This is bizarre. I first published this story back in February 2018. I totally forgot about it, then re-read it yesterday. Prescient even down to the countries. Wooooo!
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Stewart went to a good, private high school in Brisbane so he got into a prestigious university where he studied for a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Philosophy and Sociology.
In Philosophy, he became convinced by the ethical framework of utilitarianism – that is, one ought to act so as to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. Sure, one can always imagine convoluted scenarios where it could lead to barbarous outcomes, but for real life it seemed like the fairest and most logical approach to secular ethics.
Stewart read books and articles by Peter Singer, who points out that the three hundred dollars you spend going to the opera could instead be used to save several lives if donated to a Third World charity. Should we really spend more on ourselves than is necessary for frugal comfort when our discretionary funds could achieve so much good elsewhere?
Stewart, thoroughly persuaded, chose the path of the secret, secular monk. He got a high-paying job in the corporate sector after studying real things after Arts. He ordered inexpensive, tailored suits from Vietnam and hired a fancy car so that he would look the part, but instead of saving for a deposit on a house or blowing his money on drugs and whores, he donated every extra dollar he had to a reputable agency that did development work in the poorest, least stable corners of the globe. He pained over every decision in the supermarket, calculating what fraction of a life might be saved if he bought the no-name brand baked beans instead of the good one. It was a difficult calling.
Still, Stewart revelled in the thought that he was doing so much more good than everyone else, especially those religious moralists who talk so eloquently and who achieve so little. In particular, he loved the fact that the many people he saved would never know his name or see his face. It was an austere piety in all respects.
Of course, some of the money was lost to corruption. Some went to overpaid foreign experts who spent the money on prostitutes. Some went to local staff who slept instead of doing their jobs. But plenty of it got through and helped people to achieve worthy goals. They dug wells so that girls would not have to walk so far, and could instead go to school. They donated textbooks. They taught mothers that their own saggy tits are better for babies than Nestle milk formula even though they are natural, and how to use salty water to stop infants dying of dehydration when they have diarrhea. They built bridges that connected remote villages and improved trade opportunities. They sprayed for mosquitoes, taught farmers how to use fertilizers, pesticides, and dams sustainably, and they hired local witch doctors to instruct truck drivers on how condoms trick the evil AIDS spirit and stop it from catching your soul.
Stewart never knew the names of the many people he helped. But I can tell you. One of them was a girl called Mary, from the rural Rift Valley in Ethiopia. It is always hard to know exactly what might have been had things gone different. But I can tell you. By far the greatest risk of death in developing countries is during infancy, from malnutrition and disease. The vast improvement in life expectancy around the world is primarily due to a reduction in the death rate of children aged under five.
Mary almost died twice. She would have died of dengue fever, but her parents had been taught to put a DEET-soaked mosquito net over their children at night. She would have died of severe gastroenteritis after falling into an irrigation ditch and accidentally swallowing some of the tainted water, but improvements in farm productivity and nutritional education meant that her immune system was just strong enough for her to pull through.
Unlike her mother and grandmother, Mary had the opportunity to get an education all the way through to Grade 12. She was a competent student, not brilliant, who always obeyed her teachers and did her homework. Some called her odd. She was aloof from her classmates. She sometimes had friends but would always break up with them under acrimonious circumstances after a few months. She would later take revenge on them. In one case she told everyone about her former friend’s intimate disclosure of her clandestine relationship with the music teacher. In another, a year and a half after the quarrel, she spread a rumour on social media that the girl had been gang raped while walking home from church.
Mary did well enough to get a subsidized position at Addis Ababa University, where she studied nursing. She graduated and took a job in a distant part of the country, in a village not unlike her own except that the people there spoke a different language and had different food and cultural practices. There was an older doctor there called Johannes who took her under his wing and helped her to settle in. With his help, she learned the lingo and formed a tight network of friends. In time, Mary became very happy in her new home.
Things may have seemed perfect, but of course, they were not. Few were surprised when the inevitable happened – she fell pregnant. Johannes was already married twice over and had no interest in supporting either Mary or her soon-to-be child. Close friends spurned her, and she was again a stranger in a strange land. One night she fled back to Addis, from where she messaged her family, expecting to return home in the following days.
Perhaps the liberal ways of the city had made her forget her own culture. Her family did not reply. Mary was alone, pregnant, and running out of money in a cheap room that smelled of whatever was in the drain outside.
Mary survived by borrowing money from the kind of people one ought not borrow money from. She had the baby and named him Tesfay. She had to urgently repay her debt and manage her living expenses, and casual nursing was not enough. At first on the side, and then full-time, Mary slipped into a life of prostitution.
She showed little affection for the boy, perhaps blaming him for her predicament. She hit him. She sometimes toyed with his emotions, playing hot and cold, relishing the only power she had every held over a male. She normally ignored his birthdays but when he was five she bought him a parrot and told Tesfay how much she loved him. She let him imbibe a good five minutes of happiness before breaking the creature’s neck in front of him and laughing that he had believed that anyone could have loved him.
The boy, it goes without saying, was deeply troubled. As a toddler he took joy in killing insects and by school age had graduated to small, and then large, mammals. The smarter local dogs and cats learned to avoid him, especially when he was carrying a can of flammable hairspray. Tesfay frequently got into fights with other children. He did not have friends so much as followers, and as he got older they became his henchmen, weak boys who found strength and kinship within his tyrannical society. Anyone, even an older boy, who dared to mention his family situation soon wished that he had not done so.
As he got older, he grew bored of commanding and tormenting the hangers-on and spent more and more time alone, pursuing his own interests, pleasures, and whims. He stole, studied, defrauded, wenched, drank, read, and boxed. He even invented a well-received soft drink that he employed others to bottle and sell for a middling profit.
Tesfay Johannes was smart. He was dux of the class each year from the time he began putting in effort, from Grade 9 through to the end of high school. Some teachers loved his talent and charm, and put every effort into furthering his achievements. Others saw right through him. Those were in the minority.
There was a rare and extremely competitive scholarship offered by Sweden to students in developing countries from disadvantaged backgrounds. There were many clever kids in poor places, but Tesfay stood out by having invented the soft drink. At the age of eighteen, with only carry-on luggage, he boarded a plane for the cold North.
Let us move ahead now, after the time of his studying pathogens, getting a job in America with the Center for Disease Control, making lots of money, and eventually burning everyone he had contact with, be they colleagues or girlfriends. Let us re-join Tesfay when he was aged thirty-three and attending a board meeting for a well-known pharmaceutical company based in Washington, DC. Tesfay thought he had the board under control. He thought there would be no surprises.
The first surprise came when an old enemy provided testimony from two women of his sexual misconduct. This ‘misconduct’ was only a matter of enjoying the attentions of underlings for their mutual benefit, but in America, that’s misconduct. Before he could properly scoff and smirk that annoyance away, another old enemy provided evidence that papers published under his name had actually been completed at his behest by others, except for the one that was mostly plagiarized. All of this was common practice in the industry but the rival twisted it so that it would sound awful to an uninitiated outsider, say, perhaps, to a regulator or a journalist. And then, in a coup-de-grâce, a third person – a supposed ally – provided evidence that Tesfay had used a company credit card to pay for an escort service.
All of the evidence was patchy. Each alleged offense had occurred within a murky grey area of accepted practice. Each, on its own, might be nullified or absorbed without undue cost. But the three together were like the difference between a bucket of water in the face and a tsunami.
Everyone on the board, bar our friend, knew what was coming. It was a trap. They gave him a choice – either they would rigorously follow up each allegation through the proper channels, or he could very quickly repay a large portion of his accumulated wealth and then make himself scarce.
Tesfay chose the latter. Barely before it had begun, his awe-inspiring career had ended forever.
All who heard about what Tesfay did next were taken aback. Those who knew him only faintly thought that perhaps he had turned over a new leaf. Those who knew him better were concerned, but said nothing. Tesfay joined a Chinese laboratory that was engaged in revolutionary research into disease control. They were attempting to genetically engineer common infections such that they would replace the originals, continue to spread among humans but no longer cause severe or fatal symptoms. In particular, they were attempting to modify malaria so that it would pass as harmlessly as the common cold. This kind of research was prohibited by national law and international agreements in every other country of importance.
Tesfay worked there diligently and quietly for three years, then disappeared one night without a trace. Rumours of his movements after that cannot be confirmed. Further, I can make no firm connection between these events and those that followed. I only record the facts.
The plague broke out in Sweden. At first they called it the ‘super-fever’ because that was all they knew of it. Later it became known as ‘snowlaria’ because it was remarkably similar to malaria but was impervious to cold and dry conditions.
The next outbreaks were in the United States and China – experts still argue which was first, with some saying it had been in China for much longer but had gone unreported by local authorities. Next came Ethiopia. All further outbreaks followed more conventional transmission patterns following roads, railways, and heavily trafficked air routes. Within three months all countries were affected. There were even four cases, one fatal, on Pitcairn Island.
Experts and historians continue to argue about the extent of the horror, with estimates of mortality varying between one sixth and one quarter of the global population. It is agreed that the carnage was most severe in those areas initially hit, with later areas benefiting as the disease evolved into longer-lasting and less deadly forms. There are still occasional outbreaks in less developed areas but prevention measures and treatments have now caused the illness to fall from the first to the eighth most common cause of death globally.
Some blame Tesfay, still missing, despite the lack of firm evidence. Some, having heard his back story presented on BBC’s Panorama programme, cannot resist blaming his mother. Others blame backward cultural traditions, a lack of mental health services in developing countries, or the poor regulation of Chinese medical research. But nobody – not one person – blames Stewart from Brisbane.