“It is time to get angry, to demand change,” Al Jazeera’s Manica Balasegaram concluded in his opinion piece about pharmaceutical companies not developing drugs for the poor. And to some extent, he’s right. It’s unfair that those companies are only investing in drugs that could give them a profit, because human life is always more important than money. Public opinion definitely agrees with this view: the comments on the article were all in agreement, sharing their anger at those greedy pharmaceutical companies who put money before people. But unfortunately, getting angry and “demanding change” is probably the most irrational thing we could do.
Of course, it’s the easy way out. Us human beings are very much dependent on the idea that we live in a “just” world, so we’d do anything to convince ourselves of that. In our view, bad things don’t just happen. Someone has to be blamed, because that gives an excuse, and a way to solve it, whatever that way may be. Pharmaceutical companies are the easy target here, so we like to blame the issue on them, adding indeed that “change is needed” but not bothering to think of what that change might be because that’s not “our responsibility”.
It’s nothing more than a way to protect ourselves. Getting angry and demanding change is irrational, but it is also instinctive. After all, the truth is that there doesn’t seem to be any other way. What people forget, through that irrational anger, is that these pharmaceutical companies don’t have unlimited amounts of money. It’s not a simple trade-off between profit and lives: it’s a choice between a profit and no drugs for anyone at all.
It is so easy to criticise these companies, and as Balasegaram shows, even well educated people fall for this trap. But is he volunteering to pay the billions it would require to research drugs that don’t lead to any revenues? Probably not. We all expect these companies to do that themselves, to get their magic wands, conjure up some money and to spend billions on researching medicine for third world countries.
But it simply doesn’t work that way. Resources have to come from somewhere, and the only way to achieve that without relying on the revenue of those drugs they develop is through taxes. To nationalise pharmaceutical companies. But that’s not going to happen either, both because the Western world has developed an equally irrational fear of anything that isn’t purely capitalistic and because even the government doesn’t have unlimited amounts of money. Not everyone is going to agree with a raise in taxes to help third world countries develop more effective drugs.
The lack of medicines in third world countries is a major issue, but it is ridiculous to expect pharmaceutical companies to take care of it on their own. They are just as much to blame as anyone else, even as much as Manica Balasegaram himself. A solution is needed, but right now, it doesn’t seem like there is any. All we can do is keep supporting those non-profit organisations that collect money for drug research, because as little as the effect of those good causes might be, right now, it’s all we have.
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