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

Modest Expectations – Barry Marshall & Obey

Pauline has parked her grandstand in the News Ltd car park, where she is advocating a High Court challenge to border closure. This is a normal Pauline stunt, unsurprising given that the Queensland elections are imminent -and there is nothing like a confected confrontation magnified by that shrill tone of hers.

One concession you have to give to this lady, she plays “victim” very well. One of the ploys when I used to be an official visitor to psychiatric hospitals in New South Wales was the way the inpatients could produce someone who had been “victimised” and ask me to help “save”, usually, a “her”.

My companion visitor was a wise woman, who unlike myself had long practical experience as a psychiatric nurse. She warned me not to be “sucked in’’, but listen to the complaint and investigate. However, she said – maintain rationality –don’t be get caught up emotionally as these people are very clever, since it was a practised scenario, and they try you out.

Whenever I watch Pauline, I am reminded of this advice, since whenever she is pushed into a corner the voice becomes quavery and the tears well up.

The one hand clap, Pauline.

But back to reality.

How much is this High Court challenge going to cost, Pauline? $300,00? More? For what, Pauline? A failed challenge? Of course, the victim.

However, who is going to pay? You, Pauline? No way. I’m afraid it is going to be us mug punters, of course; the real victims.

Telehealth – Look Mother! No hands

I was brought up as a medical student to believe that the essence of being a doctor was to take a full history from the patient and then to do a full examination.

That was a message. The face-to-face consultation was the basis of consultative medicine and the skill was to make the correct diagnosis – or if unsure, to provide a set of differential diagnoses based on what you had elicited as symptoms and signs of the patient’s condition.

However over the course of my medical career technology has intruded upon the “maestro” doctor able to diagnose the patient before he or she sat down. Observation to me remains a very important element as it was to Dr Arthur Conan Doyle, who invested his sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, with the same or enhanced degree of observation he had as a doctor.

The astonishing array of technology and increasing differentiation of care has been something I have witnessed through my long career. Sometimes I have watched and sometimes I have been closely involved, for example with the introduction of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) into the private sector and its recognition by Government – not always the most tranquil moment of my career.

There has always been agitation from the medical profession for reimbursement for non-face-to-face consultations. With the corporatisation of medicine, where the bottom line is everything, this agitation has not lessened. “Money for jam”, as the old saying goes, many jars of which will inevitably be transferred offshore.

Having watched telehealth progress through phone conversations to uncertain video links through to more reliable technologies such as Zoom has meant that technology has challenged traditional ways of medicine.

My only hope is that the government, which is increasingly strapped for cash, monitors it use.

I have used telehealth as a patient, and for a person with limited mobility it has been particularly beneficial. I have found that the doctors have been more punctual, but that anyway may be because of the lower volume. Telehealth acts as a screen. For the plastic surgeon, you can send a picture of the lesion, and get an opinion over the phone and in my case, yes it looked as though it needed to be removed; then a regular check up with the rheumatologist reviewing my pathology, a critical aspect in my ongoing chronic disease. More importantly in talking to my neurologist, he listened to my history, and said yes, it was important to see me, but I should have a cervical spine MRI first.

Two of the three telehealth consultations required subsequent face-to-face consultation. My general practitioners friend said that with the modern video technology, it is possible to diagnose simple conditions, such as a strained muscle, by observation and prescribe a treatment without seeing the patient in the rooms.

My appointments to see specialists could only be undertaken by face to face consultations – removal of a lesion from the face, assessment for cataract removal, neurological examination for the particular set of signs.

As someone who developed an auto-immune disease insidiously, after my diagnosis it was apparent that I needed not only a good general practitioner but also one who would provide continuity of care.

Being a doctor myself, I am in the worst category in regard to regularly seeing a doctor. I can do all that general practitioner stuff – but of course I cannot. It is impossible to have an objective view of yourself until, as I found out one night, I knew that I was dying. Hypochondria is one thing; a sense of impending death is another.

I survived the night, and because of the pain and stiffness and overall weakness, I went back to my orthopaedic surgeon whom I had consulted a dozen years earlier for my acute painful knee.

At this time, I had no regular general practitioner although most days I was surrounded by them at work. However, the orthopaedic surgeon knew what it was, but orthopaedic surgeons treat by operation and not by drugs and so he flicked me over to his trusted rheumatologist. Now rheumatologists are gentle ruminative folk, but have long lists of patients; so waiting for up to six weeks is not uncommon for an appointment.

Miraculously I saw the doctor that afternoon. He prescribed tests and drugs, but I was not to take the drugs until the test results came back.

The starting line could not have come sooner; within 24 hours after taking the first tablets, my condition improved dramatically.

Unfortunately dramatic improvement didn’t equate to immediate cure, but that’s another story.

What is interesting however, in a story about telehealth, is how do you diagnose this sort of disease. As one of my general practitioner colleagues said to me that this is a GP diagnosis – you ask: “Can you roll over in bed?”

This was very much after the fact. I had already been diagnosed and was being treated. However, I had not noticed it before; he was right, I could not roll over in bed.

Theoretically, if the doctor had been as astute as this Scot, who had seen cases before, a telehealth diagnosis might have been made.

But then again I still would have had to see him in a face-to-face consultation. Telehealth is not a panacea and I would caution government and suggest once the COVID-19 pandemic is controlled, to review its application closely, especially the biggest users and then ask why? As I know too well, governments are reluctant to wind back largesse for fear of vested interests squawking about compromising people’s health.

Telehealth is a bonanza for the corporate health business, where throughput is everything, and health care a by-product.

Nevertheless, far more insidious is the large health conglomerates where the owners are dependent on government payments to profit, inevitably providing donations to political parties to keep the tap turned on. Donations after all have a wonderful effect of assisting politicians to roll over – not necessarily in bed.

Hey, Pellegrini, whatcha doing with that test tube?

A new study shows coronavirus patients who took hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 had a higher risk of death than those who weren’t given the drug.  

The study, published Friday in the medical journal The Lancet (22 May), also found that COVID-19 patients were more likely to develop serious heart arrhythmias if treated with hydroxychloroquine, or its closely related cousin chloroquine.  

Arrhythmias can lead to a sudden cardiac death, the report said, but researchers did not associate the study’s fatalities with adverse cardiac affects. 

Even though it’s only an observational study – not the gold standard double-blind, randomized, controlled trials – experts say the enormous sample size makes it compelling.

The study comprises of 96,000 coronavirus patients from six different countries who were hospitalized between Dec. 20, 2019 and April 14, 2020. Nearly 15,000 patients were treated with hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine alone or in combination with an antibiotic.

When I heard that the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research (WEHI) were about to embark on a trial to enlist 2200 health workers into a trial to test the efficacy of the drug being a preventative agent against the virus, I checked the date. No, it was not April 1st.

Professor Marc Pellegrini is employed at the WEHI with one of those expansive titles, which suggest he is important. On television, his justification for the trial is that the drug kills the virus in the test tube. So, I might add, does bleach.

I wondered how this experiment has come about.

This modern day Lancelot has given his project a grandiose title – COVID-19 Shield. Here I wonder whether you need a diploma in public relations rather than a science degree in this modern world purporting to be medical research.

I have not the seen the protocol except it seems to be a randomised controlled trial; but one important report I would like to see is that of WEHI Ethics Committee on the proposed study and the reasons for approval.

In the latest bulletin of WEHI, there is a coy mention of this trial without naming the drug and the brief comment that it is being funded by the Australian Government. There does not seem to have been the award of a peer-reviewed grant as one would expect for such a potentially dangerous activity.

The problem for the Australian government is that there is pressure coming from the non-medically qualified – especially from such a medical expert as Clive Palmer.

In response to the above Lancet article, the WHO is reported to have put on hold the hydoxychloroquine arm of review. However, the report has all the hallmarks of the WHO walking away (or should I say “crabbing” away), without losing face.

But WEHI seems defiant. At least Professor Pellegrini is. May I suggest it is time you retire the Shield, Sir Lancelot.

Finally, as The Washington Post noted – as I have – who says Trump has been taking the drug. Has anybody seen him take it? This person who lies, lies and lies. Why would his statement of putative self-administration be any different? In any event, he now says that he has stopped taking the drug. Come on, Donald, which is the lie?

The time I under-dosed with Chloroquine (Plaquenil)

It was about 30 years ago and we went on a tour of Africa. Among measures to be taken were the mandatory yellow fever vaccination and a prophylactic antimalarial, then hydroxychloroquine, which was marketed under the name plaquenil.

It was a wide-ranging trip, which excluded South Africa, then in the grip of the apartheid Afrikaans. However, in many ways it was defining as it led to us, especially my wife, returning almost yearly to the continent.

We had previously been to North Africa – Morocco and Tunisia – but this was a month long roam through Southern and Eastern Africa. The trip incorporated the island of Madagascar, the French Département of La Réunion and then finally the Seychelles. 

We spent some time in Madagascar, both in the jungle near Antananarivo, the capital, and the island of Nosy Bé looking for lemurs and indris. After leaving there, we flew to Saint-Denis, the capital of La Réunion, where the intention was to climb La Fournaise, the volcano at the end of the island. The year previously we had reached the summit of Yasur, on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. This is one of the only active volcanoes in the world where you can stand and look down into its fiery cauldron. La Fournaise presented another opportunity to do so.

Le Piton de la Fournaise, Reunion Island

However, while having a drink at the bar of the hotel on arrival, I started to feel unwell. I went to bed, and then passed out. As described to me I began to get very hot, and my temperature was apparently swiftly rising, and as my wife said I became quickly delirious. She did not know quite what to do except keeping sponging me to try and reduce my temperature. She told me that her plan was to phone a public health physician acquaintance in Paris, in the event that I needed to be admitted to hospital because, as she said, her French wasn’t up to an emergency admission. However, about one in the morning, suddenly I was a bundle of sweat. I woke up; my temperature was dropping. My pyjamas were absolutely soaked with perspiration

How could this be; I was taking the plaquenil regularly, but then I reviewed my dosage – it was below the prophylactic dose. God knows even to this day how this happened, but it was obviously my mistake. Fortunately, my wife did not succumb. So even though I felt lousy and confused, I increased the dose to therapeutic. The worst residual symptom was a terrible headache behind the eyes. I have never had one like it before or since.

That was it, except I felt lousy for over a week, but I did not have another crisis – nor have I had a recurrence since that day.

However, I always take Malarone, the current anti-malarial drug of choice whenever there is the prospect of contact with a malaria-bearing mosquito overseas.

But back to La Réunion, we did see around the island, including the Cirques, tropical remnant of extinct volcanoes but we never did climb La Fournaise.

No, I did not have a test to confirm – not malaria – confirm my anserine status.

But at least after that experience I can swear by hydroxychloroquine – for malaria!

Just a lurk

COVID-19 causes massive inflammation boosting cytokines, which increase the liver’s production of clotting factors, explains Beverley Hunt, medical director of Thrombosis UK and a practising clinician. For example, fibrinogen levels in a severely ill COVID-19 patient are 10-14 g/L, compared with 2-4 g/L normally and 5-6 g/L in a pregnant woman. “A COVID patient’s blood is enormously sticky,” she told The BMJ.

“All patients in critical care are at increased risk from clots because they are immobile, and when you are sick you have sticky blood,” says Hunt. Studies of venous thromboembolism rates among non-COVID patients in critical care show that rates of thrombosis can be as high as 28% if patients are not given any prophylaxis. Among patients given prophylaxis the rates are halved. So, we seem to be seeing significantly higher rates of thrombosis in COVID patients. 

“Thrombosis is definitely contributing to the high mortality rate from COVID,” says Hunt. “Not only can it lead to a pulmonary embolism, which can be fatal, but there are also higher rates of strokes and heart attacks.”

In this report in the British Medical Journal, a United Kingdom medical specialist is musing on COVID-19. Now at the outset one would have thought that the only experts interested (or consulted) would be emergency physicians, anaesthetists and respiratory specialists. However, this is a doctor expert in blood clotting which has arisen as a major COVID-19 complication, especially as the amount of anti-coagulant to be given seems to be unsettled. Moreover, there there are reports of late onset deep vein thrombosis. My Swedish correspondent mentioned COVID-19 toes, which appear to be a severe form of chilblains, pointing to this being the virus being an instigator of widespread disturbance in blood clotting.

What is further intriguing and indicates the widespread effect of the virus is loss of the sense of smell as an early sign. In humans, the olfactory cell location measures 9 cm2 and lies on the roof of the nasal cavity.

With the common cold when there is swelling of the nasal epithelium non-specifically, sense of smell is impaired. However there are reports that this COVID-19 virus infiltrates the sustentacular (supporting) cells which, together with olfactory cells, constitute the pseudocolumnar epithelium underpinning the nasal cilia and microvilli. Among other functions these cells have an effect on how odours are perceived by the olfactory cranial nerve.

It was interesting looking at the histology of the nasal lining, and its complexity. The olfactory nerve and its connections are one of the most neglected areas in medicine, because the sense of smell is more related to lifestyle rather than considered a major marker of disease. However, if it is indeed an early marker of COVID-19, attention should be paid to the way the nasal swab is taken to assist early detection, especially if the olfactory area of the nose is where the virus may lurk first.  This infiltration indicates how profound this virus may be in invading the body.

This virus is not going away soon and while Australia has, up until now, done an excellent job in suppression, “lurk” is probably the most concise way to describe it.

The Hungerford Games

We camped on the Queensland side of the fence, and after tea had a yarn with an old man who was minding a mixed flock of goats and sheep; and we asked him whether he thought Queensland was better than New South Wales, or the other way about. 

He scratched the back of his head, and thought awhile, and hesitated like a stranger who is going to do you a favour at some personal inconvenience. 

At last, with the bored air of a man who has gone through the same performance too often before, he stepped deliberately up to the fence and spat over it into New South Wales. After which he got leisurely through and spat back on Queensland.

Henry Lawson wrote thus about his experiences in Hungerford in 1893, when he had walked there with his swag from Bourke. The expectorating man’s name was Clancy, that familiar ‘loveable larrikin” character alienated from officialdom. Sorry, that is my ironic interpolation, and on the contrary Henry Lawson was not impressed by him.

There was no Pauline Hanson around in those days, and anyway she would not have been able to vote or stand for any of the colonial Parliaments in Australia at that time.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) periodically does medical clinics in Hungerford – this population speck, which straddles the border of New South Wales. This settlement is about a three hour drive along the Dowling Track from Bourke. I have always hankered to go there since I worked with the RFDS, for no other reason that it is there and like so much of western Queensland it epitomises my image of the laconic yet irreverent stoicism of the Outback.

We have years ago thought to drive there, but there had been heavy rains and the road beyond Bourke was impassable. The road is still unmade, but even though it is not the first place one would think to cross the border, my hankering is still strong. So I thought I would find out more.

The problem is that the Royal Mail Hotel is on the Queensland side of the Queensland-New South Wales border, which is defined by the wild dog fence. There is a border gate at Hungerford.

To get more intelligence on the current situation, I rang the publican at the Hotel. The news was grim. The gate is locked; the coppers have the key and even if I could he said it would inadvisable to try and climb over the gate. Anyway we would be aliens from New South Wales – waratah cockroaches invading the land of Cooktown orchid cane toads. So we could not stay at the inn.

So Premier Palazczuk, I promise I won’t make a High Court challenge if you open the Hungerford gate and allow us to stay in the pub. I’m not sure about the High Court challenge – however I believe there is a class action being mounted by a consortium of wild dogs to remove the fence between the two States. And it is only an unsubstantiated rumour that Clive Palmer is funding their challenge.

Muri Succursus

Mus Virgilis “destillat ab inguine virus”

We mouselings, as you know, pay homage to our celestial creator, Rodentia Nora. So we have knowledge of Latin – one of the greatest bard being one Mus Virgilis.

Given how much used the word “virus” is, we had a peep at its derivation.

“Virus” is a rare second declension neuter word for “poison” or “slime” and that attracted me to see if there was a plural form, “vira”. But the word has never been found in a plural form in Latin literature. Thus “viruses” is acceptable – even though the “es” suffix is generally associated with third or fifth declension Latin words.

And certainly do not say “viri”, which is Latin for “men”.

Modest Expectations – Kennedy

When I wrote about Sweden in my blog on 27 March, Australia was paralleling Sweden in numbers of COVID-19 cases – well sort of.

2,016 people have been reported infected with COVID-19 in Sweden (20 cases per 100,000 inhabitants). Nationally, 25 of the cases have died.

Australia had 3,047 cases with 14 deaths at the time (12 cases per 100,000 inhabitants). Of that total then, 300 infected were attributed to the Ruby Princess circus.

Reviewing the figures as of 20 May, the current Swedish figures are 31,523 cases (315 per 100,000 population and projected to be the highest per capita death rate in the world) with 3,831 deaths and 4,971 recovering. Australia by contrast has 7,081 (29 per 100,000 inhabitants) with 100 deaths.

My friend who is a senior radiologist, who once ran the department at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, has written to me last week (sic):

… In Sweden a large proportion of elderly who died from COVID-19 were not only old but in special care facilities …

Our experts seem to view yours and New Zealand’s very successful containment effort with scepticism, thinking that in the end, spreading is inevitable. However, the alternative that we are experiencing with many dead elderly is really also very painful indeed. Hopefully you will be better prepared when (if) the virus spreads again. We have had to put much of ordinary health care on hold and reports are that many who should seek care are not, ie transient ischaemic attacks (TIA,) coronary disease patients, symptomatic cancers.  

The much increased ICU capacity, fourfold increase, takes a toll on all other activity. 

… Life is not as normal as reported in international media, all shows and theatres are cancelled, very few travel by Metro compared to normal. Largely the restaurants are complying with rules of sparsely seated customers, with no waiting lines… However many are enjoying the outdoors and our small wood next door sees many visitors, keeping prescribed distances…

We are hoping for restrictions to ease so that we can at least visit Öland.

Lutheran church, Öland

Öland is an island four hours drive from Stockholm connected by a bridge across the Kalmar Sound and we had hoped to spend some part of the Northern summer there. Not now unfortunately.

My friend continued:

I have worked for some time, and noted the high proportion of pulmonary emboli in our COVID patients, as well as other interesting things with this baffling infection. Rashes, COVID toes, white lungs (usually associated with widespread asbestosis – Ed), cerebral complications, abdominal symptoms.  The list is endless.”

My friend mentioned a smorgasbord of diseases arising from COVID-19. This infection is neither the flu nor just a bad cold. And my friend does not even mention Kawasaki disease; there is much more in the COVID-19 malignant store to sample.

His comments were backed up in a report in the NY Times (May 16).

In essence, the report agreed that the Swedish mortality was very high among the elderly but unlike Italy where there was a high concentration of multi-generational families, Sweden lives in a far less cramped space with many more single person households.

The average Swede has less diabetes, obesity and heart disease than in the other countries with a high infection rate.

Even so the Swedish economy has not emerged unscathed –and a contraction of the GDP by seven to ten per cent is predicted by the Central Bank.

Therefore, for those idiot Australian Borises who want to open Australia tomorrow, think Sweden – and not as an Ikea panacea.

Thank God for our senior health people who said don’t go to see the “Sharkies” and hug each of the players in turn, but shut down Australia.

Sweden provides a salutary lesson as Australia re-opens its leisure activities.

Non dimentica

When you author a blog, you open yourself up to being wrong publicly. So I trawled back through my blogs to see when I first mentioned the coronavirus. It was late February, and at that time I was somewhat Thomasine, because a large group of our nationals had been airlifted back to Australia from Wuhan. None of them had tested positive before or after the quarantine.

Yet there was something I was unaware of at the time I wrote the piece and that was how many Chinese were working in sweatshops in Northern Italy. The Chicago Tribune as far back as 2009 reported an estimated 30,000 Chinese are legal immigrants in this city (Prato) of 180,000. Another 30,000 illegal immigrants are also suspected to live here. Many among the Chinese work in small hidden factories for as long as 14 hours a day.

One of our informants recently confirmed that there have been regular flights from Wuhan to Milan, with up to 100,000 Chinese“guest workers”. making shoes there. Once out of the wild meat market, the virus thus had a saloon passage to the delights of Lombardy and Emilio-Romagna. There here were the crowded conditions both at work and domestically to spread the virus.

Despite there being no positive cases among the Wuhan evacuees, Australia had closed its borders to China and then selectively to other countries – but not to the United States, which we should have.

Yes, I was skeptical – and the question remains in my mind why were there no positive cases detected in the people being flown out of Wuhan. If there were none, what was the major reason? I know, the plane air conditioning had been bolstered – what else? Social distancing? Masks? Hand washing? Repeated cleaning of the airplane toilets and no moving from the one seat unless going to the toilet? In the end no-one was infected – in 400 people out of Wuhan.

As for what I wrote, I think I overused the word “hysterical”, which I now regret. 

Abiden with me, fast falls the eventide …

 the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik decided that this was the night that changed everything. “Not only, as we did not know then, was President Obama in the midst of the operation that would lead shortly to Osama bin Laden’s killing,” he wrote last fall, “it was also the night when, despite that preoccupation, the President took apart Donald Trump, plastic piece by orange part, and then refused to put him back together again.” Report in the Washington Post concerning the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2011.

It is about time that the Democratic Party in America prepares for its Peregrine moment. A Peregrine moment? Bob Hawke. The Labor party, which has always been gentle on its leaders up to that time, vanquished Bill Hayden and replaced him with a more formidable challenger to the then Australian Government – Bob Hawke. Not that Bill Hayden was any slouch and certainly in his long-term influence he has been much better than Joseph Robinette Biden Jnr.

In November this year, this man who served 35 years as a senator for Delaware will reach his 78th birthday and he is asking America to elect him to serve a period of time, which will see him leave office at 82 years of age, or perhaps at 86 years.

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

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

As I abhor hugging and extravagant shows of affection (one of the only positive outcomes from this virus), it is unfair to criticise his “touchy-feely” approach, unless it degenerates into the “creepy-gropey”.

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

Wilmington Railway Station

He seems popular, and although I did not see him on the railway platform of Wilmington, that city is an Afro-American with old patrician heritage veneer – it is this cultural gap that Biden has been able to span his whole professional life. After all, he has spent his life in politics with an early daub of lawyer on his escutcheon.

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

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

it struck me this week listening to Obama– is perhaps Biden only the shill? A cleverly-concocted shill for Obama. Maybe there is a residual something behind the Delaware smile.

There has not been a contested convention requiring multiple ballots since Eisenhower won the Republican nomination for President in 1952.

Only one President has served two non-consecutive terms – Grover Cleveland, a New York Democrat who was both the 22nd and 24th president.

Yet Obama may be the next to do so. After all, he is only 59 years of age and even another two terms would make him only 67, much younger than either Trump or Biden.

Will there be a contested Democrat convention? I would doubt it if Obama continues to surge. Biden probably may even nominate him.

Obama’s recent entry into the political debate is that of the man of stealth with disarming ruthlessness, just the needed antidote for Trump. Here was a man at a dinner, the master of the lampoon without any sign that at that same moment he was supervising the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

America is in a crisis, in a way that it has not been since the outbreak of the Civil War. Trump just has no sense of national leadership. His genius has been in dividing and ruling a circle of sycophants and chancers in a building on Pennsylvania Avenue and then darting off to rally to and sustain “his apprentices” – a hate-filled armed militia in the event that he does not get elected democratically.

Trump has a pathological fear of Obama – there is something deep in his twisted psyche, which no amount of ranting can exorcise. There is no doubt that if Obama wins and the Democrats get control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, there would be no more the mister-nice-guy of his first term of 2008. Obama may very well push through an agenda not that much different from the one promoted by Elizabeth Warren. At the same time, he would be the focused commander in chief commissioned to slay the coronavirus by putting America on a war footing. Bringing order to chaos.

Nevertheless, I would speculate that one significant force who would not like to see Obama contest the election is his wife, Michelle. Why? Because as he exposes and humiliates Trump on the election trail with an increasingly unhinged Trump, then with all the fomented madness in America, Obama would be a prime target for assassination. That is the American way.

But as I have said often, what would I know? But then I cried when Kennedy died.

Just a Footnote – talking of Presidents

Once when a young doctor wanted to become a consultant physician, one pathway led to a year in the pathology department doing post mortems. Just as if one was training to be a surgeon, time in the anatomy department was one tried and tested way to that career.

One Friday morning, the Department boss came to me with his mischievous smile and said that he would like me to undertake an interesting task. The person on the slab had been born with Peutz-Jegher syndrome, which is an inherited disease where part of the syndrome involves multiple polyposis in the bowel. These polyps, usually benign, nevertheless could be very distressing and require multiple operative interventions.

In this case, they had been multiple with resultant adhesions all through the abdomen. The question of my boss when the post-mortem had been requested was to see if this particular person had had an undetected cancer in the large bowel.

It is a somewhat ironic situation that whereas I could do up to three postmortems in a morning then, post mortems even in the large hospitals today are rare. However, they are rampant on current television. Admittedly, there is still a swathe of forensic post mortems, and having been someone who was actively involved undertaking post-mortems it is sometimes hilarious to glimpse the portrayal on television.

When I was presented with this body, it was so scrunched up and distorted, it was hard to determine the age, but I do remember that there were remnant spots on his lips and face, which are part of the syndrome. The eyes were open and even after all the post mortems that I had undertaken, I had an immediate sense of pity – even in death the eyes showed the pain.

One of the ways I coped with post mortems was to put on a metaphorical mask for any emotions as I donned my apron and gown over what are now defined as scrubs (but then called boiler suit) and never take a memory of the post mortem away from the department.

Not in this case; I can still see this person in my mind’s eye. Of all the post mortems I have ever done, he did leave an impact, because he was the epitome of misfortune. Why had he been afflicted so – to live for what?

But you cannot have the luxury of thinking much about the meaning of life when you are doing post-mortems.

However, the task at hand was the congealed mass of intestine – seemingly an amorphous matted lump – and I had to open the bowel from duodenum to rectum without losing continuity in my dissection.

How the hell did he survive for so long? It was laborious work to dissect. The body had been stitched up and removed. All my colleagues had finished their post mortems and left. There I was; left on my own to dissect the bowel.

The complication was that I was supposed to be groomsman at a wedding at 6, and as the day progressed, I began looking at the clock. Eventually I finished, sometime around 5 o’clock. I had found no cancerous growth. However, I had finished and I knew I had done a good job.

I was fortunate that the mortuary attendants were still there and after having a shower, they helped me don my evening dress – white tie and tails which, when you are in a hurry, can be excruciatingly fiddly. An incongruous sight. In a hospital morgue.

Mortuary attendants are a genus of their own – in this case one was a large lump of a man with a funereal voice, who obviously enjoyed the work; the other a smaller man, whom I remember always swore by Cooper’s sheep dip as a great hair restorer. He used it daily. He had a thin wispy comb-over. The two of them were a somewhat quixotic pair.

Dressed, I dashed across the hospital car park and into my car. It was a short drive to the chapel where my friend was being married. I did not have time to see my wife, who on the previous Saturday had given birth to our second son, Marcus. In those days, life post-partum was a more leisurely affair, as Sister Fabian insisted that the mothers needed rest, but of course I could have my evening meal with my wife – just pop across the road after work, doctor.

But tonight was different and when I emerged from the hospital replete in white tie and tails, I remembered it was the day LBJ was coming to town and all the streets around where I was going would be blocked off.

Bugger! However, I was able to take a circuitous route and fortunately found a place to park – at least walking distance from my destination.

I took my umbrella because it was about to rain. There were numerous people along my route down Toorak Road. I really did not notice them as I was walking as fast as I could. I thought of running, but when you are like a stuffed white cockatoo, I thought it unwise.

So concentrated was I that it was not until it hovered directly over me that I looked up and saw the helicopter. Suddenly I felt I was the target. I stopped and waved gingerly. The helicopter crew having seen that it was only a strange young guy in fancy dress with a furled umbrella, rose and left me after a few whirring minutes.

At that moment, the big dark limousine whipped past. There they were – President Johnson with Prime Minister Holt – a brief glimpse of them through a bulletproof window.

Then they too had gone. I reached the chapel before the bride.

Quite a day.

Can I call you Belford?

Two mildly proptosed eyes peer through a crack in the closet door – then the perfumed polished head emerges looking around and then it is out – darting around the space – a twirling gossamer-haired Titania.

Then satisfied that the stable remains groomed, it retreats into the closet, more a cupboard where this remarkable beast has a number of instruments – the microphone, the megaphone, the semaphore flags, a euphonium, even a full set of drums. Here it changes into a different mode – no longer queen but king. And if we had penetrated the closet there would have been a number of jolly mates, who spent more time in the light, but in this cupboard they prove what religion is without devotees.

Belford, I am truly sorry about your departure. Such an ornament of darkness is irreplaceable because such perfection – a rugby coaching Titania, even if Balmain never benefited from your trail of tauric stardust.

However, away with sarcasm and irony; a lamentable trait which is stimulated by the very thought of you, Belford.

What a disheartening performance, Mr Albanese, your obsequies to Belford. Moreover, you are now the inheritor of the Labour tradition-the traditions of Curtain and Chifley.

What would they have said about this creature, who has said the vilest things about Jacinda Ardern and Julia Gillard? They are women. Belford seems to have a deep hatred of the successful woman – none are allowed into his closet wardrobe, no way.

So why on earth would you, Albanese, join Abbott and Howard (and predictably Morrison) in their obsequies? Do you intend joining them in losing your seat at the next election? I just happen to have a vote in your electorate as does my wife – and our friends. After all, you are not too young to remember that even Belford lost the safe Liberal seat of Eastwood at a by-election, never to be pre-selected again.

I believe that Belford has had a breakfast audience of 17 per cent. Perhaps we can ensure you get the same vote in the next Federal election – perhaps a few more per cent.

The electorate just has to find its Zali Steggall – willing to challenge your antediluvian views – the electorate has a bit of time to find someone, Mr Albanese, someone who can continually provide a reminder for your praise of Belford, the misogynist.

And remember, Mr Albanese, Belford was in all probability shafted by the Melbourne establishment. Your potential nemesis, Mr Albanese, is Victorian. I am unsure but perhaps then you would get more than 17 per cent of the caucus vote once your praise of Belford sinks into your colleagues.

The Sutherland Reds and Campsie Green factional mates of yore may have excused this behavior but they are almost extinct – and your hero, Belford is about to fall off the wall – enclosed in his own green bottle.

And as you may realise, although he was a good unionist and a Sydney boy, Ted Grayndler is buried in Melbourne – admittedly not “by”.

Mouse Whisper

A colleague of my mausmeister, Professor Leeder, has suggested that a uniformed public health service should be created here as in the United States. There is some value in this idea as it would make public health much more easily identifiable as part of the emergency response team. While it has blended in so well at present, being a uniformed service would provide both a discipline and continuity. However like all uniformed services there is always the danger of attracting the characters, who prefer vestments and braid to activity.

Nevertheless, my mausmeister thought that the comment below (as reported by The Economist) of a current Prior of a Camaldoli order was very relevant. This order is a Tuscan offshoot of the Benedictines, who have an excellent tradition of teaching yet within the monastery are encouraged to keep their own company, in prayer and reflection – without loquacity.

Still, liberalism has its limits. The liturgy, the scripture, the ritual, the tradition, is the container that holds this life together. You start losing that, it’s a free-for-all.”

Think about it. Wise words. It has a relevance in all sorts of way at the current time, not just to public health, or to a putative uniformed service, and also not only to Christianity.

Benedictine monastery, Tuscany

Modest Expectations – Rat

Australia has a good health system, not perfect but resilient, with some tough informed public health medical practitioners. After an uncertain start it has put in place a comprehensive contact tracing system and a comprehensive testing program while shutting borders.

Thus Australia has built a robust defence, unlike the USA where the hapless Dr Fauci is like the little boy with his finger in the Trump dyke. Give a new twist to a Faucian bargain. His bargain is that he can keep his finger in the hole when the dyke has disappeared, that is if he does not succumb. After all, he is 79.

For the dyke is crumbling because successive American governments have done next to nothing to maintain the public health system – instead seeing health care as just another commodity like golf buggies and casinos upon which you can gamble in a betting ring called the New York Stock Exchange.

The concept that the public health measures are hindering return to normalcy is delusional. For what is normalcy? The good old days are gone, like the Edwardian shooting party with the First World War.

However in this world there seems to be this retro-accelerator stuck in some political vehicle driven by those wanting to return to last February and the good old days of unfettered neoliberalism. For all the talk about its healing balm, the ideal of neoliberalism is a country built on cheap labour fuelled by high immigration from poorer countries. In the US it is these poor – the modern day slaves that the unions have abandoned by and large– whose ranks are being thinned by the virus.

Once, in Australia there was a booming educational market fuelled by temporary immigration, where a profitable equilibrium has turned universities into paper mills churning out certification so their Vice-Chancellors can pocket a million dollars a year and then one at least smugly leave the country with a series of High Anglican platitudes. Wait on though, the borders are closed because the virus has been spreading so rapidly – a crown of thorns killing and maiming in its wake, laying bare the vulnerability of our so-called civilised, neoliberal, sophisticated world.

Now in 2020, the level of hygiene worldwide has been insufficient to stem the viral spread without the current measures. Australian forces, despite some early missteps have, for the time being, repelled these invaders.

The chattering classes are at once relieved but also restless. The Sunday morning in the sun denied; the chatter grows louder – the limited aperture to the café society. The muted resentment as represented by “The common cold is mild;it’s a corona virus; nobody dies from the common cold.”

The influenza virus?” There is a vaccine – so why worry. Lots of people who we do not know die each year but we do not close down the country.

Anyway the COVID-19 virus is worse in the elderly so why should I as an upwardly mobile young person worry?

And most importantly: “It doesn’t seem to be here in the Southern highlands where the megaphones of denial are suddenly muted, but the spaces are large and the people are few on these estates of the privileged.

At this point it should be noted that the incidence of respiratory infection has declined as a result of the anti-COVID-19 measures, although this is ignored by those feverishly crying for the accelerator to be pushed through the floor, propelling us back to the past. But unlike the war, this is only months back – grasping distance. The cry goes up: let’s get back to where it all began!

After all, the brawny shock jocks say the virus is a pussy – overblown – let’s throw open the economy, open the borders, let the virus overrun the planes, forget about all those lessons in public health hygiene.

Continued patience is needed. One of prime advantages the human race has is its ability to learn, adapt and innovate. That has happened up until now in Australia and that is why Australia is so well placed.

You see overall, the gung-ho people say the virus has not infected me. But then I was here in Australia and not on the Ruby Princess. Back to square one, but even if you can’t see these viral waves, unlike the Goths and the Huns. There will be successive different pandemics if the world remains unprepared. Yet I hope a better world will emerge after 2020, one that is able to cope with these invaders so that my grandchildren will grow up in another better world as I did after the Second War, which was won –to open  a world far different and far better from that of my father where the rants were there, but not on twitter.

Therefore, while our borders hold out against the viral invader so Australia can have time to reset – just like wartime – and spend our money on essential work rather than the fripperies of the Colosseum or the Hippodrome.

Colosseum

Australia should concentrate not only on traditional defence and biosecurity but also on water and littoral security – and social housing. Dismiss the monuments to political vanity, such as stadia, war mauseolea and unnecessary relocations of little used “icons”. (God what an overused word to justify boondoggles).

The days of the irrelevant, for example, the event planner and the conference concierge, should be numbered. We can’t stop the gambling, but we can tax it heavily and spend it on the necessities rather than The Everest. Australia needs to have a time to see how unimportant yet destructive such misplaced use of resources is to the plan for this national “reset”.

Perhaps we should know how Governor Cuomo, who is the middle of his Battle for Coronavirus, lists his priorities: “When restrictions are lifted the state’s least-affected central counties will go first and each economic sector will be phased in slowly: construction and factory jobs first, and retail establishments that can deliver goods curbside. Next: banks, insurance, law firms and other professions. Then restaurants and hotels, and finally entertainment, sports and schools.” 

Somewhat at odds with our priorities, but then he sees it all from a warzone perspective.

As a postscript, Australia needs to have a clinical dissection of the maul of staffers, rent seekers, lobbyists and superfluous bureaucracy which seem to be excessively paid and which circulate like the rings of the planet Saturn around the various parliaments -nine in all now very much outlined by their extravagant rings.

Drifting towards Analogy

While World War 11 was raging, there were a number of neutral countries that avoided or suppressed the combatants within their borders, while building their financial position (or not) on the back of devastation elsewhere. Some were at the heart of the conflict but with secure borders (Switzerland and Sweden able to benefit); others were far way (South America, but somewhat weakened by internecine conflict); but there were others too weak to sustain a long-term financial benefit; some recovering from serious warfare (Spain and Ireland) and others (Portugal and Turkey). For warfare – read pandemic; for neutrality – read freedom from serious pandemic.

As an example, is Australia supplying iron ore while Brazil remains heavily at war with the virus, akin to Sweden able to maintain iron ore production during the World War 2 without fear of destruction of its supply chain?

I suppose the message is that we should aggressively maintain our “neutrality” for our benefit until the rest of the world gets its health care back in place.

Australia should stop Pyning

Neil Baird – highly regarded commentator on all matters maritime; previous guest blogger.

 Obviously we are very slow learners in this country. Since before the First World War, Australian governments have interfered relentlessly in the free market for building ships. That interference has resulted in ongoing political embarrassment for its perpetrators and enormous waste of taxpayer money.

Essentially, government-owned ship builders have been encouraged several times in Australia and elsewhere and have always failed.

Government shipbuilding has never worked and will never work in Australia because there always seems to be another Canberra political opportunist who manages to convince his parliamentary colleagues into “having another go“. There is old axiom here – seemingly ignored – if it doesn’t work, don’t do it again. 

You don’t have to delve far back in history to find other, equally wasteful examples such as the Williamstown Dockyard in Melbourne and the Newcastle State Dockyard. Cockatoo Island, prior to its takeover by Vickers, an English public company, was another. Every one of them has managed to burn massive amounts of taxpayer money in the search for the holy grail of Australian warship building “independence”.

Recently, there has been considerable bitter controversy around the ever-increasing cost estimates for Australia’s future “Attack Class” submarines. Most of the debate fails to get anywhere near the reality of the problem. And, of course, it’s not just the submarines; we also have a substantial order in for frigates, which faces similar difficulties.

The ASC (Australian Submarine Corp) is just another in a long line of uncompetitive attempts at achieving the impossible. No matter how good the foreign partner, ASC has always ruined the project. Why would it be any different in the future? 

For the latest iteration of submarines and frigates in the pipeline, much of the blame can be sheeted home to three former leading Liberal politicians, Messrs Pyne, Abbott and Turnbull. Together, they have lumbered this country with the wrong warships that will be delivered too late and at ridiculously high prices. And at the root of it all – the wrong company – the ASC. Wrong place; wrong decade.

Even without Abbott, the Turnbull Government tried to bribe South Australia to vote for the Turnbull government in the 2016 federal election – a massively unsuccessful ploy.  

Apart from the proven incompetence of the chosen builder, Australia has yet again chosen warships that are inappropriate for the task and which will be obsolete by the time they are commissioned. They will also be many times more expensive than need be.

For example, Defence “gurus” may have tried a little harder with our “nuships”, as they so quaintly call them. But, no, and indeed, Defence CAPEX is, and mostly has been, a disaster area.

On the basis that every cloud has a silver lining, the economic disruption arising from the COVID-19 pandemic offers us a wonderful opportunity to extricate ourselves from this current naval ship building folly. The pandemic will cost Australia untold billions. So Australia should be taking every opportunity to eliminate any wasteful government expenditure. The Department of Defence is an obvious area in which waste can readily be cut at no cost to effectiveness or readiness. 

In the case of the submarines and frigates, Australia should grasp this opportunity to break both contracts, even if that necessitates paying substantial penalties. The reason: Australia simply cannot afford these Defence toys. Paradoxically, this “first loss” would be our “best loss” and, easily, our “least loss”.

And the solution?

The Government should immediately liquidate ASC Pty Ltd (formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation) and I use the word “liquidate” advisedly. It should definitely not be sold off to some “spiv” private equity outfit with guarantees of future business after which any assets would be stripped. That would just make matters worse. ASC has no hope of ever being anything but a drain on the public purse. The only realistic solution is to kill it off completely, once and for all.

The perfect patrol boat?                                                       Photo courtesy Southerly Designs/Dongara Marine

Australia should proceed with offshore patrol boats (OPBs), especially those being built by Austal (Australian based, but because of an inability to recruit employees here, it is building more of its ships in Asia). But all larger warships, unless very near completion, should be cancelled immediately. 

The only way we can hope to purchase warships at sensible prices and have them delivered on time is to buy them

(a) complete from foreign builders – as we do with aircraft (and even here with F-35 fighter there have been disastrous choices) – or, preferably,

(b) from our highly competent and globally competitive local commercial ship builders. We have several of those. They are world class but Canberra appears to be completely ignorant of them. Probably, that is because those shipbuilders have better things to do than waste time in navigating the Canberra labyrinth.

If manned submarines are really needed, Australia should buy nuclear, reducing the number to six and buy them completely constructed and fitted out in France.

Australia, as mentioned above, has neither sufficient time nor money to build or fit them out here. An added problem is the apparent inability to sensibly and inexpensively choose between the competing offerings from the electronics and weaponry suppliers. One other area to be investigated is the new, small and comparatively cheap, unmanned submarines that Boeing is building – a fully autonomous extra large unmanned undersea vehicle (XLUUV) class.

Does Australia really need and can we afford to wait for new frigates? Unlikely. Again, they will most probably be obsolete before delivery. There are plenty of alternative “submarine killers” available.

Instead of always blindly following our American protector, Australia should very carefully examine what China is doing. The Chinese, 20 or so years ago, started with a “clean slate”. The principle of their long range, hypersonic “carrier killer” aircraft, missiles and missile launching assault craft is well worth close inspection. Ironically, those assault craft were designed in Sydney. So, too, is their very cost effective “maritime militia” concept.

That is something Australia could well emulate, keeping costs down and putting our “naval eggs in many more baskets”. The admirals would hate the idea as it would return us to what they would see as too great a reliance on reserve personnel. They have a strange antipathy toward such a move. However, Naval reserves worked well in wars past and they seem to be working well in the Chinese military forces.

Australia should be looking closely at lower cost enemy ship detection technology using drones and commercial “off-the-shelf” electronics. To destroy those enemy ships and subs, let’s consider the feasibility of truck mounted anti-ship missile launchers that could quickly be moved to appropriate places around the coast? Then there is the modernisation of mine warfare methods. In other words, what gives “the biggest bang for the buck”; a notion in these times which should be more fashionable in Australia.

I would put forward a further question. Why not encourage our world competitive aluminium shipbuilders instead of actively discouraging them? Try to do things their effective and very competitive way, rather than call on inferior overseas sources. They also could easily adapt to steel. It is simpler to weld than aluminium.

And, given that “war should never be left to the generals” (read “admirals” here) we should appoint an advisory and enquiry committee. Perhaps counter-intuitively, that committee could be “balanced” by appointing as its chairman a uniquely qualified and experienced retired admiral, John Lord. As well as being a former maritime commander, Lord has many years of commercial management experience including of purchasing ships. He has vast experience of the perils of dealing with recalcitrant politicians and with the Chinese, having been Chairman of Huawei Australia for a decade.

Committee members should be recruited on the basis of their ability, not because they are mates of existing politicians, admirals or senior bureaucrats. Such a committee should be asked what Australia really requires for: (a) effective maritime defence, both short and long term as well as for (b) both forward and homeland defence. It should be strongly guided to think only of warfare and most certainly not to prop up the current boondoggle in South Australia.

The result of the above task should be done much better, more swiftly and overall much more cost effectively. Thus, Australia should take the “opportunity” that the COVID pandemic offers to sort out our naval purchasing disaster once and for all.

It is getting to be a Long March

There is a group of modellers in Germany who suggest that by prolonging lockdown here for another few weeks, we could really suppress virus circulation to a considerable degree – bringing the reproduction number below 0.2. I tend to support them but I haven’t completely made up my mind. The reproduction number is just an average, an indication. It doesn’t tell you about pockets of high prevalence such as senior citizens’ homes, where it will take longer to eradicate the disease, and from where we could see a rapid resurgence even if lockdown were extended. 

In a thoughtful question and answer session as reported in The Guardian, Christian Drosten, who had been involved in the original characterisation of the SARS virus in 2003, discussed the current pandemic with a reporter from The Guardian.

His comments on the nursing home makes sense; and here there is a need for a detailed plan to close the gap between health care and nursing home care as though there should any difference.

When her opinion was sought on the removal of the residents from Newmarch House, the NSW Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerry Chant, inanely remarked that they may not have wanted to be moved, as though all are in a suitable state to be consulted in some languid case conference.

Dr Chant, if the nursing home is on fire, then you move the residents – no questions asked. The immediate aim is to remove people from danger, to put out the fire with the least damage and not ask the staff (metaphorically clad in t-shirt, shorts and thongs) to do so. We call in the professionals immediately. That is what they did in Tasmania, where the bureaucratic lines were put on hold. The residents were moved and AusMat came in and cleaned the infected area.

In the interim, it gives time to clean up the mess, give Anglicare a boot up the backside, have education and safety protocols with somebody clearly qualified and responsible for the staff anticipating that there will be a high turnover, and provide the requisite gear to counter any “spot fire” emerging. This plan should be generalised and as it is a health matter it should come under the surveillance of the NSW Department of Health, irrespective of where the funding comes from.

And as for the Commonwealth-based Aged Care and Quality Commission, they seem to be the same sort of quango inhabitants which are bred in some public service hatchery for such jobs with seemingly little hands on experience. Maybe wrong, but tell me if that is so. Anyway I don’t see them with disinfectant and mops in hand cleaning Newmarch House.

I sent an email to someone who has some influence about two weeks ago. Inter alia, I emailed:

There is an uncontrolled outbreak of COVID-19 in Penrith…

This Newmarch House disaster has all the hallmarks of another Ruby Princess. The NSW Department of Health have gone missing… There is an increasing degree of frustration going on among the relatives. The nursing home lockdown is the only defence, and increasingly flimsy.

Penrith is at risk and joining up the dots and we end up with the Penrith Panthers, with one of their players already breaching the guidelines…  

The italicised comments of Dr Drosten at the head of this piece seem to be on the same page as these. 

A fascinating interview

I had watched a fascinating interview of Denis Richardson by an obvious old mate in Barrie Cassidy, when she looked at me with some surprise. Now as this someone asked, why would I write about an old bureaucrat who’ll soon be forgotten? Maybe the name may be lost on the tip of the tongue; but these people leave an important legacy.

Listening to the interview with Denis Richardson, I thought maybe somebody would have said that about Cardinal Richelieu – my mother’s charcoal portrait of whom has always hung in my office.

Richardson comes from a long line of such confidantes to the powerful, having come far from his origins in Kempsey. He does not give the impression that he is a Burnt Bridge Road boy.

Cassidy in a very insightful interview meandered through the upward spiral of this highly intelligent yet controlled man who has kept his obvious sense of the ridiculous in check during his career.

As one who resisted the blandishments of certain ASIO operatives to join when I was President of the Melbourne University Student Representative Council and who shared a study with Brigadier Spry’s son, it was interesting to the modern iteration of the “spook boss”.

His obvious attachment to the American alliance was deftly handled as if the positioning of Casey to Washington in 1940 was purely a prescient sign of the pact between USA and Australia. He did not mention how the ANZUS pact actually occurred despite the opposition of the State Department when a serendipitous meeting occurred between the then Australian Ambassador to the US, Percy Spender, and Harry Truman in 1951. But what would I, an outsider know. These are minor quibbles in an interview, which should be required viewing by those wanting to enter the public service – and especially Foreign Affairs.

I shall certainly get my grandkids to watch – a real-how-I-saw the world without moving my lips. Seriously, excellent viewing – and if you read this as you may – I too have been to every State in the USA plus Puerto Rico. However, Richardson’s peripatetic nature was probably only following one of five Ambassadorial dicta: “see politicians when they are out of office and in their home states, away from Washington, which also means travelling.

There was only one slightly disconcerting feature, for such an impressive bear of a man. He has an extraordinary giggle. But the unexpected is one expected in such a complex person.

Bloody good interview, Cassidy.

Mouse Whisper

As a reaction to Cardinal Pell?

The Vatican Synod of Bishops ruled Monday that perjury is not a mortal sin, downgrading the sin to venal. “God and The Mother Church will be more than satisfied with a penance of 20 rosaries for any act of perjury,” Cardinal Angelo Sodano said. “Any earthly prohibition against lying in a court of law has no relevance to the holy teachings of The Bible.” The proclamation comes on the heels of last Friday’s doctrinal clarification that adultery only occurs when both participants are adults.

Do you smell a rat? Yes, this comes an American publication called The Onion. It was published in 2002.

No, it has nothing to do with Georgie. However, somewhat telling do you not think?

Modest Expectations – Pike’s Peak or Bust

The Cook / Covid-19 comparison highlights a problem with a cohort of young doctors who go into public health medicine. Generally they are very intelligent, but some, unlike Sue Morey or Nick Coatsworth for example, have lived a professional life in cotton wool. Among them, you get a few smartarses, where the ready availability of Twitter and one more glass of red than should be imbibed leads to a misstep. The higher up the career ladder, the more the misstep becomes obvious. If the misstepper ends up on the ground, the question arises whether the person is mortally injured or will just bear a stigma on his or her professional life.

There are no real excuses for such a puerile tweet, where superficially it may be seen as a clever expression of a belief. However, despite the predictable blustering from the Liberal political cognoscenti pazzi, they should rest assured that the good doctor would have been given a verbal flogging by the Premier.

Yet he would recognise that she is a hard worker in a stressful position, and one who would definitely be against premature opening up Victoria and having to combat the “joy boys”, jocks and the Murdoch publications braying for sport to be reintroduced for solely financial benefits with a slight simpering regard for the community health.

Andrews learnt a lesson at the last minute, pulling back from the Grand Prix. With the potential of a cohort of infected Europeans mingling with the crowd, Australia may well have been plunged into a crisis. It has been bad enough with the antics of the NSW government in regard to the Ruby Princess. I do not underestimate the involvement of this good doctor given the reckless behaviour in the neighbouring State with Victoria not locking its borders against NSW.

Just a word of advice to you Dr Van Diemen, if you want to say what you like publicly, wait until you get to my age, and then it does not matter. You will recover from this glitch and hopefully have a successful career. But ditch Twitter and leave your wisecracks to spaces where the walls are not listening. Everybody in stressful positions needs to sound off occasionally, but go find a few like-minded galahs to share your frustrations. I mean the fluffy grey and pink ones.

A little known encounter of Jimmy Cook

Since everybody is getting into Cook, I thought reviving a relevant part of my novel “Sheep of Erromanga” would enliven the discussion about of the impact of this Yorkshireman on one small island in the South Seas. The story centres around a young Australian called Philip Morey who spent two years on the then New Hebrides island of Erromanga in the1930s, and this describes the end of a trek across the island.

At last, Philip had emerged from the dark jungle through the line of giant tamanu trees. Through the foliage he was met with a vista of huts along the water’s edge. To his left, the dancing silvery shards of the river Ounpontdi made him stop. 

So this was Potnarvin, lying under the lee of a mountain called Traitor’s Head. He shaded his eyes as he looked upwards. The mountain appeared to rise to what he estimated to be about 3000 feet. Its height was hard to gauge as clouds obscured the peak. As Philip was to find out over the three days of his stay, Traitor’s Head was almost perpetually covered in cloud. The clouds concealed the fact that Traitor’s Head was a volcano. It had not erupted for nearly two hundred years, but had done so twenty-five years after Captain Cook had been there on an exploratory voyage. 

The mountain had received its name from Cook who, on landing on the beach, wondered why such apparently friendly people were armed to the teeth. One of Cook’s muskets had misfired and the friendliness had vanished in an instant. A battle had followed and, before Cook was able to get back to the ship, one of his sailors had been mortally wounded and at least two of the Erromangans lay dead. Philip thought the “Traitor” was an odd choice by Cook, given that he had a meticulous way of naming his discoveries. The Captain was probably just annoyed. “Traitor” did not seem to be the right word, although the incident was certainly prescient of Cook’s future.

The villagers, unlike their ancestors, had welcomed Philip. They seemed to appreciate the quiet tall young white man, who came out onto the beach stopping to look around and unbuckle his rucksack.

Cook’s response was predictable – confrontation with bloodshed. At the time of Cook’s visit, the Erromangans were cannibals, with a strict etiquette concerning where the white man could move around on the beaches where they landed. These rules were transgressed as they were later with the arrival of Presbyterian missionaries. When they crossed this line they were killed. In addition the natives developed quite a taste for Scottish missionaries – haggis?

Purchase a copy of The Sheep of Erromanga! Email enquiry to: SheepofErromanga@gmail.com

The recidivist Carnival

On February 27 this year, a cheery ABC reporter noted:

… the effects of swine flu in the grip of the 2009 pandemic was confronting. This disease affected people who don’t often get the flu, afflicting young adults whose previously healthy lungs became white and cloudy with pneumonia. While most recovered, many did not. By the end of 2009, more than 37,000 Australians had been diagnosed with swine flu. 

More than 190 people were dead. 

Worldwide, the US Centres for Disease Control estimate swine flu killed as many as 575,000 people. Eighty per cent of them were under 65. 

Let’s contrast the swine flu epidemic with the spread of the novel coronavirus — or COVID-19 as it is now known.

The new virus is sweeping through parts of China and infecting small numbers all over the world…

I will not detail some of the learned academic predictions that were criticising our draconian measures e.g. close our borders to China. Their expert advice was just wrong.

Now just what was being reported in the media in the autumn of 2009?

As suspected swine flu cases in the Hunter New England health area jumped to 72 yesterday, a Hunter family quarantined at home after a cruise on virus ship Pacific Dawn slammed the handling of the outbreak. 

The Exxxxxxo family of Thornton was ordered into quarantine on Tuesday, a day after they arrived home from a 10-day cruise on the Pacific Dawn, and only after Mrs Chris Exxxxxxo contacted health authorities.

“There were 2000 or so passengers wandering around who had no idea that they should be avoiding contact with other people.” Mrs Exxxxxxo contacted NSW Health who confirmed the family should be quarantined and was later contacted by P&O Cruises.

As the flu emergency escalates, the Federal Government has ordered enough doses of swine flu vaccine for 10 million Australians. The Exxxxxxo family has spent the past week in lockdown in their home and will not be allowed out until they receive the all-clear on Sunday… 

…When the Pacific Dawn cruise ship docks in Brisbane today, after cutting short its cruise because of the flu threat, the Queensland Government will invoke tough quarantine powers to stop interstate passengers disembarking. Three crew members have tested positive to the virus, but have recovered with treatment. Five passengers await test results. Health officials will screen the ship’s 2000 passengers and 700 crew. Only Queensland residents will be allowed to disembark and will be asked to quarantine themselves for seven days.    

“We are being extremely cautious in our testing arrangements for anybody who presents themselves with flu-like symptoms” Carnival Australia chief executive Ann Sherry said.

Of course, that is what you would say, Ms Sherry, with your winning smile. It is however understood that people with swine flu contracted on Carnival ships may not have agreed.

And then about the same time there was another media release…

Minister for Health, John Della Bosca, today announced NSW would upgrade its Swine Flu protocols for cruise liners who arrived in NSW waters. 

The NSW approach to arriving cruise ships has been developed in consultation with the Commonwealth. 

“When the Pacific Dawn arrived this week, its passengers had not been to any jurisdiction where Swine Flu was present and it was considered unlikely the virus was on the ship,” Mr Della Bosca said. 

“The two children from the Pacific Dawn who have since tested positive for Swine Flu had not travelled overseas before boarding the ship, had no contact with affected countries, and were not considered to be at risk. 

“An additional 16 people from the ship have since been confirmed to have Swine Flu. Six of these people are currently in Queensland. 

“These people have been assessed by public health staff and placed into isolation. 

“Further public health assessment of contacts of these passengers is now underway.”

Similar pattern. Let them all off the boat – she’ll be “jake”. The NSW Chief Health Officer then – the incomparable Kerry Chant.

Unlike COVID-19, a vaccine was rapidly developed for swine flu, (the existing influenza vaccine was partially effective) which then helped contain the viral spread. Nevertheless, on a population basis Australia had the third highest number of cases worldwide. The virus affected the elderly, young children and pregnant women particularly, and spread so rapidly that contact tracing was well nigh impossible. Fortunately, it was not as deadly as initially believed, unlike COVID-19.

In the case of Victoria, it was bought there by a well-to-do Australian family returning from the USA by air. Their children spread it in the two well-known private schools they attended and the spread was accelerated by a “social” dance. Later, its spread was tracked along certain tramlines passing through Bolli-wood a.k.a. Toorak.

It is interesting that although it was first berthed in Victoria, the cruise ship made sure it spread the virus to NSW where the normal laissez-faire attitude (see Chant) predominated. However, in Queensland the Pacific Dawn was refused permission to berth, and the following may be apocryphal but nevertheless it is a good story. A highly-placed Queensland official threatened to order gunboats, a.k.a. whatever Dutton inherited, into the Brisbane River to make sure it did not happen – bit of a wimp the current Premier – only closing the borders.

The Office – viruses thrive on randomness

Some time ago, as I reported previously, well before the COVID-19 outbreak, I was sitting in the foyer of the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne where there was a hand sanitiser predominantly displayed. Virtually everybody entering and leaving the hospital ignored the instructions to clean their hands.

Last week I was waiting in the foyer of Cabrini Hospital in Malvern and next to where I was sitting, near the hospital exit, there was a hand sanitiser. Despite the hospital foyer having all the trappings of virus prevention, this sanitiser was mostly ignored. Yet on the other side of the foyer not five metres away all the preventative measures were in place – maintaining a safe distance in defined queues, temperature and verbal screening, hand sanitiser use being required.

The difference – one side of the foyer was supervised; on the other, no supervision.

The problem with any loosening of the COVID-19 chains is that the new concepts of hygiene are yet to be embedded in the nation. As I have said, the standard of public toilets gives a clue as to how seriously hygiene has been embraced by this country. Driving between the two capital cities this past week for medical appointments, I observed that the toilets along the Hume Highway are just as bad or as average as they have always been. There has been no change except toilet paper has disappeared for various reasons from some of the dispensers.

Having issued this caveat, there is no doubt the underlying strength of the Australian health system has been shown even given some of the dills, often influential, who have tried to disrupt the public health protocols, because that is what they are – dills with a deep-seated sense of entitlement and self-importance – the essence of “Do you know who I am?”

As I wrote last week, there is a good case for the re-opening of schools, and paradoxically Premier Andrews being so hardline means that the other politicians have to be more measured.

Viruses love disorder

The more that you contain the natural community Brownian movement into more laminar flow then the more order you bring to contain the enemy. However, at the same time it must be recognised that open plan and activity-based work spaces designed 20 years ago to maximise the number of occupants were also designed to maximise “random” contact between staff members who were moving around in the workspace. The post-COVID-19 office has to contend with minimising disorder while dealing with now-outdated office planning that maximised apparent randomness.

While the concept of working from home has seemed to solve the problem of halting the viral spread, the evidence of long term efficacy of working from home is mixed. Some may praise its “flexibility” and claim that efficiency has improved, while others use the word “chaos”.

In my mind’s eye I have a hospital operating theatre. Here people are gathered together for hours on end to perform operations and in so doing assuring the patient does not acquire an infection attributable to the operation. The air conditioning must be maintained at such a standard that the air circulating is pure enough for the most complex operation – such as a joint replacement – to be undertaken with the least risk.

In the end, the assumption must be that the post-virus office must be big enough to provide sufficient space for people to congregate while maintaining a certain distance from one another without shouting. Street clothing does not seem to be a major factor in viral spread, but the operating theatre staff do not go into an operating theatre in their street clothes as the nineteenth century surgeons did. They change into their green or blue scrubs, their head covered and mask at hand. And at the operation a further gowning with all the appropriate obedience to the rules takes place, and this ritual is repeated for each patient.

Professor Lindsay Grayson

Professor Lindsay Grayson, the Australian doyen of hand hygiene succinctly summarised the national hand hygiene study after eight years observation in 2017 – The National Hand Hygiene Initiative (NHH) has been associated with significant sustained improvement in hand hygiene compliance and a decline in the incidence of staphylococcus aureus bacteremia (HA-SAB). Key features include sustained central coordination of a standardised approach and incorporation into hospital accreditation standards. The NHHI could be emulated in other national culture-change programmes.”

The challenge to community cleanliness is to accept the challenge for its offices as set down by Professor Grayson.

The new office order

The elements of the new order now are being tested everywhere, have they penetrated into every individual’s brain … at least not yet.

The elements include:

  • Social distancing and limiting the time spent in face-to-fact contact or in a closed space with others
  • Lift etiquette and disinfecting
  • Masks (understanding how and when they should be worn and by whom)
  • Air conditioning
  • Hand hygiene and not touching the face
  • Temperature checks
  • Responsibility for the regular cleaning of one’s designated work area, including equipment such as computer keyboards and phones
  • Regular cleaning of the office, reception, kitchen areas and the toilets
  • Quarantining anybody who shows the slightest sign of a respiratory infection
  • Viral testing
  • Being able to plug into a internal form of contact tracing to identify if employees are not generally within their designated areas (that is, for the purposes of maximum numbers to ensure social distancing)
  • Food outlets
  • Making provision for workers who are at a higher risk

This is part of the equation – the other major element is how to get employees to and from work safely when public transport is designed around maximising the number of passengers and when work hours are not staggered, but that is a future blog.

One of the theoretical advantages has been the advance in communication over the past decade. This has meant that isolated people can see one another – good reliable images of the people. How far that improvement in this distant communication can supplant actual face-to-face contact will give researchers a great deal of time to seek answers. Online meeting platforms will be an essential part of the response to this pandemic.

It is up to those who head the large firms to enforce social distancing – not sitting huge distances away, although appropriate spacing of work areas will be important, but being careful of exchanges – the hand shake, the hug, the kiss on the cheek, borrowing somebody’s pen. It is these social gestures, essentially random, upon which the virus thrives.

There must be an etiquette in the use of lifts, as is occurring in hospitals already, with the maximum number of people prominently displayed. Again this demands discipline.

The meeting room should contain a round table of appropriate size, and the air conditioning should be such that a joint replacement could be performed on the table with little chance of airborne infection. Time spent in closed meeting rooms should be minimised.

This leads to the discussion about planning an office to be open plan or not. As the NYT reported this week: “Some companies have begun mentioning a return to one of history’s more derided office-design concepts: the cubicle. There is talk also of the cubicle’s see-through cousin, known as the sneeze guard.

“Cough and Sneeze Protection Screens,” is how they are being marketed…

Earlier in the article “Soon, there may be a new must-have perk: the sneeze guard. This plexiglass barrier that can be mounted on a desk is one of many ideas being mulled by employers as they contemplate a return to the workplace after coronavirus lockdowns. Their post-pandemic makeovers may include hand sanitizers built into desks that are positioned at 90-degree angles or that are enclosed by translucent plastic partitions; air filters that push air down and not up; outdoor gathering space to allow collaboration without viral transmission; and windows that actually open, for freer air flow. 

All very good, and some of these changes are evident in our hospitals and retail outlets, but it is imperative that offices have a structure to ensure that all the changes are effected. In other words there is a team of enforcers, from the time the person enters the office area initially to use the hand sanitiser to the odd time he or she may use the toilet. You see that sign in the aeroplane toilets to respect the next user by cleaning up after yourself. One can believe that some who use the toilet are blind. After a few hours in the air the said toilet can become unclean because of lax enforcement. The new office will ensure that cleanliness is maintained

Then there is consideration of the material that you use to outfit the office anew. In a NEJM article and combined with another source, it was shown that the virus persisted up to four hours on copper, eight hours on aluminum, 24 hours on cardboard and two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. Elsewhere it has been shown that on glass or wood surfaces, the virus will remain present for up to 4 days.

Reassuringly it has been shown that Covid-19 can be eradicated within one minute by disinfecting surfaces with alcohol, 0.5% hydrogen peroxide, or bleach containing 0.1% sodium hypochlorite.

Watching the thermographic camera in operation while I waited at Cabrini Hospital was an impressive demonstration of its capability, and the question is the number needed and their positioning. Having temperature taken manually is probably more consuming of staff time. Nevertheless the receptionist or however he or she is described must be someone who understands the basic requirements of public health, and it should not be too difficult to arrange an instruction in this. After all, the responsibility extends to ensuring clean toilets, that there is form of “contact tracing” of anybody in the building, with the current chunky badges of identification need to be reviewed.

One of the other matters which follows is how food and drink is dispensed. Bringing your own coffee cup and lunch is an obvious solution. Trialing take-away has been happening in the community, and therefore how the workers obtain their coffee and lunch needs to be mapped. When food and drink is raised, then the spectre of alcohol is also raised. I have some doubt that those affected by drink respect social distance. Then what does the office do with those who smoke, coffee in hand outside the building. As I walked around the outskirts of the Royal Melbourne Hospital last week, even there were numerous staff members in their scrubs outside smoking in corners away from the elements.

Thus in the end someone in the office must be the arbiter deciding who needs to be tested or sent home. There is a certain unrealistic optimism about a vaccine, and clearly the anti-viral drugs do not work on coronavirus. If they did, the cure for the common cold would have been had long ago. As for hydroxychloroquine … be careful Palmer, what is your pitch when the first person dies using that drug rather than killing the virus – go green rather yellow?

Those in business must take a pessimistic view and not believe the vaccine is just around the corner. However, in equal measure they must take an optimist view that careful planning and implementation of a rearranged COVID-19 office space will support both the reopening of business in 2020, but also recognise this will be the “new norm” for the foreseeable future.

As for masks, they may be obligatory in the operating theatres where the operating team are kitted up with sterile gowns and gloves, however in the community I have this image of the Italian smoking, his mask limp around his chin. Masks are ideal to irritate, to touch – as are gloves when the gloved hands are moving from one potentially infected surface to another. Masks thus can be a definition of false security as are latex gloves – only as clean as the last touch.

In the end, the broader community has to come to an understanding of what is needed to provide a safe working environment because the changes that are needed cannot be achieved without everyone giving up some personal “freedoms”. At the same time reliance on pre-COVID-19 legislation to direct the ways things were done won’t cut it any more. Governments have to review all their relevant legislation to make sure they don’t allow sloppy hygiene to continue.

This is whither I have arrived – a personal exercise calling on what seems to be a reasonable allotment of information in turn to provide a reasonable allotment of advice.

Mouse Whisper

I was self-isolating outside my mousehole when I looked up at my mausmeister’s television and saw a man called Nev who turned up on the screen. He seems to reflect this economic imperative, which is taking over from the lingering pandemic, as his mates are getting restless. Doctors should stick to the hospitals was the secondary unvoiced agenda.

Pardon my meek mousiness by addressing you as Nev. I thought I heard it correctly that you said there will not be another pandemic – you will make sure it does not happen again? (see above). Hope the viruses are listening.

You know Nev, you, the bloke who maybe can’t see the trees for the Forrest.

Danse Macabre