YAOUNDE, Cameroon– In the past couple of decades, international attention shifted to focus on the epidemic of HIV/AIDs in Africa. Of all HIV/AIDs cases, 60% are in Africa and an interconnected set of social, economic and political factors exacerbate the severity of the disease on the African continent. In the late 20th century, it was modern airplanes and transportation systems that drove the disease from Africa into the other continents. However, during the colonial era, the spread of the disease out of Cameroon into the rest of the continent was pushed by the Scramble for Africa.
Through colonial and post-colonial population movements and government policies, gender inequalities and poor access to medical care, the disease transformed into an indiscriminate killer that still remains extremely prevalent in Africa today.
During the colonial era, trade routes that facilitated the movement of natural resources and goods also unknowingly transported HIV/AIDs. The disease was carried from the forests of Cameroon, along the rivers, into Leopoldville (modern day Kinshasa). Leopoldville, the capital of Belgian Congo, was the largest and most densely populated city in Africa at that time. Once the disease entered the city, it truly became an epidemic. From Leopoldville, HIV/AIDs was passed through other African cities and trading centers.
The disease spread in patterns that were directly connected to Africa’s colonial history. The colonial governments levied taxes upon the Africans, who had to pay them in cash. This propelled Africans to work in industries where they would receive cash wages. Gold and diamonds were discovered in Southern Africa in the 19th century. Africans from across Southern Africa seasonally migrated to work in the mines so they could receive the cash wage and pay their taxes. Mining paid higher wages, so although it was extremely difficult and dangerous, Africans had few other choices.
During these labor migrations, HIV/AIDs was able to spread across Africa. In the mid-20th century, large populations migrated into the cities where the disease reached new heights. The dominance of males in urban populations encouraged the spread of the disease through commercial sex workers in cities.
Post-colonial governments were too preoccupied with independence movements and instability to confront HIV/AIDs. Many of them were dealing with new states that were still extremely politically and economically fragile. It was not until the late 1990s when both domestic and international public awareness campaigns increased the attention on the disease in Africa.
Although the international spotlight on HIV/AIDs in Africa has dimmed in recent years, the disease is still widespread on the continent. Many of the same issues that contributed to the spread of the disease in the early years still plague the continent. There is still widespread gender inequality across the continent, although South Africa has enacted extremely progressive women’s rights policies that rival those of Western nations. Medical care facilities and infrastructure are still lacking. While the disease is now treatable with medicine, many in Africa are stuck in extreme poverty and cannot afford the medication that could save their lives.