Not letting school get in the way of our education
Why students should support global access to meds
In first year, I naively thought that upon graduating I’d possess the requisite knowledge to “change the world”. I imagined that I’d be leaving this giant conveyer belt of higher education with what my academic institution calls the “answers to the world’s questions”. Today I know that this is not the case.
When I leave this ivory tower on that fast approaching spring afternoon, I’ll possess no such worldly insight. Instead, I’ll remember a cold December’s afternoon in 2010 when I lay down with a couple dozen students and community members in the middle of a bustling Toronto intersection to fight for something I believed in.
We were demanding Parliament to fix the Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime by passing Bill C-393.
CAMR is an unmistakably broken legislative promise made in 2004 that was intended to increase access to lower-cost generic medicines to treat public health problems such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis in the global south. Today, the only achievement that it has to its name is implementing one licence for the export of one type of drug to one country.
Needless to say, Canadian civil society groups have had good reason to demand CAMR reform during the past eight years.
After learning about CAMR at a campus event, my friends and I decided we wanted to act. Together we gathered a group of concerned students and community members to dress in red and lie down at the intersection of Yonge and Dundas. A “die-in” is an effective strategy enacted by activists to highlight the urgency of something like the HIV/AIDS epidemic and symbolize the thousands of lives lost.
Our “die-in” garnered both media and MP attention, sending a critical message to Ottawa about the injustice of Canada’s broken promise to mitigate thousands of preventable deaths. It demanded political action from MPs to follow through on the nation’s global pledge.
Not letting school get in the way of my education, I skipped two final exams to organise and orchestrate the Bill C-393 “die-in” with my friends. In doing so, I learned much.
But unlike statistics to be remembered for an exam, I won’t forget the following numbers anytime soon.
Approximately six million people living with HIV in the global south currently have access to treatment. This is made possible by the global production and distribution of lower-cost generic medicines and the consequent competition between pharmaceutical companies which decreases drug prices.
However, this number only represents 40 per cent of the 15 million people living with HIV in low- and middle-income countries who need anti-retroviral drugs now. This means that over nine million people living with HIV in developing countries are facing death without treatment.
So, when Bill C-393 was finally passed with a large majority in the House of Commons in March 2011, my friends and I felt that our activism had achieved something tangible and important. Sadly, it was only two weeks later that we received the news that Bill C- 393 was stalled and eventually killed in the Senate.
On February 16, NDP MP Hélène Laverdière introduced Bill C-398 in the House of Commons. Bill C-398 is a similar but improved version of the defeated Bill C-393. The bill would create a “one licence solution” that renders the process of exporting generic medicines to developing countries much easier for both Canadian pharmaceuticals and receiving countries. In the coming months, citizens and civil society organizations nationwide will work tirelessly to ensure that CAMR is ultimately changed in order to save thousands of lives.
Obviously, passing Bill C-398 and finally fixing CAMR will not be enough to get treatment to all 15 million people living with HIV in the global south. Regardless, reforming CAMR represents a crucial step for Canada. Fixing CAMR will make an important contribution. Nonetheless, similar legislative action on the part of other governments, as well as mobilising more money for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria must be included in the challenging journey towards greater access to essential medicines worldwide.
I encourage the thousands of students nationwide to engage in lobbying efforts to demand that Bill C-398 be passed in the House of Commons to fix CAMR. We will soon be parliamentarians, humanitarians, health care professionals and business leaders. But it would be dangerous for us to espouse the same attitudes and behaviour of our predecessors. Instead, by learning outside the boundaries of our assigned readings, we can take our education into our own hands and learn about the diverse realities of our national and global communities.
Please, let us learn to question the shameful death of Bill C-393 in the Senate, just days after it had been passed in the democratic House of Commons in spring 2011. Let students be a strong voice amid the 80 per cent of Canadians and 100 plus civil society organizations that support reforming CAMR.
Sahar Golshan is a member of Canadians for CAMR, a student civil society group that is part of the coalition to fix Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime.