Saturday, July 20, 2024

HIV/AIDS to Corona Virus: Historical Perspective by a Zambian


By Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D. Professor of Sociology


I was doing my Ph. D. in Sociology in the United States under the sponsored scholarship of the famous University of Zambia Staff Development Fellowship. The year was 1983. The news was buzzing and spreading like wildfire. A new killer disease that was sexually transmitted, attacked the immune system. It was killing mostly gay or homosexual men in the United States. I bought Newsweek Magazine and read the whole story. When I read the New African magazine, the report said this new Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was affecting mainly heterosexual men and women in Africa. In sensational reports, the Western media identified Uganda as the AIDS ground zero in Africa. I was alarmed. I knew that if this new disease reached Zambia, it was going to be a disaster. Many Zambians would die including my relatives.

I went to work. I bought a few copies of the Newsweek magazine with the article and mailed it to as many relatives as possible. As a patriotic Zambian, I sent a copy to my fellow Zambian lecturers at the University of Zambia and even the Ministry of Health. Given the havoc that the Corona Virus pandemic is playing in the world today, this is a story of how this author alone in his own way tried to help to fight HIV/AIDS in Zambia over a period 15 years from 1983 to 1998.

First, I will explain why I am writing this article. Second, I will describe what I did on my personal level to help fight HIV/AIDS and what I witnessed about HIV/AIDS in Zambia from 1987 to 1989. Third, I will describe how I used my scientific knowledge and skills to investigate HIV/AIDS. Lastly, what I think today about the Corona Virus in Zambia and the global world.

Why Write this Article?

When the news about the Corona Virus spread in January 2020, the first questions I asked myself are: “How many Zambians lived through and experienced the terrible HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1980s?” “How many of the 18.3 million Zambians beside myself, are alive today who may have lived through the HIV/AIDS pandemic?”

According to the Zambia Population Census of 2010, the country ten years ago had a population of 13 million. The proportion of the country that was under 15 years old was 45.4%, those between 15 and 24 years old was 20.8%, those between 25 to 54 years old was 27.04% and those from 55 to 64 years were only 2.8% and those above 65 years old are even smaller at 2.6%. Zambians who were born before 1965 or are 55 years or older today in 2020, constitute an estimate of 5.4% which is about 972,000 Zambians. Those who were born before 1955 or are 65 years and older are only 2.6% or 468,000 Zambians.

These are the few of the 18.3 million Zambians who experienced the crisis of the wide spread illnesses and deaths of too many close relatives, friends, schoolmates, and workmates from HIV/AIDS crisis. If these people are alive, they may provide advice to younger Zambians and even government on how to respond to the Corona virus. A large population of Zambians, who were born after 1990 or are 30 years old, constitute 66.2% or 11.9 million Zambians who never lived through the HIV/AIDS crisis. I hope this article can provide a perspective about the past of HIV/AIDS and the present Corona Virus crisis although the 2 pandemics are not the same.

HIV/AIDS Fight 1987-1989

AIDS Black and White – A sign about HIV/AIDS prevention on the Great North near the North-End of Cairo Road in Lusaka in 1993.
AIDS Black and White – A sign about HIV/AIDS prevention on the Great North near the North-End of Cairo Road in Lusaka in 1993.

As I was pursuing my Ph. D., I began to read as much information as I could about the epidemic. I mailed a lot of the information to relatives, friends, in Lusaka as well as in the rural area to my home villages in Lundazi and the Ministry of Health. I arrived back in Zambia after my Ph. D in 1987 to resume my work as Research Fellow at the then Institute of African Studies of the University of Zambia. People were dying. I lost count how many times I went to the Leopards Hill cemetery in Lusaka to bury relatives, friends, and workmates. Those were very sad years in Zambia.

Of the numerous deaths I witnessed, one shocked me for its sudden swiftness. This death was to be one amongst the numerous that was to anger and infuriate me about some of the tragic and unfortunate panic, hysteria and myths that surrounded HIV/AIDS pandemic at the time.

Virtually anybody in Zambia at the time who died after two days, six months, three months, or one week of illness was assumed to have died of HIV-AIDS disease. There were no reliable widespread HIV tests yet. The disgracing and shameful assumption was that the person or their spouse was sexually promiscuous. Some of the deaths of friends and relatives stood out.

This friend was at his prime. I will call him George. He was married and had four children. He drank. George looked healthy and was not the sickly type. He fell ill on Monday. We, his close friends and fellow employees, visited him on Wednesday morning at his house. George was sitting up in his living room and in a surprisingly lively cheerful way, described his symptoms as fever. He had opted to go to a traditional healer in one of the nearby compounds. He explained that he was given an herb that made him purge to cleanse his stomach. He said he thought he was going to be all right. By Friday that week though, George was so sick that he was admitted at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH). I visited him in the hospital ward on that April sunny Saturday afternoon in 1988.

The hospital ward was relatively quiet, bright, and immaculately clean. I was shocked that this man who had looked very healthy only Wednesday that week was suddenly fighting for his life. George’s throat was almost swollen shut. He was making loud, hissing, desperate breathing noises. Something was swollen on his neck the size of a golf ball. Later I was to find out from his official death certificate that this was a swollen lymph node. I stood there by his hospital bed, stunned at the sudden turn of events. After a while, he opened his eyes and saw me. He hissed when he tried to mouth something but nothing came out. I gestured a finger to my lips that he shouldn’t say anything. George continued to breathe struggling at every breath making a loud crooking sound. I will remember that awful sound for the rest of my life. After a while, I took two steps back to leave. George desperately stretched and reached his hand out to me. I held his hand instinctively.

“D-o-n’t ….go……” he hoarsely hissed after breathing in very deeply making a big effort. I felt guilty for wanting to leave. He looked scared of being left alone. I stood there until his wife came back from an errand. She and I exchanged some brief words and I left.

The next day on Sunday at noon, as my family and I were eating lunch, word came that my friend had died the previous night. If there was anything for me that was later to epitomize the painful tragedy of some of the hysteria that might have been the botched HIV-AIDS “diagnosis” or some of the erroneous beliefs, it was this death.

Later, a clinic attendant who knew George the deceased friend said the friend may have had a normal bacteria infection. But George may have panicked fearing he had HIV-AIDS and delayed getting immediate and standard antibiotic treatment. He may have sought herbal treatment from a traditional healer (there is nothing wrong with this) out of desperation fearing and believing he had HIV-AIDS which had no cure in the modern hospital at the time.

My HIV/AIDS Scientific Paper

AIDS – A sign about HIV/AIDS prevention near the present day Manda Mall on the Great East Road in Lusaka in 1993.
AIDS – A sign about HIV/AIDS prevention near the present day Manda Mall on the Great East Road in Lusaka in 1993.

In December 1989, I sadly left Zambia to work in the United States. I began to read more deeply and widely about the scientific controversy about HIV/AIDS. The more I read the history of pandemics, human anthropological biological evolutionary aspects of viruses and bacteria, about some of the myths and hysteria around HIV/AIDS, the more I got infuriated. What made me angry is not so much that many Zambians were dying of this new disease, but that too many might have been dying because of anxiety, possible misdiagnosis, and misinformation. I knew that if some of the information I knew was spread widely among Zambians, many lives would have been saved.

Since there was no modern drug yet that could cure the HIV virus that caused AIDS, I spent some time investigating and researching for some herbal possible treatment. It was very difficult at the time because the internet did not exist. I wrote a 30-page scientific paper that I thought could be published in African journals. The paper is titled: The Deadly Fallacy of the HIV-AIDS-Death Hypothesis: Exposing the Epidemic that Is Not. The journals rejected the well-written scientific paper that would have helped us educated elite Africans to understand the HIV/AIDS controversy better at the time. I sent this paper to so many friends. Twenty-four years later, I now understand very clearly why the paper was rejected for publication. Academic journals are very conservative. No editor or reviewers will endorse or publish something that is new and controversial that even they themselves do not understand. It is a huge risk that even probably I, if I had been as a reviewer and editor, would not have taken.

The Corona Virus in Zambia and the Global World.

After having lived through the HIV/AIDS pandemic that still exists in Zambia today and Global World, my advice to my fellow Zambians is to take the Corona Virus seriously. The 1908s did not have the internet, but myths, misinformation, and racist views about HIV/AIDS toward Africans from the Western world were still spread through the Western media at that time. This infuriated me but I was powerless to do anything. Today the internet is spreading myths and conspiracy theories about the Corona Virus. Some African leaders are already saying it is a hoax and a joke since there are very few cases so far in Zambia and elsewhere in Africa. This misinformation is dangerous. HIV/AIDS was and is spread primarily through sex. The Corona Virus is spread primarily from droplets from breathing. So all it takes is for one infected person to infect dozens of people in a crowded bus, restaurant, bar, Office, train, night club, family dwelling, especially singing in a packed church, wedding, shopping Mall, and packed market. Hundreds of people can be infected this way. Wear a mask, wash your hands, use sanitizer, wipe surfaces with bleach, wear gloves, and avoid crowded places. This is not a hoax. The Corona Virus is real.


  1. 1987-1992, At the tender age of 21-25years young, I lived in Uganda, Kampala. Many Ugandans died, including my rich landlord in Kampala who had many wives. Back in Zambia 30+ of my friends had died from AIDS. In my family of 10 siblings we all escaped HIV, none of us got infected or died. My dad lived up to the age of 94 years old my mum is still going strong.

  2. Very informative article. I wish you had summarized the entire article more like you have done the conclusion. Internet critics who don’t like to read long articles will skip most of the points and start making unnecessary arguments

  3. It is informative but too long for the salient points in it. It is true we have to take COVID-19 so seriously … it has come to leave with us. Let us remember that the west and china do not care for us whether we die or live they don’t care. We have to take it upon our selves to preserve our lives.

  4. This article makes interesting reading to those that love to read. I guess Covid 19 will eventually become the norm like HIV did. Social distance and mask up. Life goes on.

  5. Interesting perspective from a veteran diasporan. However, I was expecting to read something about the experiments and vaccination attempts that were done in Africa in relation with HIV AIDS in the 80s but I guess that’s a delicate issue.

    Of course we should take Covid seriously but we should also be smart enough to question certain things because history repeats itself, as we know. I still can’t forget the two French doctors who openly called for vaccination trials in African countries. I still can’t forget WHO’s prediction of millions of deaths and an uncontrollable spread in Africa. I wont use the word “hoax” but I still smell a big rat somewhere..

  6. Whatever the case, Africans MUST learn to be truly independent. No peoples that subcontract their essential services to foreigners and survive. Here we are, depending on foreign aid for syringes, hypodermic needles, medicines, gloves, masks, indeed 99% of what we use in our hospitals is imported and half of that donated by well wishers. How can we survive on alms? Our doctors are trained by foreign medical methods so that they cannot work unless they have the equipment from abroad. No school of traditional medicines, instead we laugh at the traditional healers when millions consult them everyday, secretly. Even educated people see ng’angas. Why have we not opened a university department for this?

  7. Pointless article.

    “In December 1989, I sadly left Zambia for the USA…”.

    What is your point??

    You seem more interested in telling us about your travels.

  8. I must add that by uncritically accepting western medicine, we non-westerners are automatically imprisoned. Dr. Myles Munroe said,”the one who makes the laws rules.” By adhering to western methods and standards we are ruled until we take responsibility for our own destiny. Isn’t it perplexing that the city dwellers in lsk with their access to western priviledges die earlier than fellow citizens in the villages? I equally submit that, Zambian traditional medicine may be the answer to the corona pandemic like the Chinese here used their traditional Chinese medicine to cure patients. Let us abandon mental slavery and get to work on our own solutions. Where there is a will, there is a way.

  9. Beautifully written article, I don’t know why people are being lazy and complaining about the length of the article.

  10. Thank you Professor Tembo.
    Unfortunately a lot of Zambians are not listening to international experience and basic science. They are filling in the gaps with their own reasoning. One patently wrong reasoning is that Africans are different and will not be affected. As you noted, Zambians are also reverting to African witch doctor medicines. It’s easy to criticise this as ignorance, but I think it goes deeper into the pysche of the African. We still explain the unknown by mumbo jumbo rather than accept science. It’s a psychological response to fear. We create heroes, of our own local meaning. But peoplemlike you spreading truth and cautioning should be very active at this time as our govts are carelessly using people to manage the economic shortfall. WE SHOULD BE ON SEVERE…

  11. Thank you Professor Tembo.

    It’s a psychological response to fear. We create heroes, of our own local meaning. But peoplemlike you spreading truth and cautioning should be very active at this time as our govts are carelessly using people to manage the economic shortfall. WE SHOULD BE ON SEVERE LOCKDOWN WITH SHUT BORDERS.

  12. The title should have been connected to Mr George who lost his life for fear of HIV.

  13. There is a book titled ” Too Young To Die” with a vivid explanation or story of HIV – AIDS situation in Zambia in the early 80s when many Zambians did not believe aids existed, and our doctors did not know anything about the disease until the President of Zambia – KK took a bald step to inform the nation that aids was real and that it had taken his son. That was about 1984. That was when people started believing that aids was real. Similarly there many people out there who do not believe that Covid-19 is real especially that there are no pictures of the isolation centers. What is happening in the isolation centers, how those who are positive being treated and with what? Seeing is believing

  14. Lusaka Times should differentiate between news articles and theses. News articles are short and restricted to news events

  15. I stand by you . Asian Zambia. !!!!You are so right on history and threats…i have seen it all..lymph nodes…deaths…now this…..this is a fight..people..should not treat this as a joke..

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