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Keeping Time

Keeping Time

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MIKE is suited up for the morning’s ministerial conference at the WHO. He has all the briefing material ready: photographs and footage, statistics, firsthand accounts, lab results. Some of it is extremely technical; all of it is horrifying.

As he is about to step into the hotel taxi, he catches sight of the woman in the room next to his. In the daylight, she looks to be in her mid-30s, although there is something about her manner — gravity, watchfulness — that suggests to Mike that she could be older. She is wearing dark slacks, a matching jacket, waiting for a car just like his. When it pulls up in front of her, she sees Mike, recognizes him from the night before. A blush suffuses her face, but she holds his gaze steadily for a moment before she disappears into the vehicle.

At the conference, all the faces Mike sees are grim. About a third of the people in the room are in the final stages: emaciated, eyes bulging out of sunken sockets, bellies distended, clothes hanging off their bodies. They move slowly and with great difficulty, some hooked up to parenteral nutrition drips. When this conference reconvenes in three months as scheduled, many of them will not be in attendance. The world’s best minds in public health, their ranks thinning inexorably.

When it’s his turn at the podium, Mike spends a few moments booting up his laptop, flipping through his documents. The eyes that look upon him take in how normal — how good — he looks. There is envy, and there is also a certain mild derision: you must have been so fat. He has learned not to let this get to him.

Always a slight flutter of nervousness before he speaks at these events. Once he begins, it will go away. He clears his throat, adjusts the microphone to suit his height, introduces himself.

“Good morning. I’m Michael Tejada and I’m a field investigator for the World Health Organization.” He switches on the projector, skims the audience with his eyes before proceeding. “I’ll be taking you through the major findings of our surveys in the Asia Pacific region for the last three months.”

His words are thoughtful, measured; unnecessary, really, to dramatize the awfulness of things. He paints a sobering picture of the places he’s been to, what he’s seen, tests he’s run. The photographs, charts and tables on the screen behind him cause the audience to lapse into a stunned and dismayed silence.

It had all started in North America, and it should have stayed there. But there was money to be made, and Europe soon followed suit. It was a simple process, the drug companies said, just like fluoridation.

Conventional wisdom held that Asia should only have started feeling the effects of the problem much later. But Mike’s research shows otherwise. Many in the region had clamored to have their water treated, citing rising rates of obesity, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes. Truthfully, vanity was just as great a motivator. Given the demand, some governments had secretly tested the enzyme on domestic water supplies, only to find they could not contain it. The problem spread, tainting supplies like a ferocious algal bloom.

Children and the elderly are always the first to go. Pregnant women pass the enzyme on to their unborn babies, and they begin starving in the womb. If by some miracle a child is born alive, its DNA is already hardwired for starvation.

By the time the first wave of deaths hit the Western hemisphere, much of Asia’s water was already irrevocably fouled. Soon, Mike tells the group, the entire region will be grappling with the problem — even countries whose backward water systems had somehow insulated them from the contamination so far.

After Mike speaks, other experts step up. One talks about the legal ramifications of the crisis. Class action suits continue to pop up all over the world, but the company that synthesized the enzyme and licensed the technology to the pharmaceutical giants has long been bankrupted. And the governments that agreed to the treatment have resorted to legislation to protect themselves from claims, on the premise that financial resources should be allocated to seeking a solution.

Mike is supposed to be part of the solution. But as one of the lead investigators, and the one with the most comprehensive knowledge of the situation on the ground — four continents, 63 countries and counting — he knows there is none. All that can be done is for the drug companies to manufacture as much of the inhibitor as possible, dump it into water supplies and hope it can delay the inevitable. The scientists can find ways to boost its efficacy, but not by much. At most, the planet has seven years before all its water supplies are wholly contaminated, either by the enzyme itself or by the inhibitor.

Even in this, Big Pharma continues to make Big Money: money no one will ever get to spend.

The ultimate joke, perhaps. But no one is laughing.

***

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