Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Too Poor to Care? the Salience of AIDS in Africa

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Too Poor to Care? the Salience of AIDS in Africa

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

In the last couple of decades, HIV/AIDS has evolved into a global pandemic with disastrous human and economic consequences. Recent statistics show that as of 2010, approximately 35 million people were infected with HIV worldwide (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/ AIDS [UNAIDS] 2013). In terms of mortality, the total death toll from the disease amounts to about 36 million people since the first outbreak was discovered thirty years ago.1 In 2012 alone, AIDS caused around 1.6 million deaths (UNAIDS 2013, 4). While the disease affects many developing countries, Africa is-by far-the most severely hit region in the world (Barnett and Whiteside 2006; Iqbal and Zorn 2010; Justesen 2012; Patterson 2006).2 With only 10 percent of the world's population, Africa is home to two-thirds of all recorded people living with HIV-amounting to more than 22 million people (UNAIDS 2013).3 In comparison, Latin America accounts for only 5 percent of HIV infections worldwide, while in Asia the corresponding number is 20 percent (UNAIDS 2013). To make matters worse, in the most severely affected countries-Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland- approximately a fourth of the adult population is infected with HIV (UNAIDS 2013). The social and economic implications of the HIV/AIDS crisis are profound. Apart from the obvious human suffering caused by the disease, life expectancy has declined rapidly, mortality rates have increased, and economic growth suffers, too (Barnett and Whiteside 2006, 297-99).

The existing evidence leaves little doubt that the HIV/ AIDS pandemic has a major impact on the lives of millions of Africans. It contributes to keep many African countries trapped in poverty and disease, and threatens to transform whole societies. As emphasized by Hyden (2006, 90), "The AIDS epidemic competes with globalization as the main cause of social change in Africa today . . . because it hits more directly than economic forces at the very core of the continent's social structure." Indeed, HIV/AIDS not only affects the people carrying the disease, but also their families, friends, and workplaces, for example, through increased absenteeism (Barnett and Whiteside 2006, 264-65).

In spite of this, HIV/AIDS does not figure prominently on the public agenda in Africa (Bratton, Mattes, and Gyimah-Boadi 2005, 102; de Waal 2006, 42-45; Dionne 2012; Patterson 2006, 63; Swidler and Watkins 2009). It appears paradoxical that such a life-and-death issue as AIDS is not, in general, given a higher priority by Africans, and that, compared with other issues, the salience of AIDS is low even in many highly affected countries. In other words, the question is, "Why is the salience of AIDS so low in Africa?"

While there are obviously many factors-such as national HIV prevalence and personal loss due to the disease-that affect AIDS salience, the explanation emphasized in this paper is that the low salience of the AIDS issue is in large part a consequence of the widespread poverty that exists throughout the African continent. The main worry for poor people is often coping with the lack of basic material necessities on a short-term basis. As it is possible to live with HIV for years without significant symptoms (Dionne 2011, 59), there is less reason to worry about the threat of dying from AIDS years into the future for people facing acute material constraints. In terms of the salience people attach to political issues, this means that poor people are likely to worry more about policies that address immediate concerns such as hunger and food shortage than policies, such as prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, which may yield tangible benefits in a relatively distant future.

Consequently, this paper provides a novel explanation of why the salience of AIDS is so low in Africa, despite the fact that it is the most severely affected region in the world. In doing so, the paper makes two novel contributions to the literature. …

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