Words to live by … (blog by Leo van Bergen)

“I am so proud to be a Dutchman. Our country stands for developmental aid. Please, newly appointed government, keep this going. Our world will never be safe if we do not help to decrease the scandalous inequality in welfare and development presently dividing nations.” (2002)

Such were the prophetic words of a great man and good acquaintance, Joep Lange. Last year, we shared a platform on a national radio programme discussing the history and practice of the fight against epidemics in general and AIDS in particular. Always one to stand up to injustice, he spoke of the early days of AIDS and the delays in scientific work on the disease because of its presumed relationship with homosexuality. Known initially as GRID, Gay Related Immuno-Deficiency, AIDS was seen by some as a divine punishment for a life filled with sin, even in the so-called liberal, human-rights-defending Western world of the nineteen eighties. Eloquently he condemned such bigotry in scientific preference, bigotry, I fear myself, will be repeated if the plans to enlargen societal say in what is of ‘scientific importance’ becomes normal practice.

A decade earlier, he argued another important case in the medical arena: the availability of cheap copies of patented drugs for low income countries. I remember him causing something of a stir in the summer of 2002 for advocating cooperation with the pharmaceutical industries to bring down the costs of AIDS drugs for low income countries at an AIDS conference in Barcelona; . Others took the position that pharmaceutical industries should not have a say in which countries could get a discount. There should instead be cheap copies of still patented labelled drugs. But Lange argued his point passionately, convinced this would ensure the best possible care for as many AIDS-victims as possible. It was on the side-lines of this conference that Lange wrote the words I started with, in a diary published in the Dutch paper NRC-Handelsblad.

I call these words prophetic because, for those who have not heard of Joep Lange, he happened to be one of the passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down on July 17 2014 over Ukraine. ‘Collateral damage’ of an insane war – are there any other types of war? – which will no doubt make a reappearance in 2015. That he should have found his death , along with some of his colleagues, flying to an AIDS-conference is in some ways fitting for a man who dedicated himself to this cause. But when I read over that quote again, I cannot help but think that, in other ways, he has died a disappointed man.

Goodbye Joep.

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