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.

 

 

Modest Expectations – Natasha Nuora

Given what has been happening this week and I have been on the road in areas suggested as potential hotspots, I am starting this week’s blog with a few jottings. The radio has been the constant companion and television ever present in motel rooms, wherever you stop to socially distance.

I jotted down “self important politicians pontificating about how bad everything is – all on fat salaries and perks”.

I have never been a great fan of Tony Abbott, but when he was engaged as a firefighter or as surf lifesaver, he may have attracted some media attention, but unless it was all spin he continues to provide a real tangible service to the community.

So what of the current batch of politicians? What are they doing? Now in the time of the Virus where are all these well paid politicians and their side kicks – on the ground helping out rather than buried in spin – helping out with food deliveries – helping their constituents get through the crisis and not inflaming it.

For instance, those people in the high rise have two local parliamentary members – one Federal; one State. Both are Green.

Their names are Adam Bandt and Ellen Sandell. The photo-op outside the high rise apartments – of course. What else, running around picking up scraps of paper at the foot of the apartment blocks setting down the grievances of the locked down residents – and there is more – they are complaining to the government or in the political terms “ making representations”.

Now given that they represent comparatively small geographical areas, I would expect that these two would know what resources can be rapidly mobilised and instead of uselessly fluttering around be working to assure the “care element” for the tower residents.

Now if I were the local parliamentary member, given so many people have isolated in a series of high rise building, I would be seeking answers to questions of resident safety in the case of fire. Simple questions as to assure the smoke alarms in each of the flat are in working orders and nothing is blocking the emergency exits.

As I jot, in this fast moving scenario, comprehensive testing has  concentrated the Virus  in one of the towers. The Government has seemingly restored some order here.

I sympathise with Premier Andrews. He has the cattle he has been left with – often elected through branch stacking and factional deals. Obviously, a few able colleagues will have escaped the net of incompetence. One of these is Richard Wynne, who is the Housing Minister and the State member for Richmond who is very much acquainted with public high rise towers and what’s more effective.

The Victoria Opposition? I’m sorry I suffer from coulrophobia, which makes me having difficulty commenting further.

However, there is one person who overcomes my coulrophobia, and that is Premier Gladys. Obviously the spectre of the Ruby and Newmarch keeps her awake at night.

As soon as the pandemic flared up, she was into border lockdown without any contingency plans. Then a COVID-19 positive teenager turns up in Merimbula -after all, if the spread is going to happen, school holidays is a perfect time as Victorians flee winter.

However, had she anticipated border lockdown and was there a contingency plan? Well, apparently no. However, next day, she is encouraging NSW border townspeople not to travel and may have to lock down that area.

I bet there is no contingency plan in place to withdraw her troops in the face of the advancing Virus to the Murrumbidgee River, and yet she stigmatises her NSW border constituents and reinforces what has been said for years – that the NSW border should be reset at the Murrumbidgee River, so little the NSW government is concerned about its Riverina population welfare.

Day 1 of border closure – 6.00am – 4 degrees C

Data, Gladys, data – 10 cases across Albury-Wodonga and not one for 92 days until a couple of Melburnians were caught escaping Melbourne. The Victorians have locked down metropolitan Melbourne – that should be sufficient in any case.

It also raises the question of why isn’t the Government coming down hard on the appalling behaviour in Sydney, where social distancing appears to be reduced to about 30 cms if you’re one of the massive pack of people lining up to enter a hotel in Double Bay. Callers to ABC’s breakfast program discussed strategies for avoiding unwanted hugs – there seems to be a pandemic of short memories about how to avoid catching COVID-19 if that discussion is anything to go by.

Then Gladys’ nightmare continued, JetStar slipped a plane through the NSW cordon, emphasising the inherent fragility of policy being as strong as the weakest link.

Now two of the 48 passengers refused to be COVID-19 tested. If that one percentage of “refuseniks” is considered representative of those who are probably the same cohort as the anti-vaxxers, then there is a need for quarantine space not being a plush hotel to accommodate them.

No doubt, NSW has done an excellent job in relation to hotel quarantine, but that does not diminished the argument for designated quarantine facilities. The new and immediate challenge is a government intent on providing a refuge for an unspecified number of Hong Kongers at the same time as the States are showing hotel fatigue by pleading for fewer overseas flights.

Then, there must be a plan to cater for expanding travel given that for a long period into the future, the world will have reverted to the nineteenth century quarantine situation given the differential effect of the Virus on nations – and not wanting to completely stifle international travel yet not wanting travellers to be isolated for quaranta giorni, the basis for the word “Quarantine”.

The Greater Green Triangle

I have spent a lot of time in the Greater Green Triangle over the years. From the time I was responsible for some community health projects in Western Victoria and more recently when I was Director of Medical Services at Edenhope Hospital for a couple of years. If you asked 100 people in Victoria or in South Australia (outside the GGT) where is Edenhope, I would guess the number who knew where it was in each State would run into single digit figures.

However, Edenhope exemplifies a border town and the interdependence of border settlements with one another. Their ability to accommodate to different governments with different legislation is one of the qualities that I love about such towns. I have worked in many.

The problem is that being at the extremes of the State, unless in Queensland where the border is close to the capital, the border residents tend to be forgotten. And this is so, even in Queensland! At the Post Office Hotel in Camooweal on the Queensland-Northern Territory border, you can get the best steak sandwich in Australia – but who would know.

However, let’s return to the Greater Green Triangle. The Victorian-South Australian border was set in 1836 to run along the 141st meridian. Although there is some discrepancy between the then and now measurement, what distinguishes the area east and west of the line is the limestone South Australian coast and hinterland; and this is reflected in the buildings. Mount Gambier stone is a distinctive limestone. One of the ways community in rural Australia has traditionally defined itself is through its football leagues. In this area traditionally there has been a strong Australian Rules tradition; all the border leagues are organised around perceived communities, and these do not seem to recognise borders as a barrier.

The Greater Green Triangle has its base along the coast from Apollo Bay in Victoria to Kingston in South Australia, and as it goes north, where the major population centres are Horsham and Keith, before it runs against the Mallee, an area that also crosses the border.

The point is, as I found out when I assisted in the establishment of the cross-border Greater Green Triangle University Department of Rural Health, that it proved a viable size to deliver an area where medical students could gain enough clinical experience. It showed that the region had both the intellectual capital to provide tertiary education for the population locally and also a population to support clinical training. Both Flinders and Deakin University have had a significant investment in this putative region.

Working at Edenhope demonstrated how clearly important Naracoorte (known locally as Nazza) was to those living on the other side of the South Australian border. This was emphasised by the 2011 floods, which closed the road between Edenhope and Horsham. This meant that services in South Australia were crucial.

Look at the data. Regional Victoria has been virtually free of the Virus for a long time. Therefore, the case is clear for a more sensible approach to border closure in the south-west of Victoria and the south-east of South Australia.

The recent cross-border exemption of 50 kilometres recognises the importance of Mount Gambier and Naracoorte to Western Victoria. However, it dose not recognise the importance of Portland, Hamilton, Warrnambool and even Horsham to South Australians living along the border. As I write this, there is apparently a substantial backlog of people seeking to gain the requisite permits to cross the border

Recognition of the Greater Green Triangle – a long-established and recognised area by three governments – is now being undermined under the current COVID-19 restrictions. The tri-governmental decision to close the Victorian border with NSW fails to recognise that this economic, educational, health and community zone should not be undermined during the COVID-19 pandemic.

East of Eden

The Victorian border south of Eden suddenly looms as a small notice and a bigger notice further on announces the East Gippsland Shire. There is one mobile neon sign saying that those from some undefined hotspots are not allowed into NSW. The cars that whiz past, including several towing caravans – all with Victorian number plates. There is no sign of any active policing of the border.

However, that was before the NSW decision to close the border from Tuesday midnight.

There is no doubt that this border crossing will present a logistics problem. It is going to be interesting to see how the NSW police will arrange their supervision of the Princes Highway border for an extended period, given that it very sparsely populated in an area of bush regeneration, with lots of tracks and not much population until Eden 50 kilometres up the Highway. The ADF may be very useful here. Presumably for completeness, the NSW water police or the Navy will be patrolling the 31 nautical miles between Mallacoota and Eden.

This past weekend we decamped to Merimbula. We were curious to see how the devastated region, after the ghastly summer bushfires, was regenerating. We had watched, as did so much of Australia, with horror and helplessness the destruction being wrought. We contributed to the bushfire relief, but it seemed a pittance. We were then ashamed at the politicians’ response, many of who were overseas, even though there was forewarning of the disaster afoot, much in the same way this border closure has been handled. Many warning signs; then the white stick panic.

Our visit coincided with the weekend of the Eden-Monaro by-election, and although some equated the electorate with the bushfire, the actual area of the electorate burnt was comparatively small and unpopulated. However, that statement is little comfort to hamlets like Cobargo or Mogo where the devastation was numbing. In Australia loss of property is like losing your mind – your memory.

Yet in Merimbula there are few signs of the bushfire. The trees grow tall in the gullies and onto the rises of this hilly settlement with its glorious views of the water stretching out into the Pacific Ocean. Here is a world of the best rock oysters and great fish cuisine. And that emblem of middle class – the golf course – that has been unaffected. The trees are majestic and the fairways green.

Here is the remnant temperate rain forest, which stretches out onto the slopes of the Great Dividing Range. Yet here is an electorate, where a climate denier whose only bush fire policy seems to be fuel reduction, nearly got elected. I would like to see how she would go about man-contrived bush fuel reduction on Brown Mountain. Fortunately, she received a huge thumping by the Merimbula voters.

South of Eden where the devastation was so pronounced there is a very small population – tiny settlements such Kiah are littered with the graveyards of houses, although the local store stoutly displays a “bottle shop” sign.

 

Princes Highway, south of Eden

I remember the reports from Eden, which saw people congregating at the wharf. The flames across Twofold Bay must have been a terrifying sight.

The sturdiness of the bush has been shown by the way the new green leafy growth has been shinnying up the black trunks – to announce its new arrival. However, death is beige, trees whose beige foliage hangs forlornly. The trademark colour of emerging wattle is noticeably absent. Yet there are banksia and grevillea in flower – small numbers but as with the grass, and the ferns and wildflowers, exhibiting regeneration. Nature does not wait for government assistance. Will the thousands of eucalypts across NSW and Victoria that now have epicormic growth gradually recover? Time will tell, but the intensity of the fires was such that we are unlikely to see recovery any time soon, if ever.

There are areas of clear felling and trees scorched beyond immediate redemption. There are no sounds – no bird sounds, no evidence of wildlife, no animals skittled on the roadway. It is not yet Spring but this is a silent world, apart from diminishing noise of the highway.

Yet the two government bush fire inquiries are meandering down bureaucratic gravel roads. The NSW Inquiry finished its community consultation in May, and the Federal Inquiry is due to finish on August 31. When will there be recommendations; when will there be action?

The governmental inertia is appalling and, as has been shown by the Berejiklian approach to government, it gives no idea of whether she knows what she’s doing – apart from kicking the can down the highway and trying to find it in a white stick panic. The NSW bushfire report is due “before the next fire season” (policy by length of the string principle) and presented to her (policy by ceremonial burial)

However, get ready for her response in 2021 when the remaining South Coast bush may have been subject to fuel reduction, but not in the way she meant – only it was not her fault. Nature had just misinterpreted her message.

Stabilising our “Arc of Instability”

Neil Baird – Guest blogger

Celebrated American travel writer Paul Theroux describes his impressions of our neighbouring Pacific islands in “The Happy Isles of Oceania”. It is an ironic title for a book that others have described as “The Arc of Instability” – the chain of islands extending from the Cook Islands in the east to Indonesia in the west.

Cook Islands

While the latter epithet was originally applied to geological instability, it now much more accurately applies to geopolitical instability. The Chinese “dragon” has awakened and is blowing its hot, corrosive and corrupting breath in the direction of our archipelagic neighbours.

That makes it high time that Australia and New Zealand wake up to the threat that accompanies China’s interest. We should be doing much more to counter that threat while we still can. Instead of our benign neglect of the region during the past 75 years Australia and New Zealand need to become very proactive and pragmatic. It is far too late for idealism – the light on the hill burns low. 

Anyone sceptical of the danger that the Xi Jinping-led China presents to Australia should be reminded that his approach shares the hallmarks of a number of pre-World War 2 dictators.

Inter alia, Winston Churchill’s “The Gathering Storm” and Willard Price’s “Japan’s Islands of Mystery” and “Japan Rides the Tiger” very perceptively and accurately predicted the likely outcomes arising from the behaviour of such “Imperialist” dictators.

Willard Price’s books are most relevant to Australia’s current situation with respect to our neighbouring archipelagic nations. His description of the Japanese strategy and actions in regard its League of Nations Mandate of the Micronesian territories north of the Equator are particularly apposite in our current situation. President Xi’s China is closely following General Tojo’s playbook, albeit a little less brutally; so far.

Xi Jinping has demonstrated his imperialist credentials in the South China Sea. They have since spread rapidly with his “Belt and Road Initiative” which, as well as many Pacific and Indian Ocean states, now even encompasses the satirically characterised “Democratic Socialist Republic of Victoria”.

A serious and rapidly worsening problem in Australia’s immediate neighbourhood has emerged. While many of our neighbouring nations have been described as “failed states”, it is probably more accurate to class them as “unviable states”. In hindsight, it would have been better if they had formed a federation giving them some critical mass when they gained independence from their former colonisers.

They are, apart from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, mostly too small, in terms of land area and population, let alone resources, to be economically viable individual nations. All are, to be bluntly honest, seriously deficient administratively. That makes them unusually mendicant and, therefore, vulnerable to external influences.

This reality must be allowed for in any approaches Australia makes to our neighbouring nations in an effort to counter the influence of the Chinese government. These countries need help and, to preserve its own future, Australia needs to help them.

However, to effectively help protect our neighbours from Chinese hegemony, Australia must be much more realistic and practical in its approach than has been the in the past. The paternalistic, diffident approach of Australia has created a vacuum that China is rapidly filling.

Australia must help protect these “Pacific paradises” from the detrimental effects of Chinese “colonisation”. This will require a very different diplomatic approach that to challenge the capabilities of both Australian and New Zealand bureaucrats – be they diplomats, trade representatives or “aid” consultants. They will need to be very incorrect politically.

That will require a much more culturally sensitive and realistic approach than has ever been demonstrated by current employees of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and flies in the face of their education and departmental acculturation.

The simple fact is, as any senior island nation bureaucrat will privately confirm, their biggest problem is “political interference”. Read “corruption” from elected representatives from ministers downwards. The Chinese government panders to this. Australia does not. This policy puts us at a great disadvantage. Australia must learn to work around and overcome that distasteful reality.

With that reality firmly in mind, Australia needs to much better plan its approach to those tiny nation states. We have to accept that they are not really “democracies” in the way that most Australians and New Zealanders understand that word.

Apart from brown paper bags of cash, diplomacy has a long tradition of purchasing influence. Scholarships, similar to those offered by the successful Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, provided to the bright – they’re always bright – children of politicians would be a start.

So would appropriate venture capital funding for business start-ups. “Educational” tours for politicians are always popular. There are numerous examples of what could be done in that line without having to go so far as the old German trick of “limitless” credit cards.

Australia could do much more in the areas of health, education, transport, agricultural, forestry and fisheries development, disaster relief and even defence. Australia could provide these island nations with safe, efficient and comfortable Australian designed and built ferries for inter-island transport. Importantly, Australia should train them to operate and maintain those ferries safely.

In contrast Australia should not be:

(a) building “Taj Mahal” financially unviable convention centres, or

(b) providing fleets of fancy cars to transport the delegates to non-existent conferences.

Above all, unlike our Chinese rivals, Australia should not be pushing debt onto the islanders, which only serves to reinforce their mendicant status.

The aid provided should be practical, sensible, conspicuous and culturally sensitive. There is no point in providing aid in any circumstances where someone else gets the credit for our generosity. Importantly, rather than handing over cash that inevitably would be spent on Toyotas, Yamahas, Hyundais or Maseratis, Australia should promote purchase of Australian goods or services.

We have plenty of desirable home grown goodies to offer,” as one reliable source said to me.

Not To Know What Happened Before One Was Born Is Always To Be A Child

I once had dinner with the essayist, author and sometime editor of Harper’s, Lewis Lapham, in New York. It was very cordial, entertaining dinner. I was trying to entice him to Australia to give a talk, but somewhere, sometime he slipped out of the net and did not come.

Later he did come to Australia and Bob Carr hosted him. The meeting of those minds is not surprising because although Lapham was a gifted essayist with a very astute mind, he could not resist writing such words: “I first met him at a New York dinner party in 1962, among the company then traveling in the entourage of President John Kennedy, and over the next half century I ran across him at least once or twice a year – in a Broadway theater, on a lawn an Newport, Rhode Island, in the Century Club dining room, on the stage of an university auditorium.” However, he carried his self-importance more easily than Carr, probably because he was a true intellectual.

In any case he was talking about Arthur Schlesinger. Schlesinger was a historian, a very good historian, who saw the world in which he lived, as Lapham recalls, as a place “to construe history as a means rather than the end, the constant making and remaking of the past intended to revise the present to better imagine the future.”

Schlesinger, although he died in 2007 at the age of 89, had witnessed the growth of the information revolution, without watching it explode. He noted that it was associated with “an attitude of mind which accommodated the floating world of the timeless fantasy, impatient and easily bored, less at ease with a stable storyline than with the flow of brand names images in which nothing necessarily follows from anything else”.

The problem with eloquence is that those mentioned above are listening to a different beat and hence the comment is lost in that floating world. Further, eloquence may mask thoughts that may be too personal, too generalised or just too loquacious.

“The problem is if the population do not recognise that history captures the past then the populace may be presented with solutions where there is no link between cause and effect. To be told what is right without any evidence, without the benefit of history is to caught up in the whirlwind of fake news, fascist politics and quack religions.”

Schlesinger was talking about Bush The Younger’s legacy in dumbing down American educational standards. Such a statement retains its relevance 13 years later, when the barbarian is no longer at the gate – he is within the gate. Now educational standards are reduced to slogans and chants of invective repeated.

Lapham compares Schlesinger’s analysis of history with that of a man who “forged the strength of Roman history into a weapon”. According to Lapham, both this man and Schlesinger recognised history was not a nursery rhyme. The name of the Roman was Cicero.

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Cicero paid a mortal price for his defence of the integrity of the republic against vanities of would be Emperors; and by the way, the quote at the head of this article was written by Cicero; how prescient a description of the current American President.

Mouse Whisper Primo

Overheard in the executive office of an unnamed casino: “Of course we have bought a vat of sanitiser – how else are going to launder all the money we are getting?

Mouse Whisper Secondo

Premier Gladys, my whisper from the floor, may I give you a tip about salt and pepper shakers – use them first, then hand sanitise. Then everybody can share or else wipe the shakers down before you use them.

Modest Expectations – Maria A Nona

Just a brief acknowledgement of Prof Brendan Murphy becoming the first medically qualified head of the Commonwealth Health department since Gwynn Howells was Director-General from 1973 to 1982. Murphy has a certain quality, which can survive the neo-liberal/ Canberra mandarin doubt. You know, doctors should stick to their knitting – and not mix it with the “big boys”.

I must say I have been always sceptical of that mantra which inter alia the late John Paterson promoted – namely you could be content free and run a Health department with minimal knowledge of the portfolio. To Paterson, health was only an unadorned matter of cost accounting. 

Another view of the Endurance

There is one piece of COVID-19 information about the South American situation that does not get much coverage. The rate of infection in Uruguay is very low, currently being less than 1,000 infected, with 27 deaths.

Now Uruguay has only 3.5 million people and while the death rate on a population basis is higher than ours, the number of cases is very respectable given that it has borders with Brazil and Argentina.

In an earlier blog I have written of my experiences about Uruguay last year. It has the characteristic of a Spanish-speaking culture but one I found, as an Australian, a very comfortable one. Maybe it was because we had two fantastic guides with an appreciation of Australians.

If we look at attenuated tourist bubbles of countries that have suppressed the virus, Uruguay should not be left off the list.

Montevideo

Two matters stand out. The first is that a third of the population lives in high-rise condominia along the Montevideo waterfront. In some parts Uruguay may be sparsely settled, but it has one substantial city, Montevideo, with a crowded population that seems to have avoided the CoVid-19 occurrence of other cities with substantial high-rise populations.

The second relates to the MV Greg Mortimer, with a substantial number of Australians on board. There could have been a complete disaster without the intervention of the Uruguayan Health authorities.

The World Health Organisation had declared COVID-19 a pandemic three days before the brand new, luxury MV Greg Mortimer (which despite its illustrious name is registered in the Bahamas), with a crew of 85 and 132 passengers, set sail from Ushuaia on March 15 on a 21-day cruise following a similar route to that of the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton.

During the next 13 days the virus struck, although everybody tested negative for the virus before they boarded. Progressively more and more tested positive until 81 of the crew and passengers had contracted COVID-19.

Both Argentina and the Falkland Islands would have nothing to do with them, even though the passengers had embarked in Argentina at Ushuaia. The Uruguay government allowed the ship to anchor 16 kms off shore and then sent in a medical team to assess the COVID-19 status of those on the ship

Uruguayan physicians who boarded the MS Greg Mortimer to assess the passengers and crew

This story has been told recently by a respiratory physician, who was on the ship. He highlighted how careful and ordered the Uruguayan authorities were in handling the situation. They provided a “sanitary corridor” which allowed for repatriation, where those who were sick, including one of the ship’s doctors, were taken from the ship. Eight were hospitalised and one person unfortunately died.

As described in a recent issue of the Macquarie University journal, the way the matter was handled was in stark contrast to the Ruby Princess fiasco.

To his credit our Prime Minister was very generous in thanking Uruguay, a fact that should not be forgotten in the Year of the Virus.

The Presidential position had just changed back to the Conservative coalition, with Lacalle Pau, the surf-loving scion of an old Uruguayan family winning the runoff from his Socialist rival by only 30,000 votes. The maturity of this change in government reflects well on the state of democracy in Uruguay and on the successful approach of containing the virus even with a change of government.

Remember also Uruguay has a 1,000 kms border with Brazil and while there are nine border crossings, in one instance between two of the border towns, it is virtually just a line on the ground, little if any spread of the virus has occurred across the Brazilian border.

Yet according to The Guardian, Uruguay is fourth in the world for success against the Virus with New Zealand first and Australia second.

The discipline shown in handling the Greg Mortimer is an exemplar, and explains the current success. While it is not stated when you are moving people from an unsafe environment to a sanctuary, nobody wants to be last off, and yet the Uruguayans were able to maintain the discipline and co-operation for 19 days before the last person was evacuated from the MV Greg Mortimer.

In Uruguay, the current Minister of Public Health is Dr Daniel Salinas, a medical graduate but it seems that five years is a long time as Health Minister. He has only been in the position since March this year.

Talk about a baptism of fire and he has already been “outed” for going where he should not have gone during the lock-down. The words were harsh, but for now he has kept his job. 

In the Year of the Virus

In the Year of the Virus, what is written at the beginning of the week may be superseded at the weekend by the way the virus is driving the government agenda, both the economy and social intercourse. How something so small can change the way we go about our life tests our ability to maintain order and not succumb to the chaos of the individual ignorance – whether wilful or not.

Chaos is epitomised by the image of the two old guys in a street in one of the infested suburbs culturally kissing one another on the cheeks and then when they knew they were being photographed grinned like idiots into the camera. As I pointed out last week, the active elderly are potentially great Virus spreaders, especially as the niceties of the reasons for testing seem beyond them.

Premier Andrews is very adroit in being prepared to call out the Aspen skiers as “persons of interest” who brought the Virus into Australia. “Bad people”. However, his adroitness is in not blaming but at the same time blaming his Labor-voting constituency.

Andrews recognises it is pointless to call out the peasant mentality that the Florentine Leon Alberti identified 500 years ago as “amoral familism” – an inability to think beyond the extended family. Panic buying is one symptom, and disregard of any appeal to community values is another. Hence the Andrews adroitness is the gentle appeal to particular community leaders in public; and then giving them a stronger message in private.

The message has changed abruptly about those in quarantine who refuse to be tested. It turns out that the resistance has occurred among children – or rather their parents for testing their offspring.

For adults, there is no excuse; the sanction should be unyielding. The other means are either the addition of another ten days to the quarantine period, or else use the new saliva test for children. The reasons for these changes rest with the experts’ assurance that the extra ten days are sufficient and that the saliva test has a comparable degree of sensitivity and specificity to those of the current procedures.

However, it does not change the need to have designated quarantine facilities near all the international airports. One of the successes occurred early with the efficient evacuation of people from Wuhan to Christmas Island and the Darwin Howard Springs facility.

That is one good reason to have permanent quarantine facilities, if for no other reason than to streamline the process of quarantining returning citizens and permanent residents to Australia and to provide space so people are not cooped up in hotels with untrained supervision, as instanced in this case. The short-term objective of improving the bottom-line of the hotels should give way to planning for a long term recognition that inevitably we will have another raft of diseases without vaccines, and thus need designated, properly designed facilities.

Whereas a ship used to raise the yellow flag to denote Infection, so must a community flag be raised to indicate a suppression of pandemics, for which the only defence is suppression through isolation. What does Australia want – worrying about cultural sensitivity and spurious privacy issues or protection against the disruption caused by a pandemic?

Andrews invoked Bentham’s utilitarianism in his media conference last Sunday; his government must work for the greatest good for the greatest number. Here he is so right, but the refusal of a substantial number of people to be tested will challenge how consistent his resolve is, or whether he considers them as “conscientious objectors”.

Governments have a number of precedents for such a group, but he seems to believe that locking down certain suburbs until the end of July may suffice. It is a difficult policy to police.

On the other hand, the vested interests remain. There is a serious one that will lurk well beyond the end of July.

Quoting from the Sunday Age, “questions have been raised this week over when health authorities contacted Cedar Meats about the positive cases and over the government’s decision not to initially name the abattoir, whose owner was a long-time member of the Labor Party.”  

Meat processing facilities – in my language, abattoirs – because of the working environment are perfect areas for the virus to re-gather its strength. This Cedar Meats facility owned by the Kairouz family has previously been subject to questions about its occupational health and safety, and now by definition it is a “hot spot” until proved otherwise.

However, rather than pursuing the Lebanese connection, would it not be better to set up a preventative strategy in regard to all the meat processing facilities throughout Australia? Maybe that is in process, and as a casual observer, all I can say is that it is an obvious matter to consider, given it is an international problem even threatening to compromise the food supply chain. Therefore, who is working on the uniformity of rules here that recognise the seriousness of the situation?

Quarantine facilities are not holiday camps. They are facilities to isolate for a period for the few whose freedoms are temporarily sacrificed for the greater good. The government has become expert in building such facilities for asylum seekers. Maybe with the media spotlight on them and staffed by trained health professionals rather than guards of dubious experience, there will be more humanity in the construction of quarantine facilities. The Olympic village model springs to mind, with all subject to social distancing and hand washing “between events”.

The promise of a COVID-19 vaccine

The history of vaccines, and especially one against a coronavirus would suggest that it is nonsense to expect a solution in the near future – if ever. There may never be a vaccine and therefore the world must work around suppression of the Virus.

It is somewhat like 1938 and Neville Chamberlain waving a piece of paper and talking about “peace in our time” – it could easily be any of our current political leaders substituting “vaccine” for “peace”. The world has found out that it cannot eliminate war – it devises mechanisms to try and suppress it – not very successfully as there are hot spots breaking out everywhere as countries lose respect for borders read “social distancing”; for “hand washing and sanitisers” read “defence”.

The corpus of research scientists has the same quota of flimflam chancers as the rest of the population. Labelling someone a “research scientist” is not equivalent to beatification. As a somewhat mediocre medical researcher I was fortunate to work among some brilliant medical scientists. I sympathise with Brendan Murphy and his obvious unsuitability for research. Mine was a forgiving research environment, but then I never wore a tie in the laboratory.

I learnt the hard way, but because I was in a laboratory where the technical standards were high to complement some of the best scientific thinkers of my generation I was very privileged. I learnt enough to achieve two doctorates in a time when one could do that without being consigned to the debtors’ prison for unpaid HECS fees.

However, I learnt one lesson from two distinguished scientists, Ian Clunies Ross and Frank Fenner. When the myxomatosis virus was developed to infect and kill rabbits, both these men were the first to have themselves injected with the virus to show that the virus did not harm humans.

I remember one of my experiments demanded taking arterial blood. First person for this study to have that procedure done on himself was me. As the responsible researcher, if I expected others to take part, then I should be the first volunteer. Arterial puncture is no big deal now, but it was different 50+ years ago.

These days the whole process has been made more complicated as the ethicists have moved in. These days Clunies Ross and Fenner probably would be surrounded by reams and reams of paper seeking justification for their research.

However, the principle remains the same.

As one psychologist has expressed it: “The golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is about as basic as morality gets. It’s the bridge between empathy and sympathy, between putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and making some accommodation to them as a result.”

That simple statement does not need a synod of ethicists to ratify. After all the 1978 Belmont Report said much the same in a great many more words. Among the reasons for this Report were revelations in regard to the Tuskegee experiments. The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American Male was a clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the United States Public Health Service. The purpose of this study was to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis; the African-American men in the study were only told they were receiving free health care from the Federal government of the United States.

Dr Cutler referred to below was complicit in a substantial way.

Naturally there are now researchers tripping over themselves in the search for a vaccine for COVID-19 as if this whole research exercise is less about research and more of a gold rush. The issue of how to fast track this process has inevitably lead to the question of challenge trials.

Descendents of the victims of the Tuskagee experiment

The nature of a challenge trial involves giving healthy subjects a prospective vaccine and, in this case, then infecting them with a coronavirus. As the Tuskagee and Guatemala experiences show, it can be totally unethical, and while these quoted may be extremes, there are many shades of grey.

An article in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books commented on a new book on Adverse Events: Race Inequality and the Testing of New Pharmaceuticals by Jill Fisher, a social scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill.  The reviewer, Carl Elliot, a Professor at the University of Minnesota, notes 38 members of the US House of Representatives have called for COVID-19 challenge studies to be put in place. Perfect – they can be among the first cohort to be challenged with the Virus but protected by The Vaccine.

Carl Elliot is concentrating his literary endeavours on whistle blowing and unethical research. He makes the point that in these often dangerous challenges, the “volunteers” come from the bottom of society: the poorest, the most easily exploitable, prisoners, people in impoverished countries like Guatemala or Alabama.

A challenge study on Guatemala poor in 1946-48 mimicked those carried out by the Nazis. These US researchers:

  • intentionally infected victims with syphilis and gonococcus without informed consent
  • failed to provide victims with treatment or compensation
  • covered up and did not publish or disclose the experiments, including the intentional infections and failure to provide treatment.

It was not until after his death that the person who led the study, John Cutler, a public health luminary, was revealed as the monster he was – but there were accomplices. After all, for every Dr Jekyll there potentially lurks a Mr Hyde.

Challenge studies may be integral to testing of particular research protocols, but the researchers should be prepared to be the first to be challenged. The organisation 1DaySooner promotes challenge trials and allows individuals to volunteer, or to be advocates for such trials. The website notes there are currently (as at 2 July 2020) 30,108 volunteers “interested in being exposed to the coronavirus to speed up vaccine development”. Volunteers implies they will not be paid or expect to be paid.

Still, if I were the lead researcher I would expect to be the first one infected. How many of the myriad researchers will volunteer to be the first one tested with their own challenge protocol if and when it gets to that point?

Let Him Sleep

In a question on notice on 28 October 1982 from Barry Jones, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tony Street responded with the following. In so doing, between the two, they encapsulated much of the story of Raoul Wallenberg:

(1)       Is he (Street) able to say whether Raoul Wallenberg was First Secretary of the Swedish Embassy in Budapest from July 1944 to approximately February 1945 and was he described as the ‘hero of the holocaust’ for his work in saving Hungarian Jews during the Nazi occupation?

(2)       Is it a fact that he was last seen in Hungary in or about February 1945 when he set off for an appointment with officers of the Red Army?

(3)       Is it a fact that reports have been received in Sweden that he was being held in a Soviet prison since that time, that he was last sighted in the late 1970s and that, at the age of 70 years, he may still be alive and that he has been seen in Soviet prisons?

To which Minister Street replied in part:

… the Government is aware of reports that Mr Wallenberg is alive and that he has been seen in Soviet prisons. Sweden continues to pursue the Wallenberg case with the Soviet authorities, who so far have done no more than repeat their claim that Mr Wallenberg died in prison in 1947.

The Australian Government fully supports the efforts of Sweden to have the case re-examined by the Soviet authorities. Because the Australian Government has no direct standing in the matter, however, there has been little opportunity for us to make an effective intervention. The matter is basically the concern of the Swedish and Soviet Governments and for the time being it is felt that Sweden is best placed to press for a more satisfactory response from the Soviet authorities…

There is no doubt that Wallenberg was a very brave man. What he did for Hungarian Jews in trying to save as many as possible from the gas chambers was extraordinary. One of his strongest promoters in the Australian community is Dr Frank Vajda. Wallenberg saved him, at the age of nine, together with his mother, from the firing squad – a direct intervention. Everybody interprets miracles differently, and there is no wonder that Vajda, who later became a noted Melbourne neurologist, views Wallenberg as his personal saviour.

Kew

Wallenberg was made Australia’s first and only honorary citizen in 2013. An exhibition honoring him was shown around Australia between 2015 and 2019. In his brief time in Hungary, he saved many Jews. Some, as with Professor Vajda, came to Australia. There are around Australia many Wallenberg monuments. In Melbourne, I have always acknowledged the bust of him when driving past, if it was safe to do so, since the bust is perched near a busy intersection in Kew.

It is inconceivable that the Russians would not have known that the Wallenberg family not only enabled German industrialists to hide their assets but also ironically helped the Nazis, though their bank, to dispose of Dutch Jewish assets. The Russians tend not to differentiate; once a Wallenberg, always a target.

Whenever or whatever the Russians did to Raoul Wallenberg just highlights the corkscrew of the Russian mentality. In 1982 the possibility, however tenuous, existed that he was still alive. Now 108 years after his birth, non acceptance of his death makes his memory a pointless hagiographic conceit.

On 26 October 2016 the Swedish tax authorities (responsible for death certificates) finally pronounced Wallenberg dead and to be considered having died 31 July 1952. “Han ska anses ha dött den 31 juli 1952”, skriver Skatteverket i sitt beslut.”

Given those words, it is surprising the Swedish embassy allowed the question mark over his death to remain on the information sheet advertising the Wallenberg exhibition last year in NSW. The Swedish Government has done so. When Tony Street replied to Barry Jones’ question nearly 40 years ago, and there may have been a reason not to bring closure.

The Swedish Government has now recognised one of its national heroes has died. He should no longer exist in some limbo. To dismiss the recognition as a Swedish administrative mechanism is to not accord Wallenberg the recognition that he died in Russian custody.

Also, I know that some people who were directly saved by his intervention believe he should be revered as a giant of the spirit, but he was made our only honorary citizen of Australia in 2013. Why? He did not have the chance to accept; did the proposer, having refused to assign a date of death, seek to ask his advice on the matter?

I wonder whether being made an honorary citizen of another country would have been significant to him and whether he himself, having been described as being a diffident person, would have accepted? One of the problems is that people who often indulge themselves in the pursuit of vestments and honours just assume that the object of their esteem would agree.

There is a touch of arrogance in making such assumptions, particularly in the case of affording people nationality. And if you think about it, why “honorary”? Either you are a citizen or you are not.

Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in her eulogy when Wallenberg was awarded his honorary title, said: “Some of the individuals whose lives he redeemed became part of our first great transforming wave of post-war immigration; among the first to pledge themselves to their new home after Australian nationality was formalised in 1949.

Surely that was testament enough to his ongoing legacy – those who were spared and then were able to make such contributions as Frank Vajda. What does Honorary citizenship add and in 120 years of Australian Federation, why one?

I think Wallenberg was one of the greatest men of the twentieth century, even though he had such a short life. After all, he was the same age as Jesus when he disappeared.

Jesus left a spectacular legacy, one that has been transformative for our country as with others. Do we then make Christ an honorary citizen of the country? And of course we do not have a death certificate for Him either. But does anybody believe that Wallenberg rose from the dead? Allow him closure.

Mouse Whisper

Ever thought why it is mice but not hice? Well it is all because in the Saxon language hus was a neuter noun whereas mus was feminine. So in the plural it is still hus but for mus, which becomes mys to the plural (as was lus).

But it is more probable that in the future there will be “three blind mouses” before it becomes “as safe as hice”. After all, those little gadgets that are pushed around computers are mouses not mice. It just illustrates there is a tendency in all language usage towards homogeneity and simplicity.

So as my Aussie quoll friend would say, it’ll be grouse, mate – and grouse is grouse never grouses nor grice.

Or because we mouse love devouring literature, will it become a case of “eatymology”?

Modest expectations – Route Marcus John

I was born on the west coast of Ireland many year ago & up to now I thought I had a hard life as a young boy picking potatoes for farmers, plucking turkeys for meat exporters, caddying for rich golfers wishing for a bag of clubs on each shoulder. But after seeing (how the Blasket people lived) I now I know I lived the life of a prince. The Blasket people were made of granite. I now live the life of a softie in England compared to what they endured …

Blasket Island

This stray Twitter comment from some guy who had watched a video on the Blasket islands off the coast of Kerry typifies many of us with West coast Irish heritage. There is something about really returning to one’s Celtic roots if you travel to one of the islands.

The Blasket islands have not been inhabited since 1953 when the then Taioseach Eamon De Valera moved the last 22 inhabitants off the island and onto the mainland. Nevertheless, this group of islands has much Gaelic literature written about them.

Sometimes, especially as you grow older, you like to relax in your heritage. Mine is partially rooted in Co Clare and off the coast are the Aran Islands; an intrinsic part of the Gaeltacht.

I remember the day I went to Inishmore, the largest of the three islands. I took the ferry from Doolin. The ferry was delayed until the tide came in, and if you get impatient, remember the Irish nostrum: “A watched kettle never boils”. So we all waited and waited. However, the day was one of those days when you thought you were going to a Greek Island rather than to an island in the Atlantic Ocean.

Rowing your curragh

The 1934 documentary called Man of Aran that I watched recently, made and remade the point that the seas around the island were very rough and perilous, and not a good place to be out rowing your curragh. It is a dark film.

The island seems to be enveloped in gloom – dragging the curragh from the surf, gathering seaweed to provide nutrition for the soil, breaking stones to uncover that precious soil in which to plant potatoes, cliff fishing – a hazardous exercise of throwing a long line down the cliff wall into the sea. Conversing in Gaelic – hard to hear with words drifting the waves and wind.

Overall, men, woman, boy – these are the toilers of the seas, to borrow from Victor Hugo. Light is provided when the figures are set against the backdrop of grey skies hacking at rocks or looking out to sea. Or else light is the white spume of the dark tempestuous sea crashing against the rocks and cliff face.

The film uses black and white imagery, which has been so over-used, to define an Ireland deprived of its emerald hue – sunless and poor.

Contrast it against the unexpected experience of being on the Aran Islands when the sun shone and you could be in the Mediterranean. Here was an optimistic panorama and not a cloud in the sky; the ocean a millpond. An island where you could take off your heavy fisherman’s jacket and sweater and go bare-sleeved.

I trekked across the limestone and grass and over stone walls to the ancient Neolithic fort which sits on the edge of cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It has the appearance of half being there, and the other half having broken away and fallen in the water. The Legend of Atlantis often gets a run when you see the ruin, especially from above. But it is an illusion; it was just built that way, as if to defy the elements.

In the progress of the trudge across the island, I was sunburnt – for God’s sake in Ireland. Twice that has happened. And that was before I could blame it on climate change.

The Man of Aran, however authentic it may have been when it was a pathfinding documentary of a vanishing Ireland, now can be portrayed as a caricature of an impoverished land.

But that day on the island aroused in the emotion of an ancestral intrusion. The landscape is a limestone continuation of the Burren, an extraordinary pavement that appears to have the hand of my ancestors in its creation. Yet it is where Nature has brought together Arctic and Mediterranean flora in the nooks and crannies of this pavement. It is a place where I have had the sensation, walking across it, of having been there before – was that chance or was it predetermined that I had placed feet on where one of my ancestors had trodden.

I have always been fascinated by the concept of the Celtic twilight.

Therefore, one of the privileges of an Irish heritage is that it has provided me with a sense of that past, which has shaped who I am – both my insignificance and my significance. That day on Inishmore I was tempted to buy a stone cottage and live surrounded by dry stonewalls and green fields. The life of an ascetic lingered for a moment.

That urge passed because in the end you are one person no matter where your heritage may lie, and I am Australian not Irish, not someone who repeatedly says that my mob have been here for 40,000 years but nevertheless proud of my mob who have been in Australia for 170 years.

I hope I have added value to the nation of many nations brought together under the Southern Cross even as the twilight gathers. In the end, it is what you do with the privilege of being here, be it one year or 40,000.

I disagree with the Twitter who escaped from the West Coast to become a softie in England.   Migration does mean being, as he terms, “a softie”. It was not a soft option for my ancestors to leave, after all it is a long way from Tipperary, let alone County Clare.

The Cylcon

I first saw them in a roadhouse at Little Topar, lying alongside the emu eggs in a dusty display case. I asked whether I could buy one of them. The guy behind the counter said no. He was only minding them for the owner. Same reply each time, I asked. The owner was elusive. Stone walls are stone walling and I did not stop at Little Topar often enough to nag.

So there it rested, until I saw one advertised on e-Bay. I am not one of those people who regularly trawls e-Bay, but I was attracted to a couple of Aboriginal artefacts, which looked ridiculously cheap. However, they became part of a bidding war – and I have never bought anything at auction. In any case, I am a tyro when bidding against skilled operators, who have so much better timing of their bids (to say nothing of the automated bidding programs).

Anyway, once on the e-Bay site, I had a further look for anything else that that might be interesting. Then there it was – one of those items that had been displayed at the Little Topar roadhouse.

It was a cylcon and it was for sale.

To put Little Topar into context, it is a roadhouse about 100 kilometres from Broken Hill. Nothing else. Cylcons, as the name implies, are conicocylindrical stones. They are said to be found across Australia, but were often picked up by those working on properties in Western NSW and South-West Queensland. Markings are not uniform and it is said that the local Aboriginal Barkinji knew nothing of them.

However, then you read elsewhere about a mob around Lake Eyre who were still using stones that resemble cylcons at least 50 years ago.

Tchuringas are often mentioned alongside cylcons as having magical powers. I know what authentic tchuringas look like as I was shown several when I was travelling around the Kimberley in the late 1970s. An elder of the local mob, who thought I was important enough to unwrap this valuable legacy showed them to me as we sat alone. As I worked out later, this was one of the most sacred possessions. That’s all I will say recognising that anything I could say about it would be strictly men’s business and remains so.

So now I have a hard sandstone cylcon. I can talk about it, still not knowing what its significance is – it remains unfinished business.

The messages are getting mixed again

A couple of recalcitrant families have tested positive for the Virus in Victoria and the postal address of these families suggests they are not “white anglo-saxon protestants”. Anyway there is no mention of heritage, and there was only passing reference to the fact that last month it was Cedar Meat abattoir at Brooklyn in one of the targeted local government areas (LGA), which was associated with an outbreak resulting in 111 workers testing positive. Do we really want to punish the whole of Victoria because of one group? Let us not be coy about where the problem lies.

The fact is Victoria has used the first lockdown in March to refine contact tracing to a very comprehensive level. However, there is need to develop a strategy to selectively isolate those groups who persist in flouting the rules, without disrupting everybody’s lives.

An Essendon football player has tested positive for COVID-19 virus. He has been found guilty of flouting the very tough guidelines, which have tried to isolate these gladiators in some sort of safe house environment. Then they show the image of this player on the field with his teammates. First, he spits on the ground and then he blows his nose so the droplets spray everywhere.

So the AFL says that they take every precaution to ensure that the behaviour of players is hygienic; so is this player as pictured the only one spitting and blowing his nose without a tissue? No evidence of hand sanitiser here. No evidence that he was disciplined for those disgusting pieces of behaviour. The game must go on, the tills must keep jingling – metaphorically.

There is confusion about whether he has tested positively or not; and anyway Essendon say he only had contact with a marginal player who would not have been selected.

That seems to be the first mixed message; just like the scurry before the Grand Prix in March. Essendon player contact vs a large Keilor Downs family contact – different approach?

Then there is the matter of quarantine facilities.

One topic that has not received much attention is the need for permanent quarantine facilities.

Sydney quarantine station

Australia has been quick to lock up asylum seekers. They are clearly different from those who flout – accidently or intentionally – the rules laid down in one major respect, the latter group vote. The way the Biloela Four have been treated is nothing short of disgraceful.

This situation is more than regrettable if an ignorant populist tries to bend public health discipline for short-term electoral gain. One of the problems with the Victorian outbreak is that it is within Labour-voting electorates. However, the Premier seems imperturbable.

That is no reason for the current Government adopting a different reaction to one where the outbreak is in Liberal- voting electorates

In the past, where there was a need to quarantine people, quarantine facilities were located close to the shipping. However, while cruise ships have been shown to be a very real source of infection, it is air travel where the major problem of ongoing infection will arise. Therefore, as quarantine is now becoming an ongoing issue, it is now important to rapidly develop facilities close to airports, where those to be quarantined can go.

Using hotels in the centre of the city with obviously unskilled staff is not an ideal long-term solution. Hotels are not constructed to quarantine people – quarantine facilities must be secure.

As has been shown in Sweden, believing people will take seriously a foe that they cannot see, hear or touch has not worked. This Virus may show its presence through smell and debatably taste, but they are not the primary senses to stimulate a “viral defence policy”.

The second mixed message is thus that politicians think quarantining the asylum seekers is OK; but not those fleeing the Virus.

The Prime Minister is keen to have a building /renovation program. Constructing appropriate quarantine facilities would be an important way to consolidate in more ways than one on the governments’ achievements; rather than fritter the sense of unity away on acrimony over the borders or fritter away money on some renovation scheme accessible to a few well-heeled homeowners. Some would say a return to the primitivism of politics rather than a rational way of devising a sustainable quarantine program.

In doing so, the government must realise that this situation is not a three month wonder since it seems that some countries, notably the USA have given up, irrespective of what they say, and just wish for a vaccine or that the Virus will go away.

Therefore, such construction recognises that this situation is not going away any time soon. One of the dozens of facilities currently seeking a vaccine might be lucky, but inescapably the most recent vaccines for HPV and chicken pox took 15 and 20 years respectively to develop.

When government wants to, it can use its own land to construct anything.

Those that are sick go to hospital. There used to be infectious disease hospitals – the last one being Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne, which was closed in 1996. I once had a week in Fairfield as a teenager when I had a severe respiratory infection for which there was no obvious reason. In another time, I could have been the first in a line of pandemic victims with an unusual set of symptoms.

COVID-19 has shown that it is preferable to have the capacity to treat an infectious disease for which there is no cure and but importantly to have the skills to treat patients without the disease being let loose in the general hospital environment.   After all, warnings of recent epidemics have been largely ignored; but now the pandemic has come upon a World which has been shown as hopelessly unprepared.

The third mixed message follows on and involves border closures. With the Victorian outbreak, the hysteria is rising again. “Victoria is the Lazaret State”. Australia has suppressed the Virus to such an extent that it can be isolated to specific areas. So you can lock down particular areas; not the whole State. You prohibit movement outside that area until the virus is suppressed; those who don’t obey go to the quarantine facilities and join the overseas arrivals.

The bluntness of this message may act as a deterrent. We have not worried about the niceties of language for the asylum seekers; so why not those that flout the COVID-19 regulations. No exceptions, not even for the rich and infamous. However, there must be designated quarantine facilities that are run as such. Once you have defined quarantine facilities and the staff requirements you bring certainty into the process.

My son came back from the United States in early March and was case 13 in Victoria. It was uncertain times as knowledge of the behaviour of the Virus was not as well known as it is now. His spread was contained. That meant inter alia that the whole family stayed at home without any direct contact with anybody until all were virus-negative. However he and his wife have defined antibody titres, as presumably have all those who have recovered in Australia.

Before we have more mixed messages – of having some recognition of their status, what does it mean? Can such people travel freely around the country or internationally? Around the world there are a growing number of such people. Do they get the equivalent of a diplomatic passport to travel? What is the ideal threshold titre for immunity required? And the questions mount up because there is still so much unknown. To avoid a fourth mixed message, does Australia just subscribe to the WHO conservative dictum on this subject – especially the immunity passport as suggested by Chilean sources have superficial appeal to some?

George V Salle à Manger

After all, there will be a graduated requirement for return to travel. Some places will be safer than others. This one area where a fifth mixed message is liable to arise as the “politician itch” to go overseas becomes unbearable. This pandemic has questioned the need to have all the junket paraphernalia – sister-cities, inter-parliamentary delegations, most conferences and even business travel – let alone ministers and their staff spending vast sums of money for nothing much more than say, having lobster bisque at the George V in Paris.

Been there; done that. Time to suppress the virus of Self Indulgence, which also selectively affects tastebuds. However, for others it has been a fascination – the overseas all-expenses paid junket. What is the government’s advice in relation to this? What twisting and turning will Australia see to make sure the lobster bisque does not go to waste?

And of course there is the sixth mixed message to end all mixed messages, Ann Sherry. She has, as recently as February this year, been applauded for all the good works she did for the Carnival organisation. She has now bobbed up co-chairing some Australia-New Zealand outfit to promote, among other things, tourism. Given her propensity to flog ships can we expect Carnival, her old ahoy, to be plying between their ships between Australia and New Zealand?

I understand there is no foundation to the rumour that Carnival is renaming its ships: the Rabies Princess, the Diarrhoea Princess, the Plague Princess and the Leprosy Princess. 

Five Characters in Search of a Disease

We were having lunch in the neighbourhood restaurant that serves freshly shucked rock oysters mostly from the south Coast.

Nearby, in retrospect far too close to us, a table was set for five.

They straggled in and sat down at the table with their bottles of wine. They were five men, well into their sixties and beyond, and typical of men when they gather together, loud talking, joking, passing the booze – as they have probably done whenever they’ve gathered.

The problem is that these are not normal times. Were they social distancing themselves? Well, no. Their bodies were touching. Was there any evidence of hand sanitiser? Well, no

In fact in retrospect, given that the courtyard was virtually empty, they could have located there.

However, suddenly one of them sneezed and coughed extravagantly. No tissue – he at least belatedly put his hand in front of his mouth. I told him off – told him to cough into his sleeve. I said a few more words. The table shut up for a short time.

Who was this other old codger telling off one of their number? They were stunned, as though being pulled up for a transgression outside the confessional box was itself a venal sin. Then they said no more and went back to their crowded space – except nobody coughed.

It emphasises how tenuous this whole community regulation as been on any long-term change of behaviour, even attitudes. Here was a group of men in the target age for serious trouble if they were unfortunate enough to catch the Virus.

However that is not the imagery that is projected on the screens; rather it is of old people being the victims. In some cases this is true, but there is a problem. It is being able to tell old people what to do – especially when they are not culturally attuned to change, except by extreme coercion.

In this case, I remember these guys as young men – not this particular quintet. They nevertheless represent that chap who limped into the surgery 50 years before with a severely infected leg following a seemingly minor injury a week before. If they have come earlier they would not have had such drastic treatment. Now these men have aged but their attitudes have not changed. In their minds they are disease-proof – that is until the Virus comes calling. They are the most vulnerable age group.

When we left, one of them muttered something that was obviously in the same literate genius sense of “What are ya?”, given the others guffawed. Sometimes the larrikin in the Australian persona is seductive; at other times, not so much.

My dining companion who is a well-known public health physician said to me afterwards that we should have told the proprietor to ask them to comply. We did not. That is our fault. It poses the dilemma of calling people out, especially the elderly who always know best (you know the guy who smokes heavily and boasts that he has never had a day off work in is life), when you only have the authority of your voice to make them comply.

Premier, you who presided over a government that gave us the Ruby Princess, should recognise that the situation occurring in Melbourne is only a cigarette paper thin barrier away from occurring in Sydney suburbs in NSW that have similar ethnic demographics where large family gatherings are the regular occurrences – let alone among the men who lunched next to us last Friday.

So may I respectfully suggest that you get your competent Health people to look at the potentially vulnerable local government areas and the level of compliance within each with the COVID-19 guidelines?

Mouse Whisper

Sometimes I come out of my mousehole, and there is this sleek lizard skink sunning himself in the morning rays. He cavorts around my mausmeister’s kitchen, and has done so for a long time.

My mausmeister decided then that he would call my industrious friend Dyson, because of his ability to vacuum – clean the floor of pesky insects.

However with the revelations in this week’s papers, it asked me why would any self-respecting lizard (and it emphasised the self-respecting) call himself Dyson?

He is petitioning to change his name to Hoover.

Dyson

Modest Expectations – Blood-nut Hollow

One side of my family, the Horwills, were wool combers from Devon. The industrial revolution came later to wool processing than for cotton, but by the mid 19th century, the technology had been ironed out and manual wool combing was surplus to need. Anyway, many of the family had already gone to sea, literally. There were hard times in that year; food shortages and the upheavals in Europe may have also played a part because in the mid 19th century the Horwills scattered across the New World – to America, Canada and Australia.

Another set of ancestors, the Egans, came out from Ireland about the same time. Their father had been a flour miller in Crossard, a small township in Co. Clare. They seem to have been tenant farmers. The potato famine changed their life and drove the whole family to Australia. My great-grand father went first to Kapunda on the Yorke Peninsula, where the first commercial mine to extract copper from a rich deposit happened earlier in the decade. Unsuccessful, he was attracted by the newly-found gold in Victoria and made a considerable fortune by providing timber for the mine shafts.

1848 was a time when the working classes and the nascent middle class rose up across Europe. It cannot be blamed on the industrial revolution but it was a time that the disparity between rich and poor was accentuated.

The revolution started in Sicily where the Bourbon King’s rule was challenged. There had been a savage cholera epidemic in Sicily and it seems that arbitrary arrests of a few people sparked riots in the streets of Palermo. As the rioters gained support even from the wealthy, it became a fully-fledged rebellion with the locals seizing power from the Bourbon king, who reigned from Naples.

The rebellion spread across Continental Europe and it followed a pattern of the revolutionaries seizing power and then having it taken away from them in violent conflict, with the old order in the end re-established. However revolution did not affect Great Britain, except that the Irish Question became an even greater problem with the failure of the potato crop in a country still reliant on agrarian subsistence.

The problem is that the dynasties were re-established, refurbished and restored. However, there was now an intellectual basis for the foment among the community against the ruling dynasties traditional right to power.

But after a major upheaval, whether it be famine, epidemic or war, nothing is the same. Communication and education opportunities then were improving – if unevenly. That was the nature of society: industrial progress, the urban growth, democratic advocacy, education and with improved literacy and numeracy in the working class, all were shifting unevenly.

America and the British colonies and places like Argentina had spurts of migration – no more so than America. Here in Australia it was the Celts – Irish, Scots and Welsh – looking for a better life. There were also people from the Prussian diaspora – Lutheran Germans and Wends. Jews were forced to flee Europe – universal scapegoats.

Descendents of the immigrants

The 1848 revolution was never a major source of our migration. It was the fascination with gold a few years later. The Chinese came and their immigration is entangled in these gold discoveries. It was just a coincidence that this was around 1848.

The gulf between rich and poor was growing and all 1848 had done was to seed in the enlightened of the day that industrialisation meant that workers would eventually want their share, and have a voice.

2020 is in the middle of another revolution, a communication revolution where, rather than Rothschild, Carnegie, Mellon Rockefeller, Astors of yore, it is now the Gates, Bezos, the Google Twins, Zuckerberg and the Jobs Legacy that command the riches.

Instead of workers obediently tipping their forelocks to the pageantry of the wealthy this generation is hooked into a technology that is increasingly manipulating the masses into not paying attention to this wealth and power disparity, with this communication revolution aiding and abetting this disparity.

That is until the Virus came calling.

Like the famine and the urban cesspool of exploitation, the disparity in wealth was allowed to progress until the First World War, despite some tentative gestures to improvement. That was a critical tipping point; the misnamed Spanish flu epidemic without cure, the Great Depression and then the Second World War were sequels. To trace the causal effects of each on each other is beyond the scope of one simple blog.

However, the rich now, through what their agents laughingly called government, have peddled globalisation and the free market as a means to erode the power of the people. To me that “power of the people” has always been shorthand for democracy. Rather than the information revolution devolving power to the people, the opposite has occurred and as the algorithms of control become more and more sophisticated then so will democracy become only a façade.

However, the Virus has provided an opportunity to change the system. The rage against “lockdown” confused with oppression is reflected in the race protests, people against police brutality and a superficial correction in toppling or defacing statues. But these acts are peripheral.

As post-1848 showed, the middle class eventually sided with the rich and their politician tools, frightened of the unknown and guessing they had less to lose. Outbursts were suppressed and bribes cloaked as “commitment” seduced the others. Whenever, the word “change agent” is used, it identifies the person who has made his or her life’s work to sit on committees and do nothing.

In the end, because they suffer from the same afflictions, politicians close ranks – ask them to reduce their remuneration and perks and that is the definition of the great god, Unanimity.

However, control is in the end vested in the masters of communication. Once it was the newspaper magnates, but they are being consigned to the irrelevant.

Those who want to maintain power do it through philanthropy, such as Bill Gates who is just following the game plan of the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, and in this country Ian Potter – but in a way that the means of amassment is well separated from the art of giving. Philanthropy is thus a powerful force – it is a form of tithe for ongoing respectability and to have a shelter in a metaphorical Nottingham Wood (to avoid the pun as you read on).

To quote the Guardian when discussing one Andrew Forrest: “This is not to say philanthropy has no real to play in a democracy. It does. But democracies cannot allow wealthy individuals and successful organisations to use philanthropy as a substitute for paying tax. That’s no longer democracy: it is oligarchy.”

Or plutocracy.

Thus the Virus gives society the opportunity to have a levelling influence on the elite. Given that the middle class is almost as afflicted as the poor, then the chance is a return to a democratic tradition, where government stops abrogating its role to care for the people.

This pandemic has made abundantly clear that investment in public health worldwide has been woeful. When governments start privatising water, as has been done, then this compounds the risk of food security, and a stagnant pool is then a cesspool. It is thus only a matter of time before waste disposal and sewage is privatised. All the gains which were made post-1848 when there was a modicum of enlightenment and there were enough statesmen to listen may be lost to a mass of politicians grubbing around for personal gain – the primordial rent seekers of today. In fact it is time to thin the rent seekers out – some are more cancerous than others, metastasising their cells all through the governing bodies.

Rocinante and his old boss

How do we bring more balance to a Post-viral World? Where government has shown leadership, the Virus has been suppressed, incarcerated if not eliminated. To maintain such a defence force against disease, then there must be consideration of government spending and thus it becomes a search for income. Since in the flurry of neoliberalism, governments have given away most of their assets, and decreased taxation, it is not easy. Tax reform can be portrayed as Rocinante tied to a post waiting for his new boss to appear. Governments of all sides have made those who genuinely believe in overall betterment quixotic.

Increasing taxation is an obvious solution whether by simplifying the tax and removing concessions, instituting a turnover tax, raising GST in a progressive way, abolishing the poll taxes which have resulted from privatisation, reintroduction of inheritance taxes, closing tax havens and generally establishing a means by which everybody pays their fair share, rather than sheltering behind the mumbo-jumbo of the “free market’’. There are plenty of options to achieve equity.

When the threat to wellbeing is greatest and where the politicians recognise their need for expert advice, this pandemic has provided a harsh lesson. Globalisation now has an altered definition.

Rather than revert to the failures of neo-liberalism, it is time for government intervention. Social housing is an immediate target – a worthy show of government’s role. It is hard to brush aside what government has done for the homeless during the pandemic, and as such reduced the burden on the street.

However, long term assistance for these poor does not fit in with aspirational greed – yet it is where there are poor housing and working conditions that the Virus will continue to flourish. As with all crises, the rich will flee to the country. Manhattan this summer has become more of a ghost town in the wealthy areas, but come winter it may be different – and ski resorts have been shown as one place the Virus strikes the rich.

Deserted Manhattan streets

It is a pity I will not live long enough to see what this post 2020 environment brings to a world, but at least when the world locked down this year – for oh so short a time – we could see the horizon. 

Remember Quemoy and Matsu

They are called Quemoy and Matsu. Quemoy is an island in the lee of the China mainland. Matsu is a group of islands to the north scattered across the South China Sea. They are administered from Taiwan and remain an oddity from the Chiang Kai-shek retreat to Taiwan after his defeat by the Communist forces in 1949. When they are discussed they are always mentioned in the same breath. However they are very separated but not more so than from Taiwan.

Matsu

The Nationalist forces were able to repel the Communist forces when they tried to invade Quemoy in 1949. Yet given that Quemoy is just six kilometres from the mainland and yet 280 kilometres across the Strait to Taiwan, it is remarkable that China has not just absorbed it and the Matsu archipelago. They are just the kind of islands that the Chinese want to convert into bases. China seems to prefer to annoy other countries by taking over disputed rocks in the South China Seas and building military bases.

Yet in the 1950s Quemoy and Matsu were flashpoints in the conflict between the Americans and the Chinese, where the remnant Chiang Kai-shek “China” forces lodged on the island of Formosa.

There were two critical periods, and in one of the years when the two Chinas were not fighting – bombarding the islands and having aerial dogfights over the South China Sea, I was on a ship. The United States imposed a blockade on Chinese Ports. For any shipping in the South China Sea it was a tense situation for those who ventured there, in our case in a cargo ship called the S.S. Taiping. It was a ship of about 4,000 tonnes, transporting mainly wheat and wool, but also catering for a number of passengers. My recently widowered father was the ship’s doctor (and I was lodged in the second wireless officer cabin).

Thus the ship had to thread its way across the South China Sea to Hong Kong. One morning when I had just come up on deck I heard this screaming noise, which came with a rush, and suddenly there they were two American Star fighters swooping low just above the funnel and then as quickly disappearing as specks into the clouds. Now we were ready to watch if they came again, which they did. I could imagine that these planes had positioned themselves for a strafing run. They were over the ship and then were gone – hardly enough time to disturb those taking breakfast below.

S.S. Taiping

However, the noise of the planes – an ear-blistering scream – gave me a feeling of exhilaration. To my father and the chief officer, both of whom had experienced Japanese strafing and bombing, just shrugged their shoulders. However, it brought home to me the fact that we living in perilous times in a perilous sea.

Yet despite the posturing Taiwan seems safer now than it was when China was considerably weaker as it was in 1956. Quemoy and Matsu seemed to have dropped out of the lexicon of threats. I think that the Chinese government know the Taiwanese today are not the same force it considered invading 70 years ago. Nevertheless the rhetoric remains. It always does.

The Taiwanese have a very substantial military force of 165,000 active soldiers with another 1.2 million in reserve, compared to Australia with a similar population of 30,000 active soldiers with 13,000 in reserve. When I went there I thought their approach was very much like that of the Israelis. Survival had moved to consolidation and having a big stick helps – and the nation is not in the mood to relinquish any hard-earned gains.

The other reason I believe China would be loath to invade is for fear that the fine collection of artefacts dating back to Neolithic times now housed in the National Palace Museum could be destroyed. The Chinese have never forgotten the looting that occurred in 1860 when the Anglo-French forces entered Beijing and burnt the Summer Palaces. Many of the looted treasures ended up in France and the United Kingdom, but a substantial collection remains in Taiwan. The Chinese government would not want this Taiwan collection destroyed, even though it was stolen by Chiang Kai-shek at the time he fled the Mainland.

I was told the collection was so large that those items on display could be totally replaced for seven years before there would be any need to repeat the items on display. Some of these items are said to be among the finest Chinese artefacts and heritage is a very important consideration. Can China invade without damaging the collection? It answers its own question – no.

However, why do it? To have a war over an island to expunge some hubric stain begs that very question. Nevertheless, there are no bounds to laundering one’s own hubris if the gale is blowing in the right direction, whatever that direction is considered to be.

Picnic on Quemoy

In any case, I understand now that tourists can come across from the Mainland to picnic on Quemoy among the visitors from Taiwan. But then perhaps that is bad optics – ordinary people mingling.

There is a lesson for Australia in the Taiwan approach. While I was initially sceptical of their COVID-19 numbers, when you remember the discipline into which Taiwan has had to accustom itself to assure its survival, it is unsurprising that it should early on recognise a foreign invader, even if they cannot see it except under a microscope. 

Dreamer, sleep deep | Toiler, sleep long | Fighter, be rested now | Commander, sweet goodnight 

After my father died, my stepmother with these words headed her replies to those who had sent letters to her expressing sympathy and many reflecting on my father’s legacy. I found this reference in my personal file, and remembered that the words were the final ones of Carl Sandberg’s poem on the death of President Roosevelt.

It prompted me to purchase a copy of Sandberg’s complete works, and his elegiac words from “When Death Came April Twelve 1945”:

and there will be roses and spring blossoms

flung on the moving oblong box, emblems endless

flung from nearby, from faraway earth corners,

from frontline tanks nearing Berlin

unseen flowers of regard to the Commander,

from battle stations in the South Pacific

silent tokens saluting The Commander

Such is the contrast so clearly set out in the poem with Trump to perceive how far leadership has slipped in the United States. Would the passing of the current incumbent evoke such a response?

Yet Roosevelt presided over a country where segregation of black people and denial of civil rights was the order of the day in the then Democrat voting South – a country where in 1938 the Ku Klux Klan rallied in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Yet a year later, because of the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, before 75,000 people Marion Anderson, the great American contralto sang at the Lincoln Memorial, a performance that is said to have inspired the young Martin Luther King to enter the struggle for real emancipation, a conflict still being played out on the streets of the American City.

For my part, I now have this copy of Carl Sandberg’s poems on my desk. Every morning I read a poem. His love of country is so evident that I realise how much I love my own country and how inadequate I am in expressing this love compared to Sandberg’s of America.

I am saddened by those who want to deface statues, which was the way of previous generations to honour mostly men of their time.

James Cook was not perfect; he trod the line between assertion and aggression. Discipline and loyalty yet are essential attributes when you are sailing in the unknown. Choice is not a discussion on the niceties of democracy when choice is between survival and death.

Graffiti is one vehicle of the ignorant. Cook does not deserve that. His images don’t deserve that. Before these furbo children of the millennium pick up their spray cans again, they should think: will you ever have the same level of curiosity, bravery and endeavour that that Yorkshire explorer had, rather than being the furtive snigger of the dark night coward wielding spray cans?

The Man from Blood-nut Hollow

I met Reg Hickey when I tutored his daughter in biochemistry. She was studying to be a health professional. The details are foggy, but I know it was not nursing. It was the year I had a job in Geelong at the Hospital, and I got on well with Reg. He was the closest to beatification in that city at the time, which also was known as Blood-nut Hollow because of Hickey having a propensity to recruit red-headed players.

Reg Hickey had coached Geelong at Australian Rules for three periods beginning in 1932 until he finally retired in 1959. I remembered him well because he coached Geelong the year they beat my team, Essendon in 1951 – a surprise victory. This victory was one of three premierships Hickey won with Geelong.

Reg then was very influential in the world of football. He secured two tickets for the 1965 Grand Final when Essendon played St Kilda. My then wife was an exquisite blonde, a doctor who had come to Australia as a refugee with her sister and parents. Born in what is now Slovenia, she could be a somewhat fiery individual.

We were shown to our seats. They were very good seats, given there were 104,000 other people at the Melbourne Cricket ground that day. The seats were three rows back from the fence.

On this occasion, I had not realised that her passion extended to the football field. At one point, the play came very close to us. There was a scuffle. One involved in this altercation was Carl Ditterich, a very tall burly St Kilda ruckman who had made a sensational debut two seasons before when he 18, With his shock of blond hair and youthful enthusiasm, you could not miss him in any crowd.

Well, my then wife did that day. Ditterich who was increasingly known for translating that enthusiasm in aggression was roughing up Essendon player Ted Fordham just in front of us. Enraged at this bullying of a smaller player, she stood up and flung an open can of “Palato”, a fizzy orange cordial drink, in Ditterich’s direction.

Palato went everywhere, but we were sitting among Essendon fans who, despite being splattered with the orange drink in accordance with Newton’s Third law of Motion, gave her a big cheer. She sat down regally as ever without acknowledging the applause. The can missed Ditterich. I cannot recall whether I wanted to stay or flee. But nothing happened. No retribution – we did not have men labelled Security in those days and police only appeared near the game to stop the crowds running onto the field of play.

Essendon went on to win the game. Fordham kicked seven goals and was named Man of the Match. I don’t know whether Carl had much of a match – how could you with visions of that young avenging doctor in the third row of the Southern Stand!

As for Mr Hickey, my life was better for knowing him, however briefly, as I moved back to Melbourne the next year.

Mouse whisper

Mice are used to long winding passages but there is always a nest in among the passages where I can always watch Nestflix.

However, I was enjoying one of G.K Chesterton’s short stories, a bit dry but still meaty, when I came across this quote:

What we all dread most,” said the priest in a low voice, “is a maze with no centre.

The priest was Father Brown. The story was The Head of Caesar.

I chewed on it for a moment. I thought how relevant the quote is today in the world outside my mouse hole.

Modest Expectations – Paul Egan

I was reading Rupert Brooke’s Letters from America, which he wrote about his 1913 journey, but which wasn’t published until 1916 with a foreword by Henry James – apparently his last piece of writing. Brooke had died in 1915 in Greece, and is known for his romantic view of dying for one’s country.

The flag of German-occupied Samoa

The book is a set of well-written notes about Brooke’s 1913 travels which, despite the title, included a visit to Samoa, then under the German flag. Brooke is very sympathetic to the German rule saying it was better than that of British rule in Fiji. Nevertheless, a Samoan princess did not agree with this assessment. Climbing the flagpole she removed the German flag and, having torn it into pieces, danced on the remnants. Brooke does not report any retribution.

He describes Samoa as Heaven and although it was ruled for a time by a tripartite administration of Germany, United Kingdom and USA, in 1900 the western islands were ceded to Germany while the Americans kept the islands east of the 171st degree meridian. This latter information was not gleaned from Brooke’s writing, but his book did draw my attention to the fact that New Zealand invaded Samoa at the outbreak of war, rounding up the 50 or so Germans and native auxiliaries. New Zealand did not let go of its conquest until 1962. The League of Nations bequeathed it as a territory and other post-war finagling ensured the long time to independence.

Rupert Brooke’s account was certainly not first hand of the invasion but it is a wonder nobody has made a film of the story – with Sam Neil at the head of the expeditionary force wandering the Pacific before mounting the invasion. The Germans had a couple of large ships in the area but they were told by Berlin not to attack. A film would suit Neil’s wry humour.

Anyway Brooke wrote the following: “They must have landed at noon, I see. How hot they got. I know that Apia noon! Didn’t they rush to The Tivoli bar – but I forget, New Zealanders are teetotallers. So, perhaps, the Samoans gave them the coolest of all drinks, kava; and they scored. At what dances in their honour, that night! – but, again, I’m afraid the houla-houla would shock a New Zealander. I suppose they left a garrison, and went away. I can very vividly see them steaming out in the evening; and the crowd onshore would be singing them that sweetest and best-known of South Sea songs, which begins ‘Goodbye, my Flenni’ (Friend, you’d pronounce it), and goes on in Samoan, a very beautiful tongue. I hope they rule Samoa well.”

New Zealand Troops in Samoa NZ Archives*

Overlooking this invasion was Tusitala, the great bard of the South Seas, also known as Robert Louis Stevenson, who now lies atop Mount Vaea in Apia. I still shake my head at the thought of the Kiwis invading Samoa.

This is a Knife

That is the famous line uttered by Crocodile Dundee when threatened not by a white, but a big black man – dinkum white Aussie threatened by a stereotype. We whitefellas felt comfortable; great sight joke and the sub-title – a smart Aussie will always outwit the dopey Yank.

This is a knife …

Last week newly-minted young white constable faces a taller black teenager in Sydney, who is alleged to have said that he will break the constable’s jaw, “bro”. The young man in the hoodie knows his street talk! The young constable, instead of inviting the young alleged thug to have a cup of coffee to discus the immense psychological pressure the young man was experiencing, moves across, turns him around and trips him – one might think that reasonable if someone says he is going to break your jaw.

He did not: (a) draw a baton, (b) use tear gas, pepper or mace, (c) use a taser or stun grenade, or (d) shoot him.

That is the problem I have with police forces. They are clothed in ominous dark uniforms and dehumanising headgear with all the armaments of the military. Yet the police force is not meant to be a killing force. The more the toys of destruction are supplied to an increasingly poorly-adjusted police force, then working as an agent for Trumpian cancer metastasising across America, then who is going to halt their spread?

The solution to violence is not providing more weapons – the reverse should be true. A police force should be more concerned with each police officer being given the confidence to settle disputes with the minimum of violence. For instance, at this time of pandemic widespread use of agents designed to compromise the cardio-respiratory system such as the irritant sprays should be banned. The problem is that politicians wring their hands over domestic violence, send mixed messages when violence is rife in the community. Politicians yield to the slightest demand of police associations, where the megaphone is the loudest.

There is ambivalence when police are involved.

At the outset of the piece, I related the instance of a young policeman threatened with violence. He tackled the young aggressor, one on one – it was not a gang tackle. He was responding as he was trained to do in a potentially violent situation.

Contrast it with the images of multiple law enforcement officials, be they men or women, tackling the one individual. The sight sickens me. I am sure that there is almost always provocation and prisons, for example, are dehumanising violent environments. Drugs are dehumanising.

However, the wolf pack response is descent to the same primitive level. Just look at the all-white police officers at Central station last Saturday let off the leash, the officer in braid visible behind – not trying to restrain his men with their eyes full of hate. Not trying to lead! Not trying to maintain his police force in social distancing. Except for himself, the senior officer “looking good in a uniform”, as they say, is pictured generously social distancing himself from the fray – leading from behind.

Yet one episode after another of alleged police brutality tumbles through the media. I can never forget the images of Ron Levi, an unfortunate man having a psychotic episode in the surf at Bondi who was shot four times by two drug dealers who at the time happened to be members of the NSW police force. Shooting someone, even one carrying a knife, when presumably every policemen is taught how to disarm with the minimum of violence, destroys community confidence, shakes one’s confidence. No charges were laid against these men, despite this young guy being murdered in full sight.

Instead of questioning whether police are competent to have the paraphernalia of aptly named “assault weapons”, why doesn’t the debate start about when the distribution of weaponry should be curtailed?

Death in custody is like domestic violence; it has circled in earnest discussion ever since I can remember. The number of Aboriginals in custody has not reduced. Violence has been endemic in Aboriginal communities; to say it is not is to deny reality, irrespective of whether it is fuelled by alcohol or other drugs.

Yet there is an increasingly articulate group of Aboriginals – lawyers, public servants, Parliamentarians. The grievance rightly exists; obviously the solutions are not there for change despite the increasing number of these Aboriginal advocates. How many years are needed for you articulate people to effect change, not just to leave it someone else; not just to complain – blaming government is a way of doing nothing.

One of the advantages of modern society is that everything is recorded; just as that young constable’s action was. Instead of saying that he had had a bad day, the police commissioner should tell us what he would have done; probably nothing different. A bruised ego for an aggressive youth; but what does the young constable learn? Just exhorted not “to have a bad day” again?

Meanwhile the weaponry lobby rolls along, getting its inspiration from the brutal obscenity that masquerades as policing in the United States. Democracy dies when the police force, shorn of accountability, becomes the means of its destruction not its defence. The more weaponry a police force has the more it is likely that you or I will become the next Ronny Levi.

As they said when they came back from Bondi after killing Levi,

“That was a knife!” And the man with the braided cap responded: “We have just the carpet under which you can put the knife, and we won’t tell anybody. Probably need to replace the carpet – we burn them after five years. They become too stained.”

The Third Pole

I had not thought of the Tibetan Plateau as the Third Pole. Joel Berger’s book “Extreme Conservation” with its subtitle about “Life at the edges of the World”, in which he describes his extraordinary life, draws attention to the Third Pole. By and large, his experiences are in the snowbound parts of the planet in the depths of winter.

The Third Pole

The author has spent a considerable part of his working life trying to assess the state of endangered species, including the musk ox. The musk ox is an extraordinary animal able to survive the harshest of winters; it was hunted to extinction in Alaska, but revitalised by the re-introduction of animals there from Greenland.

Musk ox

There is a musk ox farm just north of Anchorage in a place called Palmer, on the way to Mount Denali. Incredible was my response when I first saw a live musk ox – sturdy and solid with a skirt of hair reaching its feet and with horns Berger describes as “piercing armaments”. Their closest relative is the wild yak that lives high in the Tibetan plateau, itself a different beast from the domesticated yak – and considerably bigger than the musk ox.

The musk ox is beautifully adapted having spiralling nasal turbinates so that freezing air has been warmed sufficiently by the time it reaches the lungs so they don’t become snap frozen. I have adopted two of the calves, which has maintained my status as a herd associate and bought a scarf made from the combed wool. It is woven into an extraordinary light fabric, called qiviut, which is remarkably warm and as long as you like a brown scarf, everyone should travel with one in a cold climate.

Wild yak – very difficult to tag

However, this interest in the musk ox is a prologue to the matter of the Tibetan plateau where the wild yak roams, admittedly in decreasing numbers. The problem is in the assessment of numbers, it is important to tag a beast – and wild yaks are very difficult to tag. This is the Berger expertise – tagging and tracking – and being heroically mad and brave.

However, that was the task facing the author where wild yaks are seen nearing 6,000 metres above the plateau. The Tibetan Plateau occupies an area of around 1,000 by 2,500 kilometres, at an average elevation of over 4,500 metres.

As Berger says, this plateau is the “water tower” of Asia. All the major rivers of south-east Asia – the Indus, the Mekong, the Brahmaputra, the Kangali, a major tributary of the Ganges, as well as the Yellow and Yangtze rivers all rise on the Tibetan plateau. Even Burma’s major Irrawaddy River is not immune from the effect of the Tibetan plateau.

Berger describes camping in the shadow of the Bukubada glacier, “a massive vault covering 170 square miles” (44,000 hectares) is vital to be preserved, monitoe. He describes other glaciers – the Yuxu and Yuzhu with the giant Muztag Ata glacier, located on the far western margin of China and east of the Pamirs Plateau, at a summit elevation of 7,546 m. So much water locked up and yet climate change has reached the plateau. Berger observes in the ice, the vegetation, the movements to higher ground of the indigenous wildlife, so many of which through indiscriminate slaughter are going the way of the bison on the North American prairie.

Belatedly the Chinese have recognised this, but as with so many authoritarian regimes they believe they can beat Nature into submission. Because we humans all live close to sea level, few give much thought to the dams being built on the Tibetan plateau. Thus this plateau, which provides Asia with much of its river water, is too precious to be left to one country with its selective concern about the World Order.

With climate warming and the glacial water storage thinning on the Plateau, water becomes scarce and this process will not be accelerated by the Chinese – given their form, who is not to say that they will divert most, if not all, of the water into their own river system. The planet despoilers are hard at it, and without any real checks and balances. The Mekong is particularly at risk, as Cambodia found out in the last dry season.

The world knows the Amazon is at risk – but so is the Tibetan Plateau. The problem with Tibet is clear.

However, in the minds of the West, Tibet is the Dalai Lama, once a hero but now increasingly shunned, soon to be a footnote in history. The successor will be appointed by a supervised Chinese process; Tibetans lose the links to their last traditional living god chosen by traditional mumbo jumbo.

What has to be avoided is to miss the importance of Tibet. Joel Berger gives us an intimate glimpse of what we will miss once the short term imperative of`progress ends up with the Tibetan Plateau a ruined wasteland deprived of wild life and water.

It’s somewhat ironic that the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, is reported to have cited the following Chinese proverb in a recent speech: “The ceaseless inflow of rivers makes the oceans deep.”

The problem is there is red ink seeping across the map of the world and it is not British.

If the world were brave enough it would face down China over the Tibetan Plateau – it should have the same status as Antarctica. Look, my grandchildren’s generation (and onwards). Witness the World at War over water, and remember your parents and grandparents should have read what Berger has written, taken heed, stopped wringing their hands over the Tibetan Plateau and acted. But don’t worry – there is not any moisture left on your hands. It all left with your ancestors.

Christ stopped on his way to Wilmington Station

Biden is a dud. His advocacy of the appointment of one, if not the biggest, dud on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, shows that one dud knows another. At the Senate confirmation hearings in 1991, it was Biden who pilloried Anita Hall. She had accused Thomas of sexual harassment. Biden denied her the chance to present corroborative evidence. Then he came crawling back after 28 years after the Brett Kavanaugh disgrace, trying to apologise to Professor Hall – he received no dice.

This senator from Delaware, with his own problems in this area, has so many strikes against his name – and his gaffes are continuing although he has barely been out of his home for the past three months. Whether this means these gaffes are the first signs of mental decline, only his closest medical advisers know. If there is any indication of cognitive decline, he should just immediately withdraw, full stop.

I have mentioned that he looks old, covered up by a sunbeam smile, but even if he goes forward, he must resist a Sandra Palin, whether male or female, of the left. Palin helped do John McCain in. McCain was seemingly more astute than Biden and only a “chicken” – 71 at the time. If the Democrats nominate this aged “rooster”, they have to make sure that perception of his inherent weakness is not further compromised by a Vice-Presidential nominee who is already campaigning for the White House succession. It is not hard to do the numbers on Biden’s age.

So the Democrats nominate a younger active assertive person with the “smarts”, who only serves to accentuate Biden’s weakness. On the other side Trump needs a tough image now that people are beginning to laugh at him – now, after the stories of him huddling in the White House bunker and then walking behind his Praetorian Guard as they gassed the innocents. Sound familiar?

Trump recognises this need for “toughness” and in this context having a pliant poodle as a Vice-President gives him that air – at least to his fan base.

The wrestle for the Presidency

Trump is also well versed in the theatre of professional wrestling, where there is the Bad Guy against the Good Guy. Just simplify the rhetoric and make Biden look weak and confused. Violence. Pile into him; mock his weakness; back-slam him; put him in a headlock – a crusher hold perhaps. Let’s turn Presidential debates into “Ringside with the Wrestlers”.

Trump has little else left. He is the Bad Guy with the devoted fan base. The Biden insipidity gives him a chance.

Thus Biden may be caught between two “shouty” forces, which continually emphasise his inherent weakness.

Is the electorate going to be won over in November? Think carefully, you Democrats, don’t become real donkeys. 

Mouse Reflection

I decided the pool was deep enough to reflect a mouse whispering.

In the Feb 28 blog, my mausmeister under the heading: “The Price of Never Being Wrong”, wrote the following, which has been reproduced abridged…

The problem with epidemics is they thrive on ignorant national leaders, who have no idea of public health, suppressing inconvenient information. This increasing government secrecy is coupled with the modern version of the courtier castrati, people without ideas but with perfumed phrases whispering into the ear of national leaders who have lost the ability to apologise.

… I once wrote a small monograph entitled “The Dilemma of the Public Health Physician” in which I attempted, as I said, “to help public health physicians to work through the situation which confronts many professionals when they are in possession of information which others perceive as ‘sensitive’ or valuable in any respect.” 

… I went on to argue that all public health information should be freely available. Even over 20 years ago I wrote; “there is an increasing tendency for the political walls to be daubed with the graffiti of misinformation”.

On reflection am I just succumbing to daubing those political walls? Well, that is the point – public health expertise is being allowed not only to languish but also ignored as an inconvenience. But as many politicians have found out in the past, “wishing an inconvenience would go away” is not a solution.

Having said that it seems we are fortunate in Australia not only to have the calming influence of Brendan Murphy, but also his unheralded deputy Paul Kelly who, unlike his boss, is a public health physician. Their influence on the government where there is a high level of ignorance is, and will continue to be, important…

On the same day in February 2020, the Australia Health Protection Principal Committee (why do the Government give committees such indigestible titles) published one of its reports, an excerpt of which is printed below. This Committee is chaired by the Chief Health Officer, Brendan Murphy and has as its membership all his counterparts in the States.

… More than 60 per cent reduction in travellers and no cases detected in more than 30,000 Australians returning from mainland China since 1 February 2020. This has been assisted by travel restrictions imposed by China. In addition, a significant number of students from China have spent 14 or more days in third countries and have arrived in Australia to commence or continue their studies, again with no cases detected in this group. The only new COVID-19 detections in Australia in the last two weeks are eight cases in Australian passengers repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. There remains no evidence of community transmission in Australia, with thousands of negative tests for COVID-19 in the last week alone.

Much can happen in four months, and in the end as my mausmeister prophesised, they got it right, despite the Committee’s crystal ball being somewhat clouded at the end of February.

 

 

*By Archives New Zealand from New Zealand – New Zealand troops in Samoa, c.1914-15, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51248178

Modest expectations – On viewing a Gun Carriage November 1963

A weeping blackness

But           

Refusal to enshroud

A memory

In a haze

         Of

What you were to do

                           Yet what would you be

                                             As man

                                                      Of seventy-two

                                             You when the flames of youth

                                                      Have died

                                             How promising can a man

                                                      Of seventy-two

                                                               Superannuated

                                             With a watch

                                                      A gold watch

                                             A great gold watch which ticks

                                             And tells that time is time

Who grieves

         For your greatness

         For your back

         Which now relieved

         Stands straight

For mourners lift

         Their candles high

For who knows you

         Who knows

The emptiness of the tomb

For who but you

         Can deride

The greatness that might have been

         For you – at seventy-two

 

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was 46 years old when he was assassinated. He would have been 103 this year.

It was my tribute, the tribute of 24 year old about to graduate as a doctor, still raw; still disbelieving that this man who could have inspired our generation was dead – assassinated. My first reaction was that it was some mad right-wing Southern racist.

Kennedy was a courageous thoughtful man inured to disability. However, there he was – distant but resonant to the young idealist. Staring down the Russians, learning from the ill-advised Bay of Pigs, and probably about to dump the Texan anachronism from the Vice-President position for someone who would face not only the massive change in American society but understand the nuances of post-colonial Asia.

How he would have handled the Vietnam conflict would have been instructive, because the cancerous growth of American exceptionalism – as culminating in this present Trumpian farce – may never have happened.

How different a time it was when Kennedy recommended appointments to the Supreme Court based on talent not ideology – both swiftly ratified. One was Abe Goldberg, the eminent jurist with his opposition to capital punishment that led to its long moratorium in America; the other was Byron White who, despite his strong Democratic party links, became the “swing” vote until his retirement in 1993. Funny how good sense and rational thought have flown away from Pennsylvania Avenue.

Strange when I re-read this poem after many years, that I picked the age of 72. Trump is 74 this week. Only time is ticking for him. 

The “Free-City State” of Hong Kong

Nowhere is that sense of selective self-righteousness more apparent than the extreme sensitivity in Beijing towards Australia’s criticism of China’s behaviour in the South China Sea. There is strong public support for the official view that China’s claim to historic territorial rights is totally justified, along with indignation that this could be even questioned.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s statement about the need to respect the ruling of the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague last July as binding and final is regarded as particularly egregious.

Jennifer Hewett was travelling in China this month as a guest of the Chinese government.

I note that it is the same Jennifer Hewett who wrote that piece in October 2016 who referred last Friday in the Australian Financial Review to the people’s republic of Victoria.

This sly comment in an otherwise unremarkable piece of journalism stood out, because amid reasoned argument there was no justification for the statement.

“The people’s republic of Victoria” is just the same as a label of “Junket journalism” pinned to a journalist called Jennifer when discussing her guest experience in China at their expense.

After all, the paper she writes for has been prepared to the take Chinese Government money for China Watch – a propaganda instrument of that Government. Nevertheless, some of the articles are interesting when stripped of their cocô de touro covering.

Hong Kong is due to be returned to China in 2047. The Chinese Government has accelerated the process. The Chinese government doles out the rope so that the dissidents can protest for a time. Once the government has had time to assure itself that it has identified all the ringleaders, then it will move in, and use its overwhelming force to quell the dissent. At the same time, the ringleaders will be targeted so that unlike Mao, these dissidents cannot set up a guerrilla force.

The dissidents have done a very good job up to this point in harassment, but a guerrilla movement needs strong leadership to resist the inevitable imprisonment.

The aim now of the Chinese government is to arrest all of them with or without murdering some of them. Once imprisoned, then choose the instrument of torture.

In the face of this, the options for the dissidents are: be a political penitent; melt into the background; leave Hong Kong or fight on to an irrelevant death or remembered martyrdom. After all, Tiananmen Square provides the blueprint.

First, the Chinese Government clears the streets of the dissidents. There will be little forewarning before the invasion. Big business can pull down the shades and high up in their skyscrapers the noise of rioters being killed can be drowned by Vivaldi being piped through the system.

Horse racing can still proceed so we Australians can be reassured that nothing untoward has happened. You can still see Hong Kong on the TV racing channel.

However I shall concentrate on those images of empty streets bristling with of the People’s Armed Forces on street corners – men who do not speak the local Cantonese. It is the Hong Kong oxymoron for all those foreign journalists to digest searching for a catchy 32-second “grab”; an empty street full of men with guns and tear gas and heavy metal.

It is a small step for the legislature to meet in secret, not in accord with the agreement with the British – no negative votes now.

The transition is complete. The dissidents are somewhere in China, far from our eyes. The Hong Kong legislature now reborn becomes a sheet of red with applauding figurines

With time everybody in Hong Kong is encouraged to develop a convenient amnesia to what has gone on. The dissidents never existed. Business as usual nods in agreement. Eyes are averted not to see evidence of more People’s Armed Forces on street corners – men who do not speak the local Cantonese.

All the trappings of the legislative process agreed with the British may be maintained with Carrie Lam, but she will pass and eventually the fiction will fade away – and Hong Kong will now be “One China – One System”.

The Chinese Government seems to have a tricky decision about maintaining a Hong Kong with an open trade policy, but now under a Chinese rule of law. Given the mainland experience of an increasingly intrusive government, a Hong Kong shorn of the pretence of democracy has to reassure Europeans that the remnants of colonialism do provide a safe enclave for business. If the judicial system completely loses its independence, then business only belongs to the Chinese government and its concessional treatment of us Guizi.

Anyway, as one reliable source said, China always takes a long view and there is already a visible transition of importance from Hong Kong to Shanghai.

Given how the Chinese Government is playing Australia on a break, what is our attitude to all the potential Hong Kong refugees; and do you not think that the Chinese will test Australia out further in the Government’s nascent “White Australia” policy?

This whole business is complicated by the 350,000 Hong Kongers who have British Overseas National passports. These allow for one year’s access without the need for a visa; more ominously another 2.5 million are eligible but have let their passports lapse. Given how immigration-averse Boris’ government is, one can rest assure that the Brits will start putting pressure on both us and Canada to share the “pain”.

You know old boy, the Commonwealth and all that. Watch this space.

However, clinging to Mike and Donald may not be the best solution either. Perhaps we should adopt a modified Belt and Braces policy, making sure we do not rely totally on China – but something has to hold our trousers up. At present it is a lovely rusted ferric belt.

Maybe a more self-reliant by ourselves with a little help from who?

It is time for some lateral thinking, because the name
“China” keeps popping up as the answer.

After all, due to the strength of our public health response Australia has a comparative health advantage over those countries that have not recognised that the Virus breeds and feeds on Chaos.

Turning this public health advantage into an economic advantage is not helped if Australia prioritises frippery, turning this country into a circus fuelled by a shallow media and even shallower politicians.

As for Hong Kong, remember 100 years ago there was another city-state dependent on Great Britain for control over its foreign relations. This state lasted, until its invasion by Germany in 1939, for nearly 20 years – the Free City of Danzig.

Does anybody remember Danzig now?

In the meantime, what will Jennifer say?

Muscular Judaism

Some years ago when Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) was a new modality I had been able, despite some government opposition, to facilitate its use attracting a Medicare benefit for the patient, I received a phone call from some guy who said he represented an Israeli technology firm. He was interested in selling MRI equipment, and he mentioned that his firm was interested in the low Tesla end of the MRI equipment spectrum. However, he wondered whether he could meet me when I was in Melbourne.

I agreed and was somewhat surprised by the address as it was essentially a residential suburb where I once owned a property.

Nevertheless the address where we were to meet was in North Fitzroy. As I anticipated, I arrived at a rather nondescript brick villa. One of the first things I noted was that all the windows were barred and the blinds were drawn. As I walked up to the front door, the light above the door winked at me.

I remember being ushered into a tiled floor entrance where a small flight of stairs led to an open living area, where three other men were lounging around. My hosts were all of medium height, with cropped hair, and what struck me was how supremely fit they appeared. They were all dressed in expensive casual attire but despite the seeming relaxed informality, the atmosphere in the room was far from that.

I remember being introduced, but names meant nothing and probably when I thought about it later, the names were likely manufactured. The only item in the room that sticks in my memory was a model of an El Al airliner, but the room had comfortable chairs where I was invited to sit, and offered coffee or tea. I chose coffee. It was instant. I hate instant.

The problem was that suddenly I did not know why I was here. Everybody spoke perfect yet accented English. The discussion started about the MRI technology and the fact that in this area Israel had developed a great number of interesting products. However, the discussion increasingly became general.

I felt trapped – there was an unspoken menace in the air. It was obvious that the MRI was the bait. All of them were very courteous and amiable. I really did not know what this encounter was about. I generally tend to deviate from the script and play with words in meetings. Not this morning – I have never stuck more carefully to the “script” and measured my replies than I did during that hour. I had never felt under such scrutiny – random seemingly innocuous questions kept coming in this seemingly friendly fashion from each of them. Their seating meant that I had to shift round to answer; I was not always facing in the same direction because of the way they had dispersed themselves.

I still had no idea what this was all about. They were searching me for some information, but what? At the end of our hour, they all got up and said how good it had been to meet me, and they would be touch.

When I was outside, I had this immense sense of relief.

I did not look back. I never tried to find the house again. Presumably they got what they wanted or thought that they had wasted an hour, because I never heard from them again. Laughingly, I related that I had had morning coffee with Mossad. Nobody smiled.

Some years later, I did go to Jerusalem when Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister. It was a time that one could jump into a taxi in Jerusalem and ten minutes later you were in Bethlehem in Palestine. I am glad I went there at that time, but I did not meet up with anyone who resembled the guys whom I had met in Melbourne. I ventured a question to the Conference Israeli organiser, who was a veteran of the Six Day War. He smiled, patted my arm and changed the subject.

Life with Brian 

When I left the Australian Medical Association one of the presents that I was given was a small olive tree in a pot. In honour of a surgeon with a strong link as I had with the Quality Assurance “industry”, I named the tree “Brian”.

The tree was potted and languished outside our office for a number of years making very slow progress.

Then when we moved into a new house, the olive tree followed in its wooden stave barrel. However, it still was stunted and had never produced an olive in five years.

Then one day, a delivery van took out the crepe myrtle tree in front of the house. Crepe myrtles are a favoured street tree in inner Sydney. The colour of their flowers are bright and various.

This incident left a hole in the footpath, the house brick wall exposed, and as the house is located on a poorly cambered corner of inner city asphalt which purports to be a road, the wall was vulnerable to a car running into it. At least the trees provided a barrier for the house.

Early one morning, a car ploughed into the wall, and left a Volkswagen car badge as a calling card. The car had reversed from the rubble and was disappearing around the corner by the time we had come down the stairs. Later “mummy” brought her son around to apologise and to offer to pay for the repair of the wall. We accepted the offer, and the wall was duly rebuilt.

Perhaps we reasoned if we planted the olive tree in the street it would provide some protection. It was a sturdy young tree. We planted the tree in the verge outside the front gate with no real expectations. However, released from the confines of the pot, it started to grow – and did it grow.

Over the next few years, it grew until one spring, there appeared the tiny yellow blossom foreshadowing an autumn olive harvest. The amount of olives varied but in a good years there were seven to ten kilograms. The first time we seriously picked olives, the recipe was just too tedious with the frequent changes in water and brine, and complicated by our being at home irregularly as we travelled around Australia and overseas.

So mostly we left others to come and pick them. Being away for considerable times even if we had intended to harvest them often we would come home and find the tree stripped bare. One year our regular taxi driver, John asked if he could harvest them. In return he presented us with a large bottle of olives, which tasted good and made us think again about our direct involvement.

Then there were a couple of lean years but during that time I had been to Cyprus and watched an aged nun in the courtyard of her retreat, splitting the olives and then placing them in brine. It seemed that with the additions of few sprigs of this and that and chunks of lemon that was it – so fiddling around changing the water was unnecessary.

Now in this year of the Virus, the harvest was bountiful. Locked down, she ventured out and returned with pails of green olives. Only the top most branches escaped because (a) she did not want to climb that high up a ladder and (b) for some reason the rake had gone missing.

However, there were more than enough and for those that are interested, the olive were split, stone retained and than placed in clean jars containing a ten per cent brine solution with white vinegar in a ratio of four to one. A couple of lemons were squeezed into each jar.

It is wise to use non-iodised salt, as olives are bitter enough without that bitterness being augmented by iodine. Put a slice of lemon on the top to keep the olives submerged and then a layer olive oil over the top to keep air out. Seal the bottle and wait. Six weeks later we opened the jar – and bingo. They were good, surprisingly – chewy but full of taste going well with the martini, described in an earlier blog.

Now, that we have entered the olive curing industry, and our olive tree is strong and healthy, as Brian too will be remembered, why not put a grove of olive trees down our street? Our local Council is supposed to be Green, and olive is only a shade of green. The local member of Parliament should be enthusiastic. Jamie Parker is a Green; he once was a purveyor of herbal remedies, one with the interesting title of horny goat weed.

Here is a chance to build on a life with Brian – he could initiate a Grove of Brians with our enthusiastic local member transformed into a Master Olivatore rather than just being remembered as a Faunus vendor, who accidently strayed into Macquarie street.

Mea Culpa

Let me admit to fallibility. Last week I was severely critical of the trial being proposed by the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research (WEHI) to give hydroxychloroquine to frontline health workers, I headed the piece with a quote from a recent Lancet article. It was purported to be an observational trial and its results fitted into my thesis – that the proposed WEHI COVID-19 trial would be ineffective, irrelevant and potentially dangerous.

I was influenced by one particular report of people in Manaus being treated for COVID-19 were given the drug and who died. Manaus had 2000 deaths in April from the virus and the numbers over all of Brazil have topped 30,000 despite their President advocating the use of hydroxychloroquine.

Yes – the Lancet article was neat; it played to my bias; I was blind; the Lancet! How could it be wrong? Surely the journal could not repeat the Wakefield fiasco of 1998, which launched this dangerous Wakefield on his anti-vaxing worldwide rampage.

Therefore, I am very sorry that I used the quote, but in apologizing for its use, I still believe in what I have written, rather than what I quoted. I hope the WEHI trial never takes place, and for all of my above reasons. However, I would still be curious to see the protocol and the ethics committee report of this study.

Mouse Whisper

I have always abhorred this tendency when people are are unsure of the colour to say “bluish” or “yellowish” or size “shortish”.

Therefore I applaud my relative Bmac in refusing to use the word “hamish”.

Now as BMac would know, hame is a two curved wooden padded harness, that forms a collar around the neck of a draft animal. In fact, hame is a yoke – a big yoke. This has to be taken seriously and not referred to as “hamish’’ – a bit of a yoke.

Therefore I applaud you again, BMac, for your deletion of “ish” in all your conversation; as long as you don’t advocate “f with chips” followed a “d of banana fritters.”

A hame in good use