Modest Expectations – Round & Round

There was much hype surrounding the 20th anniversary of the Sydney Olympic Games with the spruiking by the ABC of their biopic, Freeman. Given the cloying, hagiographic way many of these biopics are constructed around sporting celebrities, one might have anticipated a certain predictability with a treacly voiceover. Therefore, I planned to give it a miss.

However, the television was tuned to the ABC during the Sunday night meal and it was just left on. I started watching with the eye of the sceptic prepared to switch it off. I did not. It was a fine depiction of an extraordinary woman.

I must say that at a time where the world is devoid of genuine heroes and heroines (if that word is still allowed) Cathy Freeman stands out. Running 400 metres faster than anybody else in the world was the centrepiece, but in relation to the woman herself it is, in the end, incidental.

Yet without this extraordinary talent, she would have been yet another unrecognised good person, one of those who form the spine that anchors this country. She is Indigenous. It marks her out. She provides that sense of grace that was so well emphasised by the beautiful unnamed Bangarra dancer, and as with Cathy Freeman, grace is so natural – more than just a physical attribute.

This artistic portrayal, far from complicating the vision of Freeman winning and thus being a source of distraction, made me realise that this was more than just an expression of the filmmaker’s sensitivity, it demonstrated something rare in the Australian psyche – a genuine unsentimental view of what grace under pressure is all about.

Freeman engendered on that night a sense of optimism in a country which wallows in its veneration of failure – Burke and Wills, Gallipoli and Fromelles immediately springing to mind.

Now, two decades on, she has remained the same determined person dedicated to doing good without constantly reminding us of it – that was one message that I took from this biopic.

Thick as a Plantain

Queensland is a different world, to a point. When I was first exposed to the public service in Queensland, I was amazed to see and feel how centralised the system is. It so closely approximated attitudes in the Victorian public service, which I experienced when I had worked there, that I felt quite at home.

The authoritarian personality dominates the centralised mentality of Queensland public servants. It was almost to a level that paper clip distribution in a Camooweal government office depends on the signature of the Departmental head in Brisbane.

When the authoritarian personality is combined with a healthy dose of xenophobia and lack of intellectual integrity it perfectly describes Pauline Hansen. Yet such a perception of her underpins a preparedness of Queenslanders to elect her – time and again.

Her tearful retreat whenever she is under political fire relies on a cynical appeal to an undercurrent of paternalism. If she were a man, she could not hide behind a veil of crocodile tears. The extraordinary performance of the Queensland Premier last week accusing the Prime Minister of bullying when he was making a perfectly reasonable request shows that in Queensland the Hansen playbook is very adaptable – in this case by the Premier herself.

Then there is her chief health officer, Dr Jeanette Young who, according to the Premier, apparently is running the State – at least in health and in border exemption. She does not have any public health qualifications despite having been in the job for 15 years.

This is the same Jeanette Young who, during the swine flu scare of 2009, advocated for Queenslanders to stock up on food – in essence stirring up panic buying. Well, Queenslanders, there has been another outbreak of swine flu in China, which has been kept quiet. China has just banned pork imports from Germany because also has been the emergence of swine flu there.

Dr Young is unyielding – to a point.

The Premier and her minions may want to blame Peter Dutton for everything, and the Hanks imbroglio allows the State government to spread some of the topsoil, but Dutton cannot be blamed for allowing the polo-playing McLachlan with his flock from descending on Queensland (and a variety of other well-shod Victorians) to serve out their quarantine in the comfort of a resort. If the Premier is to be believed, this is the handiwork of Jeanette Young, who makes the decisions to allow special access. However, in so allowing it, this seems to contravene everything the resolute Jeanette Young says she stands for.

Yet Jeanette Young is not averse to the quavering voice when under media scrutiny. After all the health plausibility of many of her decisions is inversely related to the political expediency. At least with Daniel Andrews, he has now learned that public health considerations must have a scientific basis; and is following a course. He is in for the long term. Sounds familiar. Perhaps he has observed the Chinese devotion to the long term solution at close quarters.

Dr Young has recently acquired a deputy, Dr Sonya Bennett, who has worked in the Royal Australian Navy before joining the Queensland Department of Health to oversee public health three years ago. Given the propensity of professionals in the armed forces to collect post-graduate certificates and diplomas, Dr Bennett has acquired appropriate public health qualifications. She has the credibility of sitting on a government committee to oversee communicable diseases, and presumably is assisting in the flow of exemptions.

However, in the end Queensland with in all its authoritarian rigidity has to find a way out of its completely illogical stance of border closure that demands a rate of community transmission that is absurdly low before the drawbridge is lowered. In a population of 8.129 million, NSW is reporting around five cases a day – that’s 1 per 1,625,800. Maybe the election will do the trick – one way or the other, if Australia can wait that long.

But, Jeanette, batten down the hatches, swine flu may be coming again and Australia needs a unified strategy to deal with a new swine flu outbreak – apart from advocacy of panic buying. Time to start behaving like a country.

But, you know, it is Queensland and do they know how to bend a banana!

The little sparrow 

Having discussed Cathy Freeman, this vignette of another inspiring woman may help ease reaction to the writings immediately above. Sarah L. was a young English doctor when she met me in the corridor of the hospital. She looked so small; even childlike and yet when I met her at Doomadgee, I soon found out her resilience belied her appearance.

Doomadgee is mainly an Aboriginal settlement in the Queensland Gulf country and has had its moments with a police station under siege and Aboriginal riots. The problem with this settlement is that it is the meeting place of various mobs, and in such clusters, there are always underlying tensions, even when there is no violence between rival mobs.

When she greeted me, she apologised for saying she was a little tired. The previous evening, she had been called out to triage a serious vehicle roll-over, and given that nobody wears seat belts, there was a variety of serious injuries. She had to work out the priority in treatment and who needed to be evacuated to Mount Isa or to the coast. They had all survived.

She also wanted to set up an evidence-based treatment for scabies, which was endemic in the community. Scabies is caused by mites (Sarcoptes scabiei), which burrow into folds of skin, are found in children’s hair – and often, in the severest form, the scabies lesions are inter alia infected by streptococcus pyogenes. Scabies spread by contact and older people tend to be “super-spreaders”. There are a number of treatments that work, but they require compliance. She wanted to test ivermectin, which can be administered orally and used topically.

Scabies

Ivermectin’s parent drug was discovered in Japan in the 1970s and was first used in1981. It is the essential agent for two global disease elimination campaigns that will hopefully rid the world of both onchocerciasis and filariasis. These diseases affect the lives of many millions of poor and disadvantaged throughout the tropics. Ivermectin is also effective against mite (scabies) and lice (crabs or pubic lice) infestation. It has a very wide use against parasitic infestation, but for the use proposed by this young doctor there were still unknown elements.

The attack on scabies means ridding the home of the mites and, for instance, the habit of sleeping with dogs, which occurs in Aboriginal communities, can facilitate the spread. The young doctor, who had paediatric training, wanted to clear the children in the community of scabies.

I was impressed by her enthusiasm, and her approach reflected my ideal public health physician – able to have clinical expertise and yet wanting to set up a trial to see what would best suit her community.

This week, I tracked her down to see what happened. Yes, she successfully eradicated scabies, but that was so long ago.

She was pregnant at the time I met her in Doomadgee, and subsequently she had a second child. They all moved to the Coast. Her professional career was interrupted by a couple of major car accidents – one on Magnetic Island and one in Townsville – after she left Doomadgee. She took a long time to recover, and has been left with residual loss of vision in her left eye. She is now practising at Townsville Aboriginal Health Service.

To me, she was an exemplar of a doctor working in a remote community who was able to cope with emergencies but yet with the curiosity and determination of the public health physician. She epitomised the very best of medical practice, but her experience also demonstrated the lack of sustainability of a health system built on the individual worth without there being succession planning. That is a major problem that has bedevilled medical practice, particularly in rural and remote areas.

Before I made contact with her this week, while reflecting on Doomadgee, it reminded me of looking out of the train window and seeing two women tending a colourful beautiful garden alongside the train platform. Then the train moved on, and I did not have a return ticket.

However, on this occasion, I knew the name of the woman and when she rang me back, the voice was still so familiar. It was still the bright, breezy Sarah.

Letter from Victoria

I was talking to a friend of mine in Victoria. He is a consultant geriatrician, one of the best. He is also a member of a nursing home board.

In this State of unmitigated residential care disaster, in this nursing home there have been no cases of the coronavirus, in either residents or staff. He prefaces his comments by saying that luck is always a factor. Nevertheless, what they did from the outset was to ban visitors, allow only essential trades people into the facility and ensured that on arrival the staff had a temperature check and were quizzed on whether there was any sign of COVID-19 disease. Then, all staff appropriately attired themselves, and strict protocols were observed.

I asked how the residents coped with this degree of lock up – and he said they hated it, one saying she preferred to be dead rather than endure such conditions. So it is not just a case of expressions of pious statements about “loved ones” whenever a person in their nineties dies, but perhaps in the eyes of the departed, death was a joyous event. The problem is that it is one technology we have not mastered, that of polling the dead.

Apropos, I asked about Zoom and other means of distanced face-to-face communication. His view was that for the elderly it was no substitute for physical contact.

He made a further comment that it seems that in these institutionalised care environments, aerosol rather droplet spread is the major means of transmission. He cited a case where a particular residential facility was coronavirus free in the morning and by the evening two-thirds of the people were coronavirus positive.

After talking to him, I re-read the Newmarch Report, which shows that if you bring in a competent team that knows what it is doing then you get to the same situation that my friend describes. But it is far from a perfect situation.

I wonder whether the central agencies or the private operators have worked out how much it would cost to comply with the 20 recommendations of that Report.

The Commonwealth government, with an incompetent Minister, is still relying on the private sector, with its record of putting profit before care increasingly being shown to be scandalous. The fact that some Victorian aged care facilities delayed the release of dozens of deaths which were then added to the daily tallies has not been adequately explained, but hopefully the answer is not deceit .

My friend said that government-run and not-for-profit facilities were better in his view. Yet Newmarch is operated by Anglicare, an offshoot of the Anglican Church, and seems to have belied that generalisation as does the apparent gouging of the contaminated St Basil’s Home in Fawkner, a northern suburb of Melbourne, by the Greek Orthodox Diocese.

However, mimicking the home environment but being able to maintain infection control at a level where the coronavirus will be repelled at the door remains a challenge, organisationally and financially.

I know that if and when the time came for me to go into a nursing home, it will be a one-way street. Thus I want to go into a place where my family at least has the choice of visiting me. I do not want to go into an institution, which is kitted out as an intensive care unit, so that I become a delayed statistic dying in a labyrinth of tubes, with a card on my big toe labelled “a loved one”. “Loved One” is becoming the modern day substitute for the black rimmed Hallmark bereavement card.

Coronavirus is an accelerant, and if you are old and contract the Virus, but survive the buggery of being on a ventilator in an actual intensive care unit, you can then become a photo opportunity for the evening news, before dying unnoticed a few weeks later. Is that what I would want – is it anything anybody wants?

Federally-Operated Quarantine Facilities

The comment has been made to me that government building a series of quarantine facilities would very expensive. The problem is that there is no evidence of long term thinking beyond the immediate combat with the current coronavirus. We have the spectacle of the President of the United States denying climate change, a feeling echoed by members of the Australian Government. There is a suggestion that swine flu outbreaks are now reappearing in China and Germany complicating the world disease profile.

Coronavirus infections are out of control in many places throughout the world, where incidence and number of deaths are the indices to measure spread and severity. Yet, unexpressed is the level of morbidity, which at present can be classified at short to medium term. I have yet to see whether the impact of morbidity on the world economy and burden of disease has been assessed. Probably, it could be argued that we are only seeing six-month data.

Our ancestors recognised the need for quarantine facilities but often located them in harsh settings. However, being in a necessarily isolated environment need not be harsh.

It seems that both the Northern Territory and Kristina Keneally among an increasing number of others, myself included, are advocating for discrete quarantine facilities. However the Australian government, with its attachment to private enterprise, appears to prefer to maintain the fiction that hotel quarantine can work in the long term. Frankly as the economy improves and the hotels are required, planning for these facilities should occur now rather than in the usual ad hoc manner. More importantly, we need to get quarantine out of the major population centres, and we need to find an affordable quarantine solution if Australia is to re-enter the international community and not completely destroy tourism for the foreseeable future, particularly if a successful vaccine is not found in the next 12 months.

Howard Springs quarantine facility

In relation to a particular operational Northern Territory facility, the comment is that to get to it “…drive south-east from Darwin Airport for 30 minutes and you will arrive at an old mining camp – the Manigurr-ma Village for fly-in, fly-out natural gas workers. Until recently, this complex was abandoned. Today, it is perhaps the most popular travel destination for Melbourne escapees.”

In other words, facilities do already exist, and it seems a tolerable spot to spend 14 days, especially if the facility is airconditioned. In my last blog, I suggested the Northern Territory as the site for quarantine and singled out Katherine. Creating a so-called bubble around Katherine would allow the possibility of visits to Katherine Gorge, increasing the tolerance levels for incarceration. However, creativity is never a recognised expertise of public service.

Now the Northern Territory First Minister has been re-elected, he can act with more freedom, notwithstanding section 49 of the Northern Territory Self Government Act. This mirrors terms of Section 92 of the Constitution in protecting movement across border. As one constitutional expert has said: “It means the NT is in the same position as a state.” However, the Northern Territory exists under law enacted by the Australian parliament, and is not recognised in the Constitution as a State.

The experience with the repatriation of Australians from Wuhan should have given the few long term planners in government a clue of how to handle quarantine. The Northern Territory is an ideal place. Over time, flight schedules can accommodate the need for incoming quarantine.

The other destination for the Wuhan evacuees, Christmas Island, is to Australia what French Guiana is to France – a place to send people to be forgotten at a great cost, but inconvenient for large scale quarantine.

Kristina Keneally took a direct stance recently when she suggested that the Federal government could provide a set of quarantine resources if they are establish any form of international tourism. Repatriating the clamouring Australians provides a pool of people to test how best to allow people coming from COVID-19 endemic areas to return – or come to Australia.

The model exists in the successful evacuation from Wuhan.

Build or adapt facilities in Northern Australia to enable people to be quarantined for 14 days.

Gradually close down hotel quarantine, as international restrictions are eased but, in the light of the Government’s announcement this week that incoming passenger numbers will be increased, those states and territories that have taken a back seat in hosting quarantine can take some of the load – the ACT is a case in point, with its newly-constructed international airport; there are suitable sites in the ACT – much land around the Fairbairn RAAF base.

However, long term it is undesirable to use hotel facilities, which are not dedicated health facilities, for such a purpose. Thus there is a reason to establish a health-tourism forum so that people in each sector are brought together to develop a common language.

As with any facility designed to attract tourists to this country, each person presenting at a border should have the equivalent of the yellow card – when we needed to show evidence of smallpox vaccination, inoculation against typhoid, cholera – and still yellow fever.

Remember that yellow, even in this world of digital communication, remains the colour of the letter Q – hence quarantine. Data should provide evidence of the time of testing, a temperature check at departure and arrival and a checklist of symptomatology. As a parenthetic comment, the ability to test olfaction may become an important additional marker.

The longer there are no organised quarantine facilities the more policy will be at the mercy of ad hoc arrangements. Quarantine facilities that are recognised and organised with appropriate staff will provide a Security Blanket for the politicians, who are increasingly terrified of opening their borders – and in general Australia.

When we wanted to deal with those poor benighted asylum seekers, we were not at a loss for ingenious methods of inflicting as much misery on them without descending into actual torture. Also, can anybody realise how much hilarity and champagne cork popping there was in the Cambodian government when we wanted to “rehome” some of these asylum seekers.

However, the asylum seekers were at the end of a line of misery, and despite the compassionate cohort of advocates their plight means little to the vast majority of Australians.

By contrast, quarantine, well organised with a border force replete with replacement masks of compassion and a health work force working in conjunction with the tourist industry in all its manifestations would seem to be a simple concept to put an end to the ad hoc actions and the unmitigated xenophobia that some of our governments have developed.

Well, let’s see!

O Panda Alaranjado

I don’t see how we get through to the January 20, 2021 inauguration day without bloodshed.  Ever since James Adams succeeded George Washington in 1797, there has been a peaceful transition of power in this country from one president to the next. I fear that after 223 years we are about to tarnish that record.

So has been written to me by an American lawmaker.

Everybody has been setting out a scenario that this increasingly unhinged person with his band of acolytes could inflict on the USA if he loses.

The following is one is taken from the playbook of the Bavarian house painter, he could contrive to see the White House burnt down, and then invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807. “In all cases of insurrection, or obstruction to the laws, either of the United States, or of any individual state or territory, where it is lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia for the purpose of suppressing such insurrection, or of causing the laws to be duly executed, it shall be lawful for him to employ, for the same purposes, such part of the land or naval force of the United States, as shall be judged necessary, having first observed all the pre-requisites of the law in all respect.”

Burning the White House, 1814

Not that it was an insurrection but British troops did burn down the White House in 1814. So there is a precedent, if not a president.

Mouse whisper

One Australian politician who answers to Julian the Lesser has made a statement that more Australian have seen Berlin than Bundaberg. Bundaberg has 93,000 people.

Is Julian the Lesser suggesting that:

  • people who live in Bundaberg are blind
  • there are more people than that to take our breath away.

All in all, a rum statement.

Out of breath

 

Modest Expectations – Biblical Trivia

The Orange Toddler she calls him. She, our American friend, agrees that the vaccine should be tested, but the chosen vaccine should first be provided to the Great Leader. He has spruiked it – he must be made invincible. To mark the occasion in the Oval Office he must be surrounded by adoring people wearing white coats, but definitely without masks, unless made by his beloved daughter. There will be commemorative syringes for all.

That will give the American people confidence; he to bare his arm for America; the test as no other test has been seen by anybody; and then to cap it off, perhaps a couple of days, maybe a week later, who knows – the flock of white coats will be reassembled while COVID-19 is directly injected into the OT. Then he will turn, give the syringe with the Presidential seal to an adoring fan, saying that there has not been anybody ever, perhaps with the exception of Jesus Christ himself, who has done so much for America, to make it great.

No, you’re dreaming. That won’t happen because he says he has a deformity of his body, which precludes injection – too much Ancient Orange.

Maybe Sarah Cooper will be a suitable surrogate.

Hunted? Not quite

How predictable, the sanctimonious Hunt, the Minister for Health egged on by the Prime Minister, trying to blame Premier Andrews for the ills of Victoria, including the failed nursing home system. Nevertheless, a small history lesson is probably useful to dispel some of  the information about Daniel Andrews.

The problem with Victoria is that for years now it has not had a Department of Health but a “Department of Social Reform”, reflecting a social service bias at the expense of public health. Health is hospitals – full stop. That was the conventional wisdom.

The Heads of the Department have traditionally not been medically qualified. The structure of the Health Department was separated into Health, Hospitals and Mental Health, then unified for a time under a doctor, Gad Trevaks, when he chaired the then Health Commission.

That was the last time, and the real source of the decline in public health was due to Premier Kennett and his agent John Paterson, who effectively destroyed any remnant of public health considerations in the State. At the same time regulations have been loosened and, as one insider has said, food regulation and the lack of public health surveillance of food safety will be another problem that Premier Andrews will have to confront at some time.

Thus public health was in a woeful state even before the minions in the Victorian Treasury insisted on so-called “efficiency gains”, which is just a way of reducing public funding.

Then there was the case of a former chief health officer who was largely invisible during the time of his appointment and nobody seemed to care. Raina McIntyre, an outspoken epidemiologist, has commented wryly: “… such a minimalist system can get by during the good times but will be exposed in the pandemic”.

As Andrews has emphasised, this is an area where political point scoring is pernicious. It is more laughable than pernicious to hear the NSW Premier saying that she has a public health department, which “was second to none”, when the Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerry Chant, who is responsible for public health, was lucky to keep her job after the Ruby Princess and Newmarch House debacles.

After all, she has been in the job for 12 years, and was an inheritor, as were her public health colleagues, of the work done by Dr Sue Morey when she was Chief Health Officer. Dr Morey not only supervised the introduction of the contact tracing system but also enabled the public health medical officers to be recognised as medical specialists. As a result, in relationship to Victoria the public health doctors in NSW are far better remunerated. Many of those NSW public health doctors were trained by Dr Morey, who had gained formal public health training, resulting in a Master of Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health in 1980. She set in place the public health system that is now being described as the Australian “gold standard”; it did not appear overnight. It is after all only a tool and it demands competence in its usage.

Strangled by a Thread of Cotton

Birdlife in the marshes

To me the Macquarie Marshes have always been one of the important bellwethers as to the health of the Murray Darling region. I have read much about them, but until this week had never visited. The marshes are located on the Macquarie River and lie some two hundred kilometres north-west of Dubbo, between Warren and Carinda.

To put them into context, the Marshes are an extensive wetland system covering more than 150,000 hectares, and the nature reserve covers 18,500 hectares of it. It is recognised as a Wetland of International Importance (but not by the NSW government). Most of the Marshes are in fact on private land.

The Marshes are arbitrarily subdivided into the northern and southern segment. There is more water in the latter. Importantly at present there is water in the marshes and there is abundant bird life. Black and white magpie geese swoop low as coots, ducks and a swan glide across one of the many lakes. The signs of the Marshes having periodically dried up are evident in the dead reeds where fires have wrought irreparable damage when there was no water. Across the water cormorants perch on the dead trunk, silent witnesses to the dying marshes.

Yet another sign of the degradation of the Marshes is the yellow rape mustard weed growing wild throughout the marsh areas that still are more or less dry.

The ultimate sustainability of these Marshes, even now after heavy rains have returned water there, is dictated by the cotton industry. The huge broad acres of black soil being prepared for planting near Warren attest to the nature of the enemy.

Originally it was the building of the Burrendong and Windamere Dams in the 1960s and 1880s respectively, which had diverted the wetland water to irrigation, and in so doing challenged the future of the Marshes.

That sets the picture for this almost lost resource.

We stop where the water is running across the track – 100 metres wide and from the flood post at a level of about 0.4 metres. A large 4WD lurching into a hole and then struggling out only to sink again in the running water before blundering through set the tone for the crossing. We did not attempt to cross, but had lunch at the edge of the stream. Another 4WD stopped on the other side had released a bunch of kids who set out their beach towels on the track and took advantage of a swimming opportunity.

A couple of ATVs containing a number of boisterous teenagers went by, charging into the water. They knew where to go, they clung to the right side next to the fence line. There were no holes on that side – no problems – across and gone with all round waves to those of us left behind. “Local kids”, the weathered face who appeared at the car window said.

He was a seasoned farmer who had stopped with his family, and came across to see who “these foreigners” were. He ran shorthorn Hereford cattle on a property north of Carinda – a place where he said the best cotton in the world could be grown. He was on an afternoon drive with his daughter who had brought visitors from Norway to see the Marshes.

However, the problem is that Warren always took the bulk of the water, and thus Carinda – 140kms further north – hardly received enough water to sow a crop – maybe once in ten years, despite its capacity to produce premium cotton.

His attitude is a microcosm of the problem of Murray Darling River planning. Nobody agrees. It is a free for all, with each person, each municipality, having no consideration for the people of the catchment as a whole. Why should they? Their role model – their various governments seem hell bent on fracturing the Federation. Why not add compromising the nation’s water to a deteriorating concern for country?

The Pub in the Scrub

It is but a speck on the map between Condobolin and Tullamore. Here there is a typical two-storied, corrugated iron roofed country hotel, with a bright orange tiled façade. It luxuriates in the soubriquet of The Pub in the Scrub. Its name, which also is the name of this hamlet, is Fifield. The hamlet is empty, apart from a murder of crows having a convention in the main street and a ute parked against the kerb in front of the pub.

Near the geographic centre of NSW, Fifield is surrounded by blazing yellow broad acres of canola. It was once the site for alluvial exploration for platinum and there is a sign nearby pointing to a place called Platina.

Fifield’s car graveyards

However, Fifield is a graveyard for car bodies. They are everywhere. There is an old barn, unusually with a chimney but now ramshackle, despite the incongruous new solar panels on the roof. Acres of car bodies behind the building are spread on the other side of the main road, the whole extent of which is hidden by trees. The fact there was a newish bright yellow Ford in front of the barn seems to confirm that the building was occupied.

The oval was covered in cape weed; there was once a tennis court, now overgrown, but with its net still in place and the rusted gate still visible. A disused wooden church on the corner with a handwritten sign which says “St Dymphna”, who can identified as the Lily of Ireland, the patron saint of mental illness.

However, on the road as you enter town there is a bright black and yellow sign exhorting the passing motorist not to dump rubbish – or else. Unless of course, it’s your car.

Ah, the wonderful irony of Australia.

Yuranigh

When I used to walk close to my old home among the trees which dotted the sloping land that had been preserved around the Melbourne Cricket Ground, I would come across a canoe tree where, before whitefella settlement, the Wurrundjeri people had carved a canoe from the bark.

Canoe trees were probably more common than have been found, but civilisation has a way of destroying heritage. Maybe many trees so used for canoes, shields, coolamons and other artefacts just did not survive. After all, before the whitefella came with his tree-felling prowess, there would have been open forest where the city now stands. Not surprisingly the river red gum with its stout trunk was a favourite source of bark. Bark was plentiful. Bark was the only resource they had for their canoes as there is no evidence that the dugout canoe of their Northern Australian brothers ever percolated south.

Yet the bark canoe was obviously important given the number of rivers and watercourses that flowed around and through the land which whitefellas labelled Melbourne. It is surprising so many of the trees survived so close to the centre of Melbourne

Aboriginal carved tree trunk

This reflection on tree carving was at the forefront of my mind when we visited the grave of Yuranigh. His grave lies a few kilometres east of Molong, a central west NSW town just off the highway to Orange.

The directions are well marked, the track is stony clay, there is a gate and a cattle grid, and then a short drive where old gnarled yellow box gums hold sway over a weed infested paddock. This is where Yuranigh is buried. Little is known about this Wiradjeri man except that he accompanied Thomas Mitchell to the Gulf of Carpentaria on one of Mitchell’s explorations.

Mitchell thought so much of this man that when Yuranigh died when still a young man, Mitchell paid for his grave and a marble headstone commemorating Yuranigh. It is apparently recognised as the one site in Australia where European and Aboriginal burial traditions coincide.

Around the area where Yuranigh is buried are carved trees, sinuous dendroglyphs etched into the heart of the trees – complex cuts given the tools that would have been used. The most prominent one of these is a stump protected from the weather, an extraordinary example of Wiradjeri art. It had lain for years on the ground, before being raised and now supported in a concrete base

There is another tree close by where the artwork can be viewed through a slit in the tree – the carving lying within the tree. There are four trees that define the corners of the gravesite, but some have defiantly repaired themselves and in so doing smothered the artwork.

We were alone at the site. Despite the complexity of what we were witnessing – an intertwined image where we could see original Wiradjeri work in all its complexity but only guessing as to meaning not only of the carving but also its placement in relation to Yuranigh’s burial place, I realise I know so very little.

Yuranigh grave site

Yes, I understand Mitchell’s tribute. That’s how we whitefellas celebrate dying in a world of grey – the compromise between white and black in our monuments and headstones. But the trees are not confected – they are real. In blackfella eyes Yuranigh obviously was a great Aboriginal man; the carvings denote respect. Otherwise who would take such care? “Sorry business” is such an important part of Aboriginal life.

John is not the Name

When I go to a bank or any other place where the interaction is usually with a younger generation, far younger than my “silent generation”, I find being addressed by my Christian name jarring to say the least. I quickly correct them on most occasions.

After all we have a surname for a reason, whether derived by being the “son of “, colour (white, black, brown), profession (fletcher, butcher, smith), location (London, Birmingham, Kent).

I come from a generation when every male at least addressed each other by “surname”. However, within the family and friends circle, we were called by our Christian names.

I find calling elderly people by their first name, as if they are children, unsettling. I would object to a stray carer that I have never seen before, calling me by first name. Using “John” jars just because they have seen that on some of my documentation, because those who know me call me “Jack”. Address me by my surname please.

Having thus aggressively put my point of view, my cousin told me a salutary story about his uncle. His uncle Jack went to get a job on the wharves.

He was asked his name.

“Jack,” his uncle replied.

“Look, feller, on these wharves we deal in surnames. What’s your surname?”

“Honey.”

“Well, Jack, it is …!” came the immediate reply.

One against me.

Mudgee Mud

It is about 40 years since we were in Mudgee. We came to the inaugural Mudgee Wine Festival. It was a spur of the moment decision. I asked her. She said yes. Now years later, the trip was not so romantic; you know, she said as we were driving there, “We came here in 1980. Have you been to Mudgee since?” I had travelled widely around this part of NSW and for a time I often visited Dubbo, spent time at Bathurst, found some delightful antiques at Molong and had been to Glen Davis on more than one occasion – but Mudgee?

Forty years ago, Mudgee wines were dismissed with the label “Mudgee Mud.” Give something a bad name and I doubt whether even after exposure of the wine at the Festival was sufficient for me to ever buy some. It was still very indifferent wine.

Ulan coal mine

The dinner was an uproarious affair, as one of the guys who was a geologist had mapped the coal deposits around Ulan and was making or had made a financial bonanza out of his assiduous tracking of the coal deposits around those areas. At the time of the dinner he had secured the lease over the tail of the deposit. Forty years ago, coal as they said was king, and who had heard of climate change effects!

At the end of the night, we blokes had all got along so well, and there was so much bonhomie, that everybody was shickered. Out in the car park all the blokes got into the driver’s seats and the wives, who were by and large sober, were consigned to the passenger seats. There was one exception – the young lady whom I eventually was to marry years later – insisted on driving. Just as well.

The next morning I awoke, nursing a damaged head. We had stayed down the road at Kandos, famous for its limestone quarrying. Mudgee had been booked out. As we were leaving the motel owner noted that I was a doctor.

“Oh”, she cooed, “ We would love to have a young white doctor here in Kandos.”

Different times then, different times.

Mouse whisper

On the menu at the Italian restaurant in Griffith, it was stated that one could dine “al fresco”. Sounds authentic – just as the names of any the pastas or “il cotoletta Milanese” were authentic italiano.

The term al fresco is unknown in Italy. If you want to dine outside (fuori) or in the open (all’aperto”), you will be directed to that leafy courtyard.

Thus, il cameriere will scratch il sua testa if you say “al fresco”. He may misunderstand and instead bring you acqua fresca – cold water.

all’aperto!

Modest Expectations – Gary Indiana

Two years ago, my general practitioner suggested I should be vaccinated against shingles. My wife had been afflicted with shingles on her leg, which had for a time gone undiagnosed because it was in an unusual place, and while irritating had been bearable. Shingles or herpes zoster is thought to be the result of the varicella virus, the cause of chicken pox, lying dormant in the nervous system breaking out along a particular nerve and its distribution, thus creating the mayhem of the clinical manifestation of shingles. Because of the way the distribution can occur on the body, it derives its name from “cingulum”, the Latin word for belt.

I had never contemplated being vaccinated against shingles, and given that I was suffering from an autoimmune disease I was wary when it was suggested I be inoculated.

However, I was assured the vaccine was safe, even for a person such as myself. I checked with my rheumatologist and he agreed that that it would not be a problem. Contracting shingles at my age was one reason for being inoculated, and since 70-79 seems to be the optimal age for injection of the vaccine, it has been made free by Government. Given that the cost was otherwise $280 the free inoculation created an added incentive.

In the words of Government: “A live attenuated vaccine against herpes zoster (Zostavax) was licensed in Australia in 2006. The vaccine contains approximately 14 times more attenuated varicella zoster virus (Oka strain) than the licensed chickenpox vaccines – this higher concentration is needed to produce a T-cell boosting response.” 

I had observed people with shingles. It does not kill you, but I would prefer to avoid it. I agreed to have the vaccine, not only because my two doctors agreed I should – even one that did not guarantee the same level of immunity in everyone – but also because the vaccine had been available for a sufficient time to show it was safe.

The shingles vaccine has had a very low uptake, even in people who can access it for free. There is apparently another vaccine against herpes zoster, which is said to be more effective, but its distributor has yet to convince Government it should be licensed.

The reason I have written this is that I am very committed to vaccination in children. I have seen the unspeakable tragedy of a young girl who died of a rare complication of measles. To me it is criminal for parents to deny their child vaccination against so many diseases, which in previous generations killed and maimed.

Thus, I am strongly in favour of vaccination – where vaccination is proven efficacious and safe – and where the science is not being pressured by either political hysteria or the hubris of research scientists of being there first, irrespective of the rules of scientific research – one of which is to do no harm.

I am resistant to this bonfire of expectations fueled by the media and the public relation outfits employed by these research institutes and universities, with or without Big Pharma.

My problem is that if a COVID-19 vaccine is prematurely released without all the safeguards being observed, then I shall not be vaccinated. If this is a response from one who is strongly pro-vaccination, what a field day the anti-vaxxers will have if the vaccine against the coronavirus is not only a dud but also kills people because it has not been given the appropriate time to be shown that it works in all respects.

Having said that, I remember that when the Salk vaccine was made available for poliomyelitis we lined up for injection; yet within a short time Sabin vaccine was found to be better – and so we all returned for a spoon of the oral vaccine. This oral vaccine and its ease of administration has facilitated the almost worldwide elimination of polio. Salk vaccine has become historic.

Some duds like the COVID-19 phone app don’t matter that much, but getting this vaccine wrong, when there are so many aspirants in the field as though it were akin to a sporting event, to me is not the right look. The chances are that the one that is the first to be released is the most likely to be the biggest and most dangerous dud.

By Jingo

The COVID-19 fallout from the Sturgis biker’s festival is becoming apparent. For the past 80 years, the Sturgis biker festival has been held around Sturgis, the biggest city in Meade county South Dakota. Located in the Black Hills made famous in song and near Mount Rushmore located in the next county of Pennington, this 10-day festival of the motorcycle is characterized by the three T’s – tribalism, tattoos and Trump.

Welcome to Sturgis

The sponsors reflect so much the audience: Coca Cola, Jack Daniels, Budweiser, South Dakota Beef Council, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Harley Davidson are prominent.

This year, Willie Nelson and ZZ Tops gave it a miss, but there was still a line up of country and western and heavy metal music to entertain as they pitched their caravans at the Happy Hoel Campground.

There they were: 250, 000 people over 10 days, cheek by manifold; jowl by leathers. No masks, hand sanitisers little used; social distancing, a bad joke. The Governor of South Dakota, a strident COVID-skeptic Republican rancher, who rejoices in the name of Kristi Noem, attended to encourage the lack of discipline and label their actions a defence of freedom.

Now the bikes have gone from Sturgis and Meade county is experiencing a striking increase in the number of cases – Meade, at a rate over the past seven days of 64 per 100,000 and for a population of 25,000 – 18 a day. There has been at least one death already, that of a Minnesota bikie. Patrons of tattoo parlours and bars in Sturgis were reported as being already infectious.

The surrounding counties have shown increased rates – even the sparsely populated Perkins county, which has the distinction of being the county seat of Bison, which is the farthest anywhere from a McDonalds outlet in Continental USA.

A nurse waiting for people to arrive to be tested for COVID-19 in Sturgis, SD

This remote part of the state is next to Harding county, which voted 90 per cent for Trump but has no cases of COVID-19 recorded. A triumph – or in this tiny community has anyone actually been tested? This is poor white America, where the only coloured people are remnant native Americans. The major ancestral links are Norwegian and German, and after all, it is all a hoax, as the President would say.

Yet the number of cases is rising elsewhere in surrounding States associated with the ten days in Sturgis “bike-in” is rising; as the Washington Post states” 61% of all US counties are reported as having been visited by a Sturgis rallygoer” and in the absence of contract tracing, the number of cases will be a mystery.

However, while Trump is in the White House, the Virus will continue to have a field day – not just at Sturgis but at other different venues decked with American flags with Make America Great Again scrawled across them, guns at the ready. And the Virus is still winning.

At last count, at least 300 symptomatic cases have emerged from Sturgis, but how meaningful is that number with a population reluctant to be tested, the number of asymptomatic bikers – and in public health data, knowing the denominator is all important.

Quaranta giorni?

Katherine, NT

When I used to go to Katherine in the Northern Territory I was always impressed by the Wurli Wurlinjang Aboriginal Health Service. It was then being run by Marion Scrymgour who later became a free-range politician across the Northern Territory firmament. However, the quality of aboriginal health services, as I found out, is very dependent on the strength of the directors and continuity, as often the governing bodies changes from one family to another with disruptive effects. These services are essentially nine to five exercises, which caused some resentment with the hospital staff, who were rostered on a 24-hour basis. After hours was the time when Aboriginal people often came for emergency treatment.

However, the Katherine I remember was one where the Aboriginal Health Service was utilised by the wives of the RAAF servicemen for their pregnancies and theirs and their children’s health needs. Defence force rules excluded them from the medical services available at the Tindal RAAF base.

The medical services available at Tindal RAAF base were quarantined for servicemen and servicewomen. When I asked the medical staff whether they interacted with the local health service, I was surprised by their level of uninterest. They were effectively quarantining themselves, living as they did on the RAAF base. One never saw people in uniform participating in the community.

The Katherine situation provides a potential model. The hunt for a vaccine is a distraction – what Australia has to prepare is for an ongoing war, the wartime field hospital model becomes relevant.

For instance, one major air field was located during World War 2 outside Tocumwal, a township on the Victorian border in southern New Wales. Near the airfield was a RAAF hospital which had 240 beds and 34 doctors and nurses. Built in 1942, dismantled in 1949. In other words the precedent exists for facilities, which worked well when they were needed.

Not only at Katherine, where a RAAF base remains, and airstrips capable of taking commercial airliners, but there are also numerous other, now disused air strips in the Northern Territory. These could be habilitated to take modern airliners so that overseas visitors could be all lodged for an initial quarantine period in Northern Australia.

As I have said before, hotels are not structured to be quarantine facilities, and it is time to end the practice. It was a short-term proposition that also provided income for the hotels. The hotel standards varied from the barely adequate to the disastrous and their use should be ended.

The solution was shown when the first groups were evacuated from Wuhan and were sent to facilities in Darwin and Christmas Island, more the set up one would expect from quarantine facilities, and which apparently worked well.

However, that success was never followed up with an ordered plan to construct quarantine facilities. Instead Australia has the spectacle of fragmentation, because States close the borders, and because of its populist appeal, there is just no coherent plan for opening them.

The situation is made worse when cynical exemptions are made, such as the Queensland Premier has done with the AFL; she does not appear to recognise how destructive her behaviour is for the Federal system as a whole.

So interstate xenophobia has to be countered. Premier Andrews in Victoria is empirically developing a plan of how to control the virus. The first measure of trusting people to do the right thing did not work, especially when there are economic imperatives.

He has been able to enforce “police state” conditions with a high level of compliance. The mechanism for this seems to be working. In a world where instant gratification is everything, where else in the World has the Andrews method with his methodical unflustered approach worked?

Here there is the head of the government appearing every day on television with his experts, all of them very media savvy, either intuitively or learnt.   Anybody who is not, irrespective of intrinsic worthiness, is ruthlessly discarded.

What has happened in Victoria will form part of the text of what not do, just as the excellent report on the Newmarch affair and to a lesser degree the report on the Ruby Princess, where there is unfinished business, have done.

Public health matters are now and for the foreseeable future linked to a healthy economy, and irrespective of the puerile bleating of those who do not want to acknowledge this fact, it should underpin every policy from hereon in. Public health theory should not only be confined to health professionals, but should be included in the curriculum of all emergency services at least.

Politicians should learn to spell “epidemiology” for a start.

The greater the understanding of epidemiology, coupled with a preparedness to learn from mistakes, will accelerate the opening up of AustraIia to the world.

Therefore, when quarantine facilities are to be considered let us hope the other state politicians do not treat the concept as though it were a nuclear waste facility or a high security prison. In fact it creates both immediate and ongoing jobs at a time when unemployment has ballooned.

The obvious method would be to round up all those waiting to come back to Australia and put them through a process of repatriation which could be used to test what is best practice as of now. The use of the Darwin facilities that seemed to work so well for those returning from Wuhan could be the template for the whole of Northern Australia.

There is a need to titrate  quarantine requirements. Thus those clamouring for repatriation could be a useful test case – in other words in return for their passage, they would be regarded as if they were incoming tourists and for the point of the exercise treated as such – I prefer not to use the word “guinea pigs”. It is nevertheless potentially a win-win situation for all.

New defined quarantine arrangements in Northern Australia would provide a place where the people from overseas, especially those places classified as hot spots, are bought for the obligatory quarantine time – this is essential for the rebirth of tourism and, for a government that does not want to kill off tourism for years with a $3,000 bill on entry to Australia. Instead an affordable quarantine option should be developed through empirical testing.

The test case would enable each step to be monitored from the time the person presents for repatriation, is allocated a point of departure, tested for the coronavirus and then followed the whole away back to Australia and beyond the quarantine period until they are allowed home. The point of departure should be determined on the basis of the maximum impact on repatriation and those participating must understand that they are governed by strict rules with which they must comply.

Having advocated this solution, I have not seen any data that has come from the initial government initiatives in relation to Wuhan as to its cost efficacy. However it is obvious that hotel-based quarantine at the cost currently levied is not the answer for either returning Australians or if we are to open up for tourism and business travel. This is an impost Australia cannot afford.

However, one thing we do not want is a return to the divisions of the 1890s when the Federation was forming rather than now where the Federation could fracture. Some of our local politicians, who should know better, are rehearsing the same attitudes which nearly scuttled the Federation. These fracture lines have never been resolved and threaten to become a separate epidemic in themselves.

A Memorable Concert

Frank Sinatra was one of those myths that America sometimes does well. In real life he was never the image that he projected through his tunes. He was the little insecure guy lost, seeking redemption though love. He was the inheritor of the troubadour tradition. He sang well.

Yet it was his role of Angelo Maggio in “From Here to Eternity” that represented a form of heroism in the face of extreme bullying, which I had observed at school, but from which I was, for the most part, immune.

After he married Ava Gardner, she got him that role which energised his lagging career. By the time he came to Melbourne in 1959, he was back on top. Many people more expert than I in such things, believe it was his best performance – ever. He did not often sing with small groups. His backing quintet in Melbourne was led by that extraordinary vibraphonist, Red Norvo. Then there were a number of virtuosos – and none better than the chap with the goatee beard and the thinning hair, once russet.

The venue was the West Melbourne Stadium, then in an industrial part of Melbourne. It was a cavernous building, also known as the “House of Stoush” and many memorable fights were staged there. Forgotten men like Elley Bennett, Vic Patrick, Micky Tollis, Jack Hassen – they all fought there. There also the American, Chief Little Wolf, whose real name was Ventura Tennario, the most memorable of the wrestlers who strutted their stuff on Ringside Wrestling.

That night, 1st April 1959 I was there with my then girlfriend. I had secured tickets though my contacts then with the Princess theatre, where I had learned to become a spotlight operator.

Sinatra did not like Australians much, particularly the press. At the time, it was two years since his marriage to Ava Gardner had ended in a Mexican divorce. Yet the reason he came to Australia was to follow her, as he done years before when she was filming Mogambo in Africa, after which he had tried to commit suicide.

In 1959 she was in Melbourne filming “On the Beach”, the Stanley Kramer film about the end of the world. She has been wrongly attributed as saying that Melbourne was a most appropriate place for this to be filmed.

It was a time when Melbourne had six o’clock closing of hotels and if you wanted to drink in a restaurant, grog was banned after a certain time. Thus, the number of brown paper bags under tables containing bottles of wines or beer, with the bag owners drinking out of teacups, represented our sophisticated café society.

So the exotica of Hollywood in Melbourne were diversion. Star spotting was a pastime. I had accidently seen Gregory Peck, one of the stars of the film, with his son walking down the steps of my old school, where he was temporarily enrolling his son.

Hollywood comes to Melbourne

But here we were in the bleachers, Frank Sinatra, a distant speck. At one point there was a minor commotion. My companion said that somebody had arrived and she thought it was a woman. From then on Sinatra’s style changed. He had drawn laughter before when, while singing “I’ve got you under my skin”, he interrupted himself to say: “take your hand off that broad.” The audience laughed – the kid from Hoboken had brought his American swagger.

Yet after the commotion of the entrance had died down, he started to sing songs such as “Angel Eyes” and “All the Way” and “One for my Baby” culminating in “All of Me”. He was singing for one person, and we were the collective witnesses.

It was low key, fluid and yet so intense – passion, which I only realised, when I listened many years later to the recording of that night, why some think it was his most complete expression of his talent.

The person who had entered and had sat in the front row was Ava Gardner.

Then he went back to America, and there is no record of his attempting suicide again. They never married again. He apparently cried many years later when he found out Ava Gardner had died, an alcoholic recluse.

For one night my friend and I high, almost in the Stadium rafters, were almost literally flies on the wall observing a myth – or maybe the myth of the eternity of human relationships.

Mouse Whisper

How so very different!

“Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. 

Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his acceptance speech of for Democratic renomination for President in Philadelphia in 1936.

Fast forward…

“Always remember they are coming after me because I am fighting for you. That is what is happening. And it has been going from before I even got elected. And remember this, they spied on my campaign and they got caught. Let’s see now what happens.” 

Donald John Trump in his acceptance speech for Republican renomination for President in 2020 on the White House lawn.

Modest Expectations – The Falangist Tear

There is an interesting reaction to Premier Andrews. Victoria has been a gigantic COVID-19 stuff up – in Australian terms. There is a group of well-heeled Victorians that has been discomforted by him. Andrews generally has been popular but has not acted in the conventional manner in which politicians are expected to behave.

John Brumby, his ALP predecessor, was an Old Melburnian, a product of Melbourne Grammar School and he showed it! Brumby was abrasive as his predecessor Steve Bracks was genial. Although also ALP, Bracks found that Melbourne conservatism fitted him well; he a well worn sports jacket and moleskins metaphor after those tumultuous years of Jeff Kennett’s brattishness.

After all, the first things the Melburnian, rather than those who live in Melbourne, will ask you is where did you go to school. School is such an important stigma in the life of a Melburnian. After all, I am a three generation Melburnian – but without the ultimate stigma, namely to be a member of the eponymously named Club. But of the Cricket Club, I plead guilty, although I did ask forgiveness by conforming to the Biblical utterance: “Greater love hath no man but to lay down his Lady’s Ticket for his wife.” Yes, a full member had one Lady’s ticket; and I even remember there was a time when there were members of the Cricket Club who had two Lady’s tickets – one for the mistress presumably.

However, Daniel Andrews is refreshingly different – a country boy with an outer Melbourne constituency, accused of being beholden to the Unions and hence to those who live in Melbourne and Victoria – but not beholden to the Melburnians.

Perhaps it is true and that allegiance with its factional arithmetic has left him with a mess of incompetents holding ministerial portfolios.

I met Daniel Andrews when he was a young politician first appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Health. He was so deferential for a politician to someone who, after all, was a substantial nothing; he even gave me his mobile phone number. I never followed it up. Later, when he was Health Minister, he appointed me to a Committee as his Ministerial representative, but at a distance and with a friendly acknowledgement – and with no emolument, as Gough was used to say: “What is the emolument, comrade?”

However, I have only focused on Andrews’ performance since the COVID-19 catastrophe. It is not until it is in your own yard that you realise the consequences; long gone are the happy scenes of politicians washing their hands on ABC TV.

Here you have a group of people who have spread the Virus throughout Melbourne and, to an extent regionally, along a trail of incompetence. Years of promoting sycophants, yes people, drongos, paying them peanuts with an occasional cashew in all walks of life, are coming home to roost.

So day-by-day Andrews is doing penance – taking on the sins of his Ministry and his Bureaucracy. He has gone beyond the 40 days and 40 nights. After all, he has been accused of being a control freak. Ergo, it is all his fault. Perhaps he has created the intellectual and social Sahara beneath him, but fortunately with a few notable oases that I have mentioned before.

Andrews may see vindication in his actions. The number of those with the Virus will reduce; the Canberra Pharisees may see what he is doing and stop the blame game and start to mimic him.

We should be thinking about what is an acceptable level of sufferers – elimination does not work: see New Zealand and Queensland. The States that are running the elimination line if they want to send their people spare should look at the Melbourne lesson. Australia has to derive a strategy along the lines of NSW, which has a very efficient contact tracing system to quench the outbreaks while they remain small.

In the long term social distancing will not work unless it is enforced by the spectre of those exposed being put into “bespoke” quarantine facilities. You cannot close down the country for political gain – health yes; political whim no – and ultimately no amount of dressing the political in the cloak of health will disguise the fact that approaching elections appear to be influencing states’ lockdown strategies.

Hand hygiene – the sight of sanitisers everywhere will have an effect, but just like those running the traffic lights there will always be those who won’t use them.

Group punishment does not work forever in a democratic society. A masked society – even if temporary and focused, I do not think so. Yet how long should Victoria live in a world of anonymity? Facial expression and unmuffled voice is the essence of humanity. It will eventually wear down even in the most civilised democratic society.

The Ruby Princess, Newmarch and this Victorian disaster should provide a lesson, and whether the remedy is that the Premier has to scapegoat himself each day as Daniel Andrews is doing, so be it.

After the Ruby Princess fiasco, the sackings could have been done, clinically and quickly, because it was an obvious failure of the public health area, because they were well informed. Incompetence. Only recently has the NSW Premier said she was sorry. Her minions have survived, and some seem to have learnt, as judged by their improved performance.

Politicians and the media were dazzled by the Carnival cruise ships’ management over a decade – the media was sucked in despite the clear evidence of its litany of disasters here and elsewhere. Now, anybody for a Ruby Princess experience? Where are those marvelling media who took that glass of sherry, those cocktails, on the shimmering deck of hidden squalor?

Victoria has been different. Public health expertise on offer was ignored. The Ruby Princess had already demonstrated what failure of public health brings. It seemed to have had no effect on Victoria.

In Victoria there was just basic public health ignorance.

Retribution is coming in Victoria, but may Andrews have the strength to stay the course and ensure that Victoria’s disgracefully inadequate public health system is brought to the level that paradoxically NSW has always had due to the previous work of Dr Sue Morey.

Andrews is all that stands between a Victorian society on the brink – a society that will increasingly be impatient for a scapegoat or two. However, nailing Andrews to the Cross is not the solution. He needs ongoing support. The length of this lockdown occurring is a severe imposition, especially when there is loss of income on top of “cabin fever”.

Andrew’s ongoing resilience is the key. He is showing that canniness by appearing to be defeated when absorbing the shock horror of his request for a twelve months emergency extension. He will settle for six months – what he really wanted and give his opponents an apparent win. That will mean he is not the only one who owns the six months extension. It is an old ruse when you are confident in your own skin and you do “ deference in defeat” so well.

What is happening in Victoria is important as a lesson for any government when the Virus escapes into the community and spreads to nursing homes in particular. The Coates Inquiry, if she joins the dots, will be able to accurately chart the remedies. Hopefully Andrews will have stared down the Virus by that time.

Nevertheless, the outbreak of COVID-19 in correctional centres in Queensland is worrying, and its containment will test the Queensland public health arrangements. Again, prisons have been shown to be a hotspot in the USA. Quoting the NYT:

The number of deaths in state and federal prisons, local jails and immigration detention centers — which stood at 1,002 on Tuesday morning — has increased by about 40 per cent during the past six weeks, according to the database. There have been nearly 160,000 infections among prisoners and guards.

The actual number of deaths is almost certainly higher because jails and prisons perform limited testing on inmates, including many facilities that decline to test prisoners who die after exhibiting symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.

… Prisoners are infected at a rate more than five times the nation’s overall rate. The death rate of inmates is also higher than the national rate — 39 deaths per 100,000 compared to 29 deaths per 100,000.

Let’s hope that Queensland is spared the disastrous effects of the Virus, in this case being let loose in the correctional system, despite the fact that there may some people in the Southern States with a repressed sense of schadenfreude should the Virus spread in Queensland.

The Saturday Evening Post

The Saturday Evening Post is always associated with Benjamin Franklin, even though he was well and truly dead by the time it was first published in 1821. The two shared Philadelphia. Moreover, Philadelphia was the capital of the fledging United States between 1790 and 1800. The Saturday Evening Post used the portrait of Benjamin Franklin often, which gave the magazine presence – America without The Saturday Evening Post was unthinkable at the time I grew up.

Not that I grew up in the United States. I did not even go to America until 1971, when the magazine was then in severe decline. Yet I remember The Saturday Evening Post well. My father used to subscribe to it; my mother to the Ladies’ Home Journal, even though there were severe currency restrictions on Australians buying US dollars. The journals were always about two months late, because they came by sea. However, it mattered little because it was, apart from American films and the occasional entertainer and the war brides coming back to see their families, to my parents contact with American lifestyle.

My mother had just one of these “war-bride” friends with whom she regularly corresponded. Nan, her friend, had met and married a US air force officer named Bob Daggett during the War and followed him to America. Our family album was full of pictures of the wedding, where my mother was her matron of honour, a quaint term for a married bridesmaid.

A Norman Rockwell cover

Both of these journals were the mainstay of Middle America. The portraits by Norman Rockwell were the mainstay of the Post covers. Rockwell’s ability to depict life in America as a contemporary tapestry, alternating whimsy with pathos, was extraordinary.

When I use to pore over the magazine as a small boy, before they were thrown out, it was seeing another culture, a far wealthier culture with stuff just not available to Australians at the time. I wished I could paint like Rockwell.

Then the Post went into decline. However before it did, after my mother died in 1956, our subscriptions to these magazines died with her. After all, the arrival of the Ladies Home Journal each month just reinforced my father’s loss and my father had eventually gone to America in 1957, and fulfilled the ambition anyway.

But The Saturday Evening Post still exists – a two monthly publication. The publication is not for the millennials, even though the ubiquitous “Coles spruiker”, Curtis Stone bobs up with recipes for barbecued turkey burgers with homemade pickles and grilled corn on the cob with parsley and garlic brown butter.

The advertisements are for rechargeable hearing aids, plush recliners, the Zoomer wheel chair, betterWoman bladder control tablets. There is a concentration on health and lifestyle in the content but with a very strong nostalgic sense for an America that probably never was.

Yet among the detritus of the most recent issue was one article detailing the decisions of one lady who decided that her ongoing renal dialysis was really too much. The dialysis for this 60 year old lady was accompanied by an increasing number of savage complications. So she broached the subject of stopping the dialysis with her doctor. The author of the article was then a medical student and her report of the exchange between doctor and patient is written in simple direct prose.

When you stop dialysis, one of the most common things that happens … you can have difficulty breathing… so I will give medicines to help prevent any gasping or difficulty breathing you might have.”

“Good, I don’t … want … to suffocate. I don’t … want pain.”

The doctor quickly re-assured her that kidney failure generally doesn’t cause pain, and pain, and death would arrive only after loss of consciousness.

“Kidney failure,” he told her gently, “could be a merciful way to die.”

I had never seen this type of doctoring before. 

These medical reassurances struck a responsive chord with myself. I don’t want to suffocate; I don’t want to die in pain. Nobody does, but many do.

Later on in the article, the author notes the woman did become unconscious three days later, her family encircled the bed, singing and tying balloons on her bed posts, she dying apparently at peace, but those last few minutes – who would know what is happening, but she was not gasping for breath nor grimacing in pain.

This article carries a message that in a world which prides Self above all else, there is this other World of genuine care – a world that you wish to see in every nursing home, every place where the aged are cared for, and not the shemozzle that it is today.

Norman Rockwell ‘Saying Grace’

As of today in the USA, 40 per cent of deaths from the Virus have been elderly people in nursing homes and other residential facilities. 420,000 have been infected; 70,000 have died – but how many without suffocating or in pain? And dying all alone, apart from that life-giving technology which for them had come up short.

Strange how this recent copy of The Saturday Evening Post evokes so much reflection.

July 5, 1969, thus he wrote

A young assistant professor in zoology at the University of California at Berkeley named Richard Dawkins wrote a detailed letter to The Times. It was published on June 5, 1969. I have reproduced it in part because it provides a troubling picture of an America that basically does not seem to have changed. He wrote it at a time when the Vietnam War was at its height, and across the world the previous year there had been an outpouring against the War from young people, particularly those at universities, which had met with fierce resistance from the Authorities.

In 1969 Nixon had recently been elected to the White House, replacing the hapless Johnson. Ronald Reagan was in his Californian Governor’s office in Sacramento. Despite the carnage in Vietnam, the Americans were not winning the War. That was plain, yet Nixon was watching, contemplating, calculating like Kissinger – men whose blood was colder than Lake Baikal – to carpet bomb Vietnam.

Winter ice, Lake Baikal, Russia

Documentaries of the time, which have recently been revived on Australian television, show how much wanton damage had been done and yet how vulnerable the Americans were. There were Vietcong in the grounds of the American Embassy in Saigon. Unthinkable.

I remember the time well. I still remember my own involvement, my own reactions, my numbness that had followed the 1966 landslide victory that Holt achieved. Yet I went about my postgraduate study unscathed.

Yet it is somewhat ironic to see a former very conservative Thatcherite Conservative, Michael Portillo, languidly travelling by train through Vietnam 40 years after the War, enjoying its hospitality, enjoying the sights of what is a beautiful country, no signs of war, and “Don’t mention the War”.

The renewal and the resilience of these Vietnamese people after such physical destruction of their country contrasts with the mental destruction of America, where the aftermath stills lingers like a toxic cloud, fanned by Trump and his followers.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington

One thing, which struck me as I read Dawkins’ letter to The Times, is how the seeds of class hostility were ignited. Young working class men drafted to fight and returning from Vietnam were vilified, spat upon by those with Ivy League credentials, who had evaded the draft, one way or the other. Resentment can be transferred from one generation to another. It is a macabre sight to see Trump, a draft dodger, a child of privilege, as the leader of these alienated, xenophobic predominantly white “midnight’s children of the Vietnam War”.

Thus on reading Dawkins I am struck with an uneasy feeling of déjà vu:

“On May 20 Berkeley became the first city in the continental United States to come under military attack from the air. An army helicopter swooped low over the campus spraying the irritant and nauseating CS gas developed for use against the Vietcong. At the same time masked soldiers blocked all but one exit from the plaza, which was the centre of the attack, making dispersal of the terrified crowd slow, and seeming to show that the gas was being used as a punishment rather than as an instrument for rapidly clearing a crowd. In any case the gas drifted all over the campus and the surrounding area, causing the hospital to put at least one respiratory patient into an iron lung, and necessitating the evacuation of children from some schools…

National Guard helicopter spraying tear gas on students and antiwar protesters in Cal’s Sproul Plaza on May 20, 1969

“What is even more ominous than that these things can occur, is that the majority of Americans seem heartily to approve. This was true over the Chicago affair, and Governor Reagan’s soaring popularity in the polls is universally attributed to his “hard line” on campus dissent. It may not be too surprising or even too worrying that the police and military should tend to favour Gestapo tactics for dealing with student rebels. What is really disturbing is that the Governor of the State can markedly improve his chances of re-election by allowing and encouraging such methods.” 

Maybe someone out there with a playbook in hand in the run up to the Presidential election has made the same observation as Dawkins did, but 50 years on – that every riot, especially if property is torched, is a vote for Trump in 2020 as it was for Reagan in 1969 and beyond, so crucial in “swing States”.

Would I lie to you?

There is always something that puzzles me about contact tracing.

Contact tracing demands a degree of honesty, and if the contact tracer comes across a group of people who habitually lie for one reason or another, especially when that group believe the police are looking over the shoulders of the contact tracers, are they going to tell you, the contact tracer, where they’ve been – to disclose their networks? Probably not.

But then part of police work is contact tracing. It is not generally linked to public health. There are rules for contact tracing when it is part of a policeman’s business, but when contact tracing is stated as being for public health purposes, it seems that the police are excluded from using that information.

However, if a “person of interest” tells a contact tracer all their links over the recent period, can the person of interest be interrogated by the police concerning the information that he/she has told the contact tracer of his/her whereabouts?

“No, says our “person of interest being interrogated”, “I have given my details to a public health person, and therefore you can ask him or her.”

However, whatever information that person has given to the contact tracer is protected and cannot be accessed. Right?

Can somebody give me some advice?

Mouse Whisper

I came across certain documents relating to my mausmeister when he was mauskind. 

Apparently this happened when he was a young, boisterous and adventurous child. His Aunt Grace lived in a large home in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. She looked after her Uncle Frank and Aunt Mildred until each died.

My mauskind wondered why the rooms down the right side of the long corridor were always locked. One day one of the doors was unlocked and the boy looked in and saw an extensive collection of architectural drawings and plans all over the room.

Before he could venture in, his Aunt said that he had to be careful because the room was inhabited by a carpet snake. Kept it there for mice … distastefully. However, carpet snakes were huge, long – pythons that could crush the unwary, Johnny.

So he never tried to go in those rooms again. He was scared of snakes.

Many years later, he mentioned it to his cousin who was much older than him.

She laughed. Aunt Grace had once taken my cousin into her confidence.

There never was any carpet snake.

Modest Expectations – Vince Gair

What I wrote about Biden in May holds in my view, but but for one thing…

The most disturbing vision of Biden is his rear view – essentially that of an old doddering man. Then turn him around and there is that ever-engaging smile – as if he has a giant axon inside his skull that is connected to all the facial muscles, which make him smile on cue when somebody rings the metaphorical bell. 

Biden is a plagiarist, discovery of which aborted his 1988 Presidential campaign. Plagiarism is a mixture of deceit and intellectual laziness – or underlying dumbness. This flaw resurfaced in certain dealings last year.

… Nevertheless, one positive sign that he is a good man is how he has handled grief and he has much to grieve about in his life.

America is in a mess; no matter when the change is made there is a White House reduced to the political nursery of the Baby Trump, and there will need to be someone very focused to clear out the rattles, the dolls, the bucket and spade, and other geegaws fondled and thrown around in the past four years.

I fear Biden just doesn’t have the ability – no fire, only embers. My earlier comments about him have not changed, and my support for Bloomberg would still hold had it not been for this entry of Obama into the frame.

Kamala Harris

He is still a fake, but fortunately Kamala Harris is authentic. I had not been paying enough attention to this very smart lawyer from California because I thought Biden would choose from the talented pool of Democratic women from the Midwestern States, even given that he was colour conscious. The residual influence of the Clintons would have been tested; the accident-prone Susan Rice in the forefront of Hilary’s list.

However, the Obama imago prevailed.

Biden is not adventurous and at 78 he has the habits of a lifetime printed in his electrical circuits. Prejudices such as showed in relation to Anita Hill bubble below the surface, despite all the meae culpae he has given. I never trust a plagiarist – it shows a level  of dishonesty, subterranean it may be.

However, that pales before Trump, a person whose inability to tell the truth is well documented.

When Trump immediately attacked Kamala Harris and called her “nasty” (how pathetic can you be), he starts on the eligibility nonsense that he tried to perpetuate with Barack Obama. He is now repeating the same with Kamala Harris. In so doing, he emphasises the essential similarity between the two. One is the son of a Kenyan and white American union; the other the daughter of a Jamaican and Indian union. Coincidentally both unions broke up soon after the children were born and both had an absent father.

Trump would have preferred the traditional Tobacco Road Afro-American upon which it is easier to spew racial division and hatred.

He has a pathological antipathy to Barack. He cannot stand being mocked, his inferior intellect put to the test, his demonstrable cowardice – all in all, a vicious, corrupt guttersnipe. To put it in simple terms, he cannot bully either Harris or Obama – unlike Biden whom he has shown that he can.

There are two reasons that could be conjectured as to why Biden delayed his choice. One is that he is a natural ditherer (not a good sign in a President with so much to rectify) and the second is that he simply did not want Ms Harris. One may suspect that she is the Obama surrogate. That is not to denigrate her, but it will not be too much trouble for her to “clean up” Pence – and then unleashed she will so clearly become the President-in-waiting.

Two Vice-Presidential reactions when the President became “infirm” are relevant contrasts.

Eisenhower was 67 when he had a stroke in 1957; Woodrow Wilson was 63 when he too had a stroke in 1919. Eisenhower had nearly three years to go; Wilson the best part of two years. Richard Nixon, whom Eisenhower had foisted on him and whom really did not like much, became more prominent directly in policy decisions after 1957.

Trump is 74 and has been rushed to Walter Reed Hospital at least once; Biden is 78. Both probably are testimony to the availability of health care now in modern America, for the affluent at least, particularly in the treatment of cardiac disease and high blood pressure.

Thomas Marshall, Wilson’s Vice-President and who somewhat eerily had been the 27th Governor of Indiana (the current Vice-President Pence was the 50th), followed a different path. Again, although as with Nixon he served two terms, Marshall was disliked by Wilson and particularly by Wilson’s wife so that he was blocked from much of the day-to-day management. However, Marshall was very much his own man with seemingly a misplaced sense of noblesse oblige in refusing to take over as acting President because he feared the precedent that this action would have created.

In other words, even at an age when infirmity can strike suddenly, Biden can be tolerated because (a) Trump is so bad, probably more senile and (b) Biden has a strong deputy. However even the sight of the indecisive Biden face to face with Trump still fills me with trepidation, whereas Harris I suspect could eat Trump for breakfast and still ask for more waffles.

Is Australia prepared for the next Pandemic?

The above is the title of a paper published in April 2017 that had, as one of its authors, Brendan Murphy, whose address was given as Office of Health Protection, Australian Department of Health, Canberra.

It was published in the MJA under Perspectives and begins with the statement “infectious diseases continue to threaten global health security, despite decades of advances in hygiene, vaccination and antimicrobial therapies”. How very true!

It was a paper, which has a table of four Committees with very long names, and because they are labelled current NHMRC Centres of Excellence the assumption is that they are just that. The problem is that much of health research is encased in the gossamer of self-congratulation.

Angels dancing on a pinhead?

Much of medical research is somewhat like exquisite Chinese ceramics in the seventeenth century, refining the tools of the past to render more and complicated dexterity, but not advancing the human condition – defining how many angels you can fit on a pinhead – wonderful feats but of what utilitarian value?

The Murphy paper does not explicitly mention three people who have provided Australia with a buffer in the battle against infectious diseases.

The first was the emphasis by Michael Wooldridge, when he was Minister of Health, on raising the vaccination rates of Australia in the face of criminal behaviour by the anti-vaxxer brigade. Wooldridge had a strong base being close to Prime Minister Howard and being a member of the Expenditure Review Committee. Wooldridge retired and since then Federal Ministers for Health excluding Hunt have been an indifferent bunch in relation to their influence and interest (although at times Abbott showed he was across the portfolio).

The second was Dr Brian McNamee who, on assuming the role of CEO of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) in 1990, turned it from being a “basket case” into a world leader in the development of vaccines and blood product. As a bonus CSL is now very profitable. In so doing, McNamee cultivated Australia’s research capacity. He had a keen eye for the very best.

The third is Lindsay Grayson, whose crusade for people to wash their hands has provided a springboard for the community campaign to wash their hands. Men in particular are grubs and Grayson, first in hospitals then elsewhere, demonstrated how important hand washing is in minimising cross infection. His work has resulted in modification of health professional contact with patients.

On the flip side, governments had believed infectious disease hospitals were a thing of the past, and while HIV inpatients gave some of them a prolonged life, these hospitals dedicated to what was believed to be a relic of a past age were progressively closed down.

Fairfield Hospital

As I have written elsewhere I remember in the 1950s being admitted to Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne for a week for an unspecified infection, and as was the wont of the senior doctor at the time I was prescribed chloramphenicol, which was shown to have disastrous side effects. I was in isolation – quarantined – in a dedicated infectious diseases hospital, and did not escape being dosed with chloramphenicol. Nevertheless, I was well treated by a trained staff and still alive.

The New Zealand Chief Medical Officer has used the word “bespoke” in relation to quarantine facilities, especially tailored for the individual circumstance. Fairfield Hospital was just that, until it was closed by the then Premier Kennett in 1996 as a cost cutting measure, a familiar tune when it comes to public health expenditure.

The dilemma for Government now – as part of the grand exit strategy – is whether to invest in the construction of quarantine facilities. Those opposed, generally identified as central agencies, may argue there are quarantine facilities available, which were convenient when the early evacuations from China were occurring, but Christmas Island and Darwin are not the most convenient. Far more troubling for these bureaucrats is the prospect of a vaccine at a time when there is substantial hype about its prospect of success.

There are two points to keep in mind: the vaccine is far from a done deal, and there are plenty of other viruses at a time when the Climate is changing and when technology has conditioned the mood of the population to care only about Self, surrounded by Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or Tik Tok or Facetime or IsolationXbox.

However, investment in facilities now may be the price that needs to be paid to reassure Australians that our status of being a country with a low COVID-19 infection rate is preserved. It may be that the price to be paid from coming from a place of high infectivity to Australia means automatic isolation.

The paper by Murphy and his co-authors sets outs a number of Committees. Despite all the apparent impressive panoply of intellectual input set out in the paper, Australia was woefully underprepared when the Virus struck and was fortunate that our distance from the source of the original infection provided a buffer. Perhaps in hindsight, what was done there is the template for quarantine facilities to be established.

For Murphy the pamphlet of 2017 becomes the reality of 2020.

Australia just cannot be placed in permanent lockdown on the whim of some set of politicians. There is a need for a finer sieve than group punishment. If there is a lesson from this Victorian debacle it is that nobody should be allowed to visit a nursing home (or a prison) for 40 days or least a significant period after returning from abroad and not developing signs of infectious disease, then so be it. That is an obvious restriction to be put on the table, but there will be others.

The development of quarantine facilities to house the infected or those potentially infected should be near airports, and the further the airport is away from a high concentration of the people the better. There are those who wish for a vaccine, but given that viruses are coming in waves – and until this Virus struck, Australia has dodged the metaphorical bullet.

To get this whole response right is not just a case of consulting laboratory scientists whose ruminations have been effectively ignored by the community until the Virus struck. I have always taken issue with the Fabian approach of pamphleteering for change. As has been clearly demonstrated by Murphy et al in their paper, until the pandemic struck, there was no impact of these matters on the politicians. Now of course the airwaves are full of these same scientists unleashed, some able to communicate well, others not. They remain background noise while those in charge of containing the pandemic continue to work on in a social Darwinian bubble shedding the useless people whilst retaining the useful.

Wartime does not have the luxury of maintaining the idiots, just because they look good in suits. In other words, even though the cacophony of those who love show-boating remains, it is refreshing to see the “survivors”, who an observer thought from the start were competent and see some that you thought were initially incompetent improving. Hence Australia is still one of the best places to live in this Time of the Virus, even with the mistakes.

The danger is that some of the Premiers who have closed borders are caught in a competition to see who can close the longest. Closing borders becomes a mindless and sadly cruel obsession.

Now setting up, in the words of the New Zealander, a bespoke set of quarantine facilities may require less money being tossed to the other politicians-needs-a-legacy projects. I am sure the War Memorial renovations could be put on hold; and the sports stadia.

An evening looking down from the loggia

Just imagine in the Second World War John Curtin advocating for Parliament House to be transformed into the Palace of Versailles. To suggest that is so ridiculous, but Australia is in a similar crisis. The above point is to make everybody think of what is more important than the long-term health of the country – a football stadium for the inheritors of Versailles looking down from their exclusive loggia quaffing champagne and eating truffled lobster – or quarantine facilities where all the components of public health and infectious disease can be concentrated. I say again, this Virus will not be the last the infectious assault. 

The solution I propose is unashamedly simple in conception but difficult in the details of implementation. I know that; unlike the following, which is barely intelligible but it is not the only vapid advice which has been published: And we might do well to remember that the wisest and most effective course of action will more often be forged in the contest of ideas than distilled from unilateral decisions untested by scrutiny and tempered by no real debate.

However, one must not get angry, rather listen to that wise local florist who noted: “when my ability to smell the rose and the eucalypt return, so will I then contemplate the frivolous.” 

Once upon a time in Lithuania

In an earlier blog, I have written in some detail about our visit to the Baltic countries. However, a few comments may be relevant now that the hidden country of Belarus has emerged from behind its curtain. What is surprising is that when we drove from Estonia to Latvia and then to Lithuania we noted that there were no mountain ranges or marshes between the three countries – just nondescript borders. Yet, there are three distinct cultures, three distinct countries. All have struggled to maintain their independence, but with the breakdown of the old Soviet Union they all achieved their independence.

In 1989, to celebrate the independence from Russia on the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the people of those three countries formed a human chain stretching across all three countries from the Tikk Herman, a mediaeval Estonian fort in Tallinn, to the square in front of the Lithuanian cathedral in Vilnius.

In Vilnius, we were told that we would no longer need a visa to go to Belarus. Vilnius is close to the border and it was only a couple of hours drive to Minsk if it were not for the stringent border controls, which reflected that Belarus had never moved from its Soviet past. That was correct, we did not need a visa, but only if you flew into Minsk. It did not apply to land borders.

Belarus was once a client state of the Soviet Union and a founder member in 1945 of the United Nations as Byelorussia. Nobody talked about it and because it was translated as “White Russia” it was confused with the white Russians of the 1917 Revolution – those who opposed the Communist red Russians. So anybody who encountered the name shrugged their shoulders, “too complicated; little relevance” and turned to other matters. For Australia, there were very few migrants from there fleeing Soviet domination, unlike the Baltic Countries.

Protests in Belorussia

To most people Belarus (once Byelorussia) has meant nothing – a small landlocked nation of peat and farmlands, iron works and overflow Soviet manufacturing. To those who knew little, it was just a part of the Soviet Union, carved off, given a name, just to be another convenient rubber stamp, to provide another vote in the UN – to jump when the Soviets said so.

The Republic was not retained when the Soviet split up, and it was given its independence. However for Belarus, unlike their neighbours, this did not bring democracy.

So there was little surprise when a burly young former collective farm manager named Alexander Lukashenko seized power in 1994 and then, over time, consolidated his power over the population of nine million. While Yeltsin was there and in the early years of Putin, Lukashenko wanted to have his country re-absorbed into the new Russia, with himself as the Vice-President; that dream faded as Putin consolidated his personal power.

However, Byelorussia has its own language and while most people speak Russian, the country has certain differences. It is Slavic, but it has more than a pinch of Balt. It was an area, once Lithuanian as part of its empire with fortified towns. The Swedish army has tramped across it, as had the Poles. The people suffered greatly under the Soviet Union and in an article in the February 2000 Harper’s Magazine the author, who had decided to visit the Kurapaty Forest just North of Minsk, said:

“Shadows throughout the grove resolve themselves into crosses; the farther in you look the more crosses you see. Here lie the bodies of tens of thousands of Belarusians (estimates run from 30,000 to 900,000) who were executed by the Soviet authorities.” In the psyche of the Belarus people, this Soviet brutality has not been forgotten.

In 2000 Lukashenko, who had some pretensions to being an ice hockey player, was only 35 and had the support of the elderly and rural communities. His approach to government was well-defined as during that year (2000) four opposition leaders had simply disappeared.

But now in 2020 the population seems to have had enough. There is always a tipping point and Putin, if he invades, would be well aware of the cost of not only fighting but also garrisoning a hostile country, especially one where the President-in-exile is lodged in Lithuania. Furthermore, much of the countryside in the South and East has been contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident. Radioactive caesium is lodged in the soil.

Then there is the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast for Putin to think long and hard about if he moves on Belarus.

Kaliningrad

Kaliningrad, named after one of Stalin’s cronies, was formerly Konigsberg, the capital of Prussia. The oblast, the size of Northern Ireland, was annexed in the aftermath of World War II as a base at Baltiysk for the Russian navy, being its only ice-free port. The area is also essential for Russia’s ability to intercept and interfere with Allied communication networks – Russia’s spoiler.

Putin could move fast and send troops in to rescue Lukashenko, reckoning that his influence over Trump would stymie any Allied response involving Kaliningrad Oblast which, despite being heavily fortified, could be a risky proposition.

Currently Russia is separated from its exclave by both Belarus and Lithuania. An invasion of Belarus, unimpeded by Trump, could tempt Putin to demand a corridor across Lithuania in much the same way that Hitler demanded a corridor across Poland to the then Baltic free-port of Danzig, one of the precipitants for World War II in 1939. Lithuania is a member of the EU, and yet…there is this Manchurian candidate factor redux.

Fanciful? Better to call it out?

However, drawing breath and not wanting to wander into a nightmare more fitting of a video game, in which I am no expert; equally I am no expert in how to destroy the world to save a despot or two.

Mouse Whisper

Geraldine Ferraro was Walter Mondale’s Vice-Presidential choice in 1984. At the time, there were many ugly rumours about the Democratic New York congresswoman relating to unpaid taxes and family links to organised crime. After all, she was of Italian extraction and from Queens at a time when the Godfather series had stereotyped Italian America – guilt by association is a favourite ploy of the media.

She decided to confront the media and answer each and every question for as long as it took – by 80 minutes she had exhausted the media and when she had finished, according to a report in the Washington Post, many of the cameramen filming applauded her.

As the Washington Post recalled this week:

There was just one critic left to deal with — the conservative columnist George Will. He had sent her roses as a sort of apology, writing in a card that, “Has anyone told you that you are cute when you’re mad?”

Ferraro called Will to thank him for the roses… But there was something she needed to say. 

“Vice-Presidents aren’t cute,” Ferraro told him. And then she hung up.

Modest Expectations – Christmas at Bethany

One of the books I dipped into when I was younger was Oblomov, an 1859 novel by Ivan Goncharov. However, I found the concept of a rich, self-indulgent slob not getting out of bed such an anathema to me that I threw the book aside.

Oblomov

Some years later I again ran across this excerpt from the novel; it is the one which is most often quoted: 

“When you don’t know what you’re living for, you don’t care how you live from one day to the next. You’re happy the day has passed and the night has come, and in your sleep you bury the tedious question of what you lived for that day and what you’re going to live for tomorrow.”

As a doctor, I became aware of the Oblomov syndrome. Oblomov’s syndrome has been formally defined as a mental disorder characterised by low cognitive function, low emotional response, flat affect, or “emotional apathy” and a generally ambivalent approach to life or when reacting to people, events, thoughts, or feelings.

A more personal comment from some character in search of identity labeled himself as a typical “Oblomov” – a weak-willed neurotic who is apathetic, lazy and parasitic, unable to work”, with those characteristics culminating in self-loathing.

The recurring metaphor is a “refusal to get out of bed”. The metaphor may be extended to remaining in pyjamas for the whole day, except for making allowance for personal hygiene. It can become a way of life as Hugh Hefner clearly and very publicly showed, but I believe this outward Oblomovian indulgence covered serious neuro-pathology in the case with Hefner.

During the last months when the country has been in various levels of “lock-down”, I found myself constantly wanting to go back to bed and remain in my pyjamas. That is my reaction, but I wonder how many others, especially those without support – and here my hypothesis says that it is a male condition and not for poor people – have been faced with this situation. However, in nursing homes does it become a less voluntary condition?

The key to combating this condition is to get out of bed, have a shower, get dressed and have breakfast. Gluttony was an obvious refuge for Oblomov so I conjure up and then dismiss the picture of myself sitting in pyjamas consuming a breakfast of thick French toast dripping with butter and maple syrup, with a side dish of bacon and a gallon of orange juice laced with champagne. This context is definitely Oblomov.

Modern technology has provided excuses for staying in bed. Television, iPhones, ubiquitous apps, the introduction of Zoom, somebody to fetch and carry – paradoxically all have made one more Oblomovian. The latter day Oblomov emotes: “Why stir out of my room? Why go outside? Why travel anywhere? Why exercise?” A torrent of questions poured forth until COVID-19 imprisoned us.

As one writer has said: “Throughout many hours Oblomov tries to overcome his passivity but without result. This part of the book is deeply disturbing. After many sad events, over a couple of years, Oblomov dies of cerebral hemorrhage.”

After all, in the book Oblomov stays in bed until page 131; sometimes I have wondered what page I am on.

In the final chapter, Andrei Schtoltz, Oblomov’s friend is talking:

“He came to rack and ruin—though for no apparent reason.” As he spoke Schtoltz sighed heavily. Then he added: “His intellect was equal to that of his fellow’s, his soul was as clear and as bright as glass, his disposition was kindly, and he was a gentleman to the core. Yet he—he fell.”

“Wherefore? What was the cause?”

“The cause?” re-echoed Schtoltz. “The cause was—the disease of Oblomovka.”

“The disease of Oblomovka?” queried the literary gentleman in some perplexity. “What is that?”

“Some day I will tell you. For the moment leave me to my thoughts and memories. Hereafter you shall write them down, for they might prove of value to some one.”

Is the blog after all only a symptom of modern Oblomovism – or is it therapy?

Hijacking the Narrative

John Kitzhaber

Governor John Kitzhaber is a longstanding friend of mine and a former three-term Democratic Governor of Oregon. An emergency physician by training, he was responsible for the Oregon Health Plan. He has kindly allowed me to reproduce his recent blog – which I do in part.

Portland, Oregon

… The arrival in Portland of Federal agents on the pretext of protecting Federal property – in this case the federal building which has, in fact, been defaced and damaged in recent weeks. The damage to federal property, while perpetrated by only a small subset of the protesters, provided the Trump Administration with the opening it needed to direct Acting Secretary Wolf to deploy Federal agents to Oregon, citing the Homeland Security Act as the legal justification for this action. 

A provision in this Act gives the secretary the power to deputize other Federal agents to assist the Federal Protective Service in protecting federal property, such as the courthouse in Portland. Those agents can carry firearms, and arrest, without a warrant, those they perceive as committing a crime. This action, not surprisingly, has heightened tension and increased violent confrontations in the streets. In the process, the protest movement’s emphasis on racism and injustice has been effectively replaced by a manufactured narrative of “law and order”—playing directly into the hands of the President’s re-election strategy. 

To further complicate matters, millions of Americans and tens of thousands of Oregonians will most likely lose Federal support payments next week because of inaction by Senate Republicans to extend unemployment benefits before the current support lapses. Adding to the current environment of protest and frustration, the potentially dark social consequences of panic, blame and desperation that haunt those who cannot meet their most basic needs of food and shelter and see no hope for tomorrow creates an unstable and increasingly dangerous situation. This has been made even more dangerous by increasing inflammatory rhetoric from all quarters. 

What kind of plan could help de-escalate the situation before it spirals out of control? If the protests in our state since the murder of Mr Floyd are about social justice—about putting an end to police brutality and increasing accountability and transparency in law enforcement; about ending institutional racism and addressing the inequities that exist in our state and our nation—then what we are doing right now is not working. The peaceful protest movement in Portland has been drawn into a reactive position, a defensive position, and is at risk of losing the true narrative and putting in jeopardy the very goals for which it has been so courageously fighting.

What kind of strategy can reclaim the justice narrative that holds the moral high ground, and connect the energy of the protest to tangible and measurable actions that can redress the legitimate and long-standing grievances from which that energy flows?

Possible steps in that direction could be:

1. Leaders of the peaceful protest movement—Black leaders in Portland, religious leaders, and those who love courageous but peaceful advocacy for change—call for a short moratorium on the protests for five to seven days and urge their followers and those who seek only to exercise their right to peacefully protest, not to congregate in downtown Portland during this time. This is not a call to end the protests, which must continue. It is an intentional tactical decision to separate, for a time, peaceful protesters from those who seek violence and anarchy and from increasingly provocative and confrontational actions by federal agents. This moratorium would pause the momentum of escalating violence, and stop playing into the hands of those who want to mask the racism and inequality in America with an authoritarian narrative about law and order.

2. During this moratorium, call for a summit that would include Black leaders, protest leaders committed to peaceful change, business and labor leaders, Oregon’s governor, Portland’s mayor, members of the city council, legislative leaders of both parties, the attorney general, and the U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon. Given that the summit will necessarily be virtual, former President Obama might be invited to moderate. Considering the importance of this issue, and the amount of national coverage Portland has received over the past few weeks, the president would be likely to accept. This summit would seek two goals. 

First, develop an action plan for short and long-term steps and commitments to address, in intangible and measurable ways, the issues of transparency and accountability in law enforcement, and the conditions of injustice that have marred our state and our nation for far too long. Second, develop a strategy for how to resume the protests at the end of the moratorium in a way that will (a) keep the narrative focused on the conditions of injustice we are seeking to address and the actions, outcomes, and commitments developed in the summit; and (b) minimize, to the greatest extent possible, the likelihood that peaceful protests will be hijacked again by those who seek violence and anarchy.

  1. Also during the moratorium, secure a wide perimeter around the Federal buildings, perhaps deploying the Oregon National Guard for this purpose, to make it very clear that the state of Oregon is capable of and intends to protect federal property—just as it intends to protect state property and private property—thus eliminating the only legal justification the Department of Homeland Security has for sending these agents to our state in the first place. Not only would this perimeter protect Federal property, but it would also create a buffer, once the moratorium has ended, to protect peaceful protesters from violent and provocative actions taken by federal authorities—a task that should not be left solely to the courage of the “Wall of Moms”. 

The course we are now following puts control of the narrative into the hands of those who seek to further divide our state and our nation. We should not facilitate that, we should not allow it, we must take steps to prevent it. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the focus of the protest is not on the legitimacy of laws that protect public buildings and private property from vandalism and damage. The protest is and should remain, focused on racism, injustice, and inequality. We cannot allow that focus and that narrative to be co-opted by either a handful of violent protesters in Oregon or by a national strategy that seeks to fuel and exploit violence and confrontation for political gain. 

The protests of the past two months are set against the backdrop of perhaps the most challenging set of problems in our state’s history: high unemployment, a daunting budget deficit, and a public health crisis. We are only six weeks away from when Oregon public schools have traditionally opened and the uncertainly about how that will be managed has put huge additional stress on parents, children, teachers, and other school employees. The ongoing, but necessary steps to bring COVID 19 under control, including the closure of many businesses and childcare centers, has added another layer of stress and uncertainty.

At this point in time, the combined leadership of Oregon’s public, private and civic sectors—and the energy, talent, and creativity of each and every Oregonian—must be engaged, with single-minded determination, to hold our state and our communities together. Now is the time to develop and implement a five-year strategy to create the kind of change rooted in social justice that we have been unwilling or unable to make in the past; a strategy to put Oregon back on its feet and lead us—all of us—through to a brighter time. By taking back the narrative, as well as the tone and focus of the important protests going on in Portland, protest leaders can help ensure that social justice, equity, and opportunity are built into the foundation of that strategy.

Somewhere in America, during this difficult time, a state needs to demonstrate that we can weather this storm without losing our sense of community, without losing our commitment to one another, and to emerge stronger and more unified than when we began. Let’s make that state Oregon.

Since this posting, Kitzhaber has followed up. Shortly after I posted it the State negotiated a removal of the Federal agents and the Oregon State Police took over.  There was a significant easing of tensions until a few days ago but there has been violence the last two nights, not at the Federal courthouse but at the headquarters of the Portland Police Association”…

The outbreak we had to have

Some may argue, to put it in the words of the Maestro, the Victorian outbreak of the Virus is the Outbreak Australia needed to have.

NSW had been the State where incompetence and carelessness were well on display but from June, Victoria has assumed the mantle and usurped that crown well and truly.

How the Premier handles the crisis could be the template for handling any pandemic – or not. He has a dreadful set of Ministers, the product of union factionalism. His public service, which has been stripped of most of its talent, is not much help. There are exceptions such the Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and his deputy Allen Cheng.

Otherwise, the amount of intellectual integrity underpinning the Victorian approach has been woeful, and Andrews has moved, essentially groping in a policy blackness, on how best to move against a nasty hidden foe. The stress he is absorbing, particular given how weak his Health Minister is, has been extraordinary.

The lesson from the breakdown in the hotel quarantine should be clear – unvarnished or even if “coated”. This “stuff up” is just an example of giving work to your mates rather than assuring experience, trustworthiness, competence and responsibility in the contractors.

Australia is in danger of becoming a country of sunburnt baksheesh and wide brown paper bags. The sense of entitlement in some quarters of this country has grown under the guise of neoliberal narcissism – and its mantra is “only mugs work.”

The disaster is concentrated in the private nursing homes. Brendan Murphy has generally done a good job, but still remains somebody with a “tin ear”, talking about “reputational damage” that the proprietors of nursing homes have suffered, which frankly is irrelevant. There he was, presenting to a Senate Committee while the pages of the newspapers showed the owners of one or more of the affected nursing homes flaunting their yellow lamborghinis and bronzed buffness.

The problem is that the Commonwealth Government has shirked its responsibility. It has yielded to the shibboleth of “business knows best, Government should get out of people’s lives” and hence allowing self-regulation to be overseen by a group of bureaucrats waving warm lettuce leaves.

The training of the lowest level of health carers in the nursing homes is the benchmark level for adequacy and knowledge of health care. The simplest element of this knowledge and care is hygiene and hence infection control – theirs and those for whom they are caring, whether they be labelled patients, clients, customers, residents – or just people. Let us not descend to calling them “mum and pops” or “kiddies”.

However, it is not only the “lowest” levels of health carers that do not wash their hands. There are many surveys that show doctors and medical students do not routinely wash their hands – and to a lesser degree, even nurses. It would be interesting to know if the increased availability of hand sanitisers in the community may have changed habits and if there is any objective evidence that shows this is so.

The Commonwealth Government should at least be obtaining draft recommendations from its Royal Commissioners now, because the Victorian misadventure is a case study in progress and enables the Government to see what works. The Victorian misadventure is just such a fertile ground.  The Commissioners are realising that that one does not often have the opportunity to see what works or does not work “in real time”. Bugger the ivory tower – this is better than any self-serving submission. The Victorian situation is a case study in progress!

Andrews is in survival mode. However, he is all Victoria has. The predictable antics and hectoring for the sake of point scoring by a woeful set of politicians is more than unhelpful. Yet the Coates report is likely to be ugly. Already, the media watering can is nurturing the rumours.

If this next six weeks doesn’t work and with the numbers of infected people in Victoria being driven down, Andrews may be gone, subject to a Pallas coup.

Nursing home owners’ conference?

And what of the other States? What are they doing preventatively to rein in the operators of the private nursing home industry – to put a cap on the purchase of yellow Lamborghinis. Or are they behaving like “normal” governments – alternatively piously self-satisfied, sitting on their hands or putting “it on the long finger” until the community pressure becomes too great, all the while wishing the problem of the aged just disappears. Imminent elections as will be occurring in a number of states colour every policy decision.

One little measure, Commissioners Briggs and Pagono, presumably your Report will contain the amount of money the nursing home owners and shareholders contribute to the various political parties. No, of course not, not in the Terms of Reference.

All my problems come at once 

My son was on the same flight from America as Dr Higgins, in the Precovidassic era when the political dinosaurs stalked the World.

That week on March 8, CNN reported that there were more than 550 cases of the “novel coronavirus” in the USA. According to CNN at that time “around the globe, the novel coronavirus has killed more than 3,800 people and infected more than 108,000, the majority in Mainland China.”

Both men had independently acquired the then novel virus in the USA or on the flight. My son was actually No. 13 in Victoria. He went off to Box Hill Hospital when he felt mildly ill but had to battle the staff to get tested; eventually he prevailed. Despite being a journalist, he resisted publicising his plight, and went home, self isolated, tested positive and then stayed with his family in isolation for two weeks. No fuss.

Dr Higgins received more publicity, possibly because he has a famous daughter. As with my son, he had a minor upper respiratory infection and was tested. He however went back to work pending disclosure the test results for this “novel virus”. He also tested positive. Minister Mikakos weighed in and gave Dr Higgins a totally unreasonable “spray”, especially as he did not transmit the Virus! True to form, did she apologise? No, the lady was not for civilised responding.

However now Mikakos is on limited release, such has been her effect on containing the COVID-19 spread. That she is tweeting in the middle of the night is bit of a worry. I am afraid she gets no sympathy from me.

I suspect she and a number of other Ministers will resign.

She cannot be blamed for destroying the Health Department’s corporate memory and limiting the medical input in favour of advice that condemns “the medical model” (whatever that is) and fuels an environment where nobody with medical expertise would want to work. That’s the history of the Victorian Department of Health over the past decade. However, the attitude started many years before, with John Paterson and his contempt for the medical profession.

However, reviewing the Kennett legacy is not part of the current review. Kennett promoted gambling, including poker machines, as a significant contributor to the Victorian Government’s coffers. I am old enough to remember some of his disparaging comments about old people. There is no review of the spread of organised gambling and the harvest being reaped by overseas betting agencies, often at the expense of the elderly.

Although I used to like to punt and especially loved watching Winx, I question why racing has been given an exemption. City and country racing persists in Victoria and the industry seems to move seamlessly between Stages 3 and 4 Lockdowns. As one Victorian put it, “Would be a great feeling when your business is going down the toilet to turn the TV on and watch the essential horsies go around”.

However, an erudite friend of mine said: “what else is there to watch on afternoon television”. It should be noted that racing in Victoria, whether dog or horse is in the Ministerial portfolio of one Martin Pakula, who also has direct oversight of Disasters and Catastrophes.

However, the whole question of preference for sport pandering to the jocks, the whole reliance of government on gambling revenue at a time when, paradoxically, the same crowd that own the horses are often those who are wanting taxation cuts – presumably to buy more horses.

Overlaying this jock anti-intellectual climate is the cosy relationship between government and big unions (Victoria), big business (Federal) and big accounting/consulting firms (New South Wales). Queensland, with its long history of political corruption being an irritant, will have its day of reckoning as well.

The day of reckoning for the smaller States will be in the lifting of the State of Lockdown. This will be a test of shared responsibility in the face of inflammatory media that uses words like “carnage, deadliest, surge, tsunami” – any word that evokes anxiety in the community. Victoria has “stuffed up” because of a number of people, whose metaphorical heads should soon be gracing Spring Street gutters.

It is unfortunate that it is election time in various States so there is a propensity to blindly apply border restrictions, which flies in the face of Australia being a nation. Has anybody given a thought to Australia being balkanised, with Tasmania the Montenegro and the Northern Territory Kosovo?

Been there, chaps! As we headed towards the Albanian border a couple of years ago, the driver turned to me and said: “Have you got a gun?”

Having heightened the level of anxiety to a feverish level for political reasons, what will be the nationally agreed acceptable Virus levels to allow all borders to re-open, and moreover New Zealand? Elimination – that is, insisting on zero cases before opening borders is political nonsense, even in the face of there being no vaccine. Restlessness in the community increasingly will only require a minor incident before the restlessness and restrictions spills out onto the streets with the targets, the perceived virus spreaders.

Thus, agreement over what level of infection constitutes “suppression” is a priority. Once that is agreed then appropriate resources can be assigned so that Australia (and hopefully New Zealand) has one system of public health to maintain that suppression across Australia and New Zealand.

Once this relationship is tested at a government level then expansion of the initiative can be offered to other South Pacific countries. It is important in opening up trading and tourist links. As a former President of the Australasian (Australian and New Zealand) Faculty of Public Health Medicine, who advocated closer links with Pacific nations over 20 year ago working with the then Minister for Development Cooperation and Pacific Island Affairs Gordon Bilney, I feel reasonably assured of my credentials to offer this suggestion.

As the historian Humphrey McQueen has written: “In 1915 an external menace had driven Australians together; by 1919, an internal danger revealed yet again how easy it was for Australians to stand apart. If national unity involved loyalty to the Commonwealth as an administrative machine, the Pandemic showed how little of it there was.”

McQueen is somewhat harsh on Australia since New Zealand suffered more because of the laxness of its quarantine arrangements compared to those mandated by each of the Australian States. However, the pandemic varied widely. Tasmania did not have one recorded case. Yet one major consequence was the establishment of the Department of Health in 1922 and the assumption by the Commonwealth of the quarantine power, which had lain fallow in the Constitution.

In 1936, the National Health & Medical Research Council was set up so the Chief Medical Officer had a public health forum. Early on they were faced with the 1937 polio epidemic. “The prevalence of the disease in Victoria caused concern in other States, particularly New South Wales and South Australia. Up to twenty crossings into NSW were patrolled by police. Special police were stationed at railway stations, aerodromes, bridges over the Murray River and at the wharves in Sydney to control the possibility of the infection being spread from Victoria to New South Wales. Vehicles were stopped and checked.” 

Sound familiar?

Mouse Whisper

I have always wonderd why they use the word “shrewd” to define the astute mouse, rather than just say moused mouse. I have always thought of these vagabonds sleeping or digging tunnels under hedges as our country cousins. Apparently not, even though they are characterised as “shrewd”. I find that us mice are closer to the Porcupine family than to the Shrews.

Just as well I have made that point. Some shrews have salivary poison which they inject when they bite unsuspecting prey. Thus the derivation of “shrew” can be reflected in the Swedish, Danish and Icelandic words for “cut”.

While it is a shrewdness of apes, it is a caravan of shrews. As they tunnel, shrews navigate like bats: they emit ultrasonic clicks that reflect back to their ears to create an aural picture of the surroundings up to about a metre away. So the nursery rhyme caravan of three blind mice may be in fact “shrews” – talk about giving a mouse a bad name. We mice would never run up a clock in that way.

Modest Expectations – It’s Time

Two weeks ago, it was horror stories coming from Victoria about people being locked up in tower public housing blocks, and I expressed a concern as to whether locking people up in tower blocks should not be accompanied by a warning about the risk of fires and how this would be managed if the buildings were to go into lockdown. In fact a number of residents were evacuated to hotel quarantine.

It seems that threat has abated in the public mind in the face of the rising horror stories of the private nursing homes and the circumstances whereby the residents are caught up in the rising tide of community transmission.

This involved families, staff and “persons unknown” unwittingly spreading the virus to a group of our elderly population incarcerated in a system where financial profit is paramount and the operational arrangements seem far from being able to combat a pandemic. However the problem, while systemic, is not only rampant in certain postcodes and not in others but also completely contained within the private sector.

The Premier, Daniel Andrews, tries to be measured, never raising his voice and refusing to apportion blame to any sector of the population when it is probably plain to himself when reviewing the data that certain sections of the population are more susceptible to “amoral familism”, which I have mention previously. That one of the biggest outbreaks is in an aged care facility linked to the Greek Orthodox community has not elicited as yet any finger pointing in the community is testimony to his control of the situation.

The problem with “amoral familism”, which is not limited to a Greek village upbringing, is that it promotes the mindless protection of the family unit above all – the State can go hang. It is the product of an upbringing where the education levels are low and unfortunately the society in which many of the people have grown up is male-dominated and authoritarian, and often where sanctions are not enforced by the gentle remonstrations of the reasonable man, as Andrews is. Ignorance of English does not help.

Therefore, when it seems nobody is watching this group, even when COVID-19 positive, it is unsurprising if these people do not heed warnings. If I were isolated in a foreign village with no knowledge of the language, could or would I heed any warning?

Hence not having the language would be an excuse if the individual were an isolate. However, it would be rare for this to occur. Spokespersons for particular communities bob up all the time. Instead of ensuring that these potential “purveyors of death” are quarantined, these spokespersons seem just to offer a variety of excuses; they did not understand, they did know that what they were doing was criminal and the excuses flow on and on.

Andrews has a difficult job, because if he names the miscreants then he runs the problem of stigmatising whole communities for the sins of the few. Andrews also knows that these “hotspots” are in his electoral bailiwick, but given that many of the Labor parliamentarians in these electorates have migrant backgrounds, you would think that the Premier should not have to bear the full load. Some of the political actions are somewhat like those gossamer Green parliamentarians posturing in front of the locked-down housing towers, full of sound and fury, as is common with Greens, signifying nothing.

So it is easier to implement rules that disadvantage the Victorian community, moving to the second-highest category of restrictions – Stage 4. Unlike America, most Victorians know more about the Virus than they did in March when it first came to notice and are thus better able to run relatively normal lives, while appreciating the need for social distancing, hand washing and now masks. Most people have shown that they are prepared to work within increasing limits – as shown by the imposition of masks, which has been almost universally accepted.

The percentage of self-serving exhibitionists and just plain “wackos” seem to be mercifully small, but having identified themselves they could form a nucleus of inmates of the quarantine facilities that I have advocated should be constructed where those who are invited in serve a true “quarantine” period – that is, 40 days and nights. They would be joined by those deliberately flouting the government directives. After all, each of those COVID-19 positive individuals roaming the streets in a wilful manner is a “potential murderer”. Harsh words, but think about the logic. Who actually killed grandpa and grandma in the nursing home?

The other problem with Victoria is that it has always lagged behind NSW in its investment in public health, particularly in contact tracing. Victoria has been known to have under-resourced public health training for years.

That advance goes back to the work of Dr Sue Morey who, under the Head of the NSW Department of Health the late Bernie Amos, set up a comprehensive program in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Many of the current senior cohort of the NSW public heath physicians, as does the State of NSW, benefited from the program Morey established and owes her a very great debt.

The inability to find out the source of all the cases occurring in Melbourne also relies on people telling the truth and not incriminating themselves for whatever reason. Having said that, the present inquiry presumably is expected to reveal the chain of infection from case zero.

Those three young women flaunting and flouting through three States, refusing to co-operate, destroying their mobile phones and probably denying they are Nigerian are just extreme examples.

However, as with criminal activity the more the rest of the community is law-abiding, the more time there is for policing the extreme cases. As with vaccination, there is a reliance on having a high proportion of the community vaccinated – the vaccinated group provide a buffer for the unvaccinated.

There is also another “wee” problem that may be overlooked when the pandemic is distracting attention. The Ministerial retinue has returned from America. Like those who have flouted the pandemic in Melbourne, the government has not offered any advice on their whereabouts. However, the “cat may be out of the bag” when a so-called “consular officer” returning from overseas turned up in Maroochydore and then Toowoomba yesterday with a dose of COVID-19. Coincidence?

Apparently, “not actually a Consular officer” quibbled DFAT, but he was still carrying a diplomatic passport or the equivalent. The arrogance of holders of red and green passports knows no bounds, but at least the Queensland Premier has called this exemption out; however there is no mention of the whereabouts of the two Ministers. Again, there are exemptions for the few.

Clive Palmer – The Rose of Bulgaria or a Dangerous Furbo? 

I think that this son of Bulgaria, alleged owner of property in Sofia, and expert in its national sport of Split Squat has been wrongly characterised. Here in the damask fields of the Rose Valley of northern Bulgaria they talk of nothing else – but Clive.

He is up to all his Bulgarian tricks again. He has a case before the High Court challenging the Western Australian Government’s right to the close its borders.

His arguments are based around section 102 of the Australian Constitution, which states:

On the imposition of uniform duties of customs, trade, commerce, and intercourse among the States, whether by means of internal carriage or ocean navigation, shall be absolutely free. But notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, goods imported before the imposition of uniform duties of customs into any State, or into any Colony which, whilst the goods remain therein, becomes a State, shall, on thence passing into another State within two years after the imposition of such duties, be liable to any duty chargeable on the importation of such goods into the Commonwealth, less any duty paid in respect of the goods on their importation.

Most of the words in this section relate to the immediate transitional arrangement following the enactment of the Constitution in 1901 but the key clause has centred on what States can or cannot do about imposing barriers between themselves. Legal arguments have waged about what it all means and many lawyers have had their waistcoats filigreed in gold as a result.

The Attorney-General, Christian Porter, probably as a proper lawyer had the normal reflex. Since there is a challenge to the Constitution, therefore the Australian Government must take an interest. This is such a fundamental issue. Does State border closure present a challenge to the Federation if unilateral action is taken by a State to close the borders? Does Clive Palmer provide a challenge to the Australian Constitution?

The Federal Government was emboldened by the initial encouragement of the Prime Minister to keep supporting the Palmer initiative. There, in the background, would be the normal cheer group that thinks supporting Clive’s challenge a “jolly jape”. These are parliamentarians gathered together under the standard of a skunk-like animal with adolescent behavior rituals and bearing aloft an icon of Christopher Pyne. They can’t help irritating the Australian community from their seats of privileged opulence.

The Prime Minister has had second thoughts, hopefully not only because of the backlash in Western Australia to the Palmer challenge. It should be remembered that Palmer was born in Victoria and spent most of his formative years on the Gold Coast, where he made his first fortune in real estate. So he is not a genuine Western Australian – “he just ain’t one of them”.

If Clive wants to stir up the Sandgropers over this issue of secession, of which border closure is a subsection, then they might just take it out on the Liberal party at the next Federal election. Hence, Morrison backing away may have been because he realised that Palmer was trying to “tar baby” him.

One obvious solution is to form a pro-tem barrier away from the accepted geographical boundary. Cross-border regional arrangements are everywhere. To me, working in the Victorian border town of Cobram on the Murray River, meant that I had to cross to the NSW river town of Barooga more than once a day.

One has only to live in a border area to know that indiscriminately shutting borders is group punishment, unnecessarily unfair and at times unwittingly dangerous.

These are communities of interest, which have grown up over a century or more, where the border is just irrelevant to normal social and economic intercourse.

Therefore when this Virus is eventually contained there is work to be done in this area of “communities of interest”, so that if borders have to be closed then there is a fully developed plan that minimises the disruption and can be put into immediate effect. As has been said on more than one occasion, cross-border arrangements have diverse benefits and opportunities for managing a shared resource.

In any event should the adopted son of Bulgaria win his case in the High Court, I am sure that Western Australia could move its lockdown zone един метър inside its actual border with South Australia and Northern Territory. Clive, with your solid knowledge of Bulgarian, you would know what that means.

After all, Clive you are not the only gander in the “Gooserie”.

Hafnium (Hf)

I was browsing through an old New Scientist and came across a world map, which indicated that among a series of metals, Australia had over 50 per cent of the world’s hafnium.

According to the map legend, it was estimated that Australia had the biggest deposit of hafnium in the World. Hafnium does not occur independently in nature.

Even though predicted by Mendeleev it was not discovered until 1923 by two chemists Dirk Coster, a Dane, and George Charles de Hevesy, a Hungarian. The Dane prevailed. Hafn was the mediaeval name for Copenhagen. The Hungarian just shared the glory of having isolated this last natural occurring element.

Apparently, one of the major problems is that hafnium is tightly linked to zirconium in a ratio of 1:50, and exists in a group of three naturally occurring elements with titanium the lightest and hafnium the heaviest with an atomic number of 72. Lying between is zirconium. However, as far as can be obtained, the amount of hafnium produced is small, and until recently it was a considered a waste product, removed in the purification of zirconium. Zircons are renown as jewellery substitutes for diamonds, but zirconium has a multitude of uses, and put simply it is everywhere – its industrial use is in hardening alloys and ceramics. It is also anti-corrosive.

Recently, Hafnium has been found to have a number of amazing properties and it can be used in almost any industries where the word “advanced” is the prefix.

The special properties of Hafnium oxide have recently permitted further miniaturisation of microprocessors, enhancing processing speed while eradicating overheating problems.

Resistant to corrosion, the metal its oxide forms extreme temperatures. Consequently, hafnium is used in plasma cutting tips for welding, and is essential to the advancement of the aerospace industry. 

Added to this, hafnium carbide is one of the highest temperature resistant and hardest materials with melting point of 3,900 degrees Centigrade which potentially suitable in a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) for faster spacecraft propulsion.

So writes the hafnium enthusiast linked to the company proposing to mine a deposit south of Dubbo when extolling the element’s virtues.

Despite its global market being about 70 tonnes annually, this enthusiast predicts the demand will double by 2025, and Australia could produce 200 tonnes a year. So far I am following the trail to Hafnium.

This is a small amount given that the Dubbo mine is proposed to be an open cut operation that will extract 19.5Mt of ore a year from a 32m-deep open cut mine.

The extracted ore is crushed and further reduced in size by grinding circuit. Sulphuric acid will be used to convert the material into sulphated ore, will be leached in water and sent for solvent extraction and precipitation, and onwards the final product.

Extraction of these elements and the associated pollution is increasingly being factored into political considerations when the mining spruikers are abroad. However, there are further chemical processes to separate the hafnium from zirconium.

The technological description states it is “a liquid–liquid extractive separation between hafnium and zirconium from thiocyanic acid medium using the mixtures of diisobutyl ketone (DIBK) and di (2-ethylhexyl) phosphoric acid (P204) as the extractant was developed.”

A metallurgist could answer the question of how much this extraction method damages the environment. 

It is almost as an afterthought, that process residues are treated before dumping them into storage facilities. The disposal of residue when there is a potentially such a big hole in the Dubbo landscape is far from a throwaway line.

Water will be taken from the Macquarie River, but the amount proposed is nowhere stated. In the description of the extraction of ore no amount of water is mentioned and the description hurries onto the marvels of the proposed mine.

OPAL’s lightwater pool

There is another problem with zirconium mining – the deposits often exist with radioactive elements – thorium and uranium. Small problem with an open cut mine only a few kilometres from a regional city! I find it interesting that there has been an experimental extraction plant at Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) since 2009. Hafnium is used in control rods in the nuclear reactor core.

Currently, China produces 75% of the world’s zirconium supply and hence hafnium. “China’s stranglehold on the supply chain of this material essential for advanced technology weakens the economic and political security of other nations”.

Metallurgy is one of the professions that, from the outside, smells of alchemy – there is a magical aspect to the extraction of these uncommon elements and their increasing relevance with advancing technology demanding these metallic elements with their special qualities. Then it is promoted to an essential component of our lives. Lithium has been one such metal.

However, the “green lobby” faces the whole “strategic development” lobby, where self sufficiency is increasingly important, and moving rare elements around the political game board are important chips in being able to game, with more strategic element chips than other nations. At present, China seems to have the greatest variety of these chips in the greatest quantity.

Australia has quantity in two particular chips – iron ore and coal. But that is a different game board. Given the amount of these being mined, then the impact on climate change is a constant.

However, too often the question from the local politicians when confronted with the prospect of a mine in their electorate is concern about how many jobs will be created. The Dubbo project bosses does not explicitly answer that question.

As far as one can gauge prices, the price of hafnium is in the region of USD6million a tonne; whereas zirconium is priced at USD10,000 a tonne.

To get a comparison, Australia produces 900 million tons of iron ore at about USD110 a tonne.

What progress has been made on the Dubbo mine project? In February 2020: Alkane noted that Export Finance Agency’s (EFA’s) financial support would be subject to finalisation of due diligence, acceptable financing structure and eligibility and credit requirements. As Australia’s export credit agency, EFA is mandated to support businesses, which are seeking to develop new export market. 

I have been one of those converted to the climate change lobby and I am particularly worried about the wasteful use of water in what, apart from Antarctica, is the driest continent.

I read about hafnium; the notion of there being the greatest percentage of the world’s supply in Australia has intrigued me. I have searched to find out what is its proper place in the Australian economy. Political leaders are often confronted with such decisions when they have little intrinsic knowledge of the subject.

The giraffes are watching …

However, if I were in a position to make a decision, I would be immediately worried by the massive water requirement and the fact that there would be an open cut mine where radioactive minerals are being mined close to a major regional city, the Western Plains Zoo and the Dubbo Observatory. However the dilemma is, as with all mineral extraction, how can the metal be purified with the least pollution. Unfortunately, when in doubt the large powers with a monopoly of the chips kick the game board over – and everybody loses.

Paraphrasing Einstein, who never said a truer word when he said the fourth world war will be fought with rocks, some of which may contain hafnium.

All Souls

All Souls, Oxford

I suppose being invited to dinner by Max Beloff with the academic Fellows at All Souls was an honour. Great Britain that year was sunny, and when that occurs the summer is always beautiful. Off to Oxford the three of us went one evening to have dinner.

Max Beloff was an eminent modern historian who, at that stage of his life, was tramping from one side of the political spectrum to the other. The young socialist Beloff, now in middle-age having marked time as a Liberal, was moving determinedly to the right at the time, when he invited us to dinner.

Beloff had been a Fellow since 1957, ensconced as he was in this group “at the pinnacle of British academic hierarchy”. He had attained this position much earlier than when he had pursued this neo-liberal journey, in the process setting up a private university and then later absorbing imperial honours that were piled on him by Thatcher.

When we arrived we were ushered into a reception room where pre-dinner drinks were served; I had the obligatory dry sherry as the clever repartee started. The problem with clever repartee is that it is essentially hierarchial; if the young man (it was not until 1979 that women were admitted as Fellows of All Souls) wanted to announce his presence in such exchanges, it seems dressing flamboyantly helps. The “look at me” mien serves as an entrée card.

I was well versed in the social rules of these establishments, having been an undergraduate in a residential College, which replicated much of its social mores from those of Oxford. Therefore, I shut up and only replied when spoken to by some Fellow who had not the slightest interest in whom I was.

However, the call to dinner came and there is nothing like a College refectory – long high table, paneled walls, high-backed mahogany chairs. Beloff welcomed us – the Boss thanked him. It was all so polite, but it was an experience – probably once in a lifetime. Although for them not; just three Australians to be humoured in exchange for a meal.

I was seated next to Michael Howard, the military historian and we chatted about his topic. My contribution when the Franco-Prussian War was mentioned was that I had inherited a full set of skeletal bones from my father. It was widely thought that many of the skeletons used by aspiring doctors pre-war had come from soldiers who had died in that War. They were highly prized for the muscle markings, which were very distinct on these bones. However, apart from that I cannot remember the other Fellows beside and across the table. The talk was just that – inconsequential chatter as the Fellows on either side of the table carefully updated themselves on one another, given that there was a young foreigner in their midst.

Dinner was traditional English fare, which was better than the College roast to which I been subject every night more than a decade earlier.

Once dinner was finished it was off to another room for fruit, nuts, digestive biscuits and the central cheese. The obligatory Stilton round had pride of place, and the port was passed. Then it was off to the terrace for coffee and brandy.

The night was absolutely still and balmy, the sky a curious lavender grey. Across the terrace was the impressive Codrington Library building, built in the early 18th century on the back of slavery and a sugar cane fortune amassed by a Christopher Codrington.

It highlights the problem of applying 21st century values to the funding of a building like that. The Christopher Wren sundial installed over the entrance is a spectacular reminder of the versatility of the man, and Wren himself was a Fellow.

Oh, so different from the environment of the All Souls College of Christopher Wren, outwardly becoming more sensitive to its survival after the radicalism of 1968 which threatened its existence, when it was sneered at as “a weekend home for port-drinking members of the London Establishment, grown fat on the rent of farms it owned since the Middle Ages”.

Had we had dinner in an Anachronism?

Then it was back to London. I still remember the golden glow drenching the car, and my thoughts drifted to the recently-released Joe Losey film “The Go-between” and I, projecting myself as the young man in search of a romantic interlude in the same rural saffron softness of the film.

I have often visited Oxford since, but never again had a brandy with the 42 Fellows outside on the terrace.

But then again I would have preferred to meet Julie Christie. 

Mouse whisper

A scrap of paper plastered against my mousehole. That is the problem about my mausmeister. He is always cutting out what he considers wise sayings and leaving them on sticky pieces of paper. When I scraped the piece off my “hole way”, it read:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand or more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

Very sage advice; but I was thinking of putting in a new entrance to my mousehaus to make a closer access to the pantry. I’ll have to think about it now.

Modest Expectations – Shakespeare in Love

Testudo

Our jolly duo and their retinue have been in Washington for the normal annual discussions on reintroducing the testudo as a secret weapon in the invasion of the Chinese consulate in Sydney and whether oars for the Australian quinqueremes are suitable for a long blockade of the Sino-Territorian harbour in Darwin. Their visit coincides with the national security adviser in the White House testing positive to COVID-19.

In a more serious vein, it seems a long way to go to give the Yanks a gentle slap.

The question remains as to whether a custom-made suite is being created in one of the defence establishments to test how comfortably these stalking horses can be accommodated for 14 full days after they return. Facilities so plush as to make even the Ministers blush?

By “stalking horses”, would the Commonwealth be setting up such a facility so that all the Ministers can assure us mug punters that they can freely travel overseas and say that “all measures will be taken to protect the Australian community” on their return from overseas where “fruitful and productive talks” were undertaken.

The basic cancer in this country is that the politicians and their mates are sealing themselves off from the rest of the country, so they retain all the healthy remuneration and the perks of office and beyond – irrespective of the party. A special quarantine facility would just serve to emphasise this separation. This whole situation is only going to be cured by some deep electoral cleaning, a very difficult task given the way the media’s saprophytic existence supports the status quo.

Nevertheless, it may be interesting to see if an obscure single line item appears in the coming Budget. 

Growing Old 

* Residential aged care or nursing home. I grew up with the nursing home nomenclature and feel comfortable in it describing what should be emphasis on the “nursing” rather than the “residential”.

It was a revealing article. On a day when the pandemic was raging through Victorian nursing homes*, a report appeared in the Property Section of the AFR (28 July), headed “Estia Health can’t quantify pandemic hit to earnings”. Says it all.

Estia Health is one of the largest residential aged care providers in Australia with 69 homes, 6,180 beds and more than 7,500 employees across Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. Its chair and board have nobody with any clinical health expertise. Gary Weiss, the Chair, Doctor of Juridical Science (JSD) from Cornell, is the very model of the modern business tycoon, “legendary corporate raider”, asset stripper, draining the demand side to maximise profit.

His responsibility portfolio also includes Ardent Leisure; so he is a very busy person. Yet he appears to have no expertise in the central issue – containing pandemic in nursing homes, given that two of the Estia homes have well over 100 COVID-19 sufferers. Doesn’t fit your business model, Dr Weiss? What are doing to improve the situation about the rest of your Empire?

For many years I was involved in the management a number of public nursing home facilities in rural Victoria as the both Director of Medical Services and also later as Director of Clinical Training. When I came into one of those positions the first thing was to undertake a review of the nursing home residents’ medications with the local pharmacist. It is one measure of a doctor’s involvement in nursing homes because one gets a sense of how often the residents receive medical attention by such a review.

There were always stories of medical practitioners, who did visit private nursing homes waving to the resident and then moving on and billing Medicare. The fact that such stories had currency was disturbing enough, but I certainly found in some areas a reluctance of doctors to visit nursing homes on a regular basis.

I was fortunate that the nursing homes I was involved in were attached to the hospital and worked under the rules of the particular health service. I was able to thus monitor and encourage the local doctors to see the residents regularly. May I also say that there are some general practitioners who are interested in geriatrics and they should be identified as future role models for their less involved colleagues. At that time there was a country health service that had completed the transition from being an acute care facility to one which concentrated on care of the elderly, and the nursing staff re-trained accordingly.

The problem was that this model needed a “champion”, but the doctor, who initiated this change was too self-effacing to promote his model widely. It was regrettably a lost opportunity.

These public nursing homes exist as a function of the health care system. It is ridiculous to maintain the fiction that they are a home in the conventional sense. Health care is superimposed on a residential environment. It should be noted that the public sector has 10 per cent of these nursing home “beds” in Victoria and yet only 0.6 per cent of the COVID-19 sufferers.

Private nursing homes and the local health care services are under different jurisdictions. There is thus a situation when a facility for the elderly, the most vulnerable people in the community, has no formal link to the local hospital. This has been the case before the advent of the Virus and the early responses to this situation showed so clearly this dysfunctional aspect of the health care system, even to the extent of a private nursing home initially refusing to cooperate.

Let us consider the “Before Virus” situation, when an individual resident needed urgent medical attention in a private nursing home, the immediate conventional response was to send them to hospital, often without informing the hospital in advance – or ever. If there is an agency aged care worker, or just a very understaffed nursing home at night, it is just a natural response for the patient to be sent off to hospital regardless.

On arrival by ambulance the resident waits, often in the ambulance, is admitted to the hospital or left in the emergency department and sent back to their “home” often without any communication between hospital and aged care facility. If admitted they are either discharged back to the home or to the mortuary.

So much for coordinated action! The lack of same has led to mutual resentment between nursing home and hospital.

However before the pandemic arose, establishing a Royal Commission to take the heat out of the sector seemed the best choice.

The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission has been, as I said before during the Time of Newmarch, one of the most useless neo-government bodies I can remember. The Royal Commission seems to be an irrelevancy as it grinds on, with Lynelle Briggs and Tony Pagano only reporting in October; personally I have a high regard for Lynelle Briggs.

Significantly the Commonwealth now with a medically qualified Departmental Secretary, Brendan Murphy, with a broad knowledge and contacts with Victoria, his Department has been able to move relatively quickly to mobilise the hospital workforce, bolstered by AUSMAT, to fill in the deficient work force in the private nursing home sector. How different from the uncooperative, often confrontational scenario described above!

The Victorian government is developing a strategy on the run. The question remains of whether NSW should have recast their policy after Newmarch rather than having it been bogged down by one of those face-saving useless inquiries. On the other hand by early response using AUSMAT, the North-western Tasmanian infection of a number of nursing homes was nipped in the bud. That was a lesson Tasmania seems to have learnt. The essence is that the States assume responsibility for the private nursing home sector. What is happening in the other States in the wake of the above disasters – nothing? One only can presume that the private nursing home industry is fighting back, and of course seeking government support rather than asking their shareholders to assume extra financial responsibility.

The nursing homes are not generating the Virus; it is being brought in from outside. However, once it is in the nursing home, it has the sort of chaotic environment in which the Virus loves. Nursing homes thus will require extensive structural updating, and not the least in this time of the Virus, the most effective air conditioning. AUSMAT brings that order to curtail the Virus.

However, the staffing, the qualifications, the required skills, the discipline required are the critical element. I find it somewhat baffling that the AMA have called for a Royal Commission, while there ostensibly is one due to report before the end of 2020.

However, in this area where there is a lack of objective data because in reality government oversight is minimal; then the various politicians fall back on anecdote. In so doing, it only serves to emphasise the disparate quality of the private nursing home sector; one politician has a good experience and therefore it is only natural to generalise from this one case in the absence of systematic data; a second politician has a bad experience … It is another matter for the politician to use his experience to defend the whole sector.

Having had a long association with this sector, it has been clear to me that it is important the industry should be recognised as part of the health sector – and therefore management should be devolved to the States so the possibility of co-ordination can exist, particularly in times of emergency. For instance, it was almost nigh on impossible to get nursing homes accredited and staff credentialed – as occurs with hospitals, because private nursing homes exist under Commonwealth rules. Those with shoddy practices are always resistant to such oversight, and unfortunately my experience is that the Commonwealth effectively goes along with that.

The problem is the all the health services concentrate on the services for which they are directly funded; and any regional co-operation is personality dependent. If there is a lazy or incompetent manager, the system is such that it protects them, because conflicting anecdotes and personal prejudice tends to thwart the solution – competent management.

Public/private health services have tended not to work because the mix stumbles over the financial imperative. The question boils down to how much am I, or my family, willing to pay for me to be placed in a nursing home environment. For the family without contacts in the health sector, the lack of objective information is a major problem when families are faced with making a choice and thus fall back on affordability and public relation handout where every private nursing home is “an invitation to Paradise”.

The better the nursing the less the knee-jerk reflex to bundle the patient off to hospital when ill. The more a doctor visits the better the preventative measures. The presence of a competent specialist geriatrician, especially those with psycho-geriatric experience who has a regional role in not only reviewing the difficult resident but educating the local general practitioners and nursing staff, the better the care. The whole matter of medical training in geriatrics and its ongoing turf dispute with medical rehabilitation specialists is another issue, which needs resolution in the longer term. However, “turf issues” are not helpful.

The last thing that is needed when the AUSMAT bring order and control of the Virus and then leave, its immediate task completed; yet there appears to be no national plan follow up. You know the normal mantra, “we have to wait until the Royal Commission reports.”

I would accept what Murphy and his mob decide rather than wait for a Report encased in governmental aspic, even one with the redoubtable Ms Briggs.

By the way, it is unfortunate comparison of AUSMAT with the SAS, AUSMAT do not, to my knowledge, kill innocent bystanders.

To Dr Weiss and all of your fellow owners of nursing homes, nursing home care should be a different vehicle – one shorn of the primacy of the dollar, one where you realise irrespective of how wealthy you are, old age approaches.

If one of the outcomes of this pandemic is to improve overall standards, improve co-ordination with the nursing home sector, enhance mutual respect, have a regular interchange of data and engage in all the rules of good management that the text books provide, then Australia should be satisfied. I for one want to be assured that I will not die in a bed of soiled sheets, where nobody comes and death arrives as a massive relief.

Fr Don Edgar OGS

Don Edgar died last week. Don was a country boy; his parents ran the newsagency in Wangaratta at the time I entered his life. Don and I met in College. Don was a theology student and I a medical student. There was nothing memorable about our meeting, which is often the case when you run into somebody and although you may immediately have nothing in common, you have an instant mutual regard – and form a friendship.

One person we both admired was the College Chaplain, Barry Marshall.

The Reverend Dr Barry Marshall

Following Barry Marshall, Don had a lifelong association with the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, in which he was appointed Companion, which brought a set of obligations where “piety” had a real meaning.

Barry Marshall was a charismatic figure. He influenced Don immensely. Marshall grew up near Coolah, north of Dubbo. His father was a grazier. It was unsurprising that after a stint in the RAF during the war and then ordination he became a “bush brother” based in Bourke. It is a funny thing but if my friends and acquaintances were a typical cross-section of Australian professionals, then there must have been a rite of passage to pass through either Bourke or Broken Hill on their way to their future career.

Both Marshall and Edgar were committed Christians, and Trinity College at the time of Marshall’s chaplaincy had a balance of spiritual guidance and robust secular behaviour. Marshall had a twinkle in his eye and reminded me of Father Brown with his kindness, his ability to listen, to have an easy relationship with the “Jocks” and possessing disciplined firmness. There were boundaries that he would not cross, and Don inherited much of this sturdiness. It was a tragedy that Marshall prematurely died as the result of an accident in Oxford, when he still had much to fulfil.

Don’s religious discipline I suspect had its seeds in his early time from the age of 13 being a naval cadet, with an eventual career beckoning at the end of his teenage years. He was a model cadet, midshipman and at the time of his resignation to pursue his religious vocation, a sub-lieutenant. Many of his fellow naval officers were in College at the same time but studying electrical engineering. Generally, aspiring naval engineers were sent to the UK for graduate education. Electrical engineering was the exception because graduates could study under Charles Moorhouse, who was Professor at University of Melbourne and regarded internationally as the doyen of this discipline.

There was one memorable night after we had both graduated and he was a curate in a country parish near the Victorian border in the North-east in the lee of the snow-capped mountains. My then wife and I were invited to stay with him, but the weekend was one of filthy weather that only Victoria can produce, windy, sleety rain – and the drive north in a car, far from waterproof. The heater gave up early early in the trip.

It was miserable, but eventually we were able to find the vicarage. We were almost completely frozen. However when we entered, the transformation was miraculous. The building was small and hardly imposing, but inside the fire had turned the rooms into a welcoming environment; the claret was at room temperature, the soup was simple – and Don was an easy-going welcoming host.

We had arrived long after the time we hoped to get there, but the fact that Don had provided such a comfortable destination is a memory that has been indelibly imprinted ever since. Never then and since had I felt such a welcoming environment – there is an element of magic – or is that another word for a unique spiritual experience?

Such was the nature of this extraordinary man who spent many years emulating the Abbé Pierre dicta – as a worker priest in railways yards in France, where he always said he was cold-shouldered by his co-workers until they found out he was an Australian not a Pom. On his return to Australia he continued to work in the railway yards in Darwin, he got married, had four sons.

During this period he re-entered the mainstream to the extent that for a time he was the vicar in Tongala, a dairy community in northern Victoria. It was another wintry night in 1981 when I was on my way to see him and his family, when my car aquaplaned on the flooded road, and the car ended up against a post and burst in flames. Maybe, it was an intercession, which caused the miracle of my escape from the car before it caught fire and  burned. My injuries caused by the accident prevented me from moving for weeks afterwards, and I was shuttled from hospital to hospital. Don visited me in hospital, but it was another six months before I visited Tongala and met the family.

Over the years we would see one another periodically as his domestic circumstances and calling changed, but when he finally landed in the western suburbs of Melbourne working among recent arrivals, in particular the Southern Sudanese community, it was almost impossible to find out what he was achieving so self-effacing he was. He just would not talk about himself. It was only listening to the sons talking about their father at his funeral that I knew what I had missed.

We had seen him last in February when we shared a Candlemas cake. He was then hampered by bilateral carpal tunnel operations, which ironically left him not only with stigmata but also dependent, which he hated.

This year has made communication separated by borders difficult, and it was only several days before he died that his stepdaughter asked that he was moved to palliative care and he specifically had asked her to let me know. As I said, I thought he was indestructible and he would bury me, but that was not to be. When he heard an audio message I sent to him, he responded with: “Good old, Besty.”

He died two days later.

The Eucharist was held at All Saints Footscray, from where he was farewelled by ten family members and an impressive array of the Church hierarchy. There were over 200 sites watching via online streaming. Modern technology had enabled us to be involved from 900 kilometres away.

Given the simplicity of his life, I wonder what he would have said if he realised that he was being borne away to his Destination in a Rolls Royce hearse. “Good old, Besty, trust him for noticing” and I can hear that laughter as he said it. 

The Day the Mormon came calling

It was just an ordinary day in Parkville some years when looking through the window of his terrace house, he saw two young clean cut men in dark suits, white shirts, thin ties and close clipped hair walking down the street. The boys had arrived from the Ark of Mormonism, he thought. It was an affluent neighbourhood so the two Mormons took the chance of separating. They stopped in front of our hero’s house. Next moment there was a knock on the door and the young watcher answered the door. The normal response to tell them to politely to go away was replaced by another stratagem. There being only one chap was just too tempting.

The young man was invited in and seated in the front room. Before he could get a word out, our hero asked directly “Are you a Christian?” looking intensely into the eyes of the young man. “I am a Mormon,” he commenced as he fingered what was probably the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon occasionally joins the ubiquitous Gideon Bible in motel rooms. Once our hero had flipped through the Book with all its underlying basic dogma, which could be construed as a derivative of American values. Pity about the polygamy, white supremacy with a Palestinian tan, and so on. It was not by chance that it was a Moroni who passed the tablets or was it cactus juice to jolly old Joseph Smith. Bit of intolerance in our hero, (which can be ascribed to youth) when he burst forth with “You are heretic. You need to be saved. You need to repent. You need to embrace Anglicanism.”

This conversional diatribe continued; our hero was now out of his chair stalking around stabbing the air with his finger calling out: “Hallelulah’ let this infidel be saved.” The voice rang out. The Mormon was now on his feet backing around the room trying to get away from the intense yet beatific expression.

“Repent ye, and be saved from this work of Satan. Become an Anglican.”

At this juncture, a young woman entered the room. She looked at the chap with his back to the wall. She laughed at the sight as much as that young woman ever did.

“For God’s sake, would you stop yelling, you’ll wake the children. Let him go. You’ve had your fun.”

“Nearly had him converted when you interrupted. Fire and brimstone. Good for the soul. He just about ready to change your gear that of the Anglican – sports coat, leather elbows, college tie and cords.”

“Don’t mind my husband, you can go whenever you would like.” She had ignored her husband, moved out of the front room and opened the front door, there being little distance between the room and the front door. The terrace house was one of those with the front door is almost on the footpath.

If you have never seen a “scuttle”, then you had to see that one, eyes to the ground, clutching his Briefcase and Book, and into the arms of his partner who had come back to see what had happened.

The young woman gave her husband one of those looks and went back to the kitchen or wherever.

Never been troubled by Mormons since though. Whether the Anglican converter’s transmission matured as he aged is a moot point.

Putin Nyet

As an addendum, Sydney Russians were one of the groups that voted against Putin. A shirtfront? At least a tug on the coat tails.

Mouse Whisper 

The John Travolta of the Australian Parliament, Furbo Wilson has set up a ginger group called The Wolverines (given the colour of wolverines perhaps it should be more appropriately called the “umber” or perhaps “melena” group.)

Now for Mr Wilson, a few facts:

  • wolverines stink like skunks
  • they feed off other animals’ kill – the animal equivalent of rent-seeking.
  • wolverines are snowy relatives of the weasel

So your group of jolly jape-ridden parliamentarians could be called the Wolverine Skunk Weasels.

Beware also if the Labor Party ever set up a Grey Wolves group. Grey Wolves are the biggest killers of your WSW. Take your pick Tibetan, Eurasian, Caspian Sea or Tundra Wolves -all Grey.

We rodentia know stuff!

One of the wolverines

Modest Expectations – Siatonta

Grisons, Switzerland – where they say siatonta

Harry Cain sounds as if he should be a shamus in a Raymond Chandler novel, but he was an amusing health bureaucrat whom I met in the early 1970s in Washington. We were both characterised as “bright young men of promise” and interested in improving the health care in each country – in fact we would be in the vanguard of such improvements, so our conversation went.

When we first met it was the Nixon administration in the USA, and the Gorton-McMahon carousel in Australia, but like many smart bureaucrats he was advancing upwards through the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. We saw one another whenever I visited the United States. Harry, with his sardonic manner, was popular and knew which buttons to push. He and I got along as well as any two could when we were a Pacific Ocean apart.

I have been going through my files and I came across a news article about Harry in the Los Angles Times of 14 April 1978.

Harry Cain had an intermittent stutter and it apparently manifested itself when he had to address an audience. This day when he started to address an audience of 200 fellow federal bureaucrats, his stutter got the better of him and his boss had to read his statement:

I have totally lost my tolerance for the bureaucratic swamp through which a bureau like this must wade … old bureaucrats never die, they just grow obsolete and get transferred to another agency which can’t use their skills and can’t fire them.”

With those words he quit and it was reported that: “bemused bureaucrats came up to shake his hand (and) a woman threw her arms around him and asked, ‘what are you going to do now?’

His reply was that he was going to climb out of that swamp and dry out for a while.

To my knowledge, having dried out, he remained within the Beltway – running for a time the American Health Planning Association, getting quoted, and arguing that there was a need for a less centralised control under Obamacare –reduced government intrusiveness which he characterised as “the micro-management of Medicare. The scale and complexity of the health care industry (which) are beyond the grasp of 500 politicians sitting in Washington.”

Swamp life

But nowhere does Harry appear to say he ever wanted to drain the swamp. However, there still remains the problem of how to co-ordinate an American health care sector when there are so many interpretations and so many unresolved prejudices; unfortunately his time has passed.

Strong as Your Weakest Link

In 1666, a fire started in Fish Yard off Pudding Lane, spreading from the king’s baker’s oven. Thomas Farynor, the baker, could not contain it and off down the lane the fire sprinted. The fire spread rapidly through the pitch and thatch of the crowded buildings until it was stopped four days later by the military blowing up houses at the edge of the inferno. Very few people died directly, although many buildings, including the Guildhall and churches including the Gothic Old St Paul’s, were destroyed. Spot fires persisted for many months in London.

Pudding Lane, London

Unfortunately, a French watchmaker was hanged after a false confession to starting the fire. Thomas Farynor was one who signed the petition accusing the watchmaker of starting the fire, then rebuilt his bakery and died four years later.

In 2020, the fire was a COVID-19 virus phoenix arising from its suppression in Melbourne. The strong rumour in need of rebuttal, if untrue, is that the recent spread of the coronavirus in Victoria was started by one of the ladies who had returned from overseas and in whom being confined rankled, or so the story goes, so much so that she started imparting sexual favours to her custodians in return for “day leave” as it were. The security detail was unskilled and untrained in the ethics which are implicit in being able to distinguish not only what is legal and what is not – but also the difference between right or wrong, even if these particular individuals escape prosecution.

The endemic problem is that the security industry is rife with undertrained part-time staff. It is not a new problem. When I was a medical student, I used to ride in the back of the Mayne Nickless security van, as the third guard. I was provided with a loaded pistol although I had no training. I worked in that job part-time for years. However the lack of training is never a problem until something goes wrong, as has happened with the spread of COVID-19 from the Melbourne quarantine hotel when the security was laughable. And somebody, Mr Premier, sanctioned its use, didn’t he?

As I write, the COVID fire is still not under control in the two largest States. We await the outcome of the enquiry and wonder how close to the truth the above rumour is and how many truckloads of whitewash will be brought in to expunge the stain. Presumably the perpetrators will be deluged with some of the wash.

However, there is another potential ember attack on the horizon, the jolly ministerial pair of Payne and Reynolds are slated to fly to Washington with a retinue of braided officers and presumably the “usual suspects” which accompany such people of renown. However, as a concession, limiting the number of the flacks limits the number of potential exporters of the COVID -19 to Australia, I presume they will have a trained medical team to ensure they will all be abiding by Australian requirements. They are going into an environment where the Boss is in flagrant denial. Are all these travellers going to abide by our rules or by the lax American requirements?

I presume social contact will be constrained and I would hope that all travellers are vetted for their history of alcohol consumption. Actually I would hope that all will be on the wagon for the duration given the propensity for alcohol to reduce adherence to anti-COVID rules.

And what are they going for anyway, except for huff and puff – apart from the fact that it will make the Chinese dragon even more infuriated. As I am writing this I am also watching Midnight Oil with that political dud, Peter Garret singing US Forces at a 1985 concert on Goat Island:

US forces give the nod

It’s a setback for your country

Bombs and trenches all in rows

Bombs and threats still ask for more” … and onwards.

Easy to protest. I am surprised that the ALP is so acquiescent to the US trip. Richard Marles is its spokesperson. Richard Marles, the Geelong Grammarian who loves his toast buttered on both sides, is encouraging the jolly catch-up. Marles is not stupid and he is not endangering either himself physically or the nation by being a COVID carrier. However, it was the week when it was revealed that overseas forces in 1975 had rid themselves of a “troublesome Prime Minister”, and Marles knows that the shadowy forces mark down any Labor politician who does not bend the knee to overseas authority.

Being a boy used to the light blue trimmed blazer, he would well know the bounds of being a radical chap. He may have read about Whitlam’s sacking when he was a boy in Glamorgan knickerbockers – and somebody may tell him about a Mr Marshall Green whose successors are still abound.

The last recorded time an Australian Minister went to Washington was Peter Dutton and, as reported, his infected return elicited an almost hysterical reaction among his colleagues, who were were taken in hand and reassured by Dr Paul Kelly.

You know, small details about those who are going need to be considered in meeting these Americans. How many of the travellers are susceptible: over the age of 60, obese, suffering from cardiac or respiratory problems and having diabetes? Then there are the cigarette smokers.

Enough said. Sounds as if it’s not worth the risk, especially as Trump and his regime may be a footnote in history after November – and sanity begins to prevail again. After all, one is only as strong as the weakest link.

Peril at Buck House

Given I’m actually old enough to have participated in the prequel of the Whitlam sacking, to me it was always clear that it was a put-up job.

I must congratulate Jenny Hocking in having the fortitude to have the letters released. Strangely, Whitlam never maintained the rage, because what made him both great and yet vulnerable was his basic generosity.

This was the story of the three fops. One was Whitlam, but all his other positive characteristics overshadowed this vainness. The other two were also Sydney lawyers, one became a Senator; the other, Governor-General. They were James McClelland and John Kerr respectively. Both were very careful about their appearance – one exquisitely flamboyant and tasteful, exciting the sobriquet of “Diamond Jim” and the other embarrassingly boorish and tasteless, caricatured as an Irish squire with top hat and frock coat.

Whitlam was the son of a senior public servant. His education was a mixture of the public and the private with a taste of the early Canberra. McClelland, the son of a paperhanger and signwriter, was educated at St Patrick’s Ballarat and St Kevin’s in Melbourne, where he and B.A. Santamaria were mates. Kerr, whose father was a boilermaker who worked in the Sydney dockyards, went to Fort Street School.

All were very bright scholarship boys; all became lawyers – the second world war interrupted their careers. Whitlam and McClelland were in the RAAF. Whitlam was a navigator so he flew, whereas McClelland was a leading aircraftman and stayed on the ground. However, Kerr was the star; he was one of Alf Conlan’s bright young men – and a colonel by the end of the War. With Alf, he probably absorbed the dark arts of the double agent.

After the War they came to know one another well and, if it is to be believed, Whitlam was persuaded by McClelland to appoint Kerr as Governor-General on the retirement of Paul Hasluck. The die was cast, as Kerr’s boilermaker father may have said.

The constitutional crisis was played out, demonstrating Kerr as duplicitous egged on inter alia by Buckingham Palace. If the letters had been released earlier – say in 1999 when Turnbull was heading the push for a Republic, Australia may have been in a totally different state now. The longer the release was delayed, the more the response would be who cares? The major players, except the Queen, are all dead.

Undoubtedly the Queen knew about the coup. Her private secretary Martin Charteris was showered with imperial honours, most noticeably an escalating array of those that are reserved for personal gift from the queen. It is doubtful if a displeased sovereign would have been so bountiful.

However what I find instructive is that some years later when Charteris had retired to polish his escutcheon, the Queen was placed in a similar spot in relation to a constitutional crisis which occurred in Saint Kitts and Nevis in 1981, when the Governor, Sir Probyn Inniss, used his reserve powers to refuse assent to a bill passed by the government of Sir Kennedy Simmonds, the country’s premier. Inniss believed that the bill was unconstitutional. The situation was resolved when Queen Elizabeth II, at the request of Simmonds, terminated Inniss’s commission as governor.

The problem when retracing history is that in the end what has been done has been done. I, together with a number of other players who had roles akin to those of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, may speculate on what could have been.

Fraser was a lousy Prime Minister and it may been argued that what Hawke wrought may have occurred six years earlier if Whitlam had belatedly brought in a new crew headed by Hayden and Keating and then had been allowed to manage economic policy until the scheduled election in 1978. But in the end Hawke did take over in 1983, and changed economic direction.

Many changes have occurred since 1975. The Melbourne establishment’s power is now vestigial and while the demise of these Whigs masquerading as Tories may have occurred, there has risen a very powerful plutocracy, with Sydney at its epicentre; but with Perth as a powerful outstation.

The reserve powers exist as long as the links to the British monarchy exist. Therefore, the Kerr situation could be used as a precedent for a repeat, if the plutocracy did not like the government. When you review the Governors-General since Kerr, one would have been confident that Cowan, Hayden, Stephens and Deane had the strength, integrity and wisdom in using the reserve powers in a way so as not to compromise the Australian democracy.

I would not have been so sure about the last lot of Governors-general, but the “reserve powers” situation should be addressed. It is a totally unacceptable situation that one unelected person is able to connive with a distant monarch, with increasingly tenuous links to Australia, to sack the elected Government – and to call that ability “reserve powers”.

What a joke!

The Australian propensity to change its Prime Ministers – seven in 13 years – equally may be a joke.  Thus it has been a basically unstable time and fortunately Australia has not been confronted with a Governor-General such as Kerr, using at whim the so-called “reserve powers”. Therefore, I would be wary of any merchant being appointed as Governor-General in the future. However, “reserve powers” remain the joker in the Canberra pack.

Codification of the reserve powers – just a jumble of words. I wouldn’t hold my breath that anything would occur, unless both political parties think clearly about what it means. Self-interest may drive the thoughtful on both sides of politics. Conservatives should wake up in a sweat about the spectre of a Jack Lang as Governor-General invoking “reserve powers”.

And the Australian Republic? I am an avowed Republican – but so what? I know what I would want. Given the social and economic instability of the current situation in this year of the Virus, the matter of a Republic seems somewhat of a sideshow. However, at such time as the Queen abdicates or dies, that will be the time for a serious thrust from the Republican forces.

In the meantime, the Republican movement should plan that the sideshow is ready to become the main event. Then the matter of any “reserve powers” may become irrelevant – or would it?

Putin and His Kosher kitchen

In 2001, Putin was still feeling his way amongst the leaders of the World. In January of that year he dined with the then President of Israel, Moshe Katsav. As reported in the NYT, the meal was kosher, “making the occasion a first for a Russian leader in a thousand years.”

Putin with his matzah bread

The food was kosher – mushroom soup, vegetable stuffed veal, roast turkey with fruits; even the caviar was from red salmon rather than from the scaled sturgeon.

As distinct from the White House which still ordered-in kosher when the Israeli leader came calling to Washington, Putin created an entire kosher kitchen that, as reported, required “among other things, an army of rabbis, all-new utensils and a blowtorch.”

A kosher blowtorch?

Yes, the blowtorch can help make a kosher crème brulee.

Putin has tried to dampen down the anti-semitism that has been a feature of Russia social policy – pogroms being the centrepiece. However, after briefly trying to implicate Jews in the 2016 anti-Hilary campaign, Putin has aligned Russian sacrifice in WW2 with the Holocaust. It is a way of emphasising the history of anti-semitism among the Slavonic people, but extracting Russia from the general contumely.

As reported during a recent January speech at the dedication of a monument to the siege of Leningrad, Putin indicated his latest thinking on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. The Kremlin now sees the distinct and separate story of the Jewish wartime suffering as supportive of its broader campaign to improve the image of the Putinic Russia.

After all, Putin has had an easy time of it facing a divided opposition where clearly, for whatever reason, he has an ally in Trump. Putin very clearly realises that Russia can only achieve limited goals with military force. It is ironic that he seems to be using a similar tactic to that used by the USA to destroy the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. His support of Syria and the continuing military action in the Ukraine after his annexation of Crimea are targeted, and it could be argued that these could have been stopped if Trump were not his ally. However, the whole Trump association may have to wait until Trump’s finances are disclosed – if ever.

Putin, despite his spoiling tactics and his annoying misuse of cyberspace where it is inconceivable that he has any technological advantages, has looming problems. His is not a wealthy country as judged by its GDP, especially with its reliance on oil and the need to manage a vast country, made particularly vulnerable by both climate change and his own disdain for the environment – and the Virus.

It is always unwise to underestimate the Russians, as distinct from Putin. They have this habit of producing excellent strategists. This ability is manifest in their overall supremacy in chess. Russians are remembered mostly for their WW2 exploits against Germany and by their defeat of Napoleon.

Capturing Moscow has been a mirage for many invaders.

In 1709 there was the less well-known Battle of Poltava in what is now Ukraine. In a long term but initially successful campaign against Russia under a very competent leader in Charles XII, the Swedes against the Russians had the high hopes of taking Moscow.

Instead, the Swedish empire was effectively destroyed at that Battle and the Russians, under the generals of Peter the Great, not only gained Ukraine but also the Baltic states, giving Russia unimpeded access to the Baltic Sea. This access was consolidated by the concurrent construction of St Petersburg by Tsar Peter on what was swampland on the Baltic shore along the banks of the Neva River.

If you want to experience both Russian power and grandeur, St Petersburg should not be missed. As a parenthetic comment, the reconstructed Amber Room in the Summer Palace is one the wonders of the modern world.

Yet with his keen sense of history, Putin would know that Russian leaders have thrived on governing with the use of often unspeakable brutality. Putin has recently won a vote for him to govern until he is 83 years old. His desire for alliances, his disruptive tactics, his hold over Trump, the American floundering in Iraq and Afghanistan, his drive to maintain and expand access to seaports have served him well, as he has climbed the rungs of power from his unheralded anointment as Yeltsin’s successor in 1999.

Nevertheless, especially once the Virus has extracted its toll, when Trump has gone, when the Chinese have assessed his true value to them and Russia is again exhausted financially, the coming decade will certainly be a test of whether the blowtorch will only be used for the crème brulee.

Mouse Whisper

I have actually seen the newspaper cutting from The Age sometime in mid 1981 under Missing Friends, personal:

Would anyone knowing the whereabouts of GUY FAWKES please tell him we have an urgent job for him in Canberra.”

H.B. (Marlo)

Would anyone knowing the whereabouts of H.B. from Marlo…

Guy Fawkes

Modest Expectations – Macmillan

I thought the letter in the Medical Journal of Australia from a group at the Royal Melbourne Hospital (RMH) noteworthy and hence promoted it to “top blog”. The letter suggests that 11 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Victoria were detected in health care workers, which is no different from the proportion within the State of such workers (which in itself is a percentage to wrestle with, i.e. one health care worker involved in the care of the other 88 per cent of the population).

Their data suggest that the community is a far more dangerous place to be exposed to the Virus than the work place.

The background is that the RMH established a clinic to test symptomatic staff from the RMH and nearby hospitals. By 6 April 1,160 symptomatic staff had been assessed and 11 were COVID-19 positive. Eight could be said to have had contact within the community, the others not determined – although thought to have had a low risk of contracting the virus in the hospital.

However, this letter was written in the very early days of the COVID-19 pandemic with tiny numbers, and it is very important to know if that trend continued given that the letter was not published until July. 

Went Phishing & Lost The Bait

I was scammed the other day – well let us say the attempt at scamming failed but it was an enlightening experience and shows how clever these people are. However, having said that, I presumably I was only one in a long line of potential targets and the spiel would have gone through many iterations.

The phone rang late one morning and there was a woman at the end of the line. The accent was foreign but recognisably Asian accented. The nature of the approach was courteous but one of the problems of old age is hearing what has been said. Foreign accents however modulated are difficult to understand at the best of times. This was a mature voice, if I could put it that way.

She purported to have rung from the Visa security unit and they had detected concerns about two of my recent transactions – one for $300 and one for $1,300 – and she was trying to stop the transactions.

However, I kept asking questions because I had did not have access to my current accounts. I was passed to her “Supervisor” – a male whose accent was more Bangalore then Bangkok. He was very smooth, and there is obviously an escalation plan (perhaps a male is thought more authoritative). He said that the Federal police had been notified and an officer had been assigned the case and I remember the name – Rodriquez – fictional, but an interesting choice. Then miraculously my man on the line had been able to reverse the smaller of the transactions. However, the bigger one was presenting a problem.

I then said “could I ring them back after I checked my account and could they leave a number to call them back”? Some of the scammers apparently do make that provision, but seemingly not in this case.

Thus the whole transaction was obviously not going well because the woman came back on the line and tried to increase the anxiety level by urgently asking for my account details.

That was enough entertainment for the morning. I hung up. They had made errors. However, because of the way scams are constructed, there is little time to think, especially when it is the first time such a sophisticated scam had been launched on oneself. They had switched from it being a Visa to a CBA account in a very seamless way, and even produced the BSB for a nearby branch (unfortunately for them, not one where my account is held).

I thought in retrospect that these scammers know how to press buttons. I have been robbed in the past, and it is an unpleasant experience. Therefore apparently concerned sympathetic voices on the end of a phone who have just enough information to sound legitimate and informing you of a robbery elicits an initial primal reaction. This has to be resisted, and in the end – as we keep being told – it comes down to never give callers your details unless you have initiated the call – as in booking a hotel stay. However, it is all so simple until it happens to you.

I understand now very clearly why the elderly are so vulnerable – some months before my mother-in-law had been targeted in a similar scam.

Yet is it still confronting when the ACCC puts out a report to say that $630m had been scammed in the past year. The problem is escalating in terms of money lost to the scammers. For my part, I am now very well aware of Scamwatch and the information provided is simply written and an excellent reminder that at times like this when so many are vulnerable, the Virus is not the only malady to avoid. 

Florida  Mosquitoes One day; Virus the Next

The Key West buoy

As I write, Florida has recorded 15,300 cases of COVID-19 in a single day (18,000 if equated to Australia’s population). What is that particular attitude on the part of the average Joe to hear it and yet then, masked, takes his children to Orlando Disneyland?

Modified from an earlier report from the New York Times:

To stop the spread of the virus from more heavily affected cities further north, the archipelago in southern Florida was blocked off since late March to June 1 to anyone who does not work or live there. Hotels were ordered closed, and passengers who flew in through the airport were screened and instructed to self-quarantine for two weeks. The isolation measures were among the strictest in the country. 

The actions worked: The Keys had just 100 COVID-19 cases and three deaths, according to data from the Florida Department of Health. The three counties to the north that make up South Florida — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — have had a total of more than 25,000 cases and 1,000 deaths.

Yesterday, there were 74 infected in Key West, a significantly smaller percentage of the population to Florida as a whole.

I have been to Florida a number of times, but it seems now to be as dangerous as in the old days of pirates, swamps and caimans. It should be remembered that this now is the third most populous state in USA with over 21 million people whereas in 1900 it was about 500,000; Key West was the biggest city then.

Mosquito was king, distributing malaria or dengue among the population. However, mosquitoes are just the vector for the bug and even, despite a vast amount of money expended on discovering a vaccine against the plasmodium, none has emerged. Preventative measures have then been directed towards destroying the vector or shielding human contact by physical or pharmaceutical means. As I have related in an earlier blog, I have had malaria – only one attack luckily.

Dengue, on the other hand, is caused by a mosquito-borne virus and there is a vaccine limited to certain countries where the condition is endemic. It is available for those who have had the disease before and is delivered by three injections. It is not available in Florida although it is available in certain American territories, such as Puerto Rico.

Chronic disease, no matter the cause, is no joke; but until one catches it, as I did with malaria, then it remains one of the jokers in the pack of life. It seems that Florida is full of those jokers gradually, in the case of COVID-19, being extracted from the pack to over 250,000 recipients to be precise who have been extracted from the pack – as they say it is a joke or in the terms of the Head Joker a hoax –going to die laughing.

Key West is a settlement at the end of 44 stepping stone islands that lie between it and Miami. Miami may have the beach, but Key West has the sunset. However as one source said, “Without a doubt, there is dengue in Key West.” In fact Key West saw a dengue fever epidemic in 2009 and 2010, but it was suggested that it only affected five per cent of the population. This epidemic was mocked by a Dengue Night Fever Group, complete with wings and a John Travolta lookalike. The epidemic seemed to respond to the joke, and fizzled out.

Nevertheless there was a serious side, as one report put it: “At the Key West Cemetery, where the gravestone of B.P. ‘Pearl’ Roberts’ epitaph of ‘I told you I was sick’, has become world famous {and preceded Spike Milligan’s similar ‘I told you I was ill’ by 13 years}, dozens of “ovitraps” – black plastic cups laced with poison to kill female mosquitoes and their eggs – mingled among concrete urns and vases of water rife with squiggling larvae. Plans for next year include providing sterile male mosquitoes to prevent their mates from reproducing.”

Key West is the most southern settlement in the United States, 90 miles from Cuba as stated on the giant buoy. Over the horizon on this crimson sunset was the island we thought at the time impossible to visit from the USA, but 10 years later we were to be part of an American delegation to Havana.

When we were there in winter, Key West was a line of empty T-shirt shops with no visual means of support; it was the site of Harry Truman’s winter White House with the famous coffee table that, with the flip of a wrist, could be converted into a card table covered in green baize, and the Hemingway house with its trademark six-toed cats. Even though it was winter, there was a cheerful, devil-may-care population. Nobody mentioned dengue when we were there, but since at that time the last outbreak had been in 1934 – and we were there before the outbreak in 1991, there were no warnings about stagnant water or to wear insect repellent and sleep under mosquito nets.

After all, if you live in Key West it is not as though you reckon exposure to hurricanes and caimans is as bad as exposure to the neoliberal pirates from the North. After all there must be some compensation in living on the Oklahoma panhandle where the winds swirl in the sagebrush or the wilds of Homer on Kachemak Bay in Alaska where the snow-covered volcanoes threaten one from across the water. Places like Key West, the Oklahoma panhandle and Homer are remote enough to fend off the virus without too much central government assistance.

Of all public policy matters, population health and the accompanying science of epidemiology gets pushed down the agenda and attracts comparatively little government funding. To me one of the critical features of public policy in health is to have public health experts with clinical experience. Here there is a need to ensure a close relationship between the public health and infectious diseases disciplines.

More particularly, there is a need for policy nous, not the normal line up of university experts pushing their own barrows, nor general practitioners, whose knowledge of public health is so scanty. That is why on many occasions I have stressed the value of Paul Kelly and Nick Coatsworth to Australia. Michael Kidd, the other deputy medical officer as they say looks good in a suit but his work experience is not in public health. His value has been in his ability to chair meetings and have a soothing influence, which does have a subsidiary role in the often tense atmosphere surrounding this virus. Fortunately, he does not claim to be a public health expert and that he is certainly not.

However, at the apex of government there is responsiveness from the politicians, and it has been hard won from these people who probably thought of public health in terms of tips, drains and sewerage. For many years any public health emergency has been short-lived and more of an inconvenience – remember the cryptosporidium outbreak in Sydney in 1998?

In a fortunate way, so many of our governments are conservative and therefore make it difficult for the barbarians who are attempting in Victoria to drag down Andrews to replace him in Victoria with an effigy of Trump, complete with a neoliberal squawk of followers.

Florida is governed by such a Trump acolyte and thus ignorance, empty slogans and bluster are substituted for policy. No leadership, none. Just lachrymose self-pity. But those clowns, with their allegiance to those who put Trump in the White House, criticise Andrews for having 177 new COVID-19 cases on this particular day.

What was that number again in Florida, admittedly with four times the population of Victoria? 15,300. Their Governor just loves Trump.

However Key West, could still easily be closed down again, by taking a leaf from the Andrews folio. But leaves are so easily blown away.

Abattoirs & Meat Packing

Janine Sargeant – Guest Blogger

COVID-19 has exposed many cracks in society. The general level of personal hygiene and behaviour in social settings is one such ‘crack’ that has been variously addressed or papered over. However, the hygiene of abattoirs is one problem that needs to be fixed now.

Hygiene in animal slaughter and processing is crucial for food security. Unfortunately, abattoirs and meat packing plants have a mix of environmental and physical factors conducive for the spread of COVID-19. Meat workers stand close together, working long shifts, in cold and wet conditions. Production lines are structured so that the workers cannot physically distance – standing within 1.5 metres of another person for more than 15 minutes is deemed a COVID-19 risk. Further, workers may handle the same beast and that means the Virus can be spread so easily.

Tight-packed processing line

Clusters of COVID-19 cases have occurred in abattoirs and meat packing facilities around the world in Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Spain and the UK. More than 17,300 cases have been recorded in meat factory workers in the USA, with 91 COVID-19 related deaths. The latest outbreak in a German “meat processing factory” has infected 1,000 workers.

In Australia nearly 130 COVID-19 cases have so far been recorded in three abattoirs in Melbourne; one facility has been responsible for 111 cases.

Abattoirs and meat packing facilities can’t be closed down, if at all possible, for long periods so protection for the workers is essential to minimise or eliminate transmission. The meat industry has already been able to deal with Q fever, which is endemic in abattoirs, and brucellosis and TB in cattle – both diseases shared with humans. These have been contained.

Q fever presents a further problem because it often presents in a nondescript way. It is treatable in the early stages but both unrecognised and chronic Q fever cause symptoms that can last for months or years and may be fatal. There is a vaccine and by law all meat workers in Australia must be tested for and vaccinated against Q fever, their names added to an official register. The meat industry has been able to deal with these issues and now needs to apply itself in a similar way to urgently address the problem of COVID-19 transmission. Up to 2006 the cost of vaccination for Q fever was met by government. Now it has to be borne by the individual – somewhat of a disincentive, and a warning if a vaccine against COVID-19 is eventually discovered.

Operating with reduced staffing is nigh impossible in the meat processing production line. So the question for abattoirs and meat packing facilities is how to address the current problem as efficiently as possible. Physical protective equipment such as arm and hand protectors is already provided, so the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) for all workers would not be unreasonable. Dealing with physical separation can be addressed with perspex dividers as have been installed between workers on production lines elsewhere, together with consideration of staggered rosters to reduce contact at the beginning and end of shifts, and on breaks.

In the short term these measures should at least reduce the opportunities for transmission while longer term solutions are explored.

There is no certainty about a vaccine for COVID-19 being available any time soon. Even the most optimistic research scientists – including the shameless self-promoters – admit that a vaccine before the end of 2021 is unlikely. The less optimistic admit that a vaccine may never eventuate, just as there is no vaccine for the common cold, also a coronavirus. Therefore society will have to live with this virus for some time to come and adjust the way business is conducted – industry by industry. Let us start with the abattoirs at a time when the rest of the world is in disarray. 

Oblivia – A short play with words 

In explanation

(a)     in accepting a challenge to write a short story in fewer than 400 words on a religious subject based on what I saw and then added a few brushstrokes

(b)     an appreciation of Lausanne cathedral

For her she had come for inspiration.

She, the lady in the crimson turban and gathered pleats threw up her arms and then prostrated herself before the altar. It was a small stage, there were no saints alive in the rose window above her. A rose window held true to its 13th century countenance as sketched by Villard de Honnecourt; as constructed by Pierre d’Arras. An Imago mundi which Oliver Cromwell would never have countenanced had he been allowed to get out of his Albion cage. So she thought.

A vague thought, but not “nouvelle”.

She did not see her companion fall down, striking his head on the stone – a fitting tableau. It was academic whether the fall preceded the fit.

She did not hear the head strike the marble.

She remained prostrate. Precisely on the stroke of the 120 “cat-and-dogs” mantra, she raised herself to a kneeling position and carefully flicked the crucifix from the pleats of her dress.

Her companion was bleeding from the right ear – unseeing eyes beneath increasingly blue-tinged eyelids – body quivering in the throes of grand mal epilepsy. Body askew on two levels. The head on the step – the body across the flag stones. Not particularly good for maintaining the airway.

The earplugs in her ears as she listened to the Tallis motet Spem in allium made communication difficult, especially as the videte miraculum had just commenced.

Her companion was dusky and his sounds were choked.

She crossed herself – an extravagant flourish considering the Calvinist surroundings – stood up only to genuflect – then plunged into a kneeling position, head upturned towards the Inspiration.

The workers fixing the heating system in the Grand Bay of the Cathedral had dropped their tools and run the length of the nave to the fallen person. One rolled her companion over; another then had run back to where the mobile phone had been left and was calling the ambulance. One worker was wrestling with the airway; could the colour be reversed? Another had fingers on the radial pulse. The fitting had stopped; the eyes remained without recognition. The light filtering down from the rose window elicited no response.

For him, he was left with no inspiration. 

Mouse Whisper

Well, if the mausmeister can come over all “authoric”, so can I.

In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy

Gone a-droving “down the Cooper” where the Western drovers go;

As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,

For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

 

Well, sounds to me as if it was an early Australian version of bull shift.