Monday, October 26, 2009

EPIDEMIC 2060 (Short story)

He approached the tall white building – a group of apartments. It was probably the only one in Lae where the noise from the traffic didn’t get to you. Well … not totally. Traffic these days was a never-ending low pitched hum if you lived here. At least it was better than other parts of the city where screeching tyres and blaring horns were all a part of life. He remembered his previous residence in the town area. He never left his windows open at night. And when morning came the glass on the windows would always be coated with soot from exhausts of the hundreds of diesel and petrol vehicles.
As he came out of his car he wiped off the remaining traces of the five minutes of rain which fell when he was at the hospital.
PNG had always been way behind when it came to environmental issues. In the late 90s when environmental groups around the world were intensifying their efforts to curb the export and the destruction of rain forests, it had brought three different responses from Papua New Guineans nationwide. The ordinary people in urban areas had laughed at the television images of the dedicated men and women who stood in front of bulldozers to prevent them taking the last remaining trees from rain forest in the West New Britain and the Oro province. And while the foolish, money-hungry landowners did virtually all they could do to prevent the ‘greenies’ from entering their land, the wealthy elite of the PNG society were buying shares from joint venture landowner companies.
Landowners had never realized that the elite, through their ties with a few multinational timber giants had literally fed off their land. Before the country’s economic collapse, a strong kina and numerous logging projects had meant handsome royalties for the landowners. It had also meant more overseas trips for the government ministers and bureaucrats, including their numerous family members, all at the expense of the country.
Dr Omat entered the elevator from the underground car park and pressed the button for the 21st floor. He felt the gravitational push on his head and shoulders as the elevator slowly glided to its destination. He slowly glided to its destination. He gazed out of the elevator window out of habit. There was nothing to see except a smog-covered city with tall dull buildings. Was this what his grandfathers had imagined when they said they wanted change? Development at the expense of the environment. Development without considering the consequences on his generation. He had read in history books about the concept of ‘eco tourism. It was brilliant concept where economic development ran parallel to environment preservation. But with the depleting resource of rain forests in the world, the few surviving eco tourist resorts and the government were unable to control the hordes of tourists seeking relief from the stresses of first world life.
Without proper regulations in place, rare and endangered species located on the forest floor were trampled on until there were none left for regeneration. Environmental effects also took their toll. Global warming eventually killed off the remaining tropical rain forests and caused the disappearance of low lying atolls in Bougainville and Manus.
His thoughts were interrupted when the elevator jerked to a stop on the 21st floor. It was unusual. Normally the repairman would be here to fix such minor problems. He stepped out and walked down the corridor to his apartment door.
“Open,” he said as he watched the two halves of the voice activated door slide open. The technological advancements like this door never ceased to amaze him. Towards the middle of the 21st century, science had progressed in leaps and bounds. So too had man’s lust to be supreme over nature.
He laid his briefcase on the low coffee table and stopped to closely examine the cactus growing in a pot on the table. These days plants were not taken free form their natural habitats. They were bought from greenhouses run by corporate logging giants who had diversified into horticulture since the total destruction of rain forests. He was born and raised in Lae. So had his father. His grandfather’s generation was the last to be born in what they had, affectionately called ‘the village’. He had also heard of how the people lived in harmony with the nature – letting the land replenish itself without human interference. His grandfather had also told him of the days when they had fun gathering edible ferns and shellfish by the rivers. At the start of the century, his grandfather was one of those who stood up against the politically-backed multinational logging companies as they threatened to destroy what he held dear. He and the rest of his clan where relocated to a reservation where he died. He had been torn by defeat and weary of the lifelong environmental battle.
Dr Omat sat on the couch and gazed at the cactus. His heart was heavy as he mourned for this once beautiful country. He could almost see the images of his grandfather with an illegally bought asult rifle held across his chest as he stood in front of the massive bulldozer. He was defending his land, his bush, his life.
He could see the frantic tree kangaroo attempting a futile leap to the next tree as ruthless men armed with chain saws felled its home. He could see the dead fish on the rivers and the pig turning and snapping wildly to defend its young from advancing loggers. He felt the pain of the bullet lodged on its side as it watched helplessly while men slaughtered its young for sport.
His father had laid coughing on his hospital bed and urging him to preserve whatever piece of land he had left as a reminder of the former beauty. His father had died a few hours later. It had been a long, five-year struggle with the respiratory disease. He was now a doctor and a good one. It was the result of the anger at not being able to save his father. People who had the power to cause changes in the past had failed to do so. Driven by selfish desires, they had allowed problems to happen until it was too late to stop. One consequence was the mass destruction of the environment without reforestation. Many a politician in the end of the last century had said the 21st century would be a period of rebirth and fresh new ideas. This century was the period of ‘fresh new ideas’ alright. Fresh new ideas on how to correct the numerous, irreversible blunders of the so called ‘good decision makers’ of the last century. It was hopeless. Never had they tried to effectively correct the mistakes of their predecessors of the early 80s and 90s. In fact it was understood that whoever entered politics in those days lost his heart for the people as he was sucked into the whirlpool of corruption. Anti-corruption activities had called “the disease”. It was contagious they said. Like tendrils of a parasitic vine, corruption had spread from the heads of government to the bureaucratic circles. When it eventually took root among the lowly public servants and the community, there was no distinction between a corrupt and an uncorrupt deal. The whole system then – and even now – was a total abuse of democracy and people’s trust.
A series of rapid beeps from his mobile phone interrupted his thoughts and he reached into his pocket for it. “Hello?” he said as he looked out the window.
“Good evening, Mel”, said the regretful voice of Andre Schubert, the volunteer doctor on duty. “Sorry to disturb you but we’ve got 15 cases of respiratory probems I won’t be able to handle them alone.”
“I’ll be on my way in five minutes,” he replied without hesitation and folded the mouthpiece.
PNG was still repaying the debts of the previous government’s since independence 85 years ago. First, it was repayment with money, then resources. And now it was being repaid with lives. The government’s health system was on its knees and the crippling situation now meant the government was unable to purchase the latest serum able counter the new strains of the HIV. On his last visit, the health minister had promised to fast track a European aid package of 10 million dollars. But Melchior, as the hospital’s chief executive had learned not to put too much trust in a government that was struggling to maintain its four remaining hospitals in Port Moresby, Goroka, Rabaul and Lae.
He recalled his day at the hospital. People were still flooding in by the thousands suffering from respiratory diseases and unknown strains of influenza. With almost 50 percent of the country HIV positive, such curable diseases became even deadlier for the sufferer. Almost all of these people who came to the hospital lived in settlements. They were from a mixture of backgrounds, which included former public servants still awaiting their end of service entitlements and bankrupt business persons. But the majority had been laid off their jobs when the companies their worked for left following predictions of PNG’s economic collapse.
He was feeling light headed as the elevator descended to the car park. When it halted, he stepped out and headed for his car. He got in and drove out of the car park. It was 7.45 pm he noted as he drove along the streets lined with beggars and prostitutes. The number of beggars had increased dramatically in the last 50 years since the turn of the century. Prostitution had also increased since its legalization 30 years ago. The city itself had over 200 brothels.
Government policy makers had thought it would limit the problems of starvation among the unemployed. It was another bad decision. The AIDS problem had evolved from a potential disaster in the late 90s into a catastrophe by 2020. He recalled how doctors had discovered the first reported cases of AIDS in 1987. Their repeated warnings had fallen on deaf ears. Politicians had not really paid attention to the need for hard-hitting awareness campaigns in schools on sexually transmitted diseases. Yet in this century, PNG’s sexual attitudes still had not changed. In fact it was worse. With the many family break-ups, the moral fiber of society had eroded to a point where only strands of it were being supported by the few. Sexual promiscuity was rife with teenagers as young as 15 acting as pimps in schools. He was sickened by the trend. Attempts by the government to curb the problem had proven hopeless. Still there were thousands of children whose parents had died of AIDS. Thousands more had no other source of income except child pornography and prostitution. The government’s reaction to set up homes for the orphaned children came too late and was unable to cater fully for the increasing number of children.
He drove into the car park, and entered the emergency ward nodding a ‘good evening’ at the nurse at the reception as he hurried to meet Dr Schubert. He knew this call was going to last until the morning. He found Dr Schubert‘s tall figure stooping over a patient who was wheezing violently. Dr Schubert walked over to him as he approached.
“He has serious trouble with both his lungs,” he said. Dr Schubert was a man of few words who had a way of using the simplest words for complicated situations. Melchior helped set up the equipment and then went to attend to the other patients. With sunken cheeks, they eyed him intently as he walked in between their beds. These were men, women and children of what was once a green, resource-rich country. A wide-eyed child clung tightly to her sick mother’s wrist as she lay on the hospital bed. Her records indicated she had HIV. Melchior’s eyes clouded with tears as he looked at the little girl who seemed so sure the doctor would cure her mother. There were so many like her who would become orphans by morning and he, “the good doctor” as many called him, would be unable to prevent it. It had never really occurred to the power hungry prime ministers of the past that the after effects of decisions made in self interest were like those of a nuclear blast. In the past, such decisions caused the deaths of hundreds, but now millions more were suffering.
By the time he had finished with the last of the patients at the ward. His eyes were heavy as he pulled off his surgical gloves and washed his hands in the washroom. He stared at his face in the mirror. His 36-year old self felt 20 years older. His eyes and cheeks were sunken like the patients he had just attended to. He knew that without a cure readily available he too did not have long to live.

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