by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 28 February 2022
Introducing: Diarmaid McDonald
Background: An activist, organiser, and advocate for access to medicines.
Idea: Just Treatment - a patient-led campaign group fighting for fair access to high-quality healthcare
Who benefits from the privatisation of our healthcare and monopolisation of our medicine? It isn’t the untold millions who are denied access to life-saving treatment. It isn’t the grieving families of patients whose anguish for their dying children, partners or parents is accentuated by the knowledge that treatment is available but unaffordable. Neither is it society as a whole: our misguided approach to intellectual property systems and policies impede medical innovation, contribute to inequity, and exacerbate and extend our health crises.
The real winners are those who exploit the weaknesses of our current IP model to hoard life-saving knowledge for financial gain. It is pharma companies securing billions from government contracts to the delight of their shareholders and top executives while withholding vaccine know-how from developing countries. It’s the big data companies vacuuming up our health records and using our vital statistics for financial gain. And it’s the industry lobbyists accelerating the privatisation of our healthcare and shaping national and international policy, enshrining their rights to profit while desecrating our rights to health.
Diarmaid has spent his career fighting against the injustice and real-world consequences of this inequitable, monopolistic, and closed system. As founder and lead organiser of Just Treatment, he engages affected people, trains them and empowers them to become campaign leaders. This patient-led movement is growing and is incredibly successful, securing access to life-saving medicines for people with Hepatitis C, breast cancer and cystic fibrosis. More recently, Just Treatment mobilised over 35,000 people to campaign for investment and democratisation of the NHS and helped force the UK government to backtrack over its plans to give corporations access to citizens’ personal health records.
Now, Diarmaid wants to scale Just Treatment’s work and build momentum across the UK, Europe and beyond. During his Fellowship, he will train new patient leaders, establish global networks of affected communities, and challenge the dominant narrative with language and stories that explain this incredibly complex issue in ways that resonate with everyday people. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, he believes there has never been a better time to mobilise patient power and push against the financial might and political influence of big pharma, big data, and healthcare corporations.
There is a real sense of urgency to Diarmaid’s work. The same forces denying access to COVID vaccines are currently establishing a new health sector centred on proprietary control of health data. We have to disrupt the current dynamics of the status quo and gain broad support for a more open and socially just model of healthcare.
“I want to re-establish the primacy of health as a global common good,” explains Diarmaid. “So far, our campaign successes have been individual wins, and we know these strategies can save lives. But when new medicine comes out, you have to fight for access drug-by-drug, country-by-country, and company-by-company. We will never solve these issues when you’re fighting on a case-by-case basis.
“The real challenge is to think about how we fix this entirely broken system. We are led to believe that intellectual property rights are doing good for the world. But, in reality, it’s a system that is not serving humanity in any kind of equitable or just or efficient way. If we can build a movement to help people to understand the consequences of this system, we can build political and public pressure to steer the direction of travel towards openness and equity.”
“So many of the problems we have in the pharmaceutical industry are replicated elsewhere. You see it in climate change, housing, racism, and colonialism. The behaviours, tactics and business models are really similar. They prey on public systems and generate profits for tiny numbers of people with externalised costs for the rest of society and humanity. We need to act now if we want that to change. This is not just about saving lives in this pandemic, but making progress on much more profound, systemic reforms for the future.
“I feel really privileged to be given this opportunity, but there’s also a huge sense of responsibility. The Fellowship gives us space to experiment, but more importantly, it means we can help more people and develop more leaders that can take this work to the next level. I’m really excited about working with and learning from the Fellowship community, and I’m hopeful I can bring a personal perspective that’s interesting and useful to others.”
We are thrilled to welcome Diarmaid to the Fellowship and looking forward to working and learning with him. Broadly, the general public is unaware of the morally bankrupt practices of the pharma industry and private healthcare corporations. People are persuaded by the current narrative around IP laws, which remains heavily - and quite deliberately - tipped in favour of the patent and profit model. By shifting the debate away from inaccessible, dry policy forums and towards mainstream TV and radio, there is a real opportunity to build momentum for change.
Diarmaid is a highly experienced and effective campaigner who knows how to win popular and political support. His previous work has given him an exceptional palette of tactics and strategies to take on this huge challenge. The pandemic provides a perfect backdrop for saving lives now but, also, for making a compelling case for an open, commons-centred approach to global healthcare in the future.