On Goodness and Boringness
I once had dinner with a man who’s been crucially instrumental in saving the lives of 150,000,000 people. 150,000,000 and counting, mind you.
No, not 150. Not 150 thousand. One hundred and fifty million.
Can’t wrap your head around that? I’ll help. Here’s a representation of 600 people. First, go through and give each individual silhouette a name: Aarav, Abadom, Abaeze, Abayomi, Abedi, Advik … Next, to reach 150 million, all you have to do is imagine this image repeated 250,000 times, while you assign unique names to each figure.
And I’m not even counting the number of people he’s helped save from terrible scarring and disfigurement.
Huh? What’s Bill Foege like? Oh, he seemed like a nice guy. Modest. Soft-spoken. By the standards of our Facebook-Twitter-Instagram era, of reality shows and self-help books, of 24/7 self-promotion, he’s maybe just a tad boring.
Here’s the story:
In 1966, there were approximately 10 to 15 million cases of smallpox in more than 50 countries, and 1.5 to 2 million people were dying from smallpox each year. Then, on October 26, 1977, just eleven years later, one more person (in Somalia) was diagnosed with smallpox. After that, not a single naturally occurring case of smallpox in the entire world. In May 1980, the World Health Assembly declared that smallpox was the first disease in history to have been eradicated.
Bill Foege was the primary architect of the successful strategy to eradicate smallpox. In the mid-sixties, he was a medical missionary in Africa. Faced with a limited supply of vaccine, he and his coworkers fought smallpox outbreaks the way he’d once learned to fight forest fires: surveillance and containment. It worked. The CDC recruited him. The rest is history.
Many experts at the time thought it would be necessary to inoculate 80-100% of the world’s population against smallpox. In fact, with Foege’s approach, only about 7% required vaccination. The annual cost to us of the smallpox campaign between 1967-1979 was just $23 million. The United States saves the total of all its contributions to that campaign every 26 days, because we don’t have to vaccinate against or treat the disease.
A friend of Bill Foege has said this about him: “Ask him about his battles against smallpox in Africa or India and you will hear about the people he met — the mothers with the sick children, the health workers and community leaders he came to know so well. He remembers them all by name and talks at length about their lives, their thoughts.”
Based on my one evening with Foege, I’d say that’s about right.
Come on, Bill. Didn’t you get the Presidential Medal of Freedom? What’d Barack Obama say to you? Ever met Bono? Tell me: any dirt on Bill and Melinda Gates? And the Carters, Jimmy and Rosalynn? What’re they REALLY like? Oh, you must have a ton of Twitter followers, right?
You get my point, I’m sure. Donald Trump is not us. We are really and truly better than that. There are boring people doing boring but life-saving and life-enhancing work — doctors and scientists, sure, including those who are working feverishly on the Zika virus, but also moms and dads, nurses, social workers, social activists, et al. — right now, even as you’re reading this. You won’t find them drawing attention to themselves. They’re not only not on the front page, but not even on the back page of any newspaper.
Let me leave you with this video of Bill Foege relating an anecdote about a friend. Title it “Editing Your Own Obituary.” I think you’ll like it.