What causes the AIDS epidemic in Africa?

I’m not an expert on this. Being an astronomer, I like to go for the big picture and paint with very broad brushes. To me, it seems that these are the outstanding facts.

1) There is an AIDS epidemic in sub-saharan Africa; I’m always seeing numbers like 5% of the population being thrown around.
2) There hasn’t always been an AIDS epidemic, or any equivalent epidemic of venereal disease, in Africa. This has been going on for the last several decades.
3) AIDS is a pretty hard disease to catch. It cannot be present in large amounts in a society unless acts that all sane peoples regard as dangerous and wicked are prevelant.

#3 indicates that the explanation for #1 is not biological; it’s not that HIV is just so good at spreading itself. #2 and #3 together suggest that the explanation is sociological, that we should be looking for evidence of some massive moral breakdown in twentieth-century Africa.

My theory: Africa today has an AIDS epidemic for the same reason that Europe one hundred years ago had a syphillis epidemic: rapid industrialization producing a massive urban proletariat. Able bodied men flock to the new centers of employment, leaving their rural lives–including their communal bonds and social strictures–behind. Workers flood the new urban centers, overwhelming whatever meager social structures were initially in place, forming a rootless, undisciplined mass. This lack of social structure is the defining characteristic of a proletariat. Its members have no status to defend, no neighbors they feel the need to impress. In these conditions, prostitution and other vices grow to scales unimaginable in functioning communities.

In Europe, society eventually responded. Genuine communities evolved in the massive new cities. Workers became “bourgeois”. Ironically, the socialists played a large role in this process; they tried to organize the proletariat, but to organize formlessness is to destroy it. So shall it be in Africa, barring further economic dislocations. The best thing we can do for this unfortunate continent is to encourage those forces with the will and the ability to gather aggregates into communities. These forces are primarily religious–Islamic or Christian. They bring with them an uncompromising sexual ethic, one that, if embodied in communal expectations, would eliminate AIDS in short order.

Our leaders, in their infinite wisdom, have chosen the opposite strategy: attacking Islamo-Christian sexual morality, promoting “acceptance” for the acts that spread AIDS, and promoting the community-smashing political ideal of the “open society”. We’ll see how that works out.

2 Responses

  1. One unfortunate cultural practice, common in all polygamous African societies, including Islamic ones, is to provide for widows by marrying them to their former husband’s relatives, usual a brother, but sometimes a cousin, depending on kinship structures. An excellent method for disseminating the virus, especially if the widow happens to be herself immune.

  2. Hello Mr. Paterson-Seymour,

    You seem to know more about these things than I, but I don’t see why this would be much of a problem. At least, it doesn’t seem worse than widows marrying anyone else.

    There may well be things in African tradition that help spread AIDS, but I think we also need a new factor, the one I suggest or something else, to explain why all of this is happening now.

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