Wild Things

Have AIDS, Will Travel

March 07, 2012

Multiple Pages
Have AIDS, Will Travel

English taxpayers awoke one morning in late February to discover that the nation’s gaiety had been greatly augmented. 

The BBC proclaimed joyous tidings—“Free HIV treatment on NHS for foreign nationals”—then the news was flashed from website to website, mouth to eager ear, setting pulses racing in patriotic pride, bringing the incense of global justice to a country tired of spending cuts. People told each other in rising excitement that the National Health Service had never been sick as they had always imagined—far from being broke, it obviously had zillions of spare funds. 

Not only that, but it appeared it was expanding in order to become an International Health Service. A whole new raft of hitherto unknown human rights was about to be conjured into being—all anomalies removed, all injustices smoothed away, the world’s wounds healed, and best of all there would be lots of new lawyers. No more would we witness that stain upon the English escutcheon whereby a lifelong provident citizen taxpayer had more rights than a promiscuous illegal immigrant. 

The modest instrument of this noble reform is a House of Lords select committee under Lord (Norman) Fowler, a former Conservative minister and party chairman previously best known for using the phrase “to spend more time with my family” to explain an unexpected resignation. As Secretary of State for Transport he drove through the legislation that made wearing car seatbelts compulsory. He contributed to the conservative canon with his 2008 jeremiad A Political Suicide, in which he caviled at lifelong party activists’ extremism and described himself with humility as “a media Jeeves for the politically oppressed.” Even at 76 he is a busy, busy baron, even finding the time to act as chairman of the Thomson Foundation, which promotes high journalistic standards. The Foundation’s website puts it masterfully—the Foundation’s team “learned their craft with some of [the] world’s leading media orgaisations [sic].”

“Iraq is more bathhouse than Ba’athist, it seems.”

He has long been interested in AIDS and in the mid-1980s headed the Thatcher government’s AIDS program, with “Don’t Die of Ignorance” superimposed on graphics of icebergs. Experts suggested that everyone was at risk of imminent and agonizing death.

But even these terrifying omens were not regarded as urgent enough by Elton John or George Michael, whose hard-earned revenues from their hard-to-listen-to songs helped propel the tiny Terrence Higgins Trust into a multi-million-pound organization employing 300. The Trust’s famous red ribbons made judicious appearances on the lapels of ambitious politicians and ostentatiously anxious celebrities.

Further out again, there is the out-there outfit OutRage!, which views a complex cosmos through an arguably narrow prism and is always urging ACTION on ingenious pretexts: 

The world ignores the fate of gay Iraqis at its peril. Their fate today is the fate of all Iraqis tomorrow.

Iraq is more bathhouse than Ba’athist, it seems.

In 2003, Norman Fowler was still plugging away, proposing that the EU should appoint an AIDS coordinator with ambassadorial rank. Last year, he and his lordly lieutenants were meeting in noble conclave to discuss this disease which had “fallen off the radar” even though diagnoses had doubled since the 1990s. His committee estimated there would be 100,000 people in Britain living with HIV (about 25,000 undiagnosed) by 2012 and calculated costs in 2009-2010 at £760m, with this expected to rise quickly to almost £1bn. 

Reports have shown major mismanagement of monies allotted to fight AIDS, most notably in London, where 30,000 victims reside. Of 17 AIDS projects in the capital, only two “merited continued commissioning.” A year later all 17 were still receiving full funding. 

There are also increasing intra-rainbow wrangles about who should get the most cash, with the well-funded (and overwhelmingly white) homosexual organizations facing increasing competition from African activists. Africans constitute 32% of newly diagnosed AIDS sufferers despite making up only around 3% of the total UK population. The African Health Policy Network (AHPN) is proud to aver that it

…has used research to lobby the Home Office to delay the removal of people living with HIV from the UK until antiretroviral treatment becomes more widely accessible and has provided the Government with 10 key asks to improve the health and wellbeing of Africans in the UK.

These benefactors of Britain may as well ask an 11th ask—better diagram-drawing software. As if the world’s worst diagrams weren’t enough of a hindrance to African health and happiness, AHPN’s efforts are also hampered by well-meaning interventions from enthusiastic amateurs such as Forbes Rich Lister Pastor T. B. Joshua, whose cheerily ecumenical Synagogue Church of All Nations offers “cancer-healing” and “HIV-AIDS healing” thanks to “anointing water” which allows patients to dispense with the inconvenience of antiretrovirals. The church’s methods have met with signal success, with at least three sufferers already raptured away to Higher Ground. Meanwhile, even AIDS specialists can get distracted by domestic problems.

Another key consideration is indirect discrimination by the (too white, too straight, boo) medical establishment. As long ago as December 2009, the Guardian’s Hazel Barrett was losing sleep, fearing there were 

…very few culturally sensitive outreach sexual health promotion programs aimed at different immigrant groups from high HIV-prevalence source regions in the west Midlands.

Faced with all this and more, Lord Fowler and his committee chums want to amend the Health and Social Care Bill to extend free treatment to all who have been in the UK for six months or longer, and ministers have promised to incorporate it—without running a cost-benefit analysis. There have been grumbles that the NHS can’t afford this and that the policy will merely encourage “health tourism”—a practice politicians profess to oppose and which is already losing the NHS millions. Public health minister Anne Milton promised that “tough guidance will ensure this measure is not abused”—this tough guidance no doubt something like the tough guidance presently governing immigration policy. 

But the cynics who mutter about potential problems are missing the point. It doesn’t matter if the new policy does encourage thousands more AIDS victims to holiday or study in Britain, or if the £1bn becomes 2, 3, or even 4. After all, as his Lordship says, with all his customary close reasoning:

The case for change is overwhelming in human terms. The proposal almost speaks for itself and every group is in favor of this change.

I can think of at least one group that has never been asked for its opinion.


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