picture by mohamed mohamed mahmoud hassan CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Yesterday, on World AIDS Day, WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti announced that, while the world was focused on the COVID pandemic, 460,000 people died from AIDS in Africa in 2020. Africa is home to two out of every three new HIV infections worldwide, nearly 2,500 new HIV infections every day.

Success Story?

This is a success story! Despite the challenges, Africa has made significant progress against HIV in the past decade, reducing new infections by 43% and nearly halving AIDS-related deaths. 86% of people with HIV know their status, and 76% are receiving antiretroviral therapy.

Challenges

The major problem is that cases continue to grow. Many people are not able to access diagnosis or treatment. Anti-gay discrimination and persecution are enshrined in law in many African countries. But HIV and AIDS are prevalent among other vulnerable populations, particularly girls and young women. Even so, the struggle continues. Mother to child transmission is close to being eliminated in Botswana.

And then there is the history of inequality, a legacy of empire. When drugs were first developed in the West they were prohibitively expensive. It took a long struggle before cheaper generic versions became available for less wealthy nations. Sounds familiar? Dr Moeti made this comparison:

Nearly 70 per cent (of HIV sufferers) live in the WHO African Region, where only 4.5% of people are fully vaccinated against COVID-19

She continued: “As efforts to tackle COVID-19 continue gathering force, and the world prepares itself against future pandemics, we risk repeating many of the same mistakes that have kept us from ending AIDS. Addressing inequality is critical to ending both AIDS and COVID-19 and preventing future pandemics – potentially saving millions of lives, and safeguarding our society.”

Saving Christmas

Before the emergence of the Omicron variant we were encouraged to believe that Covid might be over. Now, while we wait for our third jabs in order to ‘save Christmas,’ perhaps we in the west should be demanding that our governments learn the lessons from HIV/AIDS and stop hoarding treatments and vaccines that are in short supply in less developed countries. Christmas is supposed to be about giving. So let us give the vaccines to those that need them most.

Saving Ourselves

If our governments are not moved by such moral and ethical considerations, perhaps self interest will persuade them.

According to Sky News, the OECD has said that Omicron would mean a downgrade for its growth outlook, but that it was too early to say quite how much damage it would cause.

We G20 countries have spent about $10trn to support our economies in the pandemic – it costs $50bn to bring vaccines to the entire population./

COVID-19: Help vaccinate poor countries or face more new variant shocks, rich economies told | Business News | Sky News

HIV/AIDS eradication programmes, like all health care programmes, have been hit as scarce resources were diverted to treat the COVID pandemic. We are beginning to learn that we cannot eradicate one without the other. The reason that so many COVID variants continue to emerge in Africa is partly because vaccination rates are so low. This creates a huge pool of infected people where variants can develop.

But the ongoing AIDS epidemic has left another pool of immuno-suppressed people who act as a “training gym” for the virus, giving it lots of opportunities to mutate. One woman with advanced HIV carried the Covid virus for 216 days, during which time it developed 30 mutations.

The message is clear. If we want to get rid of Covid, we have to eliminate AIDS.

Novel diseases have joined the Climate Crisis as existential threats to our world. The World Health Organisation has an ambitious programme to secure a worldwide agreement on eliminating pandemics by 2024. I hope they succeed. But we socialists can help too. Inequality breeds pandemics. End inequality and we might just save the world.

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