The road to hell: Greg Behrman’s book on Africa’s AIDS holocaust reflects the best intentions. Will it wake anybody up?

Susan Hunter

The Invisible People: How the U.S. Has Slept Through the Global AIDS Pandemic, the Greatest Humanitarian Catastrophe of Our Time

* Greg Behrman * Free Press * $25

After reading Greg Behrman’s The Invisible People, I can’t wait to read his next book, where I hope he’ll get around to talking about the invisible people in his first book’s title. They make only two appearances, on the first and last pages of the preface, so don’t skip that part. I marked “Yes!” in the margin next to the opening lines, “Invisible graves line the fields of faraway lands. Therein lie invisible people–25 minion of them–an laid to rest by one of the most lethal scourges in rite history of mankind.” I was excited. Someone was going to speak to this crisis from the bottom up! But as the faces of white boy after white boy flashed by, I knew the plot by chapter 3.

Behrman, who has worked with the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations on ideas for improving U.S. global AIDS policy, has traveled to Africa, and he’s involved with a South African nonprofit that cares for AIDS orphans. But in this book, the only person of color we hear from is a female physician with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who was a bigwig with the United States Agency for International Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before she went west. Oh, yeah, and Patsy Fleming, a “petite light-skinned African-American mother of three” who was also Clinton’s second AIDS czar. (Like others in the book, she found her job incredibly frustrating.)

Behrman’s stylish prose fills the next 302 pages, telling the stories of very visible people, the creme de la creme of the international HIV/AIDS jet set. Reading Behrman’s book is like sneaking into a fabulous Washington cocktail party with big-name guests from around the world, having a few luscious canapes washed down with too much white wine, and leaving a little drunk on power but with no idea who the party was for. It’s a tasty snack, enjoyable in a Vanity Fair gossip column airplane-read sort of way, and it’s got great bones, so be seen with it. It’s very plugged-in and knows all the right people. I saw lots of people I knew “back when” who now run very important organizations, and I glimpsed the insides of some labs, a few apartments, and several conference halls, but Behrman sticks close to the corridors of power. And guess what? We white folk have finally figured out that ignoring AIDS in Africa is racist, genocidal–something a Nigerian woman first screamed at us on the Web some years ago–and really, really bad, even very dangerous to our health.

Behrman’s book is a stimulating insider’s look at the growth of the global pandemic from the top down, reeling along at a clip reminiscent of Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague but without the intellectual (or physical) weight. But make no mistake–it has precious little to do with what’s happening on the ground. Although the book alludes to the people advertised on the cover, they are still very much on the outside, peering in at the notables and drooling over the food they’re serving to the high and mighty. Question is, Does Behrman do them a disservice by cashing in on their presence while he leaves them at the door? Is he playing bait and switch with our sympathies while he makes these AIDS sufferers even more invisible than they were before?

Having lived and worked on the AIDS pandemic in 24 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean for the last 15 years, I know well that the people who are getting infected and dying are not invisible to themselves. They are living, breathing human beings of substance who are taking care of their families the best way they can on household incomes of a dollar or two a day while Rome burns on the other side of the Atlantic. And they must have some kind of power, because they are changing the world in ways so phenomenal, the visible people haven’t even recognized it yet. They have gained powerful political allies who operate in very different ways from the power brokers described in Behrman’s book, and they are generating a not-so-quiet and persistent rebellion that is revolutionizing the drug industry while we sleep off our hangovers and deal with our indigestion. In the long run, we’ll be thanking these Third Worlders–not the folks in Washington, New York, or Geneva–for reducing our drug prices and opening our eyes to the real threat of AIDS.

Can you lose anything by reading Behrman’s book? You can find out how old-style politicos are passing their time (having worked at the top in New York and Washington AIDS bureaucracies, I can tell you that’s a good way to take a few valuable years off your life) while the new revolutionaries are making real waves. The story is out there, Greg, in Medecins Sans Frontieres’ Access to Essential Medicines campaign; in Zackie Achmat’s hunger strikes for Treatment Action Campaign; in the generic-drug manufacturers of Asia who are telling the World Trade Organization, Mania Pharma, the World Bank, and the U.S. government to go stuff it. You’re a good writer–go get it!

Hunter, a medical anthropologist-demographer, is author of Black Death: AIDS in Africa (Palgrave MacMillan).

COPYRIGHT 2004 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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