In mid-April, worldwide protests forced an international cartel of pharmaceutical giants to withdraw a lawsuit against the South African government. The suit–an effort by “Big Pharma” to protect its enormous profits–sought to block implementation of a 1997 South African law that would make it easier to acquire lifesaving medicines for more than 4 million South Africans living with HIV/AIDS. Like the proponents of apartheid before them, these companies acted to maintain the rules of a system that denies the value of black lives in favor of minority privilege. The result in Africa has been murder by patent.
The global pattern of AIDS deaths–2.4 million in sub-Saharan Africa last year, out of 3 million worldwide; only 20,000 in North America but most in minority communities–also evokes the racial order of the old South Africa. To date, access to lifesaving medicines and care for people living with HIV and AIDS have been largely determined by race, class, gender and geography. AIDS thus points to more fundamental global inequalities than those involving a single disease, illuminating centuries-old patterns of injustice. Indeed, today’s international political economy–in which undemocratic institutions systematically generate economic inequality–should be described as “global apartheid.”