Eurasia and the Epidemic: The AIDS Epidemic in India, China, and Russia May Be More Destabilizing Than Terrorism. Russia's Political Importance May Be Radically Reduced

Article excerpt

Byline: George F. Will

It is arguable, perhaps even probable, that the world has never known a more dangerous moment. This would be true even if the problem were only the intersection of advanced physics and moral primitivism--the potential acquisition of nuclear weapons by theologically intoxicated people obsessed with suicidal acts of spectacular negation, such as knocking down cities.

But we may have more to fear from biology than from physics in the hands of barbarians. No human achievement has done more to lessen suffering for a larger number of people than has the conquest of infectious diseases, such as smallpox. And nothing more succinctly sums up the odiousness of our enemies than their contemplated reintroduction of some of these indiscriminate, promiscuous killers into the human story.

But as we focus, quite properly, on ways to prevent the use of infectious diseases as instruments of war, we may be paying insufficient attention to a terrifying phenomenon unrelated to terrorism. It is a phenomenon potentially more destabilizing than any act of terrorism has ever been. And it is no more secret than a steam calliope. It is the coming crest of the wave of AIDS in the three largest countries of Eurasia--Russia, India and China.

The onrushing crisis is outlined in an article published this week in Foreign Affairs, "The Future of AIDS" by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. He says the coming pandemic "threatens to derail the economic prospects of billions and alter the global military balance."

It is a truism that an epidemic requires not only a microbe but also a receptive social context. Eurasia's future may be foreshadowed by sub-Saharan Africa's present. As of a year ago, 28 million of the world's 40 million persons who were HIV-positive were sub-Saharans, among whom AIDS accounts for one in five deaths--perhaps 20 million so far. The world's reaction to this cataclysm has been mild because the region is of marginal political and economic importance. By many measures, Eberstadt writes, it contributes less than Switzerland to the world economy. But Eurasia holds five eighths of the world's population, and its combined GNP exceeds that of the United States.

In Russia, says Eberstadt, the AIDS epidemic has already "exploded," driven by increased poverty and economic and social dislocation, and new freedom--more geographical mobility, more extramarital sex, more prostitution, more drug use (perhaps 1 million drug users in Moscow alone, including 150,000 needle-using heroin and cocaine addicts). Russia's prison system has 1 million inmates, and prison camps are, Eberstadt says, "virtual incubation dishes" for HIV. …