In the decades since HIV/AIDS first entered our awareness, it has become abundantly clear that Africa was not only the crucible for the disease but has always been the continent most affected.
There is a general consensus that HIV – the human immunodeficiency virus – is a mutation of SIV – simian immunodeficiency virus. It is also generally accepted that SIV was passed from its monkey hosts to humans in Africa in the late 19th or early 20th century. (Estimates date back as far as 1884.)
The United Nations AIDS programme estimated that, in 2015, out of a global population of 36.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS, something like 25.5 million people were in West, East, Central and Southern Africa.
It has also been estimated that, by the 1960s, at least 2,000 people in Africa were infected with HIV and that the so-called ‘slim disease’ that affected thousands of Africans in the 70s was, in fact, AIDS.
And yet the first official diagnoses of AIDS in Africa were two white South African gay men in 1982.
In other words, the disease was first identified in two members of a stigmatised, non-indigenous minority group when it had been ravaging thousands of members of the continent’s indigenous population for decades. What is more, it seems they contracted it in the USA so ‘imported’ it into Africa.
Even when the World Health organisation met to assess the global impact of the disease in 1983, African estimates were based largely on the assumption that the so-called ‘slim disease’ had, in fact, been AIDS. More accurate, ‘real time’ data simply wasn’t available for most African countries.
Indeed, the data was so poor the Director General of the WHO, Halfdan Mahler, is reported as saying in 1985 that AIDS wasn’t a major problem for Africa. He retracted the statement less than a year later.
I’ve been thinking about this for a very long time. It raises so many questions and issues but I’m still not sure I can get my head around it. Indeed, it’s taken me weeks to finish this post and I’m still not sure I’m going to be able to write something comprehensible. There are too many issues.
I’m not really surprised that the resources weren’t there to pick up the early manifestation of AIDS in Africa. The African continent has always been under-resourced compared with the West. (Although, having said that, the South African cases show that that country did have the resources – but the apartheid regime meant they weren’t available to everyone.)
And, historically, we’ve never really been bothered by lots of people dying in developing countries – whether it’s through famine, disease or violence. Perhaps this is down to an assumption that they’re more vulnerable to these things because they live in a tropical climate. Or just the instrinsic racism that comes with our colonial heritage. Or a combination of both.
Research on the disease is the West was retarded because it was seen as a disease that predominantly affected gay men. (For example, compare it with the rapid response to Legionnaire’s Disease, which affected a far smaller number of people.) Although there’s a certain irony that AIDS was labelled ‘the gay plague’ in part because gay men had better access to health care than some other groups.