“Getting to know you”, Haiti and bitter medicine for the poor


At a crucial moment of this week´s meeting at the WHO, in the midst of a heated debate between the South and rich countries on access to medicine, Director General Margaret Chan decided to open up a three hour discussion on the Haitian relief measures. The EU, the Us and other wealthy countries had spent the whole previous afternoon on the defensive a and employed extremely obstructive tactics while facing the insistent demands of affordable drugs and greater R and D investments on the part of countries like Brazil, Bolivia and India.

With the consideration of the Haiti disaster all the rich countries during a long interlude during the polarized debate there was a sudden change of mood in the assembly. The EU countries now relaxed and felt good about themselves. One after another there were self-congratulatory statements by European and other northern countries about their expenditures and other quantified actions to respond to the Haiti disaster. In stark contrast to the cold indifference to the debate on affordable medicine for the poor now all the industrialised country delegations were warm-hearted, generous and concerned about the fate of the poor and helpless in Haiti. Many of the poorer countries who could only make very modest relief contributions just looked on while the wealthy countries exercised a public session of all roundself-esteem and goodness bonding. Totally gone was the tense uncomfortable ambience that permeated many EU member delegations the day before when they turned their backs on fundamental proposals to share globally essential medical knowledge and products. In the middle of the consideration of the infernal Haiti situation and in the context of the need to know the situation on the ground, WHO Director General Margaret Chan started to cheerfully sing the Oscar and Hammerstein song: “Getting to know you…” in front of an elated international audience.

To say it was surreal would be an understatement. What a welcome for me to the WHO!

No doubt it is much easier for many countries to treat basic health care as a question of charity and emergency relief than to consider it as a basic human right that demands structural changes in the way we manage, own and develop medical knowledge. Nothing much to sing about.