AIDS and COVID-19 in southern Africa

Published in: African Journal of AIDS Research
Volume 20, issue 2, 2021 , pages: 117–124
DOI: 10.2989/16085906.2021.1948877
Author(s): Arnau van Wyngaard, South Africa, Alan Whiteside, Canada


By the end of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, in February 2021, the numbers of cases and deaths in southern Africa were low in absolute and relative numbers. The BBC ran a story (which was later retracted) headlined “Coronavirus in Africa: Could poverty explain mystery of low death rate?”. A heading in the New York Post said: “Scientists can’t explain puzzling lack of coronavirus outbreaks in Africa”. Journalist Karen Attiah concluded: “It’s almost as if they are disappointed that Africans aren’t dying en masse and countries are not collapsing”. We wondered if the knowledge that southern African countries have acquired in their struggle against AIDS has contributed to a more effective approach against COVID-19. The viral origins of the diseases through zoonotic events are similar; neither has a cure, yet. In both diseases, behaviour change is an important prevention tool, and there are specific groups that are more vulnerable to infection. Equally, there are important differences: most people with COVID-19 will recover relatively quickly, while people living with HIV will need lifelong treatment. COVID-19 is extremely infectious, while HIV is less easily transmitted.

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