| JOHANNESBURG, June 14
JOHANNESBURG, June 14 A decade ago, there were
plenty of doomsday forecasts asserting the AIDS pandemic would
sharply curtail African economic growth with a particular focus
on its impact on food security.
But a series of bumper maize harvests in two of the
countries worst-hit by the disease, Zambia and Malawi, suggest
the region's economies have not followed this script, thanks in
part to treatment programmes and farm subsidies.
The predicted scenarios generally went like this:
subsistence farming would be devastated because working-age
peasants would sicken or die, leaving the back-breaking labour
in the fields to the young and the old, with yields suffering.
AIDS was seen as potentially a greater economic shock to
Africa than the bubonic plague was to Europe centuries ago as
the latter killed far more of the very young and the very old
than it did those in the prime of their lives.
The examples of Malawi and Zambia may force a rethink of how
the pandemic is playing out in African economies and suggests
the continent is winning key battles against the disease.
A few years ago Malawi was gripped by food shortages and
rural residents risked crocodile attack to scour rivers for
plants that offered scant nutrition but prevented starvation.
But over the past several years, Malawi and Zambia have been
reaping bumper harvests, boosting economic growth in two
countries where small-scale farming still accounts for a big
chunk of gross domestic product.
Zambia's maize production in the 2010/2011 season was a
record of over 3 million tonnes, up from the 2.8 million tonnes
produced in the 2009/2010 season. This is over double what it
was growing a few years ago, according to government data.
Malawi has also had record crops and its maize output has
also more than doubled, from 1.7 million tonnes in 2003/04 to
3.8 million last year - an astonishing turn-around.
Both countries are expected to produce less this season than
last because of weather-related factors but should still have
more than enough to feed themselves.
This state of affairs has been mostly attributed to subsidy
programmes in both countries that provide seed and fertiliser to
hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers.
AIDS DEATHS ON DECLINE
Yet it is perhaps no accident that, according to data
compiled by UNAIDS, the AIDS death rates for both countries
peaked in 2004 and then started dropping off - a trend that
generally coincided with increasing maize production.
In Malawi, the annual number of AIDS deaths is estimated by
UNAIDS to have peaked at around 70,000 in 2004 and fell to
50,000 by 2008. Zambia's situation has been similar.
A dropping death rate suggests less workers are being felled
in the fields and also means they are not becoming incapacitated
by the illness as fast.
This is in large part because of the roll-out of
antiretrovital therapy and drugs which prolong the lives of
those affected by the disease. In Malawi over 250,000 people
have received such treatment.
The success of the drugs is underscored by the fact that
while death rates are in decline, the sheer number of people in
both countries with AIDS has still been rising, doubling over
the past two decades to around a million in each.
The prevalence rate among 15 to 49 year-olds also appears to
have peaked though it remains over 10 percent in both countries.
According to the prophets of AIDS doom, the consequences for
African economies would not stop at rural fields. Consumer
demand was seen depressed as workers died and families deprived
of breadwinners struggled to cope.
An army of feral AIDS orphans would fuel already chilling
rates of violent crime, deterring badly needed investment, while
sectors such as mining would lose vital workers and skills.
Things have not unfolded in precisely this manner.
Crime rates in South Africa, while still sky-high, have been
falling despite huge numbers of AIDS orphans, while the retail
sector on the continent has blasted off.
The Economist last year calculated that from 2001-2010, 6 of
the world's 10 fastest growing economies were in Africa - the
region which has a whole has the biggest AIDS case load.
A lot of number-crunching and analysis still needs to be
done on the role that AIDS is playing in all of this and there
are many unknowns at work here.
Fast-growing African economies and the harvests in Zambia
and Malawi may have been even bigger were it not for burdens
related to AIDS.
Rural economies may be showing unexpected resilience in the
face of the pandemic because of extended family ties. When the
household head dies, a sibling or cousin may step in to help.
AIDS is clearly an on-going human and social tragedy in
Africa. But it does seem that the risks to economic growth and
food security have not been as great as many had feared.
(Additional reporting by Mabvuto Banda in Lilongwe and Chris
Mfula on Lusaka; Editing by Ron Askew)