Tainted blood

Infected blood, the American filmmaker, and allegations of a government cover-up. William Hilderbran

Kelly Duda spent eight years of his life making a documentary chronicling how thousands of people around the world were negligently infected with HIV and viral hepatitis from blood transfusions. The American filmmaker was in Westminster telling his story to the independent inquiry that aims to uncover the British government's part in a scandal that led to thousands of infections and deaths.

In the 1970s the British government began importing blood products in part sourced from American prisons in an attempt to cut costs and to tap into a larger blood bank.

However, patients were not informed of where the blood was coming from and tragically went on being 'treated' with the hepatits or HIV infected samples for more than two decades. Lord Robert Winston has dubbed the tragedy as "the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS".

Duda is a bit of a maverick. His flat American accent stood out at the inquiry but not as much as his character. Everything he does is infused with a sense of urgency and speed but juxtaposed by a slightly unnerving smirk. By the time he was done testifying to Lord Archer of Sandwell’s Inquiry, those in the audience who weren't familiar with his work had been swayed that the scandal was even worse than they realised - an idea that seemed impossible only one hour earlier.

David Fielding sat in the audience, already familiar with Duda he hoped the film-maker could instill more force into the inquiry. Fielding contracted Hepatitis C from the contaminated blood and his brother, who recently died of AIDS, had contracted HIV. He said Duda helped shine a light on the topic and reveal that it was more than just malpractice: "I don't think my brother was merely a victim. I don't think he just got sick. I think he was murdered."

This sentiment was common in the crowd of victims and family members who heard Duda reveal the origins of the contaminated blood. In his film Factor 8: The Arkansas Prison Blood Scandal, he explains how the Arkansas prison system was able to support itself entirely without taxpayer money and run at a profit due to its plasma programme experimentation.

Doctors harvested large quantities of plasma from inmates – that’s despite the fact prison populations are considered high-risk populations for disease infection - and sold them to pharmaceutical companies. The prisons made money by selling in such vast quantities, and the drug companies saved by paying far less since the blood was from less than desirable sources.

Duda claimed there was a culture of corruption embedded in the prisons as inmates were in charge of testing the products and had incentive to falsify results and increase prison profits.

Once the samples left the prison, tested or not, they were sent to drug companies. Then the samples were mixed and stirred in large vats before producing various plasma products.

All it takes is one infected sample of HIV or hepatitis to infect the lot. Duda said no one in the chain, from the moment the blood was extracted to when products were injected into patients, made proper efforts to prevent it being administered.

This blood was then shipped around the world - as far as South America and Japan, but throughout Europe as well. In the UK alone nearly 5,000 haemophiliacs contracted Hepatitis C, and 1,200 of these people were also infected with HIV. Nearly a thousand of these infected have already died without the government admitting any wrongdoing or even acknowledging a need to fund a public inquiry.

The victims think a public inquiry is a long-shot but many, it seems, would be happy with an apology and an explanation.

Della Ryness-Hirsch has a son who contracted hepatitis C and wasn't informed about it until years later. She said she knew about the blood being imported and confronted hospital staff about seeking alternative options. The result: across her son's medical record the hospital staff wrote "neurotic mother".

"When you take on the medical establishment you are dealing with the very people who hold your loved one’s care in their hands. And that is a very, very frightening situation," she said.

A conspiracy theory has developed among some of the victims that says the government in alliance with the US was looking for guinea pigs to intentionally infect and subsequently use new medicines on. But Duda dismissed this and said the heart of it is greed and financial interest.

"If they were weighing the risk, then they knew the risk. They knew where they were getting the blood from and they knew the samples weren't virally deactivated. They chose commerce over safety."

Still the story has made few ripples in the UK media, and many victims fear the government is waiting for them to die and ignore this four-decade old saga.

But Duda plans to be back. "No one can undo what has happened. All you can do is help inform them as to how and why it happened, and then with that information hopefully shining light on it, it is there for the record so that things like this cannot happen again."

William Hilderbrandt is an American wrapping up an MA in international journalism at City University in London. Though he currently lives in North London, he is soon to set off to Madagascar to write his thesis.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times