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.
Activists aren't convinced that Coca-Cola is doing all that it can. Primarily, they are concerned with how slowly Coca-Cola has expanded its health plan and how extensively the plan will cover workers' dependents, not to mention that it includes a 10 percent co-pay, which activists claim is a prohibitive sum for many workers to contribute. Coca-Cola spokesperson S'bu Mngadi counters that the 10 percent co-pay for prescription medicine is comparable to equivalent health plans, including ones in Africa.
The New York City crowd on October 17 had little interest in Coca-Cola's explanation of its health plan. "People are here because most of them are HIV-positive and have access to drugs," said Lynch, "They're fighting for people in Africa that don't." Many of the protesters were fighting for the lives of people in their predicament. "I'm trying to save lives because I have HIV," said 24-year-old Kisha from the Phoenix II Drug and Alcohol Recovery Incorporation in West Philadelphia
As last week's New York protest climaxed, organizers passed forty black body bags imprinted with Coca-Cola logos through the crowd like a funeral procession. The crowd counted in unison as they dropped bags one by one in front of the Coca-Cola building, each representing a bottling company without healthcare. All the while a woman in the front row screamed out in an Aretha Franklin falsetto, "Shame! Shame! Shame!" As other protesters poured red fluid from two-liter Coca-Cola bottles onto the body bags, they began sounding, "All because of corporate greed!"
Global corporations like Coca-Cola are increasingly being asked to shoulder responsibilities historically expected of governments. But is it really Coca-Cola's job to spearhead the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa? Coca-Cola seems to think so. "We really believe in the future of Africa," said Mngadi. "We understand the human tragedy of HIV/AIDS in Africa and we are actually committed to doing everything we can to help fight the disease." AIDS activists are trying to hold Coca-Cola accountable to pronouncements like this. But while the company is able to publicize its program prominently on its website and in press releases, the reality is that hundreds of thousands of Africans (including the children of the workers) are stuck in the fine print, with little access to life-altering medication.
If Coca-Cola sets the precedent, there is hope that not only will other global corporations follow but so will many governments. "The role of multinational corporations can be huge in the public-sector response. It ultimately can serve as a catalyst for a wider movement," said Rachel Cohen, spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders, a nonprofit organization that provides emergency medical aid to victims around the globe and is generally interested in reforming governments, not corporations. "Coca-Cola could effectively set a gold standard."