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