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Not Only Slavery, but AIDS Too

Posted on Apr 19, 2012
Jon Rawlinson (CC-BY)

By John Donnelly

To see long excerpts from “Tinderbox” at Google Books, click here.

“Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It”
A book by Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin

Just a few months ago, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a leading firebrand of the global AIDS movement, Stephen Lewis, said at an AIDS conference that the money given to Africa by the U.S. global AIDS initiative called PEPFAR and by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria amounted to “partial reparations” to the continent. Africa, he noted, was giving to the world thousands of health care workers whom it had educated, saving the West billions of dollars annually.

In his remarkable speech, Lewis, co-director of AIDS-Free World, said the payback was for multiple reasons: “From slavery to today’s extractive industries of minerals and oil, Africa is financing the world. The modern world’s economy was built on Africa’s human and natural resources, and it depends on them to this day. ... We owe Africa what we give to Africa. And a hell of a lot more to boot.”

As Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin suggest in their new book, “Tinderbox,” there may be another reason that the West should do more to fight the AIDS epidemic: Colonialists’ aggressive trade practices may have opened new travel routes in central Africa that helped spread a disease rooted in a dense forest to the world beyond.

book cover


Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It


By Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin


Penguin Press HC, 432 pages


Buy the book

Timberg, a Washington Post journalist, and Halperin, an epidemiologist and medical anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, write that researchers found a strain of the SIV virus among chimpanzees in the bush of the Congo River basin. The virus, which closely resembles a strain of the HIV-1 group M, the deadliest AIDS strain, traveled from chimps to humans through a cut or wound. Genetic testing has traced the origins back to the Kinshasa area, most likely arriving there in the blood of a worker in the bush meat trade. That worker spread the virus to others through sex. “Colonialists had had the effect of transforming the region into a tinderbox capable of creating the AIDS epidemic,” the authors write. “Then it fanned the flames.”

The theory outlined in “Tinderbox” could support the case for Africa reparations, or at least for more generous giving to fight AIDS. And, indeed, the fight against AIDS is particularly vulnerable now: Several European donors have cut their funding for the Global Fund in part because of the global economic crisis, and the Global Fund has canceled new rounds of giving until 2014. (The Obama administration has pledged to increase its Global Fund donation to $4 billion over three years; activists are arguing for $6 billion.)

Timberg and Halperin devote just the first sixth of the book to their exploration of the roots of the epidemic. The remainder is AIDS 101, focusing in particular on the last two decades. Readers unfamiliar with the epidemic will find it valuable. For those who know something about AIDS, the discoveries are few here—with perhaps one exception.

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