I like parables. They are usually simple
and interesting enough to appeal to all audiences and flexible
enough to be interpreted by anyone looking to learn a lesson.
Here’s an oldie but a goodie:

Shabina Khatri

There was a scorpion that wanted to cross a river. He asked the
frog to carry him on his back. The frog was wary:
“You’ll sting me,” he said. The scorpion replied,
“Why in the world would I do that? If I sting you, I
won’t get to the other side!” The frog was persuaded.
In the middle of the river, however, the scorpion stung him.
“What have you done!” exclaimed the frog. “Now
we’ll both drown.” “Couldn’t help
it,” said the scorpion. “It’s my
nature.”

As adaptable as this story is, it has at least one universally
applicable message — some creatures just are what they are.
Take human beings, for instance. For all we know, that scorpion
could be what prompted old Darwin to come up with his
“survival of the fittest” concept. I definitely believe
that we have a tendency to act in our own best interests. Contrary
to popular belief, I also know that this inclination was not borne
simply out of “Western” concepts like individuality and
capitalism. If that were true, we wouldn’t see so many
“non-Western,” so-called community-centered societies
being run according to the whims of a few dictators. Of course,
just because selfishness is a universally held attribute does not
mean we can excuse ourselves from fighting such an impulse. So
where I’m headed with this, finally, is to Africa, and to
AIDS.

On Sunday The New York Times reported that a lack of funds is
drowning the World Health Organization’s “3 by 5
Initiative” — a plan to treat three million people
infected with AIDS by 2005. Last November, a WHO report stated that
only 2 percent of the 4.4 million Africans in need of treatment
were receiving it, as opposed to the 84 percent of the 250,000
affected people living in the Americas. Almost six months later,
the picture looks even bleaker — WHO told the Times that only
5 percent of people in the world’s poorest countries are
getting the drug treatment they need.

The delay is due in part to U.S. pharmaceutical companies that
are — no surprise here — lobbying the government to act
in their own best interests. And these companies seem to have
clout. President Bush has pledged $15 billion to the AIDS effort on
our behalf, but that money comes with a serious caveat —
it’s not allowed to be spent on generic drugs.

Now, my Business School classes and capitalistic conscience tell
me that it’s not fair to expect pharmaceutical companies
— which spend millions annually in research and development
— to just give up the patents to their discoveries or to sell
their drugs at low prices. But good old economics also dictates
that there are profits to be made even if a product is sold cheaply
— as long as one makes sure to sells lots and lots of that
product. And with 6 million takers, there’s certainly a lot
of money to be made by going the low-cost route.

But that’s not good enough for many companies. In
February, for example, pharmaceutical giant Abbott Laboratories was
sued after raising the price of its drug Norvir by 400 percent,
from about $50 to $250 a month. Critics say the price hike was
designed to get cost-conscious buyers to buy another one of
Abbott’s drugs, Kaletra, which already contains a small
amount of Norvir and would thus make for a potent combination.
Raising prices to make other, competing drug combinations
unaffordable is certainly hitting a new low. And all in the name of
profits.

Yet, returning to our symbolic scorpion and the nature of man, I
still argue that it’s not just money that should be directing
our strategy in fighting this global emergency. What happens to
human beings that are stricken with AIDS is so horrifying and so
very real — but we don’t hear about it. Yeah,
it’s mostly happening way over there, to those people. But
remember that those people are ours too. If a human face was
painted on AIDS as human faces are painted on breast cancer or
other tragic illnesses, maybe we’d feel more inclined to
fight that driving impulse to always act in our own best
interests.

I know that antiviral drugs are not going to solve the
world’s AIDS crisis, and that at best, the pills will only
slow it down. But those drugs count for something, especially for
the millions of infected people who will get to live even for just
a few more years. And we’ve got to do something. Some of our
lawmakers took an encouraging step forward last week when they
urged the Bush administration to accept the generic drugs already
approved by WHO and endorsed by the World Bank. It’s a small
step, but hopefully it’ll stir things up and prompt a
much-needed debate in our legislature.

If things do change, it’s going to cost our government.
It’s going to cost our pharmaceutical companies. And due to
the trickle-down effect, it’s probably going to cost us. If
only we could beat that symbolic scorpion by forgetting about
ourselves for a moment. If only we could think, like United Nations
envoy Stephen Lewis does, about those suffering souls in such sore
need of our help.

If the WHO program fails, Lewis told the Times, “There are
no excuses left, no rationalizations to hide behind, no murky
slanders to justify indifference — there will only be the
mass graves of the betrayed.” Let us refuse to let our
response to that betrayal be “couldn’t help it;
it’s my nature.”

 

Khatri’s senior thesis is due on Monday, so she
can’t take your comments this weekend. Please direct all
polemics to her publicist Yusuf at
“mailto:yusufq@umich.edu”>yusufq@umich.edu.

Khatri can be reached at
“mailto:khatris@umich.edu”>khatris@umich.edu.

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