Summary and book reviews of The Invisible People by Greg Behrman

The Invisible People

How the U. S. Has Slept through the Global AIDS Pandemic, the Greatest Humanitarian Catastrophe of Our Time

by Greg Behrman

The Invisible People
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  • Published:
    Jun 2004, 304 pages

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Book Summary

Intensely researched and vividly detailed, The Invisible People is a groundbreaking and compellingly readable account of the appalling destruction caused by more than two decades of American abdication in the face of the defining humanitarian catastrophe of our time.

The Invisible People is a revealing and at times shocking look inside the United States's response to one of the greatest catastrophes the world has ever known -- the global AIDS crisis. A true story of politics, bureaucracy, disease, internecine warfare, and negligence, it illustrates that while the pandemic constitutes a profound threat to U.S. economic and security interests, at every turn the United States has failed to act in the face of this pernicious menace.

During the past twenty years, more than 65 million people across the globe have become infected with HIV. Already 25 million around the world have died -- more than all of the battle deaths in the twentieth century combined. By decade's end there will be an estimated 25 million AIDS orphans. If trends continue, by 2025, 250 million global HIV-AIDS cases are a distinct possibility.

Beyond the ineffable human toll, the pandemic is reshaping the social, economic, and geopolitical dimensions of our world. Eviscerating national economies, creating an entire generation of orphans, and destroying military capacity, the disease is generating pressures that will lead to instability and possibly even state failure and collapse in sub-Saharan Africa. Poised to explode in Eastern Europe, Russia, India, and China, AIDS will have devastating and destabilizing effects of untold proportions that will reverberate throughout the global economy and the international political order.

In this gripping account that draws on more than two hundred interviews with key political insiders, policy makers, and thinkers, Greg Behrman chronicles the red tape, colossal blunders, monumental egos, power plays, and human pain and suffering that comprise America's woeful response to the AIDS crisis. Behrman's unprecedented access takes you inside the halls of power from seminal White House meetings to tumultuous turf battles at World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, heated debates in the United Nations, and chilling discoveries at the Centers for Disease Control. Behrman also brings us into the field to meet the people who live in the midst of AIDS devastation in places like a school yard in Namibia, the red-light district in Bombay, and an orphanage in South Africa.

Intensely researched and vividly detailed, The Invisible People is a groundbreaking and compellingly readable account of the appalling destruction caused by more than two decades of American abdication in the face of the defining humanitarian catastrophe of our time.

Table of Contents


A Feeble Beginning (1983-1990)

  • One: A Contentious Start, Buck Passing
  • Two: The Prism of the U.S. Experience, Absence of Leadership
  • Three: A Maverick Goes to Geneva, Turf Wars

Quiescence (1990-1996)

  • Four: Voices in the Wilderness, Race and Space
  • Five: No Advocacy from Above, No Groundswell from Below
  • Six: The Clinton Enigma, Bunker and Hunker Down

An Awakening of Sorts (1996-1999)

  • Seven: Drugs Change the Landscape, A Mission Crystallizes
  • Eight: The Clash, A Forum
  • Nine: Evidence-Based Advocacy, Start the Press

Opportunities Squandered (1998-2000)

  • Ten: Continental Abdication, The Ultimate Crutch
  • Eleven: A Failure to Recalibrate, Turf and Neglect
  • Twelve: A Foiled Plan, "Too Little, Too Late"

A Great Awakening? (2001-2003)

  • Thirteen: A Bleak Outlook, Finally -- A Vehicle
  • Fourteen: Righting the Response, Getting Religion
  • Fifteen: Behind Closed Doors, Coalescence

A Note on Sources




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BookBrowse Review


Behrman makes a compelling case why the worldwide AIDS crisis is not someone else's problem. Browse this book even if you have no intention of buying it. This is because just reading this excerpt alone, and the excellent interview with the author, will undoubtedly leave you considerably more aware of the current situation, and the forecasted future, than the great majority of the general public - and it is only if people know enough to ask the right questions that there is any chance of things changing.  

Media Reviews

The Washington Post's Book World

[The] book may be too late and too far ahead of its time Its likely readers will be people who already care and those, in the distant future, who seek to answer a question that Washington Post editorial writer Sebastian Mallaby posed almost two years ago How could our rich and civilized society allow a known and beatable enemy to kill millions of people?

The Washington Post - Lisa Keen

Greg Behrman's assessment of America's response to the global AIDS pandemic is reminiscent of Randy Shilts's 1988 bestseller, And the Band Played On. Where Shilts traced the shortcomings of the federal government's response to AIDS in the United States in the 1980s, Behrman documents its failures on other continents, particularly Africa.

The New York Times - Sheri Fink

Well researched and unsparing, The Invisible People presents many of the more maddening and inexcusable reasons for the languishing American response to global AIDS in the 1990's, including Congressional antagonism to foreign aid spending, passive racism, and disarray among United Nations health officials, who failed to offer plausible global figures on H.I.V. prevalence until 1998. Mr. Behrman also points to the early silence of domestic AIDS activists, African-American leaders and heads of countries being ravaged by the disease, although he fails to suggest what types of health programs could have been used to fight global AIDS before effective treatments existed.

Kirkus Reviews

A study of the US government's failure to react meaningfully to an epidemic that is refashioning the social, economic, and geopolitical dimensions of our world. ....At once white paper and polemical study of demographic and epidemiological trends--and a hard glimpse of government's role in world healthcare.

Publishers Weekly

Behrman's account, impassioned but fair, describes a moral failure that escalated to tragic dimensions because we allowed its victims to remain invisible for too long.

Booklist - Donna Chavez

Behrman traces how the last two decades of ultraconservative American government combined with such world events as the fall of the former Soviet Union to facilitate universal denial and the diversion of valuable resources, and hence, treatment, from the millions dying for lack of medical and scientific attention.

Library Journal - Grant A. Fredericksen

Urgent action was needed, and the UN was seen as the best vehicle to lead the fight; the United States was the obvious country to provide the bulk of the aid. Unfortunately, politics, ignorance, and denial intervened, and AIDS has now outstripped medical efforts to stop its spread. [This is] riveting and important reading. Highly recommended.

Author Blurb Theodore C. Sorensen
Save this book to explain to our survivors how we failed to act.

Author Blurb Robert Bilheimer - Oscar nominated Director and Producer, A Closer Walk
Greg Behrman's brilliant account of the U.S. response--or lack of it--to the AIDS pandemic has all the intrigue, suspense, and profound melancholy of a Le Carre novel. Mr. Behrman's story, however, is fact, not fiction, and therein lies the tragedy. There are heroes aplenty in Mr. Behrman's book-- tireless advocates for health, dignity, and human rights--and they are its inspiration. I can't imagine a more important book to read at this point in time. If ever there was a wake-up call, this is it.

Author Blurb Philip Bennett, Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News, The Washington Post
Greg Behrman has solved a mystery at the center of the worldwide AIDS epidemic as tens of millions have died, why have rich and powerful countries responded so feebly? His answer is profoundly disturbing and provocative, and gripping reading. Written with passion and skill, The Invisible People reveals that when it comes to AIDS, all politics is global. This is not simply a story of victims and villains, but of quixotic heroes, and of the mortal drama at the intersection of science, politics, money and foreign policy. Behrman shows that the humanitarian crisis of AIDS is also 'one of the deadliest policy failures in the history of the U.S. government.' It will haunt us for generations.

Author Blurb Joshua Cooper Ramo - former Senior Editor, World Section, Time
Greg Behrman's The Invisible People is what reporting on global AIDS has been missing a detailed, patient and balanced assessment of how a complete tragedy unfolded more or less in public view. Fifty years from now, when the world wonders how our modern society let 100 million people die of a disease for which treatment was just hours away by plane, Behrman's book will help provide the answer. His vivid prose makes a terrible tragedy more comprehensible--and more awful. This is a great and important book.

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