Nothing new in the South – HIV: the biggest weapon of mass destruction of our time
A reflection in 2007
An infection by a lethal virus every six seconds. Every day 8,000 Aids deaths. In 2006, five million new infections. Worldwide almost 40 million HIV-positive people. These figures are frightening; they exceed the powers of our imagination. These are the annual statistics from the United Nations. In the West they may be noted with resignation or they are just ignored. The pandemic does not register as a threat there because the numbers of infections – 275,570 reported cases in Western Europe’s 22 countries in December 2006 – are small in global terms. The threat of Aids death has lost its shock value in the West because of a false notion that antiretroviral medication can cure the disease. Those not affected by it tend to trivialize or even evade the pandemic.
First it was the “gay cancer”. Then it came for the prostitutes and the drug addicts. Eventually it came for the blacks. In between, in the 1980s, a shock wave took hold briefly when it was realised that actually everybody was in danger. Nevertheless, in the collective consciousness of the rich parts of the world, Aids – the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – has remained a curse which afflicts others: the deviants, the failed, the poor, the Africans. Like the medieval Black Plague, the Aids pandemic is inexplicable – it seems to rage in another place, at another time. And because, to paraphrase Albert Camus, a dead man weighs something only if one has seen him dead, history’s millions of Aids-corpses are “nothing but the smoke of the imagination”.
The African must surely feel like those people in Camus’ novel The Plague who are quarantined in the coastal city of Oran. A giant sightscreen surrounds their continent; they suffer and die unnoticed. But the virus transcends fortress walls and state borders. Unlike the medieval city, the expanding citadel of affluence, the European Union, cannot close its fortified gates and hope to be spared. Aids is another phenomenon of globalisation; at least the virus takes on its characteristics. It travels around the word like jet planes, data streams, cash flows or waves of immigration; it is fast, unpredictable and knows no frontiers.
The pandemic connects the North and the South, but also separates the two hemispheres. The HIV-infected in affluent countries reach older age thanks to better therapies; Aids has become a chronic illness. In developing countries, immune deficiency is fatal; it claims ever more lives and depresses life expectancy. For those who are literate the threat diminishes. Those who cannot afford to acquire costly medicines die. “The truth about Aids is a universal truth about the world today,” as the Swedish author Henning Mankell wrote.
The epidemic is spreading almost uncontrollably and at a high-speed in countries such as Kazakhstan, Estonia, Russia and the Ukraine. The rate is even more dramatic in India, where 2,5 million are infected. The new economic superpower has one of the world’s highest numbers of infected, steadily catching up with South Africa, which still tops the table in the death statistics. But those governments that remain indifferent or uncertain can observe in South Africa and its neighbours what will befall their societies if they fail to take swift counteraction. In the southern African region, the pandemic has already entered its devastating phase. There are images of overcrowded hospices, endless funeral processions, overflowing cemeteries. The general rate of infection in Swaziland is 39%, and 56% of pregnant women are infected – these are distressing world records. The average life expectancy in Botswana has dropped to 34,9. In Zambia, twice as many teachers die every year than are being trained at colleges. In Malawi families go hungry because of shortages of agricultural labour. The army of Aids orphans has swelled to 12 million.
Aids exacerbates misery. Aids leads to exploding health costs. Aids consumes growth. Aids undermines development. As the virus destroys the immune system of the human body, so does the epidemic contaminate the fabric of society. In the end, villages will fall silent, just as they did in Europe during the Black Plague, when Petrarch of Verona reported: “No more can you hear voices, sorrow, cries of pain, weeping.”
The American secret service, the CIA, in spring 2001 called HIV/Aids the “biggest threat” to democracy, security and stability in Africa. Then came the autumn, the 11th of September, and since then the biggest threat is something quite different: global terrorism. But billions of people feel no threat from terrorism. They are threatened by poverty, hunger, disease. From their point of view, the most dreadful weapon of mass destruction is called Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Since its discovery in 1981, about 25 million have fallen victim to the pathogen. You don’t have to be Cassandra to prophesy that in 30 years the epidemic will have extinguished more lives than the Second World War. These are depressing prognosis, but they don’t seem to concern the world powers much.
Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy for Aids, explained in 2002 during a trip to Ethiopia: “On September 11, 2001, 3,000 people died in a horrific terrorist act and within a few days, the world was talking about hundreds of billions of dollars to fight terrorism. But in 2001, 2,3 million Africans died of Aids and you have to beg and plead to find a few hundred million dollars to spend.” The angry Canadian ex-diplomat accuses the smug, satiated rich regions of the world of mass murder by complacency. In that light the global hysteria that greeted a few thousand cases of SARS or the panic about bird flu seem absurd.
Beyond Africa, the pandemic’s social, economic and security “collateral damage” is not understood. It shatters nation-states and ruins economies. It aggravates crises and conflicts. It jeopardises the stability of entire regions. But it seems as though the world’s elite will not learn from Africa’s experiences. They have more important things on their minds than to deal with the most devastating catastrophe of our time. Their indifference, as Stephen Lewis puts it, is obscene.
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Hardcover: 207 pages – Publisher: Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH (August 31, 2007)
Language: German – ISBN-10: 3462039253 – ISBN-13: 978-3462039252
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Paperback – Bastei – Luebbe –
Language: German – ISBN-10: 3404606159 – ISBN-13: 978-3404606153