Saturday, December 04, 2004

This Week in Human Tragedy

December 3rd marked the 20th anniversary of the tragedy in Bhopal.

From, an activist and advocacy group seeking justice for the victims of the tragedy in Bhopal.

3rd December 1984
Shortly after midnight poison gas leaked from a factory in Bhopal, India, owned by the Union Carbide Corporation. There was no warning, none of the plant's safety systems were working. In the city people were sleeping. They woke in darkness to the sound of screams with the gases burning their eyes, noses and mouths. They began retching and coughing up froth streaked with blood. Whole neighbourhoods fled in panic, some were trampled, others convulsed and fell dead. People lost control of their bowels and bladders as they ran. Within hours thousands of dead bodies lay in the streets.

The plant, which never reached its full capacity, proved to be a losing venture and ceased active production in the early 1980s. However vast quantities of dangerous chemicals remained; three tanks continued to hold over 60 tons of methyl isocyanate, or MIC for short. Although MIC is a particularly reactive and deadly gas, the Union Carbide plant’s elaborate safety system was allowed to fall into disrepair. The management’s reasoning seemed to be that since the plant had ceased all production, no threat remained. Every safety system that had been installed to prevent a leak of MIC—at least six in all—ultimately proved inoperative.

Half a million people were exposed to the gas and 20,000 have died to date as a result of their exposure. More than 120,000 people still suffer from ailments caused by the accident and the subsequent pollution at the plant site. These ailments include blindness, extreme difficulty in breathing, and gynecological disorders. The site has never been properly cleaned up and it continues to poison the residents of Bhopal.

It wasn’t until 1989 that Union Carbide, in a partial settlement with the Indian government, agreed to pay out some $470 million in compensation. The victims weren’t consulted in the settlement discussions, and many felt cheated by their compensation -$300-$500 - or about five years’ worth of medical expenses. Today, those who were awarded compensation are hardly better off than those who weren’t.

From Union Carbide’s site regarding the tragedy in Bhopal.

The 1984 gas leak in Bhopal, India, was a terrible tragedy which understandably continues to evoke strong emotions even 20 years later. In the wake of the release, Union Carbide Corporation worked diligently to provide immediate and continuing aid to the victims and set up a process to resolve their claims. All the claims arising out of the release were settled 15 years ago at the explicit direction and with the approval of the Supreme Court of India.

In 1998 the Indian state government of Madhya Pradesh took full responsibility for the site.

In the wake of the gas release, Union Carbide Corporation, and then-chairman Warren Anderson, worked diligently to provide aid to the victims and set up a process to resolve their claims. All claims arising out of the release were settled 15 years ago at the explicit direction and approval of the Supreme Court of India.

As a result of the sale of their shares in UCIL, Union Carbide retained no interest in — or liability for — the Bhopal site.
Shortly after the gas release, Union Carbide launched an aggressive effort to identify the cause. A thorough investigation was conducted by the engineering consulting firm Arthur D. Little. Its conclusion: The gas leak could only have been caused by deliberate sabotage.

December 1st marked the 17th annual World AIDS day.

From the UNAIDS website
Number of people living with HIV/AIDS in 2004 Total 39.4 million (35.9 - 44.3 million)
Adults 37.2 million (33.8 - 41.7 million)
Women 17.6 million (16.3 - 19.5 million)
Children under 15 years 2.2 million (2.0 - 2.6 million)

People newly infected with HIV in 2004 Total 4.9 million (4.3 - 6.4 million)
Adults 4.3 million (3.7 - 5.7 million)
Children under 15 years 640 000 (570 000 - 750 000)

AIDS deaths in 2004 Total 3.1 million (2.8 - 3.5 million)
Adults 2.6 million (2.3 - 2.9 million)
Children under 15 years 510 000 (460 000 - 600 000)

The ranges around the estimates in this table define the boundaries within which the actual numbers lie, based on the best available information.

An interesting visual representation of the spread of AIDS diagnoses in the US from the CDC 1983-1997 can be found here. (Please note, this has not been updated since 1998.)

From the Office of National AIDS Policy – President’s HIV/AIDS Intiatives:

Care and Treatment. …The President supports the Ryan White CARE Act reauthorization and seeks to strengthen the program using the following principles as guidelines:…
* Provide greater flexibility to better target Ryan White CARE Act resources to address areas of greatest need.
* Encourage the participation of any provider, including faith-based and community organizations that show results, recognizing the need for State and local planning, and ensuring accountability by measuring progress.

Prevention and Research. … Efforts include:…
* Emphasizing Abstinence: Abstinence is the only sure way to prevent sexual transmission of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. In the President's 2004 State of the Union Address, he called for a new emphasis on abstinence-only education, and doubling the funding for abstinence-only programs.

From Esther Kaplan’s most excellent article in the indispensable The Nation (to which you should be subscribing – yes you should):

The Bush Administration's AIDS conservatism has been on vivid display in its attacks on the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, which it has sought to undermine, preferring its own, US-owned and -operated vehicle. In September, several top US AIDS officials, including global health adviser and Bush family friend Bill Steiger, held a briefing on Capitol Hill at which they charged that the fund was descending into chaos. This set the tone for final deliberations by Republican leaders in Congress over the government's 2005 contribution to the fund, slated for a $200 million cut. US diplomats even lobbied the fund's board members to vote against launching a new round of grants in 2005 at its mid-November board meeting. This, just as the UN announced that the number of HIV-infected has reached 39 million worldwide.

Bush's grants favor faith-based programs, and while his first round of grants supported more mainstream religious charities like World Vision, a new $100 million round of international abstinence grants--announced in October--went to such Christian right groups as Samaritan's Purse. That relief organization, headed by the Rev. Franklin Graham (who called Islam an "evil" religion), was censured just three years ago for proselytizing while using a USAID grant to assist Salvadoran earthquake victims.

Meanwhile, Bush's neglect of the domestic epidemic has borne fruit. New data show that the government is set to fail at its 2001 goal to cut new domestic HIV infections in half by 2005. Far from declining, HIV infections plateaued at 40,000 a year during 2002 and 2003; this year, documented HIV diagnoses actually rose. … On the treatment front, in May an Institute of Medicine report calculated that tens of thousands of Americans living with HIV aren't getting needed treatment--the result of state cuts to Medicaid and the chronic flat funding of the Ryan White Act.

Ms Kaplan is most on point here:

No more tawdry talk of gay men and drug users, condoms and clean needles; by abandoning the domestic for the international, Bush rewrote AIDS as a story about orphans, abstinence and faith. Unilateralism, corporatism--Bush found a home for these first principles, too, in his $15 billion global AIDS initiative, which is US-run and Pharma-friendly.

Both the tragedy in Bhopal and the AIDS epidemic punctured the American Consciousness 20 years ago. Both have histories of denial by those who had or should have taken responsibility. And now it seems these ongoing crises share one more thing in common. Union Carbide disavowed responsibility for the worst industrial accident in history and relocated that responsibility offshore to India. They also have sought to reframe the story of Bhopal, to create a narrative that better fits their interests and agenda. The Bush administration, it seems, is attempting a similar feat with AIDS.

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