Monday, September 29, 2008

Bickering in the Flames

As I write, the lower House of the US Congress has just thrown out the bill to bail out US investment banks to the tune of about £380 billion. Well, I'm not going to talk about that much, other than to say I am just going to let the Americans do what they do best, and bicker over the minutiae. But let's get back to that in a moment.

Next month, the British Parliament reconvenes after the summer recess. One of the first orders of business will be to rubber stamp the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Much has been written elsewhere about the controversies surrounding a lot of this bill, and there are yet more crazy amendments to do with abortion being tagged on with little thought for a considered public health policy on reproductive health. One of the Bill's major bones of contention was over the issue of human animal hybrids being used to generate stem cell lines. I have commented before on the questionable science behind this – when other approaches to stem cells seem to actually be yielding effective treatments for around seventy degenerative disorders, why go asking for legal permission to go down a questionable route that will in all probability divert funding from avenues that are having therapeutic benefits?

Of course, stem cell therapies will only ever benefit the rich and privileged. Vested interests (in scientific prestige or profit) will always drive where the research goes – which is why, as I heard only two weeks ago at a conference in Nigeria, less than 5% of most drug company research and development budgets go on treatments that will benefit the world's poor – most of the spending is going on treatments for baldness (don't get me started again!) and erectile dysfunction, obesity, smoking cessation and other lifestyle health problems of the rich, while malaria and drug resistant TB run rampant in Asia and Africa, and many other debilitating tropical illnesses go with no new or effective therapies even in the pipeline. The poor cannot pay, so let them die or suffer, who cares? No one sees, and it does not affect the bottom dollar.

Back to Wall Street's implosion. Last week in New York was supposed to be a global emergency summit to get the world's leaders to focus once again on how they can lead the way in tackling the Millennium Development Goals (which remain so off track that most will now never be achieved). Only the whole collapse of the investment banks and AIG overtook everything, and the focus was on how we save the world economy. I was in Nigeria when it happened, and while the Nigerian press had a certain schadenfreude over the crisis, they could also see that this was going to hit them at some point, in some manner. Most Africans are watching all of this with more interest n most Americans or Westerners realise (a groups of American nurses I travelled with could not wrap their heads around why there was a huge poster of Barak Obama on a main road in Abuja – they could not see that to Africa, the US elections really do make a difference, and the hope that maybe an African American president might just make things better for Africa – maybe...). We are being watched by the world, how are we going to respond?

The fire fighters are out arguing about how we put out the big fires destroying the great institutions of the City Anglo American Capitalism – but as they stand around the inferno and bicker, they are not caring about (or even noticing) the sparks leaping from the conflagration that are setting ablaze the ramshackle huts that cluster together around the city where the world's poor huddle together. They did not light the fire, but they will burn, unnoticed by the rich as we bicker over bailouts for merchant banks and high tech medicine that only benefits us, our bank balances and our scientific egos. But world's poor are watching the fire and our self absorption – and so is God, and one wonders where the judgement will fall next....

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