By A. D. Freudenheim

3 December 2000

Several weeks ago in this space, I wrote about the unifying-yet-destructive elements of globalization (see "Global Perspectives," 5 November 2000). In particular, I singled out the impact globalization has on people as a market-driven movement that carries along with it positive-seeming political consequences but which are, ultimately, destabilizing. In passing, I mentioned the problems of AIDS prevention and treatment in Southern Africa and the economic impact that the disease will continue to have: it destroys the livelihoods of those infected, affects the health and welfare of their families and communities, and it feeds a series of increasingly powerful pharmaceutical conglomerates. With World AIDS day just passed, the timing is right to reflect on this issue.

Overlooked in my analysis of globalization was the impact of a lingering xenophobia in many countries: a fear of foreigners that has often slowed the creation of global markets. Xenophobia can be manufactured and endorsed by local governments afraid of losing control over their populations when corporate outsiders introduce new ideas (e.g. freedom of choice) along with new goods. It can also be a wholly organic phenomenon, the product of physical and intellectual isolation. China is an example where both manifestations have been experienced: the government tightly controls imports of Western goods, particularly things like movies and music, afraid of the pernicious effects on their populations who are, in many ways, moving aggressively to modernize and westernize. In more rural areas of China, there appears to be less need for the government to make the same effort; near-poverty helps focus these people on subsistence activities, and outside goods are perhaps of less interest - and are probably even seen as destructive influences because they divert resources from more basic needs.

There's a more specific issue at stake here: xenophobia can have a tremendous impact on the prevention and treatment of a disease such as AIDS. In a Newsweek article on the spread of AIDS in China, the authors note that for many years health officials saw AIDS as a non-issue for China, calling it a "foreigners' disease."[1] But while Chinese officials estimated that only 20,000 people are infected with HIV, the United Nations estimates the number of HIV-positive Chinese at 500,000.[2] By identifying and isolating AIDS in this way, the Chinese have allowed their xenophobia to crowd out their understanding of basic human biology - and thus their understanding that HIV and AIDS can affect all humans equally. They are quickly learning the tragedy of such short-sightedness, and an Associated Press report on World AIDS Day events refers to efforts in China to combat "public ignorance" about the disease.[3]

The Chinese are not alone, however. Burma faces a growing AIDS epidemic - and a repressive dictatorship disinclined to make the physical and intellectual changes necessary to combat the spread of HIV.[4] South Africa has been working to combat AIDS for several years - but has been inhibited by similar kinds of intellectual barriers. Some of the South African problems originated with none other than its current president, Thabo Mbeki, who extensively questioned the connection between HIV and AIDS, and the real value of the medicines he felt Western companies were pushing on his country - thus delaying the distribution of needed drugs and effective deployment of educational campaigns by more than a year. (South Africa, it should be noted, announced on Friday that it would distribute more than $50 million in pharmaceuticals donated by Pfizer, and has taken steps to free up the distribution of other drugs.[5])

This may be the one true benefit brought about by our increasingly smaller, "globalized" world: the eventual destruction of blinding xenophobia and the revelation that people everywhere are still people. To a large extent, our biology is our destiny; when xenophobic governments, communities, or individuals forget this and propagate artificial distinctions between people, we all bear the burden, in economic as well as in physiological terms. Despite the unstable or destructive markets created by corporate or governmental drives towards globalization, we may yet gain from the process if we can step back from the hype of material objects enough to get a better look the world we live in. Disease still moves more easily among the world's populations than any consumer product yet invented, and it is blind to the ethnic, religious, or racial lines we, as humans, may wish to draw between ourselves. Perhaps in this view we should take a lesson from the germs and viruses around us.

[1]Newsweek, "Out Into the Open," by Melinda Liu and Mahlon Meyer, 4 December 2000, Page 41
[3]The Associated Press, "Events Mark World AIDS Day," 1 December 2000, filed at 8:36am, London, UK.
[4]See a series of articles by Blaine Harden in The New York Times, beginning 14 November 2000, such as "For Burmese, Repression, AIDS and Denial".
[5]The New York Times, "South Africa to Distribute $50 Million in Donated AIDS Drugs," by Rachel L. Swarns, 2 December 2000.
Copyright 2000, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired!