The precarity of the global 99%

What The Global Fund's decision to cancel next year's funding round means for victims of Aids, TB an

In Europe and the US there is a lot of talk of austerity these days. But elsewhere in the world, the financial realities of our age of insecurity are leading not to belt-tightening but to malnutrition and disease. And things look set to get a lot worse yet.

This week's unprecedented announcement by The Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria to cancel its next funding round is a case in point. It reveals just how precarious daily life has become for the global 99 per cent: those whose very health, as much as their job security, is pegged to the rise and fall of the money markets.

The Global Fund has for years been one of the most important fronts in the battle to beat back HIV/Aids. It has helped put 3.2 million people on anti-retroviral therapy (ARVs). But it has been running on empty for a year now, since securing just $10 billion -- half of what it hoped for -- during a major funding replenishment a year ago. Some countries also recently cut their pledges owing to concerns about the way the Global Fund is operated.

Ten billion dollars sounds like peanuts in comparison to the bank bailouts we have gotten used to in recent years -- it's about the same amount that Goldman Sachs has cheerfully set aside in bonuses again this year.

But it was the minimum figure that the Global Fund required from rich countries to sustain the many medical programmes it supports around the world. And with those countries failing to meet even downsized pledges in October, the Global Fund concluded this week, after a heated and difficult board meeting in Accra, Ghana, that it had no choice but cut the funding lifeline.

Instead, it has put in place an emergency '"transition mechanism" to safeguard the most needy, but this is no more than a tin roof over the heads of some in a rapidly worsening storm. The fact is that sooner or later people are going to be kicked off existing treatment programmes: this is already happening in Swaziland, which recently decided to forego Global Fund support and, as a result, has simply run out of drugs.

The Global Fund's apparent demise could hardly come at a more crucial time. The last couple of years had seen greater optimism in the battle against Aids. Thanks to internationally funded programmes, the number of people on ARVs had increased by 20 per cent since 2009, and many had begun looking forward to a generation free of HIV. "We have an historical opportunity now with treatment as prevention to push back against HIV," Marius Trosied, a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières told me just a few weeks ago. But such claims require solid revenue streams to back them up. It is now far from clear how even the 7.7 million people the Global Fund claims to have already "saved" will fare in the years to come.

South Africa and Kenya have already been told they are ineligible to apply for funds this year, despite both only having treatment coverage rates of around 50 per cent.

And in Malawi, which had ambitious plans to scale up treatment provision, the question now is all about how best to manage a treatment scale-down. That is global health speak for a process of triage to determine who lives and who dies.

The root problem is not just the banking and financial crisis, says David McCoy, a public health specialist at UCL: "What is happening to the Global Fund ought to concentrate the minds and efforts of public health workers all across the world on the need to change the broader social and economic institutions within which our fragile health programmes are located."

McCoy is right: the precarity of individuals is ultimately a function of the precarity of the institutions that sustain them. That is as true in Europe and the US -- where we are seeing jobs lost, services cut, and shops boarded up along our highstreets because our institutions and systems of government do not protect us equally from the vicissitudes of the market -- as it is in global health. But of course the two are related, and some individuals are more vulnerable than others.

So when life-saving organizations like South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign declare that, because rich countries now feel they can afford to give less, they too may be forced to shutter up the premises next year, then we have to recognise that the politics of austerity we are going through has not even begun to be properly costed. This is the real lesson of the Global Fund's demise and it will require much more than simply getting wealthy donors back on board to address it.

Simon Reid-Henry is a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.