Vanishing Value

Budget cuts are slashing our chances of surviving the economic downturn, homelessness & AIDS.

Left Field by Patricia Nell Warren

It has been my pleasure to write for A&U for many years now. While I’ve had niches in other magazines, Left Field is my longest-running column. Several thick ring-binders line one shelf in my library, filled with those tear-sheets that reflect my concerns over the years. Today, as I look back from this anniversary, the biggest single over-shadowing issue that emerges from the headlines, and from changing health policy around the world, is—to me anyway—the vanishing value of human life. This is especially true of changing AIDS policy.

I grew up during World War II, 1939–1945—a time that scoured a new high-water mark across history, showing how little a human life can be valued. Worldwide, from the USSR across Europe, to the Pacific, Japan and China, deaths are estimated at anywhere from 62 million to 78 million people. Nobody knows for sure how many died. Some historians have spent their lives poring over yellowed records, trying to sharpen the figures. Battle deaths were the least of it. Most of the dead were civilians—somewhere between 40 and 52 million of them—casualties of genocide, atrocities, fire-bombing of cities, exposure, famine and war-related disease. Even after the fighting stopped in 1945, many more years were needed—for those left alive in dozens of countries—to struggle out of the staggering emotional and economic devastation that had almost buried them, and rebuild their lives.

As post-war recovery kicked in, many promised that we would “never forget.” World peace was supposedly the ultimate goal of the 2 billion people left on the planet. Peace was supposedly why the United Nations was launched in 1945. Supposedly, from now on, every life would matter—every child, every woman and man, every elder.

Today we are at 7 billion people worldwide, and that promise has not been kept. For many leaders and politicians who are ideologues, and, indeed, for many of the rank and file who mindlessly support their policies, the lives of “others” appear to be worth less than ever. But today there is less honesty about the intent and the manner in which people’s lives are thrown away. In 1939–1945, killing was done openly and unapologetically, with bombs, bullets, land mines, hand grenades, tanks, rockets, torpedoes, napalm, cyanide gas, starvation, not to mention barbaric medical experiments. Entire populations of civilians were snuffed out with surgical efficiency—whether it was Jews being shoved into gas chambers across Europe, or Japanese who were instantly incinerated by the two atom bombs in 1945.

Today war rages everywhere in the world, but nobody calls it World War III. They call it “civil conflict” or “police action” or “terrorism.”

And today there is a new wrinkle in war-mongering. Here in the U.S., the non-valued citizens can be targeted for death as many officials in our government, from both political parties, are stealthily walling off certain demographics from jobs, housing, medical care. They are doing this with $61 billion in budget cuts. They get away with it because Congress’s majority vote is now controlled by well-to-do well-paid individuals who live in insulated little worlds where they can protect their own butts, and those of their own families. In turn, these officials are heavily lobbied—nothing gets done in Washington without lobbying. And the main lobbying leverage comes from big corporations that make obscene profits but pay little or no taxes. This is how we get the “tax-revenue shortfall” that motivates lawmakers to cut government spending at the cost of flesh and blood.

Some budget decisions border on insanity. Despite some defense cuts as I write this, it looks like we will continue to leap into wars everywhere, spending at least $671 billion on war. Congress is still spending $2.5 to 3.5 billion on NASA’s mission to Mars, though that sum might be reduced to $1 billion. Hello, Mars is a place where a half dozen humans might survive but only at colossal expense. That colossal sum could be used to shore up the survival of larger numbers of Americans here on Earth.

Healthcare services and medical research are targeted for huge cuts—everything from FDA food-safety inspections to elder care to child immunization programs. Curiously, religious-right politicians are among those who support these cuts, on grounds that they are battling an “immoral socialistic state.” As I write this, Forbes reported that “Republicans proposed cutting $832 million—11 percent—from this year’s budget for the Women, Infants and Children program, which provides food for low-income mothers and children….The legislation would [also] cut $2 billion from food stamps.” The last time I read the Bible, there were admonitions from Jesus about healing the sick. But the politicians who are busy trying to tear down Medicare, Medicaid, and other support nets don’t seem to have read that Bible.

For people with HIV and AIDS, these are grim times. For some years there, the AIDS establishment was patting itself on the back, trumpeting that ARVs now made it possible for an HIV-positive twenty-year-old to live a long and healthy life till well over sixty. But today, the back-patting is over, with right-wingers (who always had little sympathy for people with HIV/AIDS) now calling the budget shots. AIDS spending has been so drastically cut that, in February, student protesters at Harvard pointed out that the cuts could cause 1 million AIDS deaths worldwide.

But let’s just look at what’s happening in the U.S. So far, 165,000 low-income Americans who depended on ADAP for treatment are being cut loose by the thousands. There is also growing disregard for the affordable-housing needs of low-income and indigent people with AIDS. Federal HOPWA cuts have sliced deep at local levels—in Philadelphia, for instance, where the city contributes not a penny to housing for its numerous low-income AIDS population. So the local ACT UP chapter published an angry report, accusing the mayor of “stepping over our dead bodies.”

Homeless people have an HIV-positive rate three times higher than that of the general U.S. population. The homeless death rate is surely growing, though the very nature of this scene makes it hard to track deaths accurately. Because these homeless have little access to medical care or medications, and are subjected directly to the stresses of harsh weather, they die quietly in their cardboard huts, or under bridges. When their bodies are finally, belatedly found, these are quietly hauled off to the morgue where it’s often said that they died of “natural causes.” As I search the Web under “homeless found dead,” I turn up countless local news reports of this nature that are being published all over the country. These death reports include children. Because of family home foreclosures and evictions, one out of every four people left homeless is now a child, with the added risk that this child might be HIV-positive.

For years, the CDC assured us that the U.S. AIDS death rate is way down. The most recent figure is 2008—the CDC estimated 17,374 deaths. But that was three years ago, before the present conditions kicked in—before soaring unemployment and home foreclosures merged with government binges in budget cuts to form a perfect storm of lethal pressures on people’s health. I wonder if we will see those CDC estimates now going up sharply. And I wonder if the homeless and ADAP AIDS deaths are even being tallied as such.

In this retrograde atmosphere, the AIDS industry continues to put out press releases about the importance of a life-saving AIDS vaccine. But it also keeps its main focus on treatment with ARVs. The drugs have the double attraction of huge profits from long-term treatment, and that toxicity of theirs that, sooner or later, will likely contribute to the treatee’s death.

Why has our government not fallen over itself to get an AIDS vaccine to market? My guess is that a successful AIDS vaccine would save too many lives. For every American life saved, there must be a support system—food, shelter, clothing, child care, a job, energy and other resources. But it is exactly these resources that are now getting lethally scarcer for the poor. Some of the conservative demagogues, like Ted Turner and Newt Gingrich, are actually talking openly about the importance of “population reductions.” While the demagogues try to look good by saying that American women should voluntarily have fewer babies, it’s clear—from all those conservative legislators’ efforts to de-fund access to birth control—that more babies, not fewer, will be born in the U.S. as a result of their budget policies. Hence the apparent motive to stealthily trim the population in other areas.

Bottom line—in the next few years, I predict that AIDS deaths will merge with other types of deaths in a relentless uptick. But I doubt that any rising mortality statistics will be accurately reported to the public. Publicly reducing populations with bullets in front of movie cameras, the way it was so flagrantly done in World War II, is not a good PR move in today’s media-conscious world—especially for countries like the U.S. that position themselves as “the land of the free.” And so far, the American people—including those unfortunates who are being targeted—are not yet marching to protest the fact that their lives are now worth less than a penny stock.

Further reading:

Homeless people and HIV:

Debate on death rate of uninsured Americans:

AIDS Housing Problems in Philadelphia:

Author of fiction bestsellers and provocative commentary, Patricia Nell Warren has her writings archived at Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]

Copyright © 2011 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.

June 2011