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Martin Shkreli should have been sent to prison a long time ago

There remains little justice for people living with HIV+ in society

When Martin ‘Pharma Bro’ Shkreli hiked the price of a drug used to treat HIV patients by 5000 per cent in 2015, there were protests and demonstrations in outrage, but no consequences for the man in question.

Now, in a separate scandal, the former executive is set to serve seven years in prison after being found guilty of defrauding investors in two failed hedge funds. The sentencing is a reminder that there remains little justice for the most marginalised people in society. Really, Shkreli should have been in prison a long time ago for his exploitation.

As a consultant and activist in the HIV sector, I am fully aware of the statistics that surround people living with HIV: they are more likely to be marginalised in society because of their immigration status, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and they are more likely to be poor. Because of the unjust state of the world, people living with HIV are less likely to be represented in politics and less likely to have access to healthcare.

“Society's most marginalised are most vulnerable to acquiring HIV and society's most powerful are capitalising off of that vulnerability”

For instance, despite an overall decline in new HIV diagnoses, 39 per cent of new diagnoses of HIV in the UK last year were among black African men and women, despite them making up a tiny proportion of the population. Society's most marginalised are most vulnerable to acquiring HIV and society's most powerful are capitalising off of that vulnerability.

There’s no doubt that power and influence holds down the law. Even if the law does, in theory, recognise people living with HIV as equals, those people are less able to put theories into practice because of their identity labels. These are all factors that contribute to how Shkreli could get away with hiking up the price of a life-saving medicine, but not get away with misleading incredibly rich hedge fund investors.

Looking back to 2015, after the initial outcry in response to the hiking of the medication, Shkreli stated that he would lower the price and then subsequently changed his mind. After Hillary Clinton called for him to lower the price, he tweeted a dismissive “lol”, bringing a whole different dimension to the term “Big Bad Pharma”. But although Shkreli willingly painted himself as a villain, this is not an isolated incident in healthcare and it goes beyond HIV.

“Shkreli's sentencing speaks to the wider state of play in the world today: only the powerful can bring down the powerful”

Lawyer Alex Azar was a vice-president at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly between 2007 to 2017, during which period, the company raised the prices on its insulins (essential in the treatment of diabetes) in the United States by 20.8 per cent in 2014, 16.9 per cent in 2015, and 7.5 per cent in 2016. What were the consequences for Alex Azar? Well, he is now US Secretary of Health and Human Services under Donald Trump.

Shkreli's sentencing speaks to the wider state of play in the world today. That only the powerful can bring down the powerful. That only the powerful receive absolute justice. One of the investors who Shkreli defrauded was Sarah Hassan, the daughter of a well-known pharmaceuticals executive Fred Hassan. She still ultimately made $2 million from her transaction with Shkreli, despite his actions. Her father meanwhile, has since spoken out against the regulation of drug prices by lawmakers: he is ultimately on Shkreli's side.

Shkreli really should've known better: mess with poor HIV+ people's lives, yes, but don't mess with investors’ pockets. As well as the prison sentence, Shkreli will have to forfeit more than $7.3 million dollars and has been fined an additional $75,000. It leaves us with the question: when justice can only be afforded by the powerful, what is left for the rest of us?

Bakita Kasadha is personal development trainer, poet and HIV activist. She is also a member of Y+ Board (the youth arm of the Global Network of People Living with HIV)