Refusing to kill with drugs
by Isko Pineda, 12 March 2005

I grew up in an area where many people die not because of any disease but because they are poor. People do not have   access to medical care because it is hardly available and because it is expensive. So as a kid I always dreamt of becoming a doctor so that one day I could be of service to my own people. But medical courses are expensive, and because two of my sisters were already studying, my parents persuaded me to take up a teaching course instead.

I spent four years in the university preparing myself to become a good teacher and indeed I considered myself a good teacher when I became one. I was true to the task of giving my best in facilitating the education of children to grow up as decent people. I was fully conscious at all times of my responsibility to live my life in a way that mirrors what I wanted the children to be. Sad to say, of the professional group in my country, the teachers are the most overworked and exploited. The very big responsibility expected of them is not matched by the salary they receive. It was simply not enough for me to live on, even though I was teaching in an expensive private school. This prompted my decision to take better paying work. Thus started my journey from caring work to work where caring is anathema. From work bounded by ethics and principles to work where to be unprincipled and unethical is the rule of the game.

I entered the world of pharmaceuticals, and for some time I was transported to a world of illusion. Big money, expensive cars, luxurious hotels and moving in the circle of the rich – I told myself I had finally made it. It just felt good not to have to live on a pittance pay and on top of that to have control of my work time. I remember not going home earlier than nine in the evening every day when I was a teacher and waking up early at five in the morning to go to work. But in my new job I could sleep late in the morning, and by nine pm I would already be out dining at some expensive restaurant somewhere. It was liberation.

And the job was easy. You only have to convince doctors to prescribe your company’s drugs, tell them your drug is the most effective and most safe. Never mind if in the product training provided by the company you were told of the many side effects that the drug has. The side effects information was only on a need-to-know basis – meaning give it only when doctors ask or just tell the doctors to look into the product literature - aware of course that doctors do not have the time to do that.

Medical representatives are the most knowledgeable about the drugs they promote. They know that most of the drugs on the market do not really have any business being there. Take attapulgites, to mention only one group of drugs. They are earning millions of dollars for drug companies but are actually killing people and not helping them. These medicines are supposed to stop you from having diarrhoea but diarrhoea is not supposed to be stopped because it is a natural cleansing of the body’s toxins. To manage diarrhoea, you only have to make sure that your body does not get dehydrated, so you need to drink plenty of liquids. Still, attapulgies are number one in the money chart. As medical representatives, we know of drugs that create side effects and other drugs marketed that are suppose to deal with such side effects. I would not be surprised if this was the case with Gulf War Syndrome. After all for drug companies, the ultimate goal is profit.

I was so good at my job that in 2003, I was awarded the Medical Representative of the Year Award, besting thousands of medical representatives. A few months after, I was promoted to a managerial position. For five years I lived the good life or what I thought was the good life.

Then unexpectedly my life took a ninety-degree turn. It started when I was invited by a friend to get involved in his work with the grassroots. I was asked to help set up a community-managed drug store. I do not know about helping but I saw it as a market opportunity so I accepted the invitation. Little did I know, this was to bring me back to the road of caring work. My encounter with the grassroots, the people I promised as a kid to serve as a doctor when I grew up are the same people who would soon make me remember that promise and would challenge me to live it. In one community that we visited, I remember talking to a young mother carrying a visibly malnourished child. I learned most of the family money was spent on medicines for her husband who was suffering from tuberculosis. I was not surprised when she told me the name of the medicine her husband was taking. It was one of those drugs I helped to get a big slice of the market. At that moment, I do not know what came over me but I heard myself telling her to use the money for food instead because tuberculosis is more a question of nutrition than disease. I soon heard similar stories again and again. What do you do when you come face to face with the truth that the good life you are living is paid for by people who have to give up food so you can live well? Some people may be able to live with that thought but many sleepless nights told me I could not. It did not take long before I decided to resign from work. My colleagues and friends, on learning of my decision, branded me a fool. I had worked so hard to get to the top only to give it up once I was there. Maybe I was a fool if being a fool is refusing to be a party to exploitation and genocide against the poor, mostly women who do caring work for their family, all in the name of money.

My experience is a telling tale that refusing to kill is not only a call to people directly involved in the genocidal military war machine. It is a call to all of us to examine our lives and see whether we are party to having people lose their lives, whether this be by our action or our inaction, and to take a decisive step on the road to caring and not killing.