced. I remember it troubled me how the news media can be so easily manipulated or pushed into adopting only one narrative - and usually the most convenient narrative around because the other actors are less easily contactable.

The reason for this may not be as insidious as many people may be inclined to believe. Sometimes it may just be due to the other actors being less media savvy or that they simply don't speak the same language.

But imagine how important balance is to this story. How important to get both sides of the story. In this long running saga, Thailand eventually joined the side of the Indonesians, refusing to hand over seed viruses.

The WHO later presided over this matter and drew up new rules to ensure that poorer countries will not be left out but be given access to drugs and vaccines in times of a pandemic.

Returning to the CCA, here we can see how the media is in a position to help exert pressure on structural heavyweights. With agentic lobbying from enough actors through using well reasoned arguments, change can come about. In this instance, third world governments and the media have had to fight the hegemonic super structure comprising western pharmaceuticals, western governments and powerful institutions like the WHO.

It was by no means easy and this saga stretched for over a year. The culture in this case was up to the dictates of the strong and powerful who ruled the hegemony. But in the hands of Indonesia at that juncture was a lifeline. A seed virus to help the world survive the very real threat of a pandemic. Indonesia held the trump card and managed to push the boundaries, making important, permanent change.

In 2009, when the world was swept by the H1N1 pandemic, pharmaceutical companies churned out vaccines within months. By then, the new rules and  infrastructure were in place and these new vaccines could be despatched with more equity, not only to rich countries but to poor ones too.

No comments: