As one of the largest private employers in Africa, the Coca-Cola Company could dramatically alter the course of HIV/AIDS. There is effective treatment for HIV/AIDS that successfully lessens the symptoms of the virus. However, in Africa, where HIV/AIDS has reached pandemic proportions, the vast majority of those affected do not have access to medication. Around the globe, activists and private citizens alike are demanding that Coke supply full medical coverage–including HIV/AIDS treatment–to all its workers, and they won’t stop fighting until it does.
On October 17 a coalition led by ACT UP and Health GAP staged a global protest against Coca-Cola to press these demands. Six hundred protesters rallied in front of Coca-Cola’s main headquarters in midtown Manhattan on 55th Street and Fifth Avenue and thousands marched nationwide, including a rally in Atlanta in front of the World of Coca-Cola museum. “Until they implement changes, we’ll drag their name through the mud,” said Sharonann Lynch, Health GAP activist and organizer. “We refuse to let Coca-Cola set a standard that is lower than what already exists.” Demonstrators also made themselves heard internationally, in places ranging from Paris to Ghana.
In June 2001 the Coca-Cola Company, along with UNAIDS, agreed to negotiate with its business and bottling partners to provide AIDS treatment to workers. But sixteen months later, the Coca-Cola Company has supplied full medical coverage–including access to HIV/AIDS anti-retroviral medication–only to the 1,200 employees who work directly for the company in Africa. There are anywhere from 60,000 (Coca-Cola’s estimate) to 100,000 (Health GAP’s estimate) workers indirectly employed by bottling partners. According to Coca-Cola, 45 percent of these indirectly employed workers–or eight bottlers–currently have access to medical coverage through the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation. But activists point out that still over half of the workers–or thirty-two bottlers–have no access to medical coverage, and the coverage offered is insubstantial.
The protest in New York began slowly. The twenty police officers assigned weren’t expecting very many people. “Maybe 200,” one officer noted. But Karen Ramspacher from ACT UP, an organization known for civil disobedience and surprise protests, whispered, “We’re expecting hundreds–they’re just around the corner.” As a procession of 400 protesters, most of them from ACT UP Philadelphia, began marching down Fifth Avenue toward the Coca-Cola building, organizers began inflating a twenty-five-foot Coca-Cola bottle with “Coke=Death” stretched across the front. Police officers scrambled to expand their pen system. The crowd began chanting, “Pills cost pennies! Greed costs lives!” as the frontmen, robed in African dress, beat their drums.
“We’re here today with activists all over the world. People no longer accept your lies. We demand a real program, a program that includes all your workers!” yelled Mark Milano from ACT UP.