Sunday, January 27, 2008

Step up efforts in AIDS campaign

When Wen Jiabao and then Hu Jintao visited AIDS patients in Beijing hospitals in 2003 and in 2004 respectively, the Chinese government seemed prepared to confront the virus head on. But, such action has come too late and has proved to be as weak as the disease is virulent.
Foreign and local businesses in China, with a special role to play, are similarly tardy even as the virus is increasingly landing on their own doorsteps.

Official and unofficial statistics differ, but taking a median position, it's likely there are around one million Chinese infected with HIV, the virus leading to AIDS. Infection rates are climbing at a rate of around 30 percent annually and the most affected group is between 15-29, the country's key productive and consumer demographic and, essentially, China's future.

It looks dire, a conviction confirmed in a report by the United Nations AIDS office. In 2002, UNAIDS published a report on the disease on the mainland called, dramatically, "China's Titanic Peril."

It argued: "A potential HIV/AIDS disaster of unimaginable proportion now lies in wait to rattle the country, and it can be feared that in the near future, China might count more HIV infections than any other country in the world."

Part of the rationale for that gloomy projection is the manner of the virus' spread. In South Africa, for instance, it has been noted that when the virus first took hold in the early 1990s, its prevalence rate was at just 1 percent. By 2003, it was at 20 percent and rising fast.

The shape of HIV's establishment in a population puts the onus on officials to act quickly. This China has not done. The first AIDS case in the mainland was detected in 1985.

Despite this, as with SARS outbreaks some years later, Beijing buried its head. It was not until 2003 that Beijing initiated assistance packages and prevention measures, such as the "Four Free and One Care" policy. It was not until 2006 that the State Council launched the government's first real preventative legislation and admitted AIDS was an issue needing such high profile attention. Beijing's laxity has clearly left many gaps in the AIDS landscape in China. This puts both a moral and an economic obligation on to the private sector.

Unfortunately, in general, the corporate sector has followed Beijing's poor lead and has tended to find the same sand pit for its troubled head. The moral case is clear. Morality is deemed to come at a cost.

In an article on the business response to AIDS in the Harvard Business Review published in 2006, authors Mergen Reddy and Boetie Swanepoel noted: "The root constraint for companies trying to manage HIV, we believe, is not the inadequacy of therapies or education, but cost." The question of direct cost comes down to a balance between losing workers, both existing and potential and consumers, and the cost of finding ways to lessen the impact of the disease.

Reddy and Swanepoel have devised risk-trading measures, via already existing corporate insurance policies, and a schedule of investment instruments allowing employers (in the mining sector, which was the target industry) to cut the costs of employee treatment by up to 40 percent, leading to a halving of employee absenteeism rates.

Any such programs must be founded on excellent stakeholder communications with relevant bodies.

In China, this would include government and any of the many civil groups active in the field.

A new report from the World Economic Forum showed 47 partnerships have been set up in around one million workplaces around the world.

Businesses in China therefore have plenty of models. They have had plenty of warning.

But action is so far limited.

There is no time to waste on AIDS in China, which just makes it all the more bizarre as to why that commodity is indeed being squandered.