Aids Crushes A Continent

Imagine 40 million orphans in sub-saharan Africa by the end of this decade, many of them organized into "kid armies." Does this grotesque recasting of "Lord of the Flies" in real life get your attention? Ron Dellums hopes so.

Dellums, tall, slender, elegant and angry, came to Congress in 1971, the first black ever elected from a white majority district. Representing Oakland, home of the Black Panthers, and fermenting Berkeley, he was radicalism incarnate. Today, 64, with gray hair and a gray beard and wearing a black turtleneck and a long flowing topcoat, he looks like a prophet who stepped simultaneously out of the Old Testament and Gentlemen's Quarterly.

These days his mind is on something of Biblical proportions--a plague akin to the Black Death that killed one third of Europe's population in the middle of the 14th century. Dellums, who in 1971 began the push for sanctions against South Africa (they were imposed in 1986), thinks the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa can crush the continent more cruelly than colonialism did. It is ravaging the sexually active cohort of people 15 to 49, "the creators of the future." It may produce an Africa of old men and women.

The Rev. Eugene Rivers, the black minister whose work with Boston's inner-city youth landed him on NEWSWEEK's cover (June 1, 1998), believes America's black leaders have a duty to sound the alarm about this. After a searing trip to Africa, he lobbied The Boston Globe, which produced, last October, the four-part series, "AIDS and the African." It merits a Pulitzer Prize. Some facts from it:

More than 12 million sub-Saharan Africans have died of AIDS. Last year 2 million died, more than five times the number of AIDS-related deaths in America in the nearly two decades since the disease arrived here. Annually, the world's wars kill only one tenth as many people as AIDS kills in Africa. Almost 23 million sub-Saharan people carry HIV, the AIDS-causing virus. Every minute 11 people worldwide are infected with HIV, 10 of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

In South Africa, one of five countries in southern Africa, there are 1,600 infections a day, the highest rate in the world (which is not unrelated to the fact that a woman is raped there every 26 seconds). In Carletonville, near the concentration of migrant men working in the gold mines, prostitution is rampant and two out of every three women under 25 have HIV and will die before they are 30. Within five years, more than 6 million of the 40 million South Africans will be infected. In five to 10 years 3.5 million South Africans will die of AIDS.

In the other four countries (Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland), one in four adults is infected. Ninety percent do not know it. Within five years 61 of every 1,000 children born in the five countries will not reach their first birthdays. By next year there will be 13 million African AIDS orphans. There already are 670,000 in Zimbabwe, and 60,000 more there each year.

In 14th-century Europe the bubonic plague was in the air, food and water. Breathing, eating and drinking were deadly. In Africa, AIDS is transmitted primarily by heterosexual sex. The problem is promiscuity. This underscores the primacy of cultural factors, including the notion that calling attention to promiscuity reveals a racist obsession with the supposedly unmastered sexuality of black men.

Modernity and primitivism are a lethal mixture in Africa. The dislocations of wars, rapid economic development, modern transportation and migrations of laborers across porous borders have put people in motion, weakened families and dissolved traditional sexual norms. As the Globe reports, to a migrant worker deep in a gold mine who has a one in 40 chance of being crushed by falling rock, the threat of HIV is a relatively remote worry. But when he visits his family, after visiting prostitutes, he visits HIV upon his wife. Many male secondary school teachers sleep with their students, and a widespread belief is that sex with a virgin, including girls as young as 10, can cure AIDS.

Casual sex with multiple partners in the midst of an AIDS pandemic amounts to suicide on a continental scale. What is to be done? Dellums, a man of government, is looking for money from governments, African and others. (Imagine when the pandemic explodes in India, he warns.) And from corporations doing business in Africa and finding that they must constantly overhire to allow for AIDS attrition. How, Dellums asks, can you even sell insurance when actuarial tables become unreliable?

Rivers, a man of Protestantism's culture of exhortation and personal regeneration, is looking for a John Wesley. A lot of Wesleys. In 18th-century England, rapid modernization and urbanization brought social disintegration that was exacerbated by a chemical plague, of sorts, a product by the new science of distilling--gin. Traveling 250,000 miles on horseback to deliver 30,000 sermons to largely illiterate audiences, Wesley enkindled a broad cultural, meaning behavioral, reform, particularly among women, who civilized men. Rivers believes, plausibly, that religion will be central to any successful response to the pandemic.

Dellums does not disagree. Julian Bond of the NAACP invokes W.E.B. Du Bois on "a loss of ancient African chastity." But Rivers knows that "the behavior dimension" is "the third rail" that "no one wants to touch." The Globe reports that "his inflammatory charge that many African men are promiscuous, and his call for abstinence, may win him unlikely allies among some white conservatives, moralists, and other so-called Eurocentrics--thereby alienating his liberal, civil rights base."

So, Africa's calamity may be compounded by absurdities in American political culture, one manifestation of which is that reference to a stark fact as an "inflammatory charge." Are there really liberals who would remain passive about that calamity rather than make common cause with "moralists"?