The following is a guest post by Meg Davis, an anthropologist and the founder of Asia Catalyst.
China’s annual “two sessions” wrapped up this week, and Chinese lawmakers finally considered proposals to establish a national compensation fund for thousands of victims of the world’s largest HIV blood disaster.
Back in 2002, Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times that in Henan, “poverty begat AIDS, but AIDS has begotten previously unimaginable poverty.” For thousands who received tainted blood transfusions while local authorities covered up the epidemic, the compensation fund would be a life-changer.
While government officials maintain only 65,100 people contracted HIV through blood sales and transfusions, AIDS activists have long argued the true number is much higher. A new bilingual report by Asia Catalyst and Korekata AIDS Law Center finds that few of the thousands affected have been able to get compensation.
UNSAFE BLOOD COLLECTION
In the 1990s, state-sponsored, for-profit blood-collection centers used unsafe practices to spread HIV to thousands of people in Henan and other central provinces. Health officials who believed that foreign blood was tainted but that rural Chinese blood was “pure” promoted blood-sales as “glorious” for cash-strapped farmers. “Now [they say] I’m a criminal [because I sold my blood],” said Niu, a man in Henan.*
Back then, selling blood was a big pyramid scheme. Everyone went, you took me or I took you, friends took friends. …[Y]ou had 50 kuai in your pocket and you could get your kid something to eat. …We didn’t know we were going to get sick. If we knew that, who would have done it?
Many of those affected by the epidemic have demanded compensation and an apology for their suffering from hospitals, local authorities, and the courts. However, probably because they fear a deluge of lawsuits from tens of thousands of victims, most courts refuse to try these cases. When local authorities feel directly threatened by demands for compensation, political pressure on lawyers and courts leads to cases delayed, postponed or shut down.
A group of farmers in one province described how they were unable to find a lawyer even willing to represent them locally, and had to bring one in from another province. But that lawyer was run out of town by threats:
The government went through our provincial bar association to telephone our lawyer’s firm in the province where he lived, and told the firm to revoke his license. The blood center expert who came with our lawyer pleaded with him to go home that night.
Telling the luckless plaintiffs “Only you can solve your problems,” the lawyer fled town in the midst of a rainstorm, escorted by a protective group of the people he had failed to help.
Denied their right to sue, blood disaster victims try petitioning. Some have gotten small payouts, but many, including a group turned away from the Ministry of Health on World AIDS Day in 2011, have gotten threats, intimidation, and detention in “black jails.”
The report also examines cases where victims have gotten compensation, and finds that amounts have varied. In places like Heilongjiang where the number of people affected is relatively low, compensation has been high, ranging up to 400,000 CNY [~$63,492]. But in Henan and other areas where the disaster hit hardest, payments have been as low as 40,000 CNY [$6,394]. When the money is spent, often victims go back to petitioning and protesting again.
The uneven payouts have created more resentment. Fan, a blood disaster victim in Hubei, said,
Let me tell you, if you look around online, you’ll see that people who got hepatitis B, here in Hubei, they got paid 200,000 CNY [about US$31,750]. We got both hepatitis C AND AIDS, but we only got a couple ten thousand. So I asked the government, I said, if you kill one person you get the death sentence, but if you kill two people you’re not guilty? The more people you kill, the lighter the penalty. What kind of logic is that?
LEARNING FROM THE WORLD’S MISTAKES
Almost every country in the world has faced an HIV blood disaster early in the epidemic. AIDS denialism, the stigma surrounding the epidemic, and ignorance of how the virus was transmitted all contributed to the transmission of HIV through blood supplies. In many countries, the blood disasters affected a few dozen or a few hundred people. In Japan, France and Germany, victims numbered in the thousands. China’s blood disaster affected more individuals than in all other countries combined.
Some countries, such as Japan and France, reacted within a few years with investigations, compensation for the victims, and criminal penalties for officials responsible for the disaster. Others reacted more slowly and less decisively. But no country has taken as long to respond as China, where the blood disaster dragged on for years, while local officials fumbled in a failed effort to cover up the scope of the disaster.
The report calls for an independent investigation in order to obtain a reliable estimate of the number of people infected through the blood disaster. It makes detailed recommendations for a national compensation fund, and calls for a government apology.
For millions of Chinese citizens who still think of HIV/AIDS as a moral disease that stigmatizes those burdened with it, a national compensation fund and a public apology may also go a long way towards creating greater understanding about the epidemic, how it is transmitted and that it can be prevented. With a compensation policy, China has an opportunity to do tangible good on a longstanding social problem.
*All names were changed to protect interviewees against repercussions.