Why we fight – Malaria.
If you write, there’s this magical thing that happens once in a while. A story or a character takes on a life of their own and begins to write itself. You’re relegated to just being the typist. It’s automatic writing. The first time it happens, you try to rein it in and plough on with the plan and end up with a complete mess.
That monster you’ve created isn’t having any of it.
You soon learn you’ve got a tiger by the tail in that situation, so you just hang on, hope for the best and let it take you where it will. The results are usually good, very good, so you learn to just go with the flow. Mostly, writing anything decent is plain hard work and you soon begin to appreciate such happy events.
The reverse applies too. Sometimes you can’t get into a piece for some reason. Usually, it’s because it’s an arid idea and after a few attempts, you realise that and walk away from it. Sometimes though, when writing non-fiction, it’s because you just can’t help getting angry as you write it, and angry writing quickly degenerates into an unstructured rant.
Over the years, I’ve tried writing this piece several times and ended up walking off down into my garden with a bottle of Irish whiskey, a shot glass and a jug of iced water, to sit under a tree and get quietly drunk. I die a bit and know I’ve failed them yet again and know I should be so much better. I deal with failing people very badly, and I’m not good company at such times.
I’ve done my research, I know all the details, I know all the numbers, I have it all at my fingertips but the anger always rises up, rages and overwhelms me and my silly heart, so I’m writing this prologue to discipline and shame myself into finally finishing it for once and trying to speak well for the dead. This time I will finish it because after so many attempts it’s finally sucked all emotion out of me, and then I will walk down into my garden, sit on the ground with my back against a tree I planted thirty years ago and get very drunk.
Take a breath, here goes.
When it comes to deaths, people are bad with big numbers. We can all handle three, seven, ten or even fifteen deaths but beyond that, it all gets a bit off scale; it somehow bounces off us emotionally. I sometimes think it’s to do with running out of fingers and toes. Such is life or us I suppose, so I’m going to consider this topic in a local fashion and hoping the scaled down tragedy will give some idea of the megadeaths involved.
There’s an island off the southern tip of India which is called Sri Lanka nowadays, rather than Ceylon. They, like everyone else in the world, had come to terms with living, or more accurately, dying of Malaria. Their batting average was about three million cases a year and in a good year, only about eight thousand dead. There’s nothing particularly cursed about living on that island, everyone else around the entire world had long ago got used to dealing with that ailment that has killed more of us than anything else in the entire history of the world.
Shakespeare called it the ague, thousands died of it in the 1920’s in Murmansk (yes, that’s the Murmansk on the northern coast of Russia) and there’s a school of thought that a visit from it took out the Clovis people well before that shipwreck landing on Plymouth Rock.
The colonial administration of the time decided to try out this wonder stuff called DDT that had been so successful during WWII. They really gave it a good go, puffing the whole island with the stuff. By 1963, malarial cases had dropped from three million to just seventeen and not a single death. Hallelujah, hallelujah but wait a minute, the times they were a changing.
A woman called Rachael Carson, who would go on to become the greatest mass murder of the twentieth century, wrote a book called Silent Spring that predicted the end of humanity unless we banned DDT. She was dying herself, which no doubt boosted the book sales but the bitch has taken a lot of people with her into the darkness as company.
The second greatest mass murderer of the twentieth century was in charge of a small innocuous bureaucratic thing called the Environmental Protection Agency, but he was also a member of something called the Environmental Defence Fund. William Ruckelshaus overruled the advice of a judge and his own experts and declared DDT to be a dangerous chemical.
This is where damn Yankee clout and their big dollars kicks in. There wasn’t as such a ban on DDT but you weren’t allowed to manufacture the vile stuff, and if you persisted in using it, your relief funds had a habit of evaporating. When you’re poor and desperate, you get really good at taking a hint, especially when it’s from a benefactor.
Sri Lanka stopped using DDT.
Within five years, malaria cases zoomed back up to half a million and by the end of the decade three million. How many deaths? Christ, your guess would be as good as mine.
It’s all a bit Keystone Cops isn’t it? They get blown about by the vicissitudes of our fashion memes. They run one way and save a few million lives, we change our mind, so they run the other way and a few million go prematurely into the trash can of history. In this wonderful bitter world of environmental neo-colonialism, they don’t matter. We want to preserve them, like primitive unspoilt versions of us before we became iPod dependent.
We haven’t had a major outbreak of malaria in the developed world for half a century because we DDT’d the butt off the mosquito that had been killing us for centuries but we’re determined all those black-arsed people will receive the benefits of being killed by a disease we consigned to the dustbin of history half a century ago.
The casualties are huge, the numbers are huge beyond any meaningful comprehension and despite my best effort to convey a sense of the ongoing tragedy, I’ve failed again. Something like half a billion people a year suffer from it and a million or so die from it, mainly children. Nobody actually knows the true numbers because the truth to be told, nobody wants to know. They’re undocumented people. Once you acknowledge your part in such an unnecessary genocide, you become complicit.
I know. I’m at end of day just avalanching you with numbers. It’s how to make them human beings you can find some love in your heart for is the problem. They’re not family, not kin, not people we know. They’re invisible.
They’re just numbers, numbers, imaginary numbers. Dead imaginary numbers. The square roots of negative numbers we are obliged to invent a comfortable contrivance for, so we don’t have to think too much more deeply about them. But each one of them had a way about them that was uniquely theirs; their own smile, a way of walking, a certain look, a tilt of the head that was theirs alone, they loved and were loved by someone and now they’re dead and gone and will be forgotten.
They were people like us. Real actual people.
They were somebody’s child or someone’s man or someone’s woman or someone’s lover or simply just a friend. They were your baby with that magic eye contact and their milky side of the mouth leakage smile you automatically tidied away without a thought. It is needless, preventable, human waste on an industrial, genocidal and unimaginable scale. It shouldn’t ever be happening in the twenty-first century. God forgive us all.
Every year, in the good months, a pair of robins appear whenever I sit out in the garden. I’m never sure if they’re the same ones as last year’s or perhaps their offspring. I’m fortunate to have a big garden and I leave parts of it to nature, which is to say, I let it go wild, so creatures move in and I don’t intrude or disturb them. I have my bits of turf and they have theirs.
There are rules and conventions to be observed though. They perch and watch me with a mouthful of food for their young and wait for me to look away so I don’t notice them nipping into their nest artfully concealed in my vines or apple trees. I look away for a respectable interval and they do the necessary nip. Peaceful coexistence. We always get to know one another. In some ways, I get on well with wild creatures and would probably be burnt at the stake if this was the middle ages. You connect with each other or you don’t.
There is definitely something about the look from a robin.
If I’m digging, one of them waits and watches until I dig on a couple of feet and they nip in and grab the worms I’ve just unearthed for their young. One year, a particularly friendly one used to wait so close to me that out of idle curiosity, I picked up a worm myself and putting it in my outstretched palm, offered it to them. After an eternity of seconds of thinking, it swooped off the handle of the fork it had been perched on considering the situation. It barely touched my hand but with the lightest gossamer touch of its wings on my palm, the worm was gone.
I thought about that and resolved never to do anything like it ever again, because I know there are some people in the world, who might close their hand on a tiny wild creature that I’d taught to trust one of us. I don’t know much about birds but I do know robins are one of the few who don’t migrate for the winter. They stay through sometimes brutal northern hemisphere winters, when everyone else bugs out southwards to warmer climates. Tough little buggers. When you look at them up close, they’re such small delicate creatures and every year, totally focused on gathering food for their offspring. I have an affection for them and have occasionally thought it’d be nice to live in a robin’s uncomplicated world.
But the thing about a robin is, they don’t care about other robins in other gardens. It can never occur to them to think about the providence in the fall of another robin, never mind a sparrow. We do, and dearly though I love them, that’s what makes us so much better than robins.
I’d rather be a human being, even with that extra pain, than a robin, which is why though I hate this war, I will fight it right down to the bitter end.
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