MR RAMIL BURDEN, VICE PRESIDENT AND GENERAL MANAGER, GSK MALAYSIA AT GLAXOSMITHKLINE
“We know so much more about HIV than we did in the 1980s and medicine has advanced so much in the past 30 years that we should all have the confidence to treat PLHIV as equals in the workplace and in society”.
Q. In moving forward with their AIDS response, the Malaysian AIDS Foundation has embarked on an ambitious goal to legislate the HIV/AIDS Workplace Protection Policy for People Living with HIV (PLHIV) in Malaysia. However, there has been considerable resistance from some Malaysian employers who still harbour reservations about employing PLHIV and are uncertain how a HIV-positive workforce might impact the company’s bottom line.
What can be done to address this obstacle and obtain the buy-in from the corporate sector which is very crucial if the HIV/AIDS Workplace Policy is to be successfully enacted in the near future?
A. While it is perhaps understandable that some companies still have reservations, most if not all, these reservations are outdated or based on misunderstanding. When HIV/AIDS first came into the spotlight in the 1980s, its message was based on fear. I remember growing up in the UK where the public health advertisement was “don’t die of ignorance” and showed a scary tip of an iceberg – its effect was to scare people! In hindsight, this shock tactic has, I think, left an impression of HIV – how it spreads, how deadly it is – which doesn’t match the real world.
That doesn’t mean we should dismiss the concerns that still persist today, but it does mean we have the tools, facts and experience to engage and provide reassurance that tackling this issue is right for businesses, its customers and its employees – both those living with HIV and those not.
We know so much more about HIV than we did in the 1980s and medicine has advanced so much in the past 30 years that we should all have the confidence to treat PLHIV as equals in the workplace and in society.
As a research and development-based pharmaceutical company that has worked in the field of HIV for well over three decades, we see the real changes in treatment and prevention of HIV. We are living in an era – today – where HIV will be treated as any other chronic disease. So, the question is, would you discriminate against someone with Diabetes or COPD (say)? The answer is of course no.
When you think about it this way, we have to move forward in providing workplace protection. Businesses that do provide such protection have a role to play here in helping support and engage those companies that still have concerns. By working together and learning from each other, I think we can get to where we need to be quickly. Legislation is a top-down solution in many ways, I would like to see a bottom-up approach also – and that can be achieved by talking to each other.
Q. Stigma and discrimination remain the biggest barriers in AIDS response. Besides enduring the shame associated with their HIV status, it deters People Living with HIV from accessing readily-available treatment which ultimately affects their health and causing them to lose their jobs and livelihood.
How can corporate entities contribute towards efforts to reduce AIDS-related stigma and discrimination? Do they have specific roles and responsibilities that can help to change the mindset of society at large?
A. Stigma and discrimination are the biggest barriers to addressing HIV/AIDS, of that there is no doubt. Business has a key role to play here by acting as a role model employer (we at GSK call it being a “modern employer”) and by partnering with others to ensure that we support the work they do in the community. That is one of the reasons we are so proud of supporting the Malaysian AIDS Foundation in their work.
Q. The CSR landscape in Malaysia has changed tremendously over the past 10 years where we can see a more inclusive response to social cause. What is your company’s future direction in terms of CSR and investment in social work? Do you have a strategic plan or framework in place to guide you in your CSR endeavours? How does your organisation identify priority areas for intervention?
A. CSR has really changed over the past decade. It used to be just about handing over a cheque. Now it’s more strategic. At GSK, we approach CSR in a more integrated way – by sharing our expertise and knowledge as well as our resources. For example, we have many business skills which NGOs lack. So, to help address this, we have a programme called “PULSE” where an employee with specific skills needed by an NGO is sent on secondment (on full pay) to the NGO to help build their capabilities in areas such as finance, communications, logistics and research. Over the past decade, 770 employees have volunteered helping support 127 non-profit partners around the world.
Another example is our ground-breaking partnership with Save the Children. The goal of this partnership is to save a million lives over 5 years. It’s ambitious. But what’s interesting about this partnership is that it really is a partnership – Save the Children and GSK, for example, are working together in R&D to produce an antiseptic gel for sealing umbilical cords. A project that we at GSK would never have thought of if it wasn’t for Save the Children.
So, you can see, partnerships are evolving – becoming more long-term and strategic. It’s an exciting time!
Q. Being a leading pharmaceutical company with global reach and influence in the healthcare industry, how do you foresee pharmaceutical companies such as GSK contributing towards meeting the goal of ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030, particularly in the quest of opening up access to HIV treatment?
A. We at GSK are immensely proud of the work we have done, not only in bringing new and better medicines to treat HIV/AIDS, but also in widening access. For the past decade, GSK has consistently topped the “Access to Medicines Index” which ranks companies by their efforts to address pressing healthcare needs across the world from basic research all the way to the last mile. That doesn’t mean we think everything has been solved. Far from it. So, the role of a company like GSK is to continuously build on what we have done – and what we have learned that works – and build new partnerships to finish the job. Not resting on our laurels is the key!