The World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong may hold promises of more free trade and better livelihoods for millions, but for some the outcome is a matter of life and death.
Cambodian sex worker Chuon Neth, 28, was diagnosed with HIV two years ago but has been unable to get access to life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs.
“Because of WTO rules, Cambodia cannot buy cheaper anti-retroviral drugs from countries like India, but only from rich countries like the USA,” said Chuon, who works as a prostitute to support two younger brothers and a younger sister from ages 7 to 15.
“I know I’m not well. I’m always feverish, coughing and having a headache. If I die, who will take care of of my siblings?”
Chuon is among some 10,000 anti-globalization activists who have flown into Hong Kong this week to protest on the margins of the world trade meeting. Her trip was funded by a non-governmental organization.
About 2,000 of the foreign activists are South Korean farmers and fishermen, who clashed with police for a second day on Wednesday as they tried to reach the venue of the WTO talks.
The South Koreans fear for their future if state subsidies are cut and their rice market is opened to global competition.
But Chuon is among some who are literally staring death in the face because trade is not free enough.
“Many people need anti-retroviral drugs, but our hospitals can provide only for a few. If I get them from the black market, they would cost up to $70 a month and I definitely can’t afford it,” she said.
“The WTO discriminates against the poor and doesn’t recognize our needs for medicine,” said Chuon, who has seen 30 friends die of AIDS because they could not afford the cocktail of drugs.
Affordable and available anti-retroviral drugs became a reality when countries like India and Brazil began producing generic versions. But WTO patent rules are causing generic sources of new medicines to dry up, aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres warned on Wednesday.
It also said that this widespread patent protection would make essential second-line anti-retroviral drugs nearly 30 times more expensive than first-line ones.
“Even if they are available at lower prices in some countries, you can’t import them because of patent laws,” said MSF’s director of policy advocacy and research Ellen ’t Hoen.
She urged countries to make use of the 2001 Doha Declaration that gives nations the right to set pharmaceutical patents aside.
“(Cambodia) should make use of the Doha declaration and say it won’t grant or enforce pharmaceutical patents. That would safeguard its right to find the best sources,” said ’t Hoen.
She acknowledged it would not be easy. Countries which tried to set patents aside inevitably run into opposition from richer nations like the United States, where powerful drug companies are based -- and are promptly rewarded with punitive action.
Many who have taken to Hong Kong’s streets are unhappy with the many obligations that international agencies impose on their countries, such as privatizing state entities.
Shahin Akter, a former textile worker in Bangladesh, was laid off in 2003 with the rest of the 1,500-strong workforce at her factory after it was forced to privatize.
“When the government stopped taking care of these companies, they closed down and workers get no compensation at all,” said Shahin, the sole breadwinner in her family.
“We had to go without food very often and I couldn’t afford to buy anything for my mother and younger brother.”
Shahin now works for Karmojibi Nari, an NGO for women in Bangladesh. She says many women in her country were displaced when the government ordered state entities to privatize.
Some of them cannot find work and turn to hawking knick-knacks for a living. But they have to live with a terrible stigma in her deeply conservative nation, she said.
“Hawking is taboo because women should not be working in the streets or they would be seen as immoral women,” she said.