Rosalind C. Morris

Public Culture, 2008


The year was 2000. A group of black youths about sixteen years of age, most of them self-professed Christians, answered my question about how they saw the AIDS epidemic in their community, a mining town just south of Johannesburg, by invoking HIV infectivity rates of more than 95 percent. They were confident about the numbers, and they did not evidence even the slightest doubt about the viral etiology of AIDS. They prophesied death for all the infected. I was astonished, horrified, and skeptical. “But this means that everyone shall die,” I remarked, incredulously. “Yes,” they said. “Everyone will die.” This is probably the most epidemiologically well-surveyed community in southern Africa, given the twin facts that migrant labor forms its center and that migrant labor is considered the primary vector of most HIV transmission in the sub-Saharan region. At the time of the interview, levels for HIV infection in this group’s age cohort ranged from 2 percent for boys and 13 percent for girls fifteen years of age, to 35 percent for men and 68 percent of women twenty-five years of age. The overall community average was estimated at about 28 percent, although there are competing assessments that put the rates as high as 41 percent. The rate of HIV infection was, in short, astronomical, and it betokened a future of enormous suffering and grief. But even in the worst instances, the prevalence rates did not approach those invoked by the youths with whom I spoke.

View the paper here:  Rush/Panic/Rush: Speculations on the Value of Life and Death in South Africa’s Age of Epidemic