24 Hours to Life
A story by Ronke Luke
------------ Lifestyles of the rich and famous -------------
Manu paced his living room, rubbing his left temple, as he spoke on his phone.
“We’re set. Yes, the signing ceremony is tomorrow. 12 noon.” Manu listened for a brief moment. “Okay,” he replied. “I’ll be there. You be there,” he said and hung up.
The old digital clock on the book shelf blinked 10:07 am.
He scanned the poorly furnished living room. Threadbare sofa on a faded carpet. “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” played on his old TV. Manu smiled. Tomorrow, he’d have his entre into that world, well the African-version of it. The health minister, for whom he worked, would sign a fifty million dollar Ebola-related deal. With that signature, Manu knew he’d be half way to a million dollars. Untraceable, uncut diamonds in a small bag. His payoff for steering the health supplies deal to a preferred consortium. Manu shivered involuntarily as he thought of that much money in his pocket.
---------- I'll be fine ---------
“Manu!” his wife, Jenneh, called as she walked into the room. “How you feeling?”
“Head still hurts,” he replied, turning to face her. “Bloody malaria.”
“They did blood test?” Jenneh asked. He’d had a 7 am appointment at a local clinic. Then he'd been to his office. Tying up loose ends of the deal.
“Yes. Waste of time,” Manu replied. “I only went there because of you. I’m taking malaria pills. I’ll be fine.”
“After Ebola, you know the deal. Blood test for everyone who goes to a clinic,” Jenneh said.
“That thing cannot come back,” she muttered as she left the room.
-------- The gift that keeps on giving ---------
But Manu had heard her. He couldn’t tell her that Ebola was his pay-day.
Yes, it was mercenary. But why should the big shots and politically-connected be the only ones to prosper? He was a good civil servant. So close to power, he had seen those tied to the health-industrial-complex make millions during the epidemic, and after wards. Now it was his turn.
Ebola had ended a few years ago, but it was the gift that kept on giving. Governments simply characterized everything as post-Ebola preventive health programs and money still flowed. As Deputy Chief of Staff to the Minister of Health, Manu had engineered his cut of a massive medical supplies contract.
He lay down on the old sofa and closed his eyes. His left temple throbbed.
---------- Wait! What? ---------
Brrrrrrr. Brrrrrrr. Brrrrrrr.
“Hello.” Manu sounded like a man who had been startled awake. “Hey! Dr. Travor,” he said as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. He glanced at the clock. It was 11:26 am.
I must have been tired.
“Manu. I’ll be straight.” Dr. Travor said. “Your results are EVD-positive.”
“What!” Manu bolted upright and swung his sock-clad feet onto the thin carpet.
“Positive Ebola.” Dr. Travor reiterated.
“Wait. Wait.” Manu stuttered.
“You know all blood samples are tested for Ebola,” Dr. Travor reminded him. “It’s part of the African Ebola monitoring program that the Health Ministry participates in.”
Manu knew the program well. It was an easy decision for the country to participate as the program was donor-funded. More importantly, it involved enough procurement to cream off a little so lots of people got paid. With large orders, a fraction of one percent added up. Soon it was big money.
“I see all confidential results before they are sent to King’s Memorial Hospital. You know they run the national Ebola monitoring center,” Dr. Travor continued.
“So what are you saying?” Manu snapped. “Wha…”
“Listen Manu,” Dr. Travor interrupted. “You’re Ebola-positive. I’ve held back your results to be discreet,” she explained. “But you need to check into King’s Memorial today. Go into quarantine there.”
Manu was silent. His mind raced.
Ebola! Where? How?
He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his left temple that now seemed to thunder in his head.
“Manu! Meet me at Kings Memorial in an hour,” Dr. Travor continued sharply “I will supervise your admission.” Softening her voice to sooth his fears, she added “There are new treatments. 100% successful when started within 24 hours. It’s not like during the epidemic.” Then her voice quickened, “But you must get to hospital immediately. I’m on my way there.” She hung up. It was 11:43 am.
Manu’s mind reeled.
------- Why risk it? --------
On his old TV, he noticed that Lifestyles was over. Instead, Manu saw a contestant on “Millionaire” blow $400,00 with her final answer instead of walking away. She was so close to $500,000. Manu shook his head at the TV. The contestant was crestfallen.
Why risk it? Why not walk away?
--------This job's not helping -------
Manu snapped to when he heard his wife.
“Who called?” Jenneh asked.
In that moment, he decided what he’d do.
“The Minister’s secretary. They leave tonight for his district,” he replied, steadying his voice. Showing no fear, he continued, “I have to join them.”
“This government job isn’t helping us, Manu!” Jenneh scolded. “Long, erratic hours. Little money. You’re Deputy Chief of Staff. A waste of time.”
“This job will deliver. Be patient.” Manu's voice was steady.
He looked at the clock. 12:03 pm. He left the room quickly to pack his overnight bag.
Mentally, he went over his plan.
100% successful treatment he repeated in his mind.
Manu steeled himself. He had to stretch his next 24 hours. He was so close to the life that teased on TV. He would elude Kings hospital and Dr. Travor by checking into a hotel tonight. He needed to attend the signing ceremony at noon tomorrow. Those uncut stones would pay for any type of treatment. He’d take his chances that he’d give death the slip tonight.
# The End #
copyright 2017 - 2021 Ronke Luke
This story was inspired by news reports of irregularities in contracting and procurement during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and in the US and UK during the global coronavirus pandemic. I wrote the first version in 2017. Tweaked it again in 2018. In late 2020, deep into coronavirus lockdown, I dusted off the article again. This time I finished it.
What is the most self-serving thing, you've observed or heard of during the coronavirus pandemic? Or during a large-scale catastrophic event?
We’re Africans. Grew up in West Africa. We like telling stories. It's just part of life. Anywhere West Africans gather they spin yarns that keep the audience riveted.