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The Politics of Aids

Estimates now suggest that 100,000 people in Britain will be infected with the AIDS virus by the middle of 1987, with 20,000 developing the full-blown symptoms by 1991. According to the British Medical Journal, [1] in less than six years’ time, “if the numbers affected continue to rise . . .  the deaths each month in Britain alone will be equivalent to the crash of a fully loaded jumbo jet”. And as with airline disasters, you won’t stand any more chance of survival by being female rather than male, straight rather than gay.

The virus has been around since the 1970s. In 1982 the first urgent calls were made for an extensive health and education campaign about AIDS. Why is it only now that we are getting any substantial information after years of media hysteria and disinformation? The difference is that the people dying aren’t thousands of miles away in Africa or America. And the threat is no longer restricted to homosexual men. More significantly, the spread of the disease is hitting capitalism and in particular the “Welfare State”, where it hurts most. A few years ago, the cost of treating and caring for the few AIDS victims was insignificant, at between ten and forty thousand pounds each. There was no point in expensive advertising just to prevent a few deaths. Now, however, the economics of the situation have changed: with the total cost of treatment soaring to an estimated £146m by 1990, a mere few millions spent on prevention is a good investment. Those who died, and those who will as a result of this delay, will be comforted in the knowledge that their deaths were “cost- effective”.

Fuel for prejudice

Regardless of the belated government advice, much of the newspaper coverage and comment has been taken up with prejudice and myth. Right-wing columnists and politicians have been queuing up to outdo each other at their favourite sport of baiting left-wingers and shocking liberals: the Tory councillor who talked of putting 90 per cent of homosexuals into gas chambers;[2] the suggestion of a reader in the Daily Mail that all gays should be buried in a pit and covered in quicklime; the comments from the Manchester Chief Constable about, “people swirling about in a human cesspit of their own making” (However, Pope James Anderton the First had the ideal excuse - “I Was moved by the spirit of God to say exactly what I did”).[2]

As unpleasant as these sentiments are, it is too easy to consider them and plenty of others, to be just the ignorant rantings of a few idiots. Certainly that is true - they are the ignorant rantings of a few idiots - but such ideas can only survive in an atmosphere of hostility, prejudice and ignorance. This is a society which arbitrarily divides people up on the basis of their colour, where they were born, their sex or their sexual orientation and so on; where AIDS is seen not as a health problem but as a gay problem or "gay plague”. This is a society which puts profit before people, creating artificial conflicts over resources like hospital beds. For example, the Tory Scottish Office Minister, John MacKay wanted AIDS victims to pay for their own treatment because the NHS didn’t have any extra resources (money) available and anyway there were “better cases”, such as heart transplants and renal failure which were more deserving for not having brought it upon themselves.[3]

Racism, also a product of a world split by states and nations and borders and barriers, has found another foothold in the proposals (being considered by Lord Whitelaw’s committee on AIDS), to screen all visitors to Britain from Africa because of the high incidence of carriers in that part of the world. There is no suggestion of screening all visitors from America although the proportion of carriers in some areas is comparable and the number of visitors greater.

In the 1930s and 1940s in Nazi Germany, VD and other diseases were blamed on the Jews. Little has changed since then. Again disease is a pawn to be used in the power struggles of our exploiters. Even the propaganda war between the two superpowers has had some right-wingers in America accusing the KGB of producing the virus. And vice-versa — the CIA has been blamed by the Kremlin.

The AIDS virus is difficult to track down because it is like a lentivirus (very slow acting), it attacks the immune system, it coats itself in polysaccharide (a barrier to detection) and it has the highest known degree of what is called “antigenic drift” (it can change its external form very quickly). However research suggests that although the virus fits all the requirements for a biological weapon, it is very unlikely that it is human-made. Not for want of trying it seems: CIA documents from the 1950s discuss the production of viruses for purposes of warfare. The Human Immuno-Deficient virus fits their description arid fits the bill for efficiency and anonymity. Isn’t science in a capitalist society wonderful?

So the hostility and prejudice which has characterised the AIDS problem so far haven’t arisen from nowhere but from the insecurity, ignorance and conflict that is inseparable from capitalism. In such a social order attempts to reform or legislate away the problems thrown up by the virus are impossible. Capitalism isn’t just about economics, its values creep into every corner of your life, distorting every relationship. The ethos of capitalism is to consume, to accumulate, to have to the exclusion of others. The richer you are, the better you are. It can be the number of notes in your wallet, or the number of notches on your leather belt. It can be the new ghetto blaster you’re showing off on one arm, or the new partner you’re showing off on the other, it’s all property. Now, however, the message of the government is “stick to one partner”.

How much real value the government places on the AIDS public information campaign is clear when one considers that about five times as much was spent on telling Sid about British Gas shares. How much concern the company bosses have when their profits are at stake is also obvious with reports that advertising agencies are refusing to place ads on the same commercial breaks on TV as the public health information, in case the impact of the AIDS ads would detract from their washing powder or cornflakes.[5] And some tabloids which make a living out of stories of AIDS tragedies, and pictures of women’s bodies, are refusing to carry adverts for condoms.[6]

Futility of reformism

One example of the persecution of gays is at their place of work, where some have already got the sack even if they do not have the virus. The government recently boldly said that industrial tribunals and the sex discrimination laws would be used to ensure that employers had no right to do such a thing. The history of the attempts of both the industrial tribunals and the sex discrimination laws in dealing with “unfair” dismissals or recruitment policies does not give any grounds for confidence. Indeed, legislation barring just such forms of discrimination against AIDS victims in Los Angeles has been admitted by the councillor who sponsored it to be,

    "largely a token gesture. It may offer some comfort to the million or so gays in California. But most legal wrongs go unredressed. It takes time and money to fight your case through the courts. Most sufferers have already spent their savings in hospitals. And they don’t have much time." [7]

So the reform cannot achieve what on paper it demands, because the economics are more powerful than any fine-sounding resolutions.

This is one reason why reformism basically does not work - because it deals only with effects. It tries to patch up a rotten inhuman system and it fails for a number of reasons. Firstly, as in the example above, you cannot legislate away a problem; the reality of living under capitalism means that you do need time and money to fight for what are laughingly called rights. Effectively it is still one law for the rich. Secondly, reformism is a never-ending treadmill of chasing and defending reforms. For example, the last two decades have seen homosexuals and civil libertarians fighting for gay rights and freedom from persecution. They have had some successes and some failures. Yet the (relative) successes can only be fragile. Along comes the AIDS virus and bang go many of the gains. Similarly, popular attitudes to homosexuals have improved but while this society is creating conflicts and seeking scapegoats, public tolerance of homosexuals (as one example), can never be permanent.

Thirdly, reforms often produce as many problems as they solve, shifting the problem from one area to another, by tinkering with a system that is out of our control. There is an interesting example of this as regards the problem of AIDS in Britain. The worst city in Britain for the proportion of those infected, is Edinburgh. The specific reason for this is the sharing of needles among the city's intravenous drug users, caused by the futile efforts of the police in that area to stamp out drug addiction by discouraging the sale of syringes and needles and removing those items from individuals found in possession of them.[8] This was done, incidentally, in the full knowledge of the likely spread of the potentially fatal hepatitis B' virus. What did surprise the authorities was the spread of AIDS (50 per cent of intravenous drug users in Edinburgh are infected compared with less than five per cent in Glasgow). Last year the headlines were 'Maggie's War On Drugs"; this year it's "Maggie's War On AIDS". So where there was one problem now there are two. But never mind. The Socialist Party is often told, you have to deal with one problem at a time.

Capitalism can't cope

Already about 50 per cent of haemophiliacs (that's about 1,000) have been infected with the virus, with eighteen of them now dead. All were infected with contaminated supplies of the blood clotting agent Factor 8. The Department of Health were warned in 1983 of the dangers to health, but heat treatment did not start until 1984 and even then was not widely available until April 1985.[9] Only last year did Armour Pharmaceuticals withdraw their supplies of Factor 8. The government also showed whose interests they were fighting for when they delayed a decision on which company should get the order for a blood test kit. so that Wellcome, the £1.5bn British pharmaceuticals combine, could improve their product enough to get the contract. Never mind the delay, all that matters is that it’s got Made in Britain on it and the profits go to ’’our" capitalists.

Capitalism is all about owning to the exclusion of others, even knowledge and research are commodities to be bought and sold at the right price, or to be hidden and restricted as trade secrets. No free flow of research information between scientists around the world can be allowed while companies. agencies, research institutions and the governments that represent them are competing with one another: "It very nearly went to Japan”, said the Chief Executive of Porton International, a firm who are developing what may be the most potent anti-viral agent in the world, and will make many millions if it lives up to its promise.[10] Indeed the short history of AIDS has produced a long history of competition over products between companies and countries, resulting in much duplication of work between scientists in France. Britain and the US.

That's in the past. The AIDS virus has a long future ahead of it. and the vision is a bleak one. Far from responding to new demands, the market system can act only in the pursuit of profit. As the need for more information and facilities grows, capitalism falls further and further short:

•           the Public Health Laboratory Service, the national agency monitoring the epidemic faces a £4m cut this year. Instead of expanding to cope with the increasing requirements, they have unfilled staff vacancies and may have to close six laboratories this year;

•           the Medical Research Council faces a £13m deficit by 1990 and must close five of its special research units-.

•           to cope with their share of the expected 20.000 patients who will have the full-blown disease by 1991, the North West Thames regional health authority have all of 25 beds and no more planned.[11]

Look on the bright side though, the discovery by Wellcome PLC of a potential partial treatment for AIDS, called AZT. boosted their share price by 15p to 221p.

It all adds up then, to a terrible disease and a terrible society. If you take into account all the cutbacks being made when they are least needed, the profits being made from cornering a market, the many unnecessary deaths, and all the right-wing moralists and would-be Ayatollahs crowing over every slow death, it starts to become clear. Every unfortunate AIDS sufferer is a victim - but not just of a virus.

Brian Gardner


1. Quoted in Guardian, 11.8.86.

2. Guardian, 18.12.86.

3. Scotsman, 3.9.86.

4. Guardian, 16.5.86.

5. Observer, 21.12.86.

6. Guardian, 11.11.86.

7. Observer, 23.2.86.

8. Guardian, 25.9.86.

9. Guardian, 8.11.86.

10. New Scientist, 25.9.86.

11. Guardian, 11.12.86