A classmate of mine wrote a blog post called “Technological Coin Flip” in which he discusses the relationship between developments in technology and disaster potential. I wanted to discuss some of the pharmacological developments during the AIDS crisis to add another important factor that affects this relationship: economy.

[Note: This post will speak a lot about ACT UP and its contribution to the AIDS crisis. One of my main primary and secondary sources is David France’s How to Survive a Plague, a fantastically well-made documentary that integrates archived footage of the ACT UP demonstrations and meetings. The documentary is currently on Netflix and I cannot recommend it enough.]

Medical researchers often say that the AIDS crisis is a success story. Luc Montagnier said that “HIV was found to be the cause of AIDS less than 2 1/2 years after this disease was first identified. It only took another 2 years for the first blood tests to become commercially available.” This kind of perspective completely ignores a massive part of the disaster: its socio-economic aspect. In France and Tokyo, those blood tests were not employed because of nationalist patent issues. The disease itself was only named in 1982, with HIV being named in 1984. Technology was only part of the answer, but it was also part of the hindrance.

The rise of technology not only increases the potential for disease: because of its inherent association with economic profit, technology comes with its own pressures to subvert disaster management. There’s less motivation to create the “strict protocols” to prevent disaster if it’s preventing greater profit. There’s even less motivation to manage disaster if it’s coming from your pocket.

Take AZT, for example. AZT was the first antiretroviral drug released by the FDA in 1987. It was almost outrageously expensive at $10,000 a year, it was not very effective, and it was incredibly toxic. Yet this would have been the final solution of the AIDS crisis had not ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) formed first and foremost to protest against the exorbitant cost of the drug and to pressure the NIH into finding better drugs. They even created a subgroup, TAG (Treatment Action Group), to work specifically with the pharmaceutical companies. In their desire to see results, TAG pressured these institutions to speed up the drug-testing processes, which they did. It ended up being a mistake. But by 1995, the development of combined antiretroviral therapy was discovered and HAART was released in 1996.

To this day, antiretroviral drugs are still far too expensive for most people in the world, especially those who need them the most. One of the reasons that President Mbeki adopted an HIV denialist stance during his term was so that he wouldn’t have to pay for the national distribution of HAART, which would have bankrupted the country.  As we can see, disaster management often relies on its potential for financial gain or punishment.  Technology, as an aspect of our modern economic system, not only contributes to the potential of disaster but also decides the course of crisis management.

Image Credit: Sepp Hasslberger.

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