Modest Expectations – Joasaph 1

Writing a blog over the Easter weekend, I realised this year has brought together three religions – Easter, Passover and Ramadan.  Once, Good Friday was a closed holiday for Christians. You vaguely knew the Jews had a festival about that time. Ramadan? Who had heard of Ramadan!

I was born into a Christian country. No multiculturalism in this Australia – and that went for the Aboriginal people as well.

In my mind, from when I was a child, it was a day of mourning. You ate fish, which was generally South African cod, that orange smoked hake which, when poached, provided a ritual assault on your taste buds. You stayed at home after church. It was a day bereft of any jollification.

I remember I once went to a vigil at midnight at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, which is the nearest Anglican Church in Melbourne to liturgically resemble the Roman Catholic Church. It is a beautiful church tucked away on the fringes of East Melbourne and Fitzroy. I went there on impulse near midnight on Maundy Thursday, on my way home when I was living in East Melbourne. I was walking alone and feeling somewhat hollow.

The church was dark with guttering candles. In the indigo darkness, I could make out a number of shadows praying and in the poor light I could distinguish one young woman, who was deeply bowed and obviously upset. I kneeled some way from her in the row of pews behind, but she maintained the expression. She did not sob, nor utter a sound. It seemed that she had been consumed by the moment of a figure with a crown of thorns weighed under the Cross he bore. In the darkness it was the only time I felt I was a bystander, watching somebody consumed, almost living the event in her mind. I stood up and left. The hollowness had not left me; I did not sleep well for the remainder of the night.

Now, years on, Good Friday is the first day of a holiday with hot cross buns and very little religion. The Crucifixion story is too grim, and any media coverage is minimal amid the flush of sporting events and other recreational activities around some Easter leporine vermin encased in chocolate.

This Easter, the airlines certainly injected a bit of pain on the road to the airline seat, maybe invoking the need to have the crowning thorn of too few staff to handle the crowd. How beautifully the airlines converted the departure lounges to a road trudging towards a new Golgotha.

Maundy Money

Maundy is the Thursday before Easter and celebrates the day of the Last Supper; “maundy” refers to Jesus’ commandment to the disciples to “Love one another as I have loved you.” Maundy is a corruption of the Latin for command – “mando” – which incidentally also means “chew” – hence the lower jaw – mandible – and thus another association with the Last Supper. Jesus was actually celebrating the Seder, the ritual meal in which the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt is celebrated by Jews marking the start of Passover.

Maundy Thursday follows a giving of alms to the poor, a practice commenced by King John. The nature of the alms has changed, settling for these coins given by the British sovereign to the “deserving poor” in a number of sets equivalent to the age of the monarch in each year. In 1902 Edward had just succeeded his mother and was 60 years old, and while that number was distributed at the Royal Maundy service, a great many more sets were minted – and therefore the value of a set, in good order has varied, but currently it is around AUS$250 for a 1902 set.

Although the coins are ensconced in an impressive case, mine is probably one of the surplus issue. As far as I can ascertain, it was given to my mother by a well-heeled lady called Mrs Wynne, for whom my mother was companion for several years. All very lavender scented and chintz.

My mother acquired some of the woman’s memorabilia, but the Maundy money seems to be the only remaining legacy. I vaguely remember my mother talking about her retiring finally to Bribie Island in Queensland, but my mother never visited her, although they may have corresponded.

The Member for Grayndler

Edward Grayndler

Edward Grayndler seemed to have been a reasonably competent if conservative union bureaucrat within the AWU, as it emerged from the Shearers strike of 1890. He opposed World War 1 conscription, but this opposition to Billy Hughes did not seem to harm his relationship with successive conservative governments. For most of his later life he was a member of the NSW Upper House, and the only impression he seems to have left was on the cushioned seat of the legislature. 

His legacy – an electorate named after himself. But for how long, given there is a whole conga-line of present prime ministers from NSW who, as part of their requiem, will have electorates named after each of them in NSW. In the offing, once interred, are Keating, Howard, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison. NSW will have at least five newly-named electorates over the next 30 years or so – if the planet lasts that long.

And Anthony Albanese, the current member for Grayndler?

I live in the electorate and have just received a technicolour brochure spruiking the life of the Honourable Albanese. I have never seen him, but as somebody said about being polled by Gallup, the man himself replied that you would be more likely to be hit by a bolt of lightning. To which the other said that she had been struck by lightning.  Well, it may happen – I may meet my local member, but I’m probably more likely to be struck by a bolt of lightning.

The problem with Albanese is that he, as he proclaims in his brochure, has been in Federal Parliament for 26 years, and yet one may ask what has he done, what is his legacy? Turn to the brochure. He has provided an effective voice – bit of nonsense, worthy of Morrison. So, we read on … the tear-jerked deprived background is wearing a bit thin, as is the fact that he went to university before entering the political web to perfect the spin which seems to be Albanese – the Brochure.

When people say they do not know him, are they really saying that he has never done anything, never had an original thought in his life and moved round the web because he did not offend anybody, married another member of the web, procreated, divorced? Just an ordinary bloke from the suburbs.

But no, he wants the electorate to think of him as exceptional – deputy to Rudd – he, the first Minister for Infrastructure.  “In the depth of the Global Financial Crisis, Labor knew that Australia needed to build its way to recovery.” Pause. And so?

Then the drumroll – the achievement – supporting our craft brewers, no less.  Set out in his brochure, he points out that he actually introduced a Private Members Bill to reform excise tax, and in his own words “end discrimination”. Reducing excise on grog is somewhat at odds with his first week of campaigning which concentrated on health matters.

The first health thought bubble – the idea of having a registered nurse 24/7 in all nursing homes. This would require six registered nurses as a practical minimum for each nursing home; and in the current environment such a number is just not feasible – at least not immediately, despite the announcement that he, Albanese, will create thousands of university and TAFE places (although this was an afterthought to the GP emergency clinic idea). Where is the work experience for such a huge number, even if training could be rapidly expanded to cope?

Then this revival of the community health clinic, the variation of a general practitioner clinic attached to the emergency department. There is an underlying fallacy in this approach, which I shall expand on separately, but the Labor Party has received poor advice. The policy then only suggests 50 such clinics across Australia, hardly a generalisable policy in any event. This area, to those without experience in the field, may pass muster, but only in the nature of “Penguin Book Policy” that I mentioned in an earlier blog as the moniker for uninformed policy announcements.

What really put Albanese at a disadvantage with people who were looking for a viable alternative to Morrison was, on the first day of the campaign, the gigantic stumble in not knowing either the unemployment rate and, more disastrously in my view the cash rate, which has not changed for 17 months from 0.1 per cent. It did not get any better from there and makes one wonder, given the history from Beazley onwards, where does the Labor Party go for its models of leadership?

As I write this blog on Easter Sunday, maybe Albanese will start to rise to the task; and the proposal for an Integrity Commission is a very good place for him to start.

One thing he should remember is to pick on the topic where the Government is vulnerable and then hammer it. Add a pinch of climate change and the country being held to ransom by the very wealthy “oligarchs”, whose wealth has been tied up in fossil fuels, and the formula becomes stronger. However, whether Albanese can dispense this prescription will unfold over the next little while.

A Fraying Health Policy

The Labor policy to set up a stream of 50 general practitioner clinics to “treat patients needing urgent care including for broken bones, minor burns and stitches for cuts” is the same old policy under a different name – remember the investment in such community health clinics – the one stop shop. The pilot for general practice under the reign of Nicola Roxon was in Cootamundra, where the local general practitioner convinced the government to invest in a one stop shop clinic, next to the hospital. It has not been mentioned in the new Labor party policy and when I looked at the practice today, they still had six doctors and a general practice registrar. It seemed a conventional general practice and the waiting time to see the doctor seems to be currently two weeks – and no weekend work. So much for the pilot program.

When I devised the “Murray to the Mountains” intern training program in North-East Victoria early in the last decade, I planned that each intern would spend 20 weeks in general practice in their first year, and the practices were linked to the local hospital, where they would be confronted with emergencies as well as consolidating their medical, surgical and emergency terms at the local regional hospital. As many of the regional specialists visited these general practice health services, this model enabled the interns to gain even more experience. There were none of these extravagant waiting times to see a doctor and weekends were covered.

After all, an intern should be able to resuscitate and stabilise a patient with a medical or surgical emergency until they patient can be transferred to the appropriate medical service. The visiting geriatrician was able to take them around the nursing home to teach them how to treat the chronically ill.

Internship is a time for developing the experience and skills in how to deal with emergencies and incorporate the skills learned early into the doctor’s practice. Needless to say, being able to work with other health professionals, as distinct from just telling everyone what to do, is a skill which the interns learn in such a program. Many of the overseas trained male doctors had problems with women being considered equal and that was an issue confronted. On the other hand, after one of the specialists asked an intern why he was not eating, this led to a regionwide program to understand Ramadan among the non-Muslim health professionals to avoid such a question in the future.

A policy which assumes that a form of community health centre can relieve the hospitals of the burden of small surgical procedures is naïve in the extreme, given what has failed in the past. The more realistic demand is to ensure that all general practitioners have a basic set of skills to deal with emergencies (hence the program to ensure the interns have equal exposure to all basic skills).

The “Murray to the Mountains” Intern Training Program is ongoing, with checks and balances regularly set which eliminate that I-will-scratch-your-back-if you-scratch-mine mindset, which needs weeding out periodically from general practice. In other words, if you have an organised practice, as many do have, you can roster any of the doctors to cope with any emergency that arises, and be assured of a similar basic skill set. In the unlikely case of needing more, you will have a second on call. In the end, there will always be the unpredictable disaster, when you need everybody to help, but be assured that each person is able to be the frontline response in such a situation. It is a matter of priority in such situations.

Whatever you call it, community practice is medicine practised by a group with a patient catchment that the doctors themselves accept as reasonable. The service must be assured for 24/7. The problem is that these days one person practices are just non-viable, because in addition to struggling to provide essential locum cover when required, they fail to deal with the basic challenges of practice which I enunciated years ago – social dislocation, professional isolation, community tolerance and succession planning.

In most areas, professional succession planning is completely ignored or done badly. The thought of retirement in many cases is always a situation which doctors hate to confront until too late.

Community tolerance is the ability to integrate with the local community while maintaining professional integrity. When everybody knows everybody else, privacy is very difficult to maintain, but a medical record is not something for the parish noticeboard. Professional isolation is one area which has been addressed, but social dislocation (as I defined it, where the spouse or partner refuses to come with you or where you need to send the offspring off to school) is a matter of the family choice, which may not accord with the practice objectives. And do not underestimate the fear of rural life for those who had not had the opportunity to be socialised by stints with country relatives as a child.

I have experienced medical care in a remote part of Tasmania. I needed the visit from a paramedic, not a doctor, at four in the morning. The paramedic had to come from a neighbouring town. He was quicker in responding than was the case with a similar call in Sydney, where the paramedic came from another suburb. What would a community health service along the ephemeral good-feel media announcement done for me – in a word nothing – at least not at 4.00 am as the paramedic did.

Albanese’s follow up thought that there be 20,000 new university places and extra TAFE places does nothing to reassure … at best it would take around 4-5 years for non-medical graduates and 6-7 years for medical graduates to be available for such clinics. Yet another workforce issue.

The problem with these announcements is that they are ill thought out, and the money ends up in some entrepreneur’s pocket – close to the political party promoting the policy bubble.  Sound familiar, mate?

Tell me where I can charge the electric car

I want somebody to tell me when electric cars will be available. In the doggerel; this year, next year, sometime, never. “Never” seems to be the winner. Everybody says that, according to the populace at large, climate change is of overwhelming importance.

As somebody for whom a car has been a utilitarian means of going from one point to other, the rise of the electric car has been of interest.

Electric car sales in Australia only represent 0.78% of new cars, compared to Norway at 75% and the world average of 4.2%.

Our car is diesel. It is a Citroen C4, been reliable and for somebody who is disabled, surprisingly friendly. Nevertheless, it runs on diesel fuel and, at some time in the near future, we shall have to change to an electric car. When we enquire from the car dealers, they say there is no incentive for the car manufacturers to import cars into Australia. In fact, there were plans to dump fossil fuel driven cars in Australia because of the Government’s reluctant climate policy. Given Australia has no car industry, a casualty of globalisation, we are prisoners of fortune.

My interest was stimulated by an article in the Boston Globe, which canvassed the effect of the electric car in Massachusetts with its population of 7 million people. In America, they are still expensive in relation to the fossil fuelled cars; and importantly they estimate that they have only a quarter of the approximately 20,000 charging sites that are needed – for a population concentrated and about a quarter of our own population.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that fast charging cannot be done domestically, the required voltage is too great. Then there is a need to ensure that the electric car one buys is equipped with a plug for fast charging. There are about 300 fast charging stations in Australia, but some can only be used for Tesla cars at present. Given that it takes half an hour to charge a car, even using a fast charger, there is just no incentive for Australians to buy electric cars. It will need a massive investment, and nobody is prepared to invest in such a venture.

In Massachusetts, there are several legislative proposals designed to ease the financial stress of buying an EV for Massachusetts residents. One bill would expand the current state rebates for electric cars and extend them to used cars. Another would create more incentives for low- and moderate-income households, authorise more funding for the state’s rebate program, and expand the public charging infrastructure.

Tell me I’m wrong, but here we go again throwing money away on a Commonwealth Games and an Olympic Games – our politicians can’t get out of the “bread and circuses” routine; for them the end point is being able to view the circus from the emperor’s box sipping champagne and munching canapés.

It really is a bit pathetic; building one sporting venue after another when Australia needs to seriously address climate change – and the electrification of our cars, trucks and buses is just one of the priorities to accommodate this need. This is a nation with a trillion-dollar debt, financing an indulgent yet flimsy infrastructure so a few of one’s mates can own expensive jets, buy huge boats to cruise The Mediterranean and when the day is done, après-ski at Aspen.

Reminds me of the late Peter Sarstedt song “Where do you go to my Lovely” … could be the anthem of this country as it flounces towards oblivion.

God what were they thinking – Shock Horror

Who would have thought? There is the photo taken of me peering through the sunflowers outside florista just before tucking into a lunch of passatelli – a form of ragú – washed down with a Piedmontese red. Drinking such a wine reminded us that we had come into one of the smallest self-governing republics in the world and reputedly the oldest, being founded in 301 AD. This was San Marino, wedged between the regions of Emilio Romagna and Marche, a leisurely drive from our favourite city in Italy, Ravenna. After Nauru, it is the smallest Republic on Earth.

San Marino

Like many of these tiny European countries it exists on rocky outcrop and has survived all the vicissitudes over the centuries of a city-state weathering the ambitions of the Borgias, the imperial dreams of Napoleon and a brief occupation by the German army during World War II. One of the souvenirs is to have a San Marino euro, even although it is not part of the EU.

The republic has just appointed as one of its two Captain Regents, Paolo Rondelli.  A true Sammarinese, he is the first openly gay Head of State. There are openly gay heads of government in Ireland, Luxembourg, Serbia, and Iceland, but no Head of State.

Australia has a way to go – Morrison and Hurley do not exactly fill the bill of the first openly gay Prime Minister and Governor General in the Southern Hemisphere.

Nevertheless, as a head of government, Don Dunstan, as South Australian Premier from the late 1960s, was way ahead of the field of legislators in the Gay Stakes. Pity the Labor Party do not have anyone of that calibre now.

Mouse Whisper

I read this exchange as I trawled through the eek-mail to find this exchange: 

Well J 

Indeed surströmming has a very special stink, most portraits of consumers include a clothes peg on their nostrils. 

The fermented stench is reserved for closed groups and needs booze in quantity as well as a special mood.  Not possible to serve in restaurants if you want to keep your other customers 

Cheers 

 M

Earlier:

M

“To the Swedes, there are few odours more delectable than the scent of surströmming…to most non-Swedes there are probably few odours more repulsive.”

This was in April 9 copy of The Economist page 64. I can’t remember this on any Swedish menu – I associate this with Iceland.

J

Dressed for dinner …

Modest Expectations – West of Liverpool

I have just watched Dr Paul Kelly, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, again on television this week. As we stagger out of this two year spotlight on this bloody virus, Australia will eventually realise how much it owes to this guy, whose calmness among the brouhaha of scientific advice has always known where the horizon is. I hope he can pass on this undoubted skill in his stewardship of public health. 

Nowhere to Hide in Unalloyed Comfort

Tannery

I was reading a text about pollution of a river in Brazil, the Rio Tiete, which runs through São Paulo, and is very polluted in places. One of the words even my young language teacher was unfamiliar with was “curtumes” – the word for tanneries.

I thought how familiar would the average young punter be with the word tannery. There would be some who might believe a tannery is where you go to lie on a tanning bed and stimulate the growth of your malignant melanomas.

How many young people would know what a tannery is?

Tanning animal hides was undertaken as far back as Neanderthal man, and  involves turning animal hides, particularly deer, into leather. Neanderthal man learnt to soften the hides by recognising the efficacy of animal fat, particularly bear, as well as bone marrow and brain. Thus, tanning has always been a messy business. Surplus skin was boiled together with other animal parts into glue.  A totally unpleasant process perpetuated for eons.

However, in the city of my youth, if there was a distinctive unpleasant smell, generally there would be an abattoir around. Tanning hides also involves the use of arsenic, formaldehyde and other pollutants that used to be dumped in a nearby river.

The importance of leather was never more emphasised to me than in the following anecdote. I  remember some years ago a vegan said the only animal product for which he, the vegan, had not found an adequate substitute was shoe leather. However, today it seems mushroom mycelia, banana and pineapple leaves, paper and cork are apparently now favoured as plasticised replacements. The petrochemical industry seems to have pushed the tannery aside.

As a result of all the pressures, there are few tanneries left in this country and the export market for hides has fallen away over the past decade. China, as it does with most polluting industries, leads in tanning, but the biggest exporter of leather is Italy.  It was the link through the leather trade (China to Italy) that facilitated COVID-19’s invasion of Europe via Chinese leather workers who had been brought in to work on the production of shoes and other leather accessories in Northern Italy – and the rest is history.

The tannery is a declining industry; but the stannary represents an even more distant industry. My ancestors came from one of three stannary towns in Devon – Ashburton. This place name is my great-grandparent’s headstone. Tin was first mined in Mesopotamia and there is much speculation as to the origin of tin mining.  The history books assure us the Ascent of Humankind passed from stone to bronze age, which means that tin was a very early metal discovered and used, alloyed with copper to form bronze.

An extensive examination of tin mining in Cornwall and Devon, published in 1908, summed up the plight of the stannary: The smelters are still at the present day the purchasers of the ore of the stannaries, and the antiquated and in some respects apparently unjust business relations between smelter and tinner are responsible for a share of the depression which has rested for a number of years on the tin mines of Cornwall.

The stannary, even in primitive form, was where tin was smelted and thus had played an important part of our early ancestors’ existence. Here, for many centuries, Devon and Cornwall were extremely important revenue producing vehicles, and it is not by chance that the Prince of Wales holds the purse strings of the Duchy of Cornwall. The towns, both in Devon and Cornwall, where the most important centres of tin mining were located; they were called Stannary Towns, a quaint appellation that still exists today. We are reminded of them by the increasing number of minor celebrities who ramble around Britain in TV docos – the remains of tin mining in these two counties always scores a mention.

The Duchy Palace which housed Cornwall’s Stannary Parliament

As for stannary, well it apparently comes from a Cornish word “steyn”, corrupted from the Latin word “stannum”. It should be noted that although we have one of the largest underground tin mines in the world on the West Coast of Tasmania, there are no stannaries, or re-named as tin smelters, in Australia. Our stannic concentrates have to be shipped to Indonesia, Malaysia – and, wait for it, China – to be refined. China has the largest tin deposits in the world, in an industry which, a decade or so ago, was nearly destroyed by the formation of an unsustainable cartel.

So, what’s in a name – tannery or stannary? Progress?

The Premier Pirouette

Pirouettes may be executed singly or as multiple rotations; the latter is commonly performed in the adagio part of a grand pas de deux.

There are many variations of pirouettes.

Watching the flourish of the new NSW Premier with the curious name is to watch an anarchist without the black flag. Unlike that anarchic atavar Tolstoy, he may not yet believe that following the teachings of Jesus and practising non-violence would lead to the collapse of the state and the capitalist economy, but perhaps he would subscribe to the first part.

Now an anarchic mind at work.  I applaud his decision to abandon hotel quarantine.

Hotel quarantine was a stratagem to tide the hotel industry over during the pandemic, but it has lasted longer than expected and the longer the hotel quarantine has been used, the more its frailty has emerged. Only the decision to limit to a dribble the number of people coming to Australia has masked the inadequacy of hotel quarantine.

I applaud his decision to abandon sign language at media conferences. This American import is a means of communication for less than 20,000. For many viewers, it is irritating pantomime, and there is the particularly objectionable sight at Queensland Government press conference where this hulking figure overpowers the conference with his flamboyant gesturing. Just read the subtitles.

I believe that the NSW Premier’s decision to open the borders is consistent with this anarchic progress; but we shall see. The border closure has been peppered with such phrases as “fortress” and “freedom” and “hermit” and the jargon of follow-the-leader journalism”, all words within the anarchist’s lexicon.

As one anarchist has written, freedom is a slippery character. Individual freedoms are tempered by exercising the freedom of one’s will over that of others. Here anarchy of individual freedom runs up against the authoritarian view of imposing their definition of freedom on others. Here the Pirouette, while mouthing the desire to ensure that no one can use institutional structures to deny individual freedoms, exercises absolute authority.

Pirouette or Whirling Dervish

He has pirouetted away from the public health physicians as his soothsayers. He perceives their academic, often contradictory discourse  is increasingly bamboozling the healthy illiterate. The Chief Health Officer now may read the daily COVID figures as though she were reading the Landline weather report, without any media one day and then let loose with her own media conference on another day.

It was interesting to see the Governor-elect of Queensland, in response to the NSW announcement of opening of international borders, shrilly shroud-waving for perhaps the last time. Everybody in Queensland will get the Virus was her dire prediction. For the Queensland Premier, everybody will get vaccinated; something the departing Chief Health Officer has left in her “To Do” basket.

The danger in all this pirouetting is that the importance of public health maybe downgraded. Fortunately, if the media loses interest in providing all and sundry with a microphone, Australia will settle down.

The importance of therapeutic agents has meant that Australia is creating a backup drug stockpile – the efficacy of their actions presumably titrated against the actual need (rather than that of the pharmaceutical companies needing to flog these cures), cost and ease of administration.

The therapeutic agents are no replacement for vaccination. The danger of this approach is exemplified by a well-to-do architect, unvaccinated as is the Texan way, who contracted a severe form of the Virus and was treated by a cocktail of these drugs and survived. He had been very sick and was now, at the time of interview, recovered and considering whether he should be vaccinated. Still ambivalent, despite the severity of his disease.

The problem, as pointed out to him, was that these drugs may assist your recovery from one infection, but they do not prevent you from succumbing to the Virus again. Even having recovered from COVID-19, vaccination is still the ideal choice since it provides a significant boost to antibody levels and hence a more consistent immunity.

Fortunately, we do not have any of our leaders beholden to Trump, and so vaccination hesitancy is not a component of our recovery. Nevertheless, the introduction of drugs which do work should assist in pushing aside the quackery as exemplified by advocacy of hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin and zinc.

The ongoing problem is the requirement for suitable quarantine facilities although this raises the whole question of the number of quarantine places needed, especially if home quarantine is found wanting. The facilities in Victoria and Queensland are being constructed. They will be built in order to reduce the claustrophobia of the current hotel quarantine. At the same time, access to open air should be much better than the artificiality and variability of  air conditioned environments.

These facilities provide a reserve power for each State where quarantine is still required. After all, the troubling yet not unexpected appearance of a variant on the Delta variant reinforces the need for such facilities now and into the future.

Five rapid antigen tests (two saliva and three nasal) have been approved by the TGA for use from 1 November (although with no information yet about how they may be used). Rapid antigen tests are already being used in a variety of settings, including aged care facilities, for film and TV production and at the Howard Springs quarantine facility when it was run by the Commonwealth government.  Responsible use of these testing kits (meaning you don’t hide positive tests) will assist in quarantine and the ability to travel in accord with the rules being imposed by the various State jurisdictions. That’s the theory anyway.

Such an approach works when there is a sense of responsibility and not the selfishness and ignorance, particularly rampant among that cohort of young men with a high level of these two qualities. Youth is bullet proof until death occurs, and then there is the spectacle of tears and flowers and roadside crosses – until the bulletproof vest of youth corrodes with age. Then it is government’s responsibility to pick up the pieces.

Until the sense of community responsibility evens out, then the community must have quarantine facilities to provide a place to curb this restlessness and self-indulgence. I wonder whether anybody in the youthful NSW government has thought this requirement through.

There are other problems, the first is how to deal with waning immunity. This is the next frontier. Fortunately, the question of the appropriate time for a booster after double dose vaccination, is being addressed and appears to have been agreed as six months.

In the long term, any time less than a year for a booster will become tiresome.  The whole inconvenience of being vaccinated in the first place may have been overcome for now. Regular vaccination should become part of assuring the public health of the community. The addition of boosters should continue the same mixture of incentives, including fear, which have shown to be successful in the current rate of vaccination in Australia, although maintaining the 80-90 per cent vaccination rate beyond this year will be a significant challenge – hence, the current discussion about retaining mandated vaccination.

Similarly, there is consideration of immunisation for children from five years to 12 years; what is the plan if the Pfizer application is approved by the FDA in America? Does the Therapeutic Goods Administration then provide approval without delay, followed by the blessing of ATAGI? In other words, there are strands of policy coursing through the veins of the Commonwealth Health Department, without any obvious connection to the various State’s programs on vaccination rates, as though that is the end point rather than an important interim stage.

The main problem with pirouetting, it does not necessarily mean progress, however extravagant, graceful and flamboyant.  And once the pirouetting stops then what is next for the unresolved challenges broached above.

It did not take long for the pirouette to resume. At the end of the week, I have been confounded and am now agog – the proposal for funding towards the manufacture of mRNA vaccines in NSW.  Just out of the Ether?

Building Links in Northern Ireland is better without Bunkers

Let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character; when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done. – Robert Emmet from the Dock 1803.

To me, it will always be Derry. I remember walking the ramparts of Derry, being watched by security cameras. It was one of those drizzly grey days – the ramparts are grey and the view over Derry is grey, except for the wall murals, the futurist slashes of colour, the stark black and white merging in the greyness of Bloody Sunday.  This is the tapestry of the Troubles. I was here well after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement had brought an uneasy truce to Northern Ireland.

Derry mural

Walking round, overlooking the Bogside, here was I, an Irish Nationalist sympathiser who had never had the courage of my convictions to ever voice them. Like myself, Robert Emmet was not a Roman Catholic but passionate about the Irish being a free nation, even with all its gross imperfections. At various stages, I have thought about obtaining Irish citizenship, because my grandfather was born in Ireland, which made me eligible. In the end, although I have sung the Irish national anthem many times, you can only owe allegiance to one country, and that – for better or for worse – is Australia.

My first encounter with The Troubles was in the eighties when I travelled across the border from Donegal into Fermanagh to the border town of Belleek, famous for its porcelain. Crossing the border I passed by these sentry boxes manned by British troops. I showed my passport and was asked what I was doing. “Tourist” can be difficult to sustain as an excuse, given that I was driving an uncommon route for tourists and, as I learnt later, this was a road used by the IRA to travel between the two countries.

Belleek porcelain is not to my taste. Wandering around the factory was interesting.  It was only later when I drove down the deserted road after leaving Belleek, with Lough Erne below, that I started to feel distinctly uneasy. Even though the clouds were low, the view was superb.  Despite the niggling anxiety, I stopped to take photos, and every time I did so, I had this feeling of being watched. Yet, looking around, there was nothing to see.

Even then, the roads in Northern Ireland were far better than on the other side of the border. It is strange that I noticed this, but I needed to pass through Enniskillen. I remembered I filled up the petrol tank here. As I recall, it was the time between the first and second Enniskillen bomb attacks. On each occasion many were killed, both soldiers and civilians. Needless to say, I did not take in the sights of Enniskillen.

I suppose looking back, I was glad to find refuge over the border back in the Republic in Co Cavan, where I stopped to buy Cavan crystal glasses and a crystal bear. I had traversed Co Fermanagh and nothing had happened, but then most of the time nothing does happen. Nevertheless, there is always the apprehension that something may happen, even when you are sympathetic, as I have been, even siding with the Republican cause. Yet irrespective of my sympathies if it had been the IRA operatives who stopped me on the road, demanding to know my business – they would have, in all probability, enacted their version of Jedburgh justice – shoot me first, try me later.

But then there was a still small voice, which said, “pull yourself together, don’t be so dramatic, boyo, you’re not on the stage of the Abbey Theatre.”

Donald Trump’s Bizarre Obsession

In 2016, presidential candidate Trump challenged a critic, Mayor Sadiq Khan of London: “Let’s do an IQ test,” as if intelligence testing were a board game, or an arm wrestling match.

Lately, Trump has been tossing around his crazy epithet “low IQ,” as in “very low-IQ individual Robert De Niro” or “low-IQ Mika Brzezinski.” I wonder if anyone other than De Niro’s mother has ever fretted about her son’s being “mentally” challenged. He’s a great actor; does he need great board scores too?

Trump is not the first politician to ply these waters. In 1987, then-Presidential candidate Joe Biden lashed out at a questioner, saying, “I think I have a much higher I.Q. than you do.” Biden then proceeded to make Trumpian, i.e. false, claims about finishing in the top half of his law school class.

I suppose most people want to be thought of as intelligent, and we know Trump is manically insecure about almost everything. Anyone who has to boast that he is “really smart” and “a very stable genius” calls attention to his intellectual vulnerability.

Why? There’s no evidence that Trump is an idiot; indeed, quite the contrary. He’s obviously lazy, preferring the intellectual slurry of television to the written word. He may have suffered the expected mental erosion of a 72-year-old (Sic)*, but he’s not slow.

*Trump was born in 1946 and thus is 75.

This above extract from The Boston Globe was somewhat ruminative; it is as though one of the senior staff at The Boston Globe had a space to fill and wrote this piece, while at the same time reminding us of Biden’s mental frailty (a situation which has always troubled me).

The analysis of Trump reminds us of the fact that mental deterioration afflicts everybody to some degree, and whether IQ is a valid measurement or not when you age; it is still there to check some level of functioning. As such it may give some solace to Trump if he wanted to demonstrate his mental prowess.

Trump is such a narcissistic personality that I doubt that he would submit himself to an IQ test.  Even if he did and the test did not validate his boast, then he would say that those administering the test had falsified the results or stolen his brain or anything that came into the confabulating gap in his 75 year old cerebrum.

I did an online IQ test, finishing the 20 questions well within the allotted time. My score was 108.  So, I am just average Giacomo, but I do have visual perception in the top one per cent. That’s great because I can perceive the light at the end of the tunnel as that hooded chap with a sickle waving a lantern. The problem is that I am not smart enough to calculate the length of the tunnel.

Mouse Whisper

A Liverpool merchant called John Bellingham shot dead the UK Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, in the halls of the Houses of Parliament on 11 May 1812.  Bellingham was summarily executed a week later at Newgate Prison.

As written, after Perceval’s death, the Parliament made generous provisions for his widow and children and approved the erection of a monument in Westminster Abbey.

Thereafter his ministry was soon forgotten, his policies reversed; there was no hand wringing by Parliamentarians and consequent acts of government to enhance security to further alienate their constituents by the erection of portcullises and attendance by armed guards. He was, after all, the Prime Minister when there was not a hungry security industry to feed and community fear to be cynically provoked.

As for us rodents, Mouseilini was the last of ours to be drowned in a vat of warfarin – or rather in a rat sack.

Modest Expectations – Calling the Cayman Islands

There are certain misuses of words, some of which make me shudder. I once wrote an essay abut the misuse of “disinterest”, frequently used wrongly to express “uninterest”, rather than used in its true meaning of being unbiassed. “Uninterest” admittedly is an ugly word.  “Disinterest” has bounced around in the English lexicon, at various stages indeed meaning lack of interest and, given the way the word is now being used, we are destined for another period of change in the meaning of disinterest back to a lack of interest. The transition of such a change in meaning may only generate uninterest if any disinterested observer can be bothered.

My word of the moment is “visitation”. I was reminded of the dubious use of the word by Dom, the new NSW Premier. From behind his glittering glasses, he announced that he would be making visitations. Now you and I are mere mortals and thus make visits. “Visitations” are somewhat different. I have never made a visitation. Why?

A visitation: The Embrace of Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary

“Visitation” was first defined in about 1300 (sic), “a visit by an ecclesiastical representative to examine the condition of a parish or abbey” It was derived from Anglo-French visitacioun, based on the Latin visitatio. The supernatural sense of “a sight, apparition, a coming of God to a mortal” arises the middle of the 14th century.

On second thoughts, given his proclivities, maybe it did mean “visitation”. The ghosts (or spirits) must conform to social distancing even though they’ve all been wearing masks for years.

Avoca Hotel

Now who would have thought it?

Avoca Hotel has been included in a pilot scheme on “opening up” Victoria for the fully vaccinated in the wake of the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

My association with the pub started when I was rung up by my cousin and informed that Uncle Frank had died. It was the summer of ‘72. Frank, one of my mother’s seven brothers, had died and the funeral service would be at Redbank in Central Victoria. Would I like to join him and go to the funeral?

Redbank Cemetery

The service and burial would be at Redbank, near Avoca near the graveyard. Avoca was the main township in the then Pyrenees Shire, which was the only local government area in Victoria to have a mountain range to itself. That was not quite true because this line of hills was only a spur of the Great Dividing Range.

Frank lived in Avoca and on his small property in the township he kept a flock of sheep.  Since he needed to feed them, he used the Long Paddock which, in this context, was all the roadside vegetation across the Shire and beyond. As a consequence it was affectionately known – through gritted teeth – as Egan’s Paddock. So, we went first to Avoca to pay our respects to his widow, who was too frail to attend the service.

After his funeral, everybody stood around, every now and again peering into the grave, as if they wanted to make sure there was nobody knocking to get out. My cousin’s black humour; not mine. Someone said that it was good to see how many people had turned up for Frank’s funeral, because there wouldn’t be a funeral for 60 miles around that Frank would not have attended.

I remember his youngest brother, Charlie, turned up, with braces over his collarless shirt, looking as if he had just come from shearing sheep on the family property. Charlie said he had problems with his eyes. I did not connect that with why he hadn’t donned normal funeral clobber.

The yarning would have gone on endlessly if the fire bell hadn’t sounded. There was smoke over the hill, and anyway we close relatives wanted to get down to the Avoca pub for a drink. I had never met Uncle Frank, but his son-in-law, known as “Webbie” still touched me for a tenner so he could buy a slab of beer.

When I reflect on that, we were drinking at the pub, so why the extra booze?

There was a great deal of merriment remembering the Frankish eccentricities. Uncle Gordon, who was the eldest brother, a great bloke and a WW1 digger, distinguished himself by drinking one too many and slipping off the bar stool. Fortunately he was caught by us before he hit the floor.

That was my memory of the Avoca pub – the wake for Frank; and of course I never saw my tenner again.

Since that time the area has become well-known for its wines. I remember the first vintages including the brilliant Warrenmang red, with the peppermint taste.

As for the Avoca pub, it has gone a bit upmarket since that summer day so long ago when we buried Frank Egan and drank to his memory.

The Two-Edged Chief Health Officer Role

Continuing on a theme that I have maintained, but undoubtedly one that is difficult to put in place now that two States have been exhausted by the lockdowns – namely selected segregation … quarantine is another word for segregation; imprisonment is another.

It is noteworthy that of all the States, Queensland is building a custom-made quarantine facility at Toowoomba. Queensland has survived by imposing a series of mini-lockdowns, yet neither NSW nor Victoria has dedicated quarantine facilities. Victoria is ostensibly building one, but it has not got much media attention. Of course, NSW has done nothing.

The problem is that politicians are consumed by the short term, and their advisers only reinforce the views of their political masters. Increasingly health policy should be concerned with the preventative aspects of the burden of disease but as I have mentioned many times before, health language is a barrier for most, as is fluency in any language the older one gets. This virus pandemic is not the only public health problem – if not pandemic – that the community will be confronted with in the future.

One of the keystones of inhibiting the spread of disease is to enhance social distancing, and somebody ought to tell the world if there is a better way than segregation. Segregation demands disciplined structuring; hence adequate funding and staffing.

Like many services, where prevention is geared to an anticipated emergency such as police, ambulance and fire brigade, there is potentially substantial downtime. When I reviewed ambulance services some years ago, there was substantial (and, at that time, unproductive) downtime.  As a side but important issue, it is the duty of those responsible for downtime from attending emergencies to assure useful engagement of staff.

However, when downtime is translated as being in an hour long queue to discharge a patient for admission to hospital, that is only as profitable as the use of ambulance officers working as supernumerary carers can be construed. Deficiencies in the hospital admission process being covered up by using the ambulance as a ward on wheels is not the most profitable use of the ambulance service.

Staff in new dedicated quarantine facilities will face the same problem of integration into a wider public health service. Once there were infectious diseases hospitals, but with the rise of economic rationalist vandalism in the eighties and nineties, infectious disease hospitals were one casualty, even despite there being a concurrent AIDS pandemic.   Now the need for dedicated facilities indicates the rebirth of a public health service where care becomes an integral part of the health care system, rather than being reflected as a Greek chorus of epidemiologists where the patient is a scrap of data.

Unfortunately in Australia, for everybody with the merest public health experience and even – or especially – those without any formal training, commentary has become a free-for-all. It is just another of the consequences of the news cycle. People have shifted their position, and as the public health bureaucracy has been sucked into advocacy and prophecy, then it is not surprising that politicians have become irritated.

There is resentment in political circles towards the power accorded to chief health officers – not all, but where the chief health officers have garnered too much attention, albeit becoming cult figures. Generally, they have stuck around for too long – in the spotlight. As a model for balancing the science and the spotlight, Dr Paul Kelly appears to have demonstrated an appropriate mixture, where he chooses his appearance adroitly and leaves the less important public utterances to others. He makes sure that he is conservative in the true sense – of having to be convinced that the course advocated is well-founded to make the change. He stays away from daily pontification.

The Americans consider public health to be a uniformed service; and it is not uncommon to see the US Surgeon-General kitted out thus.

If I were Premier, having made a statement interpreting health policy and the opening up of the State, and a journalist then asked me, as occurred the other day: “What does Dr Chant think…”, I know what I would do. Not immediately, but don’t look now Dr Chant.

Queensland has sent its Chief Health Officer to be Governor, where she can be important without being important. It should be recognised inter alia that a whole Queensland strawberry crop was trashed in 2018 at the cost of $160m, where Dr Young’s advice played a prominent role. As one commentator noted recently on this situation, where needles were found in in strawberries at three sites: “However, in a way, it’s actually kind of quaint to be reminded that a public health scare with three reported instances led to a major national response while the largest COVID outbreak and death toll in the country is followed with talk of how soon we can get the pubs back open.”

There is talk of the Chief Health Officer’s power being curtailed in Victoria, being downgraded; and as for Dr Chant, I would be sure that a promotion awaits her – or her being absorbed as a consultant somewhere.

If the senior positions are downgraded the problem I see is that public health may suffer. Politicians very quickly forget the lessons of the past because in this world the uncertainty of the word “pandemic” has yet to be incorporated into personal ambition and the uncontrollable search for post-political recognition. Another dangerous pandemic.

Nevertheless, whether the power of the senior health officials is downgraded or not, the need for dedicated quarantine facilities or some other effective means of segregating the ill or potentially ill should not be allowed to slip off the policy agenda into a limbo of uninterest.

A Randomised Controlled Trial of One

Voltaran Osteo-Gel is the alias for diclofenac diethylamine – to be rubbed on affected joints 12 hourly. It is one of those potions that bobs up on the television screen where there she is, one moment limping in pain, then next soothingly rubbing the gel on her knee and then nossa running the City to Surf or part thereof. No longer the grimace, now wreathed in smiles with the obligatory male handbag running alongside her, a trail of blue and saffron gossamer dust in her wake.

I have osteoarthritis badly, and also polymyalgia rheumatica – and as such I am a randomised controlled trial of one – it doesn’t work for me this way. For years I have been in pain, sometimes agonising, and I assure the punters topical gels don’t work for my big joints.

However, small joints, particularly finger joints are a different matter. I have found when I get arthritic pain in these small joints, application of Voltaran works. The reason I have written this piece now is that I developed acute pain in my right little finger the other day, the hand with which I use the mouse.  So, I started to apply the Voltaran and the finger has improved, at least the pain has lessened and the functionality has improved.

I found a review of the efficacy of these gels in the BMJ which in part concluded:

… after excluding industry-funded/sponsored trials, only diclofenac patch was statistically superior to placebo for pain relief and none of the topical NSAIDs was better than placebo for functional improvement. This suggests that the efficacy of topical NSAIDs may be inflated by industry involvement. However, the limited number of remaining non-industry-funded/sponsored trials (only 12 trials for pain relief and 11 trials for functional improvement) may be too small to detect the difference, as these trials were small (ranging from 31 to 179 participants, median size 100). Further non-industry-funded/sponsored trials for topical NSAIDs are still needed, as this is a group of drugs with greater contextual effect than their oral counterparts and it is more difficult to blind participants in trials and hence very easy to inflate their treatment benefits over placebo.

Concentrating on my little finger, what objective evidence have I got for this gel helping. It may be just a self-limiting acute arthritis, part of the joys of having a chronic autoimmune disease. I have not had any trauma, because although I struck my hand on the balustrade which caused an ugly bruise on the back of my hand, my adjacent finger is not bruised.

My other fingers are fine, although at the outset of my encounter with PMR, I did develop a swollen middle finger on the same hand, which improved with application of the gel.

I suppose it could be gout, but no family history, and none of the drugs that I am taking predisposes to gout – well, not in the fine print paper that comes in the drug package.

This conceals a far bigger problem –

Namely the privileged place pharmacists have in our society. Having been for a time closely associated with the pharmacists for part of my professional life, I consider they are a very much the curate’s egg.

Pharmacists are, in the main, shopkeepers. Yet as result of a concerted effort to strengthen an academic basis for pharmacy from just a cohort of those working in hospitals and who believed that pharmacy had moved from apothecary status, learning in a university environment replaced the apprentice structure of the profession.

My year of medicine was the last year where we were taught materia medica – the fancy name for compounding pills, potions, unguenta and tonics. I always remember “extract of male fern” as the quaint talisman for this ancient art of sorcery. The next year, materia medica was replaced by “pharmacology”. This change encapsulated the change in the teaching of pharmacy students towards a firm evidential basis.

Yet while this expanded the academic profile of pharmacy, the cornerstone of pharmacy remained the shopfront. Pharmacists have been a protected species; I remember when Ipana toothpaste was only sold by pharmacists. Yet in those days pharmacies still sold cigarettes.

The advent of modern pharmacology, heralded by the development of antibiotics – a major influence – changed the whole face of therapy. Not that certain plant-derived substances, like digitalis, did not work; many of the other medicaments in the pharmacy operated on their placebo effect. This still holds true in so much of the goods being peddled these days, often with outrageous and erroneous claims. The vitamin industry is one such area where the legitimate role of these substances has been subverted into some magical beneficence, to say nothing of serious profits. What I find particularly objectionable is the advertisements depicting whole families, their shopping carts laden with an array of placebo, gaily trotting off to a world of drug habituation and advertisements promoting “chewy vitamins” for children, as if pill popping – or gummy chewing – should be a normal part of growing up.

The pernicious influence extends to the growth of addictive drugs, as witness the use of OxyContin and other similar drugs, another disgrace shared across the whole of the health professions. I believe the excesses of some of the community pharmacies should be trimmed, especially among the warehouse chains where professional ethics can seem very threadbare. Any claims about these arrays of so-called natural remedies should be evidence-based and not some exercise of necromancy, dressed up as beautiful young women.

The Pharmacy Guild has lobbied hard and successfully for the maintenance of their position in the community. The periodic Pharmacy Agreements between the Federal Government and the Guild in relation to reimbursement under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) have always been generous.

At the same time, community pharmacies have continued to sell all these peripheral placebos, as well as cosmetics, toys, sweets – in fact almost anything that can vaguely be associated with perceived wellbeing. Inevitably this has led to the growth of the pharmacy warehouse; and I wonder why the advertisements peddled by some of these outlets have not been curtailed by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). But then organised pharmacy has strong buying power – particularly of political parties where the industry has been and remains a significant donor.

The community pharmacy, despite its lobbying power and probably over-privileged and over-subsidised place in the community, should not be underestimated as being perceived as the true community health centre for much of the community. The fact that there have been those in the Liberal Party who see them as outpost of the Party because of the innate business conservatism of many of the pharmacists should not be used to deny its important role in community health.

Another conservative force, the medical profession, is always paranoid when they perceive pharmacists creeping onto what the profession considers its territory. I always took a lead from my father who, even more than 60 years ago, had the pharmacy next door where he could pop in and get advice, where “out the back” he could discuss the appropriate course of action for patients with complex or difficult conditions. As my father and the pharmacist, Jim Beovich, demonstrated over many years, it was such a rich symbiotic relationship.

The community pharmacy’s involvement with the national vaccination program has been a success. Hence the apparent success of this public health intervention should be written up as evidence of what succeeds and what does not, so it can be incorporated into a policy framework which is not lost. So much corporate memory has been lost, as I can well attest, with the unnecessary need to re-invent the process because of the lack of corporate memory, a common and disastrous fault of modern bureaucracy.

Individual pharmacists are influential in their community. The community pays a price for the Pharmacy Guild’s easy access to that. What is important is to ensure that the methodology for setting prices being paid for prescription pharmaceuticals is transparent and not obfuscated so the community pays more than is reasonable.  Influence through lobbying for political gain is always an essential part of the curate’s egg’s yolk, no matter the standing of the profession, even at a time of beatification of the profession, which inevitably will occur with the success of the vaccination program. Just because the Gorgon, Big Pharma is standing behind you with an outrageous price schedule is no excuse for just passing it in without protest to us punters.

The musical instrument called “hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica”

I could not resist heading a piece with the longest name for any musical instrument currently being played somewhere in the world.

Playing the Hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica

I am no muso. I remember someone mentioned that I could have made a bass if I had not been totally tone deaf. I tried playing the recorder as we all did; and even moved to the clarinet. Mercifully, this was a very small affliction on Australian ears.

Knowledge of this headline word had come from my being apprised of the town of Castelfidardo in Le Marche, one of the lesser known regions of Italy south of Emilio-Romagna on the Adriatic Coast.  Castelfildardo is a town where piano accordions are made and have been made since the beginning of the 19th century, whether in mahogany or maple. They also have dabbled in the manufacture of “armonice” of which the above longest word for a musical instrument – the glass harmonica – is a subset.

Now this is apparently the only reliable place in the world to get this instrument repaired, and it takes three months. Added to this the creatori di fisarmoniche are a dying breed because it is an Italian trait to take your skill to your grave without telling anybody. It does have an effect!

Years ago, I can remember the accordion was a common instrument and, in my youth, Lou Toppano was both its virtuoso and its public face within Australia with his TV appearances. Piano accordions were associated with various ethnic groups. Toppano tried to project the sophisticated sleekness of the Latin amante.  But the invariable characteristic was the smile, the smile when you had this lump of wood and metal weighing between 5 and 14 kilograms on your chest – and you were expected to play it! The accordion fell out of favour with rock n roll; it is said that the bass electric guitar was the instrument that often replaced the accordion in the band.

Somebody who I hold dear admitted she played it when she was young but said that if I wanted to shame her, I would not further identify her. Such a reaction shows how the accordion player has become somewhat of a caricature.

Thus, I was intrigued by an article in the Boston Globe by a young professional accordionist. By and large optimistic in tone, she nevertheless commented on how difficult it was to maintain the accordion in working condition, but she had been lucky to find a repairer in New Jersey.

She indicated in her article how specialised was repair of accordions, which would probably be a disincentive for those who found their grandparents’ accordion as a dusty relic. It is one of the most difficult instruments to play.

But if you think that playing the instrument is difficult, don’t step on it or throw it against the wall or fall over and be pinned by it. Here is an annotated repair requirement, according to the author of the article, with that unsurprising name of Madonna.

A job for Castelfidardo …

First is the know-how; second is spare parts such as keys, reed valves (usually leather strips), and metal rods; and third is tools, though most of these can’t be found at your average hardware store. Tools like a set of bellows to test reeds without having to put the whole instrument back together again; a setup to melt wax at a low enough temperature to set reeds without burning them; maintenance and tuning tools that look like what a dentist might use to scrape plaque off someone’s teeth; even a tray that indexes bass buttons (so there is no confusion of removal order). 

So, there you are – a trip through the Accordion Keys; intriguing when you realise that there had been the demise of an instrument that you never really missed – except that when the strolling accordion player, with the risus sardonicus, is headed for your restaurant table, you knew it was time for a toilet break.

Blue on Blue

Giuliano Cecchinelli is busy these days, as is everyone at Buttura & Gherardi Granite Artisans in Barre, Vt., one of about 20 manufacturers of headstones and other memorials in and near this city of 9,000, which styles itself the “granite center of the world.” 

The pandemic’s staggering death toll, now approaching 700,000 nationwide, is only part of the reason for the rising demand. It’s also driven by baby boomers who are looking ahead, ordering monuments, and deciding how they and their families will be commemorated after death, Gherardi said

The Boston Globe often has these little vignettes. What is it with the Italians and cemeteries? When I read this, I remember the bluestone quarry which, like all bluestone quarries, is memorable for just that – the blueness, especially when the first of these quarries that I ever saw was in Vermont, a closed quarry, the stone left there in all its sombre yet striking solitude, water slowly filling it up.

When I decided that my late parents should have some recognition and a High Celtic Cross was beyond my means and a tad over-the-top anyway – apart from which, I found those traditional grey monumental slabs so cold and depressing – I decided that I would place a bluestone rock as the headstone.

After all, if Victoria ever decided to have a State rock, it would surely be bluestone. My school was a bluestone pile, but it was only one of many buildings built in the latter part of the 19th century.  Other buildings used it for the foundations and for the many cobbled streets, lanes and alleyways were laid out in bluestone. This rock allows for water drainage and prevents the growth of weeds.

So, we went out to one of Italian stone masons whose sites dot the outer northern suburbs of Melbourne. The headstone we chose was a lump of bluestone rock, neither sculpted nor moulded in any way. Just a simple recognition of this stone which forms much of olivine basalt rock which covers the ancient volcanic Victorian plains, one of the biggest in the World. The prevalence of bluestone gives Victoria that image of a conservative sobriety with architecture distinguished by its blue-black stone buildings.

From the beginning of Melbourne, bluestone quarries were opened throughout what is now Melbourne suburbia. Most of these had closed well before I was born. Out of curiosity I eventually went to see one remaining bluestone quarry near Tylden in Central Victoria, I was impressed by the majestic slabs of blue rock, I suppose because it was so much a part of my life for 12 years from first grade.  Recent pictures are disappointing because the quarry no longer has that air of a familiar majesty, but now resembles just any open cut mine.

Nevertheless, what’s in a name? Victorian bluestone is completely different geologically from that of Vermont or indeed that of Eastern USA, which is basically a residue of glaciers namely schist, but not the basalt from an ancient volcanic origin. My eye being attracted to the article of Giuliano Cecchinelli only goes to show what a little vignette can do.

I’m still learning; and that is the real vignette.

Mouse Whisper

O trava-linguas

Eu

Não Quero

O Queijo

No meu Queixo                  … Que, zero?

 

Modest Expectation – An Item for Long Review

Ideas for a scrapbook?

When this blog was commenced 133 weeks ago, it was a different world. I didn’t expect that I would create a rod for my back by labelling each blog with a numerical connection to the name of the blog without being repetitive. When I started the blog, it was just by way of a scrapbook of ideas, and I was lucky to have a number of guest writers. They provided some leavening given that writing on a weekly basis is a serious business. One person caught in the middle of a pandemic with an irregular shuttered existence has a challenge to report usefully when the country’s leadership has been so uneven and where the principle of uncertainty has played into disturbance of the collective mind where the enemy is never “a tangible there” but “an intangible everywhere”.

I remember reading Erving Goffman on “Asylum” and “Stigma” when I was a young man. These books elaborated the concept of total institutions and the relationship between the inmates and those in supervisory positions of the inmates.

Goffman’s “total institutions” concept can be traced back to the establishment of the Hôpital Général in Paris in 1656 by Louis XIV. Once an arsenal, a rest home for war veterans, and several hospitals, the Hôpital Général served as a house of confinement for the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, prisoners and the insane – those who sought assistance and those who were sent there by royal or judicial decree. In the space of several months, one out of every hundred inhabitants of Paris would find themselves confined in these institutions indiscriminately.

Australia is in various stages of lockdown; a euphemistic way of describing imprisonment–lite.

Goffman set out his rules for the game. How relevant are they to our current society after such a period of intermittent lockdowns?

Goffman’s inmate is subject to three rule sets. The first are “house rules”, which should be “relatively” explicit both prescriptively and proscriptively.

In exchange, secondly there are clearly defined rewards and privileges for obedience. Bound up with this system is the nature of release. The third element is the nature of punishment, when the rules are broken.

Does Goffman give any clue as to how the inmate should respond? No, he does not. His analysis of various responses to lockdown is well catalogued whether monastery or mental hospital. The concept of a prolonged imprisonment was not seen as the consequence when the Virus first appeared early last year. Then a selection of politicians from both sides of politics participated in light-hearted advertisements to encourage hand washing. It was as though it was similar to the mood at the outbreak of WW1 when the early prediction was of the conflict being over by Christmas 1914.

With imprisonment, the length of sentence is known; in the asylum, this is less certain, when translated to a whole community locked down.

In the early phase of the pandemic, the conspiracy theorists and the anarchists, the libertarian-authoritarians and anti-vaxxers were yet to form their confederacy.  Rather it was the doomsayers. After initial hesitation, a strong advocacy time for improved hygiene, social distancing leading on to community isolation and, belatedly, masks  and hope improved the compliance of the community.

Unfortunately, Trump and the mad assortment of the above consolidated the COVID nonsense. It should not be forgotten that this activity was unconsciously aided and abetted by elements of the research community scrabbling for funding and prepared to participate in studies, on, for instance, hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

The race for a useful vaccine commenced. Over the previous 20 years, there had been much preliminary research on vaccines into these viruses, which was translated into an accelerated pathway for developing an effective vaccine. The nature of the coronavirus, with its chameleon quality, presented a problem, but the value of the previous work became clear with the mRNA vaccines demonstrating efficacy and able to have an accelerated introduction this year.

Last year showed the impressive use of the lockdown – but turning much of Australia into a prison until the Virus was apparently conquered. Unfortunately, the Virus changed into a more virulent form.

The Federal Government refused to develop dedicated quarantine facilities and if it were not from some robust medical advice, a nascent mixture of the above toxic creatures some of which already existed within the Parliament  exhibited the same Trumpian irresponsibility which plunged the World into the pandemic crisis.

The successful suppression of the Virus lulled Australia into a period of self-satisfaction, not recognising that armistice is necessarily unconditional surrender.

The problem has been that, despite enhanced vaccination, the second wave lockdown in NSW has not been as effective once the Delta variant got into the community. The delay in Berejiklian’s response let the Virus loose. It reached Victoria before any lockdown measures were in place. Even the swift lockdown there was insufficient, and the lack of compliance in Victoria has been poor in traditional working class areas, when the Federal government failed to restore sufficient income support to offset not being able to go to work.

“House rules” had not been explicitly stated to the effect that, if the virus appeared again, you, the community would be imprisoned again even when you had been granted both the privileges of vaccination and some income support. The first round had generated sufficient anger, assuaged by Job Keeper and Job Seeker; a second lockdown term in both NSW and Victoria (and the ACT) was not brief, there was little income support and the severity of the lockdown varied according to the particular whim of the government.

However, this lockdown has been resisted by a group of “ex-prisoners” who have set up an urban guerrilla operation designed not only to burn down “the prison” but also to institute a Trotskyist state of permanent revolution. The State has no way of collecting these guerrillas who have become carriers of the virus, the frontline shock troops for the Virus, except by reacting to the rioters. The more strident they become the more the resentment builds up in the rest of the community, made worse because of no improvement. At the same time, the Murdoch media has inflamed the situation by encouraging this resentment without advocating a solution.

Is there one?

In the post WWII community, democracies have paradoxically increased the number incarcerated. Now, what about the vaccine refuseniks and those infected. Prisons are acceptable for the first, but what of the second? Bespoke quarantine arrangements – infectious diseases sanitoria – all linked to a healthy outcome, may be acceptable. But for God’s sake, do not use the words “lock hospitals” or “concentration camps”.

However, all such facilities must have a degree of humanity; but all imply selective isolation.  Our society will have to develop a system of temporary standardised isolation facilities, where those infected are well treated but there is suitable surveillance. Otherwise, as has been shown, this, and future viruses, will spread like wildfire, vaccination or not such facilities need to be integrated into the health system.

Opening up the community becomes a meaningless term while a significant group in the community remains defiant, refusing vaccination, and in fact enhancing the pandemic, replete with the images once invoked by Erving Goffman.  

A small endeavour 

This is the story about how the pandemic has disrupted a small program in Malawi – but first, the background.

Mustapha drove us in the Toyota Land Cruiser from Majete, in the south of Malawi, to Pumulani on Lake Malawi.  It took seven hours, during which time we left the wildlife reserve for a front row seat of rural Malawi and then, contrasting that view, with that of the commercial hub of Blantyre with its profusion of modern buildings, cars and men in suits and ties. Blantyre is the toilet break stopover. Even the posh hotel does not have sufficient toilet paper and the spare toilet paper had been left in the truck. To paraphrase the saying about chooks: “don’t count your rolls until they are attached”.

Mustapha is a Sunni Moslem. He prays five times a day, observes Ramadan and his food is halal. He is a ranger at the wildlife reserve and lives three hours away in a village where he goes home for four days a month. Home is a two-room brick house with separate cooking and washing facilities. In the language of the Chichewa people, he is bambo; his wife mai and they have two ana – one is four years; the other, a ten month old baby. Both are boys.

Most of the rangers are Christian; his village is mixed, like his workplace.  This is reflected in the countryside through which we pass, where church and mosque co-exist in the one village. The Muslim influence spread from the north under Arab influence and there are concentrations of Muslims along the Lake. However, Malawians are predominantly Christian.

The camp we have left lies on the Shire River, which we cross twice more on our trip across Malawi. The riverbank is lined by elephant grass but behind this natural stockade are cultivated rows of corn and squares of green vegetable garden – maize, beans, tomato plants, sweet potatoes and onions are common crops – the abundance of these vegetables is evident in the markets of the various townships we pass through.

Outside Blantyre, rural Malawi is people walking – women and children, water containers or packages on their heads; children in brightly coloured uniforms straggling home from school.  Rural Malawi is also oxcarts being driven and bicycles, mostly ridden by men. Bicycles are loaded down with charcoal or straw-coloured thatching grass or wooden staves. Bags of charcoals standing like sentinels abut the road, ready for sale. Stooks of thatching grass also line the roadside for sale.

Police roadblocks are everywhere, but only once are we asked where we are going.

As we go further north and towards the central Malawi plain the country becomes drier. Baobab trees appear in profusion. Flashes of yellow, red and pink signify the profusion of bougainvillea. It vaguely resembles the Australian Kimberley with the rocky outcrops, the red earth and vegetation dominated by acacia interspersed by villages with signature mango trees. Here lies the difference between this part of Malawi and the Kimberley.

The Kimberley is sparsely populated, unlike Malawi where the villages tumble against one another so that walking between villages is feasible. So much of the traffic is pedestrian, despite two large buses destined for Lilongwe passing us at a breakneck speed. There are minibuses and mitolos clustered in the larger townships overloading themselves with people and goods. We pass a bicycle, one of many, a youth hunched over the handlebars. The message on his violet T-shirt is memorable: “Jesus is my hero.”

Surprisingly at no stage have we seen evidence of the major cash crop of Malawi, tobacco. Hereby hangs another dilemma that Malawi faces. Malawi is recognised as the source of superior tobacco. Yet increasingly in the Western world tobacco is a pariah crop. World opinion is closing in on tobacco usage because of its undeniable link with cancer and a host of other diseases.  It is a matter which cannot be swept as cigarette ash under the carpet of government inertia worldwide.

We reach our destination after seven hours. Lake Malawi extends for 500 kilometres and we’re at the southern end. It looks like a giant sea and it is little wonder that the early Australian explorers, aware of what was happening in Africa, searched for an inland sea. In parts the Lake is 400 m deep and 52 km wide. The Shire River is the only river that flows out of Lake Malawi, joining the Zambezi River in Mozambique. The Lake extends north to the Tanzanian border; and a small part lies within the Mozambican border. This is the Southern end of the Great Rift Valley, where the tectonic plates are inching apart. The Great Rift Valley runs from Mozambique, through the Lake, to Tanzania, where it splits into two.

The Eastern flank runs through Kenya and the West through Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, before joining again in Ethiopia, running into and along the Red Sea, turning northward to end in the far reaches of Syria. I cannot help thinking that the Great Rift Valley is a metaphor for Africa – a tectonic plate moving its 48 component countries apart. Perhaps the metaphor is too cute and exaggerated, but it is surprising nobody seems to have traversed these jagged faults to find, in documentary terms, the “Real Africa” to see how long the rift really is. Michael Palin has crisscrossed the world; Stephen Fry has landed glancing blows in encompassing the 50 states of America; and David Attenborough has “terrorised” the fauna in his “pan-world”exploration of why and who and what we are.

Life is tranquil – so different from the above intrepid world travellers. The only excitement is the female baboon bounding towards me across the patio and seizing my morning tea biscuits. One into the mouth; and knowing that she has the advantage of surprise, seizing a second. The plate clatters onto the tiles and breaks into pieces. She has gone, chased by the staff.

I sit as a speck on the edge of this enormous freshwater pond. We are eating fish – the chambo – a white-fleshed, elegant tasting fish – drawn from the lake. We sailed around in a dhow and watched the fish eagles circling and the silent men in their canoes, each searching for fish. We sailed past a pod of hippopotami lounging just off the shoreline. A ribbon of villages lines the beach. They could be on a desert island. Except that when the dhow heads back to shore there is this rocky escarpment so reminiscent of north-west Australia.

But there is another facet of the camp where we are staying. They are acting as protection for a dozen albino children living in the nearby villages – the eldest being 18. Albinos are constantly at risk of being kidnapped, slaughtered, and dismembered for their body parts. The superstition in several East African countries that possession of albino remains will provide luck is a grotesque reflection on our human condition; and in the last two years before we went 18 children had been reported killed in Malawi. The real number? Who knows! Family members have been known to be complicit in such barbarity.

We rightly worry about rhinoceros being killed for a lump of inert keratin; we should also express our abhorrence of this human trade for what – a person with a congenital lack of melanin pigment.

There are practical requirements for albinos living in this part of Africa, beside expressing outrage – sunscreen, UV protective clothing, sun hats, sunglasses – and there is a need for eye testing facilities.

The camp where we stayed had set up a project to support albino children in three local villages; this involved their staff and also donations from guests from time to time.  Easy to just hand over some notes and move on, however we decided to become involved in the longer term by providing bulk supplies of sunscreen and sun protective gear that was not easy to obtain in Malawi and other East African countries. However, that plan struck a snag early on – the cost of getting a large amount of sunscreen from Australia to Malawi was prohibitive – $40 to post just one litre and more than three months on the road! A different solution was needed and no assistance was forthcoming from courier companies.

For a number of years one of us had been going to Africa each year so instead of sending supplies, I took packages with me – with more than 50 kgs of sunscreen and 50 pairs of sunglasses.  This was still cheaper for me to take it and pay for a return flight from Johannesburg to Malawi (including a night in Lilongwe) than to freight the stuff from Australia! I would give it to a contact in Malawi who delivered it to the camp from where it was then distributed. Customs in Malawi were bemused by the exercise, seemingly concerned I was planning to set up shop there and long discussions were usually involved with the customs officers about the exercise.

However, COVID put paid to those plans. By the time I can get another large supply to Malawi it will likely be three to four years since the last delivery without outside assistance, just one of the many impacts of COVID on African people. The health devastation wrought by COVID upon African countries and the lack of vaccines for all but a small percentage of the population makes me so sad, given for someone like myself who loves southern Africa and its people.  For the many local people who have relied on tourism for their livelihoods, the sudden and extended cessation of travel to African countries has left many struggling to survive.

Affluent western countries may now be opening up for travel but the acute shortage of COVID vaccines across Africa means day to day living as well as tourism will not return to anything like normal for years.

Armenians in Ireland

I was intrigued when seeing the Armenian Cross, the so-call khachkar, which are still being constructed in that country. I thought how much these khachkars resembled the Celtic cross, particularly the high crosses. Apparently there were Armenian monks in Ireland in around the 8th century, refugees from Islam. The two High Crosses, one at Durrow in Co Offaly and the other at Muiredach in Co Lough are suggestive of the traditional Armenian khachkars.

Ruins of Rahan Church

The one at Durrow is close to the village of Rahan, where there was a monastery dating from the 5th century. The first monastery was established in the 5th century BCE and then extended 100 years later by St Carthage. The site consists of two churches and the ruin of a mediaeval tower house, and therefore existed four centuries before the Armenians are said to have come.

The Armenians may have been housed in the monastery. The Armenian churches have pointed domes to mimic the cone of Mt Ararat, and high vaulting with the height of the church matching the length of the church. There is enough remaining of the Rahan church to strongly hint at the association. The stonework and pitched roof line resemble that of contemporary 9th century surviving Armenian architecture. The other association which may have relevance is that it is known Charlemagne used Armenians as his architects.

However, so much is lost in speculation as the dots joining them have been pulverised in the passage of unrecorded time.

Gտեսություն, ցտեսություն, Գլեդիս

What is going on in Australian politics in terms of corruption is as old as the First Fleet. Gary Sturgess, while Director-General of the Premier’s Office, was once the genius behind Nick Greiner who, as Premier, introduced the Bill creating the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) when Premier in 1988 (sic):

In recent years, in New South Wales we have seen: a Minister of the Crown gaoled for bribery; an inquiry into a second, and indeed a third, former Minister for alleged corruption; the former Chief Stipendiary Magistrate gaoled for perverting the course of justice; a former Commissioner of Police in the courts on a criminal charge; the former Deputy Commissioner of Police charged with bribery; a series of investigations and court cases involving judicial figures including a High Court Judge; and a disturbing number of dismissals, retirements and convictions of senior police officers for offences involving corrupt conduct… No government can maintain its claim to legitimacy while there remains the cloud of suspicion and doubt that has hung over government in New South Wales.

The charge sheet Greiner listed was long.  Later, Greiner was himself a casualty, when supporting one of his Ministers. These actions were referred to the newly-formed ICAC and he resigned when the four independent parliamentarians would not support him.  He was replaced by John Fahey.

What sticks in the craw is the outrage that this Government body, which has done its homework obviously painstakingly and interviewed the former Premier, should be pilloried. The former Premier knows that the game is up, because if ICAC had got it wrong, well somebody as well-versed as her would have invoked the “force field” with anecdotes of the poor little migrant, who has triumphed against the odds.

The concealment of the Deal, which the politicians want to shovel under the carpet, using privacy as the cleaning agent, was not helped by the ambivalent response from Mark Dreyfus. He, the Shadow Federal Attorney-General on one hand indicated that an incoming Labor government would introduce a meaningful ICAC. Yet on the other hand he had the qualification suggesting that there should be more secrecy to enshroud the preliminary investigation, aka “wriggle room”, which suggests that there are a number of sidelong glances towards certain colleagues, given the Labor Party itself is not “squeaky clean”.

Yet recently I received in the mail one of those unsolicited letters sent to his “million closest friends” from Albanese. The letter announced in bold that “An Albanese Labor Government will establish a powerful transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission.” There was no detail, but it seemed more robust than the utterance of Dreyfus. One favourable Dreyfus action was that unlike some of his other Labor colleagues, he did not fall for the trap of effusively praising a disgraced departing Premier.

I suspect Berejiklian has no other life apart from politics; she was coddled by the media, unlike Julia Gillard. It should be remembered that Niki Savva conducted a relentless war against Gillard in the media, with that deadly efficiency women have when they want to bring down another woman. Berejiklian had none of that criticism; she “ascended” to the top unlike the messy way Gillard did.

The requirement for a National ICAC will be advanced if the next election produces a raft of intelligent independents not bound to the mindless obedience that the factional system of both parties imposes. The need for robust debate should be freed from those politicians, often influential, who have been compromised, as has been clearly shown by this Federal Government’s record of thinly-veiled corruption.

Has somebody lost the lock on the Pandora’s Box?

Pandora with her box

It seems that there is a virus of resignation sweeping the NSW Parliament. The one thing I admired in John Barilaro’s resignation was his refusal to criticise ICAC, because the reasons for his resignation are still unclear.

His comment was most unlike that of his Federal National leader, Barnaby Joyce who has likened ICAC to the Spanish Inquisition. I am surprised that Barnaby believes ICAC is thus run by Dominicans obsessed with Jewish and Muslim apostasy.  The Spanish connection on the other hand seems to have formed an important part of Mr Perrottet’s life through his membership of Opus Dei, which was the brainchild of Josemaria Escrivá, a Spanish priest with close links to Franco’s rule. Therefore, if one believes Joyce, Dominic Perrottet with his Spanish connection should be a strong supporter of ICAC.

And you think I’m being ironic!

As well, for those interested in what happens to seats vacated by NSW Premiers requiring a by-election, the Liberals should remember when they picked up Premier Wran’s seat of Bass Hill in 1986. Narrow victory it may have been, but there was a 22 per cent swing. Yet the Labor Party does not seem to have the appetite for such a course in relation to Gladys’ seat; but nevertheless the Liberal Party should call a by-election as soon as possible to stymie any independent candidature.

Now NSW is faced with a trifecta of by-elections, and the more politicians protest about an organisation dedicated to rooting out corruption, the more they lose whatever shred of trust remains within the community,

Yet Jesuit-trained Barnaby can’t shut up. His antics remind me of that old joke (and here I am indebted to The Guardian) about a Franciscan, a Dominican and a Jesuit who are arrested during the Russian revolution for spreading the Christian gospel and thrown into a dark prison cell. In a bid to restore the light, each man reflects on the traditions of his own order.

The Franciscan decides to wear sackcloth and ashes and pray for light. Nothing happens. The Dominican prepares and delivers an hour-long lecture on the virtue of light. Nothing happens. Then the Jesuit gets up and mends the fuse. The light comes on.

Really, you don’t say, Barnaby was taught by the Jesuits. Perhaps he only heard the words, “light” and “fuse” – and made the wrong connection.

“Volere Volare o Vogare Qualsiasi”

Letter from New York City

October 2021

Dear Readers,

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—that is, if you enjoy the spookier things in life. There are more than a few scary tales on our October roster, including Edith Wharton’s own selection of her best ghost stories, a new paperback of the Edward Gorey-illustrated edition of the H.G. Wells classic The War of the Worlds, and another selection of supernatural stories from our friends at Notting Hill Editions. Below you’ll find some fun, spine-tingling readings, as well as a peek inside the latest title in the New York Review Comics series and a little bit of the story behind the cover of Mr. Beethoven, Paul Griffiths’s inventive novel about the eponymous composer.

If you are a local or visiting New York City this weekend, consider coming by the NYRB booths at the Brooklyn Book Festival. We will be at booth 12 for Children’s Day on Saturday, October 2, and at booth 405 and 406 for the Main Day on Sunday, October 3. We will be selling books and, on the Main Day, giving copies of The New York Review of Books away. We would love to see you there. 

— An email received from the New York Review of Books.

Sorry.  Hope to see you next year; but thanks for the invitation. Saturday and Sunday were a bit cloudy, otherwise the weather in this past week has been a bit variable – rain and all, but New York is New York, Virus or Not!

The question I bet nobody will ask Dom Perrottet

Do you wear or have ever worn a cilice?

Do you know of anybody who wears a cilice?

If the reply is no, you, the investigative journalist should then approach his brother who is Dean of Warrane College and ask what is its policy in relation to the wearing of the cilice.

I would be mortified if any of you, the fourth estate, dared to ask, but may do so; but Morrison is not a valid reply.

Mouse Whisper

It is acceptable for the political leader to stand before his or her constituency to make a sweeping gesture and say “I have a vision for the country…”

Often it would be more truthful if the same political leader would rather have said, “I have a hallucination for the country…”

But how acceptable would that be?

I have a hallucination for the country…

Modest Expectations – Lopez Nunes

Consider this summer’s Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago. All those attending were required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test. Anyone unvaccinated was required to wear masks throughout, even though the festival was outdoors. And those attending were asked to accept a “Lollapalooza Fan Health Pledge” promising they had not tested positive or been exposed to covid within two weeks or experienced any covid symptoms within 48 hours. The result? Of the hundreds of thousands of fans who attended the festival, only a few hundred have subsequently tested positive — and it is unclear whether any of them were infected at Lollapalooza.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, we’ve learned that outdoor gatherings are reasonably safe — it’s the indoor activities that invariably follow that are deadly. At Sturgis, (the annual pilgrimage to this tiny town in South Dakota for motorcycle enthusiasts) it is unlikely that the outdoor bike rallies were a problem. Most of the spread likely happened in the evenings, when people crowded into bars and restaurants, most unvaccinated, all unmasked. Large gatherings that work on keeping indoor spaces safe through vaccinations, masking, ventilation and other techniques can keep the entire gathering safer. 

Over the past year, every time we have tried to defy the virus by scorning precautions, the virus has won, and people have suffered and died: significant outbreaks, a lot of hospitalizations, too many deaths. Large gatherings like rallies, festivals and fairs are the biggest test of what our society can do in a pandemic.

The simple interpretation of the large outbreak after Sturgis is that big gatherings are just not possible during a pandemic. But that is the wrong lesson. It’s important for Americans to find ways to come together. So we should ask how we can make gatherings safer. 

Here, the pandemic playbook is straightforward: Ensure you have a highly vaccinated population. Verify people’s vaccination status. Require rapid and frequent testing, especially for the unvaccinated. Improve indoor air quality, and use masking intermittently when needed.

None of these are difficult to achieve. And none of them should be particularly inconvenient. If we do all that, we can safely get back to the things we love and the events that bring us together, like music festivals, concerts and motorcycle rallies. From The Washington Post

On the way to Sturgis to catch a dose of COVID

The Sturgis motor bike rally attracts, over a 10-day period in August, about 500,000 people, all unvaccinated, all maskless, all completely ignoring any anti-viral precautions. I remember last year the forlorn image of the lone nurse at the empty COVID-19 testing station at Sturgis.

Sturgis is a small town in sparsely populated Mead County of that State; perhaps the nearest equivalent in Australia might be the annual gathering of ute owners and their vehicles in Deniliquin.

One difference is the Deni Ute Muster, as it is called, attracts only about 25,000 with up to one hundred utes, and it has been cancelled this year, as it was last year – out of respect for the lethal nature of the Virus.

Small town where, when the crowd arrives and leaves, in this case in Sturgis the number of COVID-19 cases shot up. There have been variable estimates of the extent of the spread engineered by the Sturgis participants and the numbers range up to 266,000. But given the reliability of the data, just use the word “substantial” – as good as any semi-quantitative measure.

While that irresponsible Governor of South Dakota rides around pillion at such a festival, herself vaccinated (not in evidence) but maskless (in evidence) what does one expect from a country one spit away from the sinkhole.

In 1788, Sydney was all we had

One matter is evident in the lead up to the election. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition come from the same state, and not only that, but also from suburban Sydney. There is resentment building against NSW; and that is unsurprising given what a target Berejiklian has made for herself, and which may intensify once the shadow cast by ICAC may challenge her “ermine saviour” image promoted by the AFR and subsequently universally lampooned. Again, she is a product of suburban Sydney schooling in North Ryde, and her deputy’s stronghold is in Queanbeyan, which may as well be a de facto suburb of Canberra; moreover, conventional suburbia.

I have lived half my life in Victoria and the other half in New South Wales.  I also have been lucky enough to travel widely around Australia during my working life. I remember having to work in Queensland, and that feeling of being labelled a “Mexican”, which I soon shed; but on the other hand if the Queenslanders don’t like you (which is the politician’s lot) it is hard to shed the sombrero.

I have seen images of Albanese in Queensland and he doesn’t exactly look in place there; whereas Morrison fits the bill (Queensland has a hearty dose of evangelical happy clappers like himself) at least in the country areas. The number of billboards in rural Queensland telling one that “Jesus saves”, would encourage anybody to open a bank account.

As if a prescient sign, a former Albanese sidekick has been booted from his position as Mayor of the Inner West Council, suffering the ignominy of not being able to finish his term in December, when a new council will be elected.

“The name’s Bill. Bill Shorten,” the kicker line began. “Remember it well. He’s a union supremo at the moment. He’s pals with both foxes and hounds. He’s the face of 21st century Labor. Heading for The Lodge? You better believe it.” 

I remember this quote about Bill Shorten. It doesn’t get much currency these days.

I am not a great fan of Shorten. From my sources in Melbourne flow streams of negativity. His rise to the leadership was not a pathway which personally I would have taken, but he got there, with all his “zinger” arrogance clearly demonstrating a complete lack of sense of humour in the process. A very unlovely image over seven years, and he lost the election.

Equally unlovely men have had a second chance, but in so doing, they regulated their outer coating – spots and stripes are changed accordingly. When he was young, Shorten’s essential meanness was hidden behind a youthful face and a shock of hair. I doubt whether he has changed that much, but he is intelligent, far more than the current Prime Minister and his essential meanness of spirit could carry the Labor Party to victory, given that image of NSW being the teacher’s pet and that totally inept performance of his fellow Victorian, Frydenberg, who has continually attacked his own State.

Shorten does not have to be Bob Hope with devastating one liners; he needs to convert his meanness into an image of resilience and show compassion. The baby kissing “aw-shucks” image is not Shorten; leave that to Morrison and his baseball cap.

These are hard times. Once, there was a hard time in Northern Tasmania. I was not close enough to the Beaconsfield mine disaster to know how Shorten was perceived locally at the time – whether a sincerely concerned union official or a silver-tailed blow-in – courtesy of Dick Pratt’s private plane. But he was there on the spot, not in Hawaii. Shorten’s intuitive response was one of being seen there.

Man of the people, Beaconsfield

Smart people always learn; and Shorten is smart. Howard learnt; he had the same propensity of shifting alliances – a polite way of putting it. After all, it was said Shorten was in his element in Beaconsfield given his expertise in undermining. This facet of his way up the pole of influence will always dog him; but being likened to a rodent ultimately did not impede Howard’s rise to Prime Ministership, where he did a reasonable job. He was fortunate to have Tim Fisher as his Deputy – both, may I add, New South Welshmen but at least Tim’s electorate bordered Victoria. This a luxury Morrison does not have.

The Australian government is not the plaything of New South Wales politics. Premier Andrews summed up the resentment “I signed up to a national plan to vaccinate the country, not a plan to vaccinate Sydney.” Note Andrews did not say NSW; he said Sydney.

The Lodge, Canberra

Andrews embodied a bitterness which is palpable around Australia. There is no better symbolism than Morrison going home to Sydney every weekend. He is a Sydneysider; he is not an Australian. The Lodge is where the Prime Minister of Australia resides. The problem is that, as Keating first demonstrated, it is too easy for a Sydney-based Prime Minister to use Kirribilli House as the main residence, not the Lodge. However, Canberra was constructed to symbolise the Australian Federation, not some form of extended Sydney papacy because of the accident of the first settlement, Port Jackson, where Arthur Phillip stuck the Union Jack.

The Prime Minister should test his popularity in Victoria for a start. Victoria gets a new seat at the next Federal election – a safe Labor seat named after Bob Hawke; and the recent redistribution makes the seat of Chisholm even more marginal for the Liberal Party. Especially if it is recommended as an electoral issue that Kirribilli House be opened up for the nation or sold, in order to dispense with the notion that the Federal Government is just an extension of NSW politics. After all, Kirribilli was acquired in 1919 by another NSW-based Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, to prevent the site being redeveloped.

Only since 1956 has it been the place where the Prime Minister could entertain, but not live. However, since the end of 1991 Australia has had NSW-based Prime Ministers except for the Rudd/Gillard six-year era – in other words, over a 30 year period we have had a NSW Prime Minister for 25 of those, and thus surreptitiously turning Kirribilli into the Prime Ministerial residence is outrageous. Canberra was created for that purpose, and the Lodge is the official residence of the Prime Minister, not an apartment when Parliament is sitting. Moreover, it has been recently renovated at a cost of $9m.

What a choice, with the wife and kids with a residence overlooking the Harbour, the Government being seen as not disrupting the children’s schooling.  One can see how that resonates in the community – Big Daddy.

Then no matter what, the lights will continue to burn brightly in Kirribilli, with comfy fireside chats with the NSW Premier, especially if the two share the same political affiliation – and the children are playing around at his feet.

Kiribilli-by-sea

Do we really want Albanese to continue this dubious NSW tradition?

You know, the rest of Australia can go hang but Daddy is always home for dinner – and close to Hillsong on Sundays.

Wilcannia on the Darling River

“Jack Best, you should know better.”

The woman, a Barkinji elder, had been looking at me strangely for a few minutes as I was talking. I stopped, sheepish as a naughty child.

I realised that what I was saying was trespassing into woman’s business.

That was the way.  I was openly admonished. I should have recognised her initial non-verbal scolding.  Aboriginal people are very good on non-verbal communication; the more you work with them, the more you learn how to respond appropriately.

Yet in this instance, it demonstrated that she recognised as a whitefella that I had been trusted by the local Aboriginal population, and my action was not ignorance borne of lack of knowledge; but it had been my unthinking chatter when I had wandered into women’s business by describing something I had seen.

As I said, she was a Barkinji elder, her people fine-boned Aboriginals whose land lies along the Darling River.

I spent a considerable amount of time in Wilcannia when I was working in the Far West of NSW. Whether I had any long term impact, perhaps but I doubt it. Nevertheless, I remember a time when the myth was abroad implying that Wilcannia was a dangerous place where you would not want to stop. I never had that feeling.  Yet it has always been very easy to criticise Wilcannia because the town depends on Government funding, one way or another. For a period, there was an attempt to introduce the building trades, complete with a bricklaying machine. Not a success.

Wilcannia is a very circumscribed community. Once a port on the Darling River, it now has a very important place in Australia’s heritage, both for Aboriginal people and whitefellas. Whitefellas still lived in the town – when I was there one white nun was still resident in the convent.

There was a very involved white family who had a substantial property on the Darling River, just north of Wilcannia – a beautiful property. When the Darling River is not a dry creek bed or a stream discoloured by algal blooms, it is one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, and a property being on the river had a grandstand view, employing an apt sporting cliché, one of those that riddle our language.

Wilcannia is at a junction of roads going in all directions – the conventional access east-west  via the Barrier Highway; or north along the Darling to Bourke – a rough route through Tilpa and Louth. South, you turn off the Barrier highway and go down through the Manara Hills to Ivanhoe, where I once got off the Indian Pacific at 3am in order to be given a lift back to Wilcannia. Also, I once drove the 800 kilometres from Wilcannia to Melbourne on a Saturday in a Ford Laser without power steering.

Notwithstanding, Wilcannia is a self-contained Aboriginal community, with its buildings reflecting the whitefella heritage. The buildings were constructed of the distinctive cream sandstone from the now overgrown quarry  just out of town. Wilcannia stone has a distinctive cerise streak running through it.

Whitefella heritage

Now Wilcannia is in the middle of the pandemic and, given how circumscribed the community is, it is not surprising that once the Virus arrived there, most of the community were liable to become infected. The vaccination caravan arrived, and while there is a local hospital, there has been no local doctor, although there was someone in the past, who was a bit of a “Doc Holliday”.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) provided a clinic several times a week. The local nursing staff were hard-bitten but a generous lot; they had to be because there was a regular client group, who would turn up at all hours of the day or night. While the RFDS was there to pick up emergency cases; there also was always the chance of a woman unexpectedly turning up in labour at the hospital, well into the second stage, since ante-natal care for many of the Indigenous population is under-utilised.

What I find somewhat ironic with the pandemic and the resistance to a dedicated quarantine facility by the NSW Government is the provision of motor homes and tents in Wilcannia to isolate the infected. This is an expensive way of providing a dedicated facility; and it seems to have escaped the media’s attention to ask why hasn’t the Government been able to produce the same facilities for the infected burghers of the west and south-west of Sydney – early in the outbreak? The pundits would suggest the cost would be prohibitive and nobody would be prepared to dedicate the golf courses, for instance, for this use for the pandemic duration for such a facility.

But why should there be such a positive act of discrimination towards one community and not elsewhere in NSW?    All irony aside, what happens in Wilcannia will be instructive if NSW Health have the wit to engage in the community long term. Why? Because one way or another the whole Wilcannia community will either be vaccinated, be infected or a mixture of both.

Being an isolated community, it would be interesting to see how long the immunity lasts and whether there are differences between those vaccinated and those naturally infected. The problem is the level of trust that the Barkinji give to us whitefellas. I spent many years there on and off as I said, but always recognised how conditional trust is.

My closest contact is dead. He was one of several blackfellas with whom I developed that level of trust; but that was a long time ago. Nevertheless, we did develop a blueprint – an understanding. The lesson for me was that Wilcannia provided an insight into a community caught on the edge of whitefella civilisation. Yet that took years to obtain.

The Ghost of Al Grassby

I was going to give Albanese-bashing a break, but he cannot save himself. The topic was  Australian multi-culture and how his Party had been the centre of multi-cultural advocacy. He instanced Al Grassby as being a promotor of multi-culturism, when a member of Parliament. Al Grassby initially received a great deal of favourable coverage because of his colourful self-portrayal. This face of the Griffith Calabrian N’drangeta was hidden for many years, and it was a very unfavourable way of supporting the candidature of Kristina Keneally to the Lower House to mention Grassby in any way.

Kristina Keneally

I agree with Paul Keating that she is an acquisition in the Lower House, not the least for having a sharp mind and being articulate at the same time. She leaves some of the dummies who apparently are Ministers in her wake.

It is unsurprising in his enthusiasm for multi-culturism that Albanese failed to mention the exploits of those two multi-cultural warriors, Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi, prominent bugbears that Keneally “cut off at the pass”.

I am sure Ms Keneally remembers those two examples of Australian multi-culturism during her nightmare Premiership, as she ploughs into her new electorate-in-waiting.

Nevertheless, if she inherits the Home Affairs portfolio under a Labor Government, her experience will be very useful in dealing with a guy called Pezzullo.

King Penguins on the bookshelf

King Penguins were a delightful series of books produced as one of the inspirations of Alan Lane, the founder of Penguin Books. He borrowed the concept from a small German publisher, Insel-Verlag.

Alan Lane started the publication of Penguin books in 1936, where he reprinted books in characteristic pocket editions.

In 1939, the first in this series of King Penguins – “British Birds” appeared.

As Lane said himself: “The aim of the King Penguin is different. These have not been planned to coincide with the public’s growing appreciation of art, but rather to appeal to the general liking for illustrated keepsakes of special projects.”  Unless you sample these books, that description is less than informative.

The first book had a pale green cover, with brown solid edges with white streaks between each brick, like ribbons of mortar. The full title British Birds on Lake, River and Stream lies over an inked cartoon of a kingfisher.  There were 16 colour plates taken from John Gould’s massive collection of Birds of Great Britain, which extended to seven volumes. In a one shilling crown octavo pocket size book, the King Penguin is an elegant sampler, beautifully presented, of often esoteric subjects. The introductory description of this first one acknowledged  how Gould spent several years in Australia and prepared a 600 plate Birds of Australia and is regarded as the Father of Australian ornithology.

Seventy-six King Penguins and 20 years later, the last King Penguin was published. The subject matter – the Sculpture of the Parthenon. While I enjoyed the British bird book, I’m not big on the Parthenon. But that is the quirky diversity of this set. As recounted in an earlier blog, I used the 1950 King Penguin, Romney Marsh, as a guide to find the various churches deep in this reclaimed Kent marshland.

I now have a complete King Penguin set, the collection of which was started by my father. My father bought Penguin books by the bookcase – adding to his collection every month. Not only Penguins but Pelicans, which were essentially the non-fiction counterpart.  Penguins typically had an orange colour (unless crime, which had a green cover; biography royal blue; travel/adventure crimson). The Pelicans were sky blue in colour and were published from 1937 to 1990. Along the way, when the Penguin Classics were issued, my father never missed one; King Penguins were different. He bought those when he was interested in the subject matter.

Having inherited these, I thought I must try and obtain the full set. The first and easiest option was to buy a full set, and now on eBay to buy a full set the buyer needs about US$1,000. For me, when such international trading entrepôt to tap did not exist, they were much harder to access; it was the thrill of the chase and over about five years, mostly in small secondhand bookshops in England, a complete set was achieved. Some are in better condition than others, but it was the joy of discovery – and inching towards the full set.

Magic Books of Mexico

When the last one was collected,  in my case Popular Art in Britain, my feeling of elation at having achieved the goal quickly became followed by a sense bordering on melancholia. What next? An achievement which will not materially change anything.

Yet recently I have found out about another one which I don’t have. That was the one reprinted for the Olympics Games in 1968, “Magic Books of Mexico”. My collector melancholy has lifted – if only temporarily.

The next venue?

The Pentagon has spent more than $14 trillion on the war in Afghanistan, with “one-third to one-half” of the total going to military contracts, according to a newly released report by the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

According to the report, which outlines the corporate beneficiaries of post-9/11 Pentagon spending, one-quarter to one-third of all contracts in recent years have been awarded to just five major corporations: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman – From The Boston Globe

After Afghanistan and Vietnam and Korea, coming to a venue near you – 1955, 1975, 2021; or another way 1951, 1965, 2001 – 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. To feed the above corporations, will the next conflict be the real Armageddon – or just 40 years devoted to an exercise in the Defence of Freedom as well as feeding the maw of the above named corporations?

The blood of Afghanistan is barely dry on the American escutcheon before there is more feeding of the maw, with the proposal to infect Australia with nuclear submarine technology. The beneficiary of this Thursday’s announcement? General Dynamics. Will anybody ever learn?

The Waste Land has never seemed more relevant.

This decayed hole among the mountains

In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing

Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel

There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.

It has no windows, and the door swings.

And for chapel, substitute mosque, synagogue, temple or whatever suits your prayer.

Mouse Whisper

How do you make an Armenian cross?

Mention the word accountability!

Or else hire yourself a good carver of khachkars (sounds like a guttural version of cash cow), an example below with the characteristic cross of the Armenian Apostolic Church. If you want to see the eclectic nature of the Christian Church, just wander into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church territory is carved up between six Christian sects so that the Chapel of Saint Helena is a 12th-century Armenian church contained on the lower level. All mine!

As a paw note, I acknowledge my uncle Charles Arnamousian, for this information.

A khachkar

Modest Expectations – Renunciation of Citizenship

The Potala

If Australia is the hermit kingdom, what does that make the Lodge in Canberra?  The Potala?  It is not particularly helpful for two of the most powerful politicians to lock themselves away. Perhaps if they were creative geniuses such a juxtaposition may provide positive outcomes; but in the end, with men without such a spark, Australia ends up with a scene of reinforcement of similar attitudes and behaviour – an integral loop brewed around eggs and bacon and lox and cream cheese. A daily diet of fuelled fossils and property developers complete a depressing taste sensation of these eremites.

It is an ironic tableau given the Prime Ministerial shift in stance on the national lockdown.

Cameron Stewart made a shrewd observation on the Insiders program on 20 August to the effect that much would be revealed with Victoria’s ability to get the number of COVID-19 cases under control. The outbreak in the Albanian community in the Shepparton area, which is linked to the Caroline Springs cases, reflects the infectivity of the Delta Variant and the ease with which the virus spreads through families and the various workplaces. Unlike NSW the numbers were “grumbling along” in Victoria – until recently. There is doubt that the Victorian government wants the number lower. Nevertheless, with a lockdown, the numbers were initially contained – with the fear that with any loosening of restrictions the situation would mimic that of Sydney.

If Victoria had forced the daily case numbers down, even if not to zero, then Australia – except for NSW – would have the prospect of emerging from lockdown. NSW is still left with its population in some Berejiklian limbo, supported by an isolated NSW Prime Minister and a Victorian-based Treasurer, being slowly braised on the tip of Morton’s Fork.

The dilemma is that Australia can then be unlocked, except for NSW – the pariah State surrounding the equivalent of wartime Switzerland, called the Australian Capital Territory, providing succour to the war-fatigued refugees from the NSW War Zone, now garrisoned by the Delta Variant.

NSW inhabitants will be seeking refugee status, waving vaccination papers at the border seeking access to a COVID-19 free State. Its health system has collapsed under the load of COVID cases, with everybody wanting their elective procedures to be undertaken interstate because of the compromised status of each of the major NSW hospitals and their depletion of staff.

When anybody is used to being able to more or less control their activities, mostly by using devious tactics laced with lies, the Virus does not buy any of that. This is being shown by politicians hiding away, emerging only for controlled appearances with the media, at best having fragmentary knowledge of health to spread political half-truths. Underneath, the only Federal government strategy is wishing that the Virus would go away – and given his Pentecostal beliefs, the Prime Minister no doubt prays that “Jesus will directly intervene.”

If you want to stop the spread, you have to stop the vectors – people moving around in a disordered fashion (Brownian movement) – for at least two weeks. That is not going to happen in NSW – and, as has been proved elsewhere, vaccination helps, but achieving even 75 per cent is a challenge, not only because of the anti-vaxxers, but also  the unvaccinated  young who are spreaders.

A few weeks ago I set out a plan and inter alia suggested that as school was one place where you can capture the cohort, vaccination be provided at age 12. Vaccination may have to occur at an even younger age. However, that debate has yet to be had, as this Prime Minister’s mental energy is consumed in wedging poor hapless Albo.  Really, is that what governing Australia has been reduced to?

The point is, will Australia open up with NSW locked out? I am sure the other States are sick of Berejiklian and that NSW cabal called the Prime Minister’s office. A Treasurer held hostage because, in the end, plaintively he cries from the overgrown Lodge tennis court, a metaphor for Australia:

I coulda’ been a contender …

You don’t understand! I coulda’ had class. I coulda’ been a contender. I could’ve been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am – let’s face it.”

Maybe he will, because Cameron Stewart has proved prescient. Andrews has not got the Victorian State’s daily average down to 10 cases a day. As the week has progressed the attainment of Andrews’ goal seems unlikely to occur. Andrews is now not a counterpoint for NSW’s abject failure. Andrews now needs to recalibrate without seeming to become another Berekjiklian – the quintessential flailing, failed Premier, being pursued by the hounds of  Queensland and Western Australia. Basking to Baskerville?

Morton’s Fork

To-day everyone has to pay the heaviest taxes in our history, but whereas in former times nobody liked paying taxes, now (let us I hope) we willingly do so, for we know that our money is helping: the fight for freedom. But this willing spirit was not shown in the reign of Henry VII, whose method of taxation produced a dilemma known as “Morton’s Fork.”

His officers of taxation did not hesitate to exact forced loans from people of property. They acted in accordance with the theory that if a man lived economically he could not have failed to have saved money, and was, therefore, in a position to make his Sovereign a handsome contribution.  

Likewise, if he lived extravagantly he evidently possessed means, and was also in a position to assist his King. No wonder we inherited a dislike for taxation!

Most revolutions have originated from the excessive taxation of the common people, such as the American Revolution, which was fought to escape English taxes, and the French Revolution to end the crushing impositions of the ruling classes.

This rather quaint letter the Sydney Morning Herald published in wartime 1940 almost irrelevantly invoked the concept of Morton’s Fork. Here then there was no hint of the dilemma which Morton wilfully created when hunting for extra revenue for Henry VII, after he had come to the throne following the energy sapping War of the Roses where Morton had played an important role.

Cardinal John Morton

Although he was a Dorset man by birth, Morton had hitched himself to the Lancastrian cause, and survived during Yorkist imprisonment with his head still intact on his torso. Between being Bishop of Ely and Cardinal Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, he did have a stint in Tower of London – more a Morton roller-coaster than a fork. Moreover, Morton was always close to the Church, even though he first appears as the principal of Peckwater Inn, which had been given to an Augustine Priory several centuries before. It later became the site of Christ Church Oxford, but publican to priest gives Morton a special cachet.

Berejiklian is facing her own version of Morton’s Fork if she “lets it rip” and dismantles the lockdown; in all probability the State will collapse, as already clearly exemplified by a health system under extreme stress and NSW would attain complete pariah status within the Federation. If she intensifies the lockdown, then she is a form of Armenian toast with her Liberal Party backers, in a way never seen before by those unaffected in her Statewide constituency.  If they cannot protest in the streets, NSW voters have that alternative in 2023, unless there is revolt and cries for secession from the unaffected parts of the State well before that time.

There has already been the Tweed Heads Secessionist Movement, and what should have occurred at Federation, with all NSW south of the Murrumbidgee River being ceded to Victoria, may emerge as a local sentiment.

Then she would have to put a complete lockdown on the affected areas, allowing for no movement out for at least four weeks. Vaccination – who knows – may be her “opium of the people”. Let us face it, already we have evidence from elsewhere of the short-term effectiveness of the vaccines; but we have no plan to bolster up the very satisfactory take up to date, to include boosters even though Australia is still a long way from Shangri-La.

The World is based on getting your assumptions right

Covid-19 has exposed Australia’s economy for what it is.

We have a large, clean land and good weather. We dig dirt out of the ground which we sell as iron ore to China, which turns it into steel to build often vacant apartment blocks to pump GDP growth. We dig fossilised trees out of the ground which we also sell to China as coal to make that steel, and to burn in Japan for electricity while their nuclear reactors slowly get back online after Fukushima.

We sell immigration dressed up as education, mainly to China, which is now Australia’s third largest “export” market at $32 billion per annum – which is now halted. We are completely dependent on China which is now in a cold war with the US, possibly turning hot – where over one third of all merchandise exports go.”

So where to from here?

Technology and the elaborate transformation of our raw materials into sophisticated products with higher margins and a greater global market is the answer.

The fastest way to get there is to do everything we can to educate the nation with higher skills.

I would be paying people to go to university or TAFE in the right areas instead of sitting around in zombie companies on Job Keeper, use the spare capacity from the drop in international students to educate our own citizens and dramatically ramp up the sophistication and skills base taught at TAFE to make it a world class trade school.

My first assumption is this writer is not particularly friendly to the Morrison Government. However, like all assumptions, I could be wrong.

He is a prolific Twitter user, often commenting on subjects outside his areas of expertise, including the Sydney lockout laws, COVID-19, Politics of the United States, Donald Trump, Economic policy and many others. This has resulted in criticism from various circles including investors, who strongly suggest he should spend more energy growing a profitable company instead of constantly posting on social media.

This comment is inserted at the base of his Wikipedia biography, and my assumption is that the subject of the criticism did not insert that excerpt.

Again, I may be wrong.

Matt Barrie

The subject is Matt Barrie, self-described entrepreneur and IT expert. He has inserted himself into the “Doherty Model” debate with a very long criticism of the Doherty Institute’s modelling. He challenges the underlying assumptions of the model, and his criticism is peppered with annotations such as “garbage”.  I assume that he is calling into question the veracity of the Doherty model.

Parenthetically, when such a report as the Doherty one is commissioned and one can assume when the Government has predetermined the outcome, it politicises the findings and hence any recommendations in the Report. Here is the further parenthetic assumption that the Morrison government is following its normal pathway of creating a scapegoat, in this case in the form of Professor Lewin, if the whole Report goes “pear-shaped”, is discredited joining the $8m COVID-19 app which detected as it did only 17 cases – on the policy scrap heap..

It is part of my assumptions that the Government, which has made a number of appalling decisions, including prematurely congratulating the NSW government on successfully “quashing” the viral spread, has yet to learn.

The concern I have is how any of the models of the outcome of this Virus have factored in its transmissibility by those vaccinated, and the effect of the virus becoming endemic in children. The community has tolerated children as spreaders of that other coronavirus – the common cold – with its seasonal fluctuation. There is no vaccine, but we live with it because it is so mild in comparison with other infections and people are not hospitalised.

I am making the assumption that the AZ vaccine will be phased out as the mRNA vaccines, with their improved methods of production including the ability to be modified,  become the vaccines of choice. In itself this will present the Australian government with a number of problems in setting the policy agenda, including the substitution process, having invested so heavily in the AZ vaccine.

However, the assumption can be made that the shortages of vaccines will pass, and therefore the debate about whether Australia has booster doses or whether we help the disadvantaged countries achieve optimal vaccination also will fade as an issue.

Nevertheless, there remains the unanswered question of if, and when, boosters are required, and how young one needs to be to receive the first vaccine injection. Still questions that need to be answered, I assume.

Needless to say, it is poor form when asked to reveal the change in the modelling, Professor Lewin says she cannot. The assumption may be made that she has something to hide. The Doherty modellers should be asked to explain their model in front of their peers – publicly.

Whether he is right or wrong, Matt Barrie shows how debatable some of the assumptions underlying the report are, and therefore we do have a number of existing media forums where this can be debated, providing that the Chair of any such debate is knowledgeable and talented enough to lead the debate into objective territory. But that again is an assumption in many respects.

Hey Gladys. Where’re You Going This Weekend?

This is a story for you, Gladys.

There is a family we know in Tasmania.

They wanted to go on a holiday to Kakadu, but first they needed to visit relatives in Adelaide.

They boarded the Spirit of Tasmania with their car and were able to drive across Victoria and then stay in Adelaide with their relatives before flying to Darwin, where they rented a camper van and went to Kakadu, whence we received a text to say they were enjoying themselves. Very good people, and really good for them, not only to see their relatives in Adelaide but also to have a holiday in the Tropics during Tasmania’s chilly winter.

Then they drove their rented camper van from Darwin to Adelaide and then went home the way they had gone, in their own car.

What is that about lockdowns here? None.

The point is that the rest of Australia, especially if the smouldering Victorian outbreak is controlled, is leading a normal life, albeit a bit more hygienically than before.

A long time ago we booked a flight to Broome, having already booked on a cruise along the Kimberley coast, which would have also enabled us to go to Tiwi country, ending in Darwin. We anticipated the cancellation (which ultimately occurred) by flying to Broome early so that we could change to an alternative plan of driving to Darwin.  Having been to the Kimberley and the Northern Territory multiple times over the years we  knew what remained on our tourist agenda. However, along came the limo driver and the Berejiklian response, which has left the State locked down, with no demonstrable way of anything changing before the end of the year – if then.

Of course, none of the above  was possible for us, because of the Berejiklian stuff up. Nor any ability to go to Tasmania, nor to see our family in Melbourne.

I fail to see this adulation for the NSW Premier opening us all up for a picnic in the park or Dr Chant teaching us baby steps. Unfortunately, NSW has Berejiklian, who would be seen as an aberration in any other State. She has no strategy except vaccination in the face of the escalation of cases and a stressed health system.

Can I remind her of one thing? During the War, outside Tocumwal, they constructed an airstrip and nearby a 1,000 bed facility for war casualties, effectively taking them out of the firing line. The only way to deal with this crisis is to separate the infected, the virus vectors, until they are no longer vectors. A tent hospital would do it, because although the airstrip at Tocumwal still exists, the tent hospital has long gone and the land restored. The point is that rapidly setting up a fully functioning facility has been shown to be feasible and implementable. And a long way away without being a long way away. The wartime planners understood the apparent paradox and dealt with it accordingly.

Similar sites are available to NSW. What about some of those coastal golf courses in Sydney? Requisition these. Show some guts.

A suitable place for a quarantine village…

Watch what happens at Wellcamp when you have people with a real record of creating an airport and industrial park, as the Wagner brothers have shown; now given the task of creating a bespoke quarantine facility. In three months that will be operating.

However, you need courage to build such a facility in the face of Morrison the underminer. NSW needs a blueprint; the other States have provided various and the only unfortunate shred Berejiklian has in her policy patchwork is if Victoria has failed to reduce the number of cases. How threadbare can you become!

A Distant Mirror

I remember back in 1978, when I was reconstructing my library, I read a review about this new book titled A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. I remember sending a note to my friend in America asking her to buy me a copy, such were the times then in getting new American books. She bought a handcut first edition, which beautifully encased the views of one of the most influential historian of the 20th century, Barbara Tuchman.

The Distant Mirror metaphor drew attention to the parallels in the phenomena extant in both the 14th and 20th centuries.  On the surface there is Voltaire’s interjection of “history never repeating itself, man does” which may seem relevant, but where does it take one?

Back to this very extensive narrative of the 14th century.

Tuchman noted that there was a tendency of historians to skirt the 14th century, perhaps because of the disastrous consequences of the Black Death plague 1348-1350 “which killed an estimated one-third of the population living between India and Iceland.” She felt this a difficult age for historians as it was an interruption in the story of human progress.

Even now, over 30 years since her death, her thoughtful analysis is worth reading.

How delightful, southern France in summer …

In contrast, read the airy twitter post from the anachronistic Alexander Downer, having got an exemption to travel to France no less. Downer is chortling on about how lovely France is at this time of the year in summer – away from the Australian Oubliette – no lockdowns; just a France with 17,590 cases recorded yesterday and a “trivial” 74 deaths.

Reminiscent of Pope Clement VI during the stint in France away from that infested place called Rome, the papacy lodged in the south of France at Avignon at the height of the Black Death.  He was ordered by his doctor to sit between two fires in the papal apartments – during the summer. Rather than avoiding the miasma, the fire discouraged the fleas, the vectors of the Yersinia pestis bacillus. Also, the Pope had the added benefit of his doctor insisting on him being socially isolated, despite the Pope losing a third of his cardinals, most of whom were some relation in some shape or form to him anyway.

Better than lockdown, milord! Especially when you have no cardinals to worry about.

Now this is Freedom (Thanks to The Boston Globe)

What we are missing by having the lockdown.

For legions of island residents and visitors, traveling to and from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket has always been a bit of a headache.”

But this summer, the ordeal of snatching a coveted reservation on heavy travel days, and navigating the maze of buses, cars, and general commotion at the terminals has gone to migraine level, fuelling a season of discontent on the islands and mainland alike.”

Summer crowds at Martha’s Vineyard

“A fresh wave of tourists, along with an influx of new full-time island residents fleeing COVID, have packed ferries with thousands more cars, requiring travellers to book reservations weeks in advance for peak times.”

Mouse Whisper

The reward for reaching a record number of COVID cases in a single day – we can have a picnic outside – le déjeuner sur l’herbe or,

emulating Tom Lehrer’s picnic in the park:

All the world seems in tune
On a spring afternoon
When we’re poisoning pigeons in the park

…or a squirrel or two…”

Lots of ideas. Time for me to get some fresh air.

By the way, Is Tom Lehrer still alive?

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe

Modest Expectations – A Rock in Utah

On the 9-10 May 2001, the House of Representatives met in Melbourne to celebrate the Centenary of Federation Commemorative Sittings. Twenty years on, only five of those who were sitting as Members that day are still members of Parliament.

One is Kevin Andrews, a somewhat desiccated hangover in the Coalition, who is about to be consigned to “feather duster” status, after an undistinguished 30 years in Parliament and after losing preselection.

Warren Entsch and Bob Katter are from the wilds of Northern Queensland. Both have been able to ensure election without regard to any political affiliation. Katter is part of a dynasty, and both have fiefdoms. Intervention in any issue of national importance is incidental; neither is in a position to be national leader; and indeed, do not want to be so. They both want influence of their own choosing, even as they have become old men.

The other two who were there that day? Antony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek. Each has represented inner Sydney electorates for the Australian Labor Party for that period of time; in fact Albanese was elected in 1996 and Plibersek 1998. Frankly, I thought there would be more than just five, but these latter two are still very relevant to Australia as we move towards 2030.

Yet what have they done to move the needle towards ensuring a better life for Australia?

When Whitlam came to power in 1972, he gave Australia a mighty jolt. He had foreshadowed significant change during the vindictive years of McMahon and the alcohol-stained Gorton incumbency. “It’s Time” rang around Australia.

So dangerous was Whitlam to the bunyip aristocracy that eventually, with the connivance of the Royal household and the American security service, a coup was engineered in 1975 which led to Whitlam being sacked by a drunken popinjay called Kerr, dripping in the lard of an antique post and aided and abetted shamefully by the then Chief Justice Barwick.

However, the people showed very clearly that they were tired of Whitlam.  I was a spectator in these exciting times because, whatever could be said of these years, Australia threw off its bunyip ossification.

What followed was instructive, and the fact that the current government is as bad as it has ever been has given me cause to reflect. The decade post-Whitlam saw some of the most important policy made at a national level which brought us from a narrow Poujardist, sectarian-ridden country to one where the economy and the social structures bloomed – until this past decade.

Howard, for all his conservatism and his unconscious comic talent, strangely was the last remnant of that age, during which the mood of the country reverted to that previous xenophobic jingoistic time.

Malcolm Fraser came to power in 1975 in a landslide, which could be interpreted as a rejection of progress, and he was then successively re-elected until he was voted out in 1983. Fraser was a “curate’s egg”. For instance, his approach to economic reform was that of nineteenth century Victorian protectionism. His attitudes here with the morning-suited Eggleton whispering in his ear, set back our progress a decade.

However, despite the whisperings, he did make a number of decisions that can be attributed to his government having worthwhile impacts. I have tried to think of what Albanese and Plibersek have accomplished given that they have held ministerial positions and been in Cabinet over the past decade.

The reason I am musing about this was the discovery of an article in the Guardian Weekly written 13 years ago. The title “Harpoons Down – Australia’s Last Whaling“. The last whaling hunt happened in 1978. The last whaling station was at “Cheynes Beach” near Albany, a city on the southwestern coast of Australia. It was closed that year. At the time, there was a great deal of concern expressed as to the fallout in that community; the normal talk about the loss of jobs and of a city under stress given its isolated location.

Cheynes Beach whaling station near Albany

I remember visiting the station six years earlier when it was fully operational. When we arrived, the whales were being cut into huge slices. We weren’t worried about the smell. There is a lot of blood, but my children eagerly touched the body of the closest whale carcass.

My sons haven’t forgotten that experience since. People may abhor the slaughter of whales – whaling was so much part of our heritage as watching them has become today. My sons had grown up spending their holidays in Port Fairy, in a rubble walled stone cottage built in 1848. Port Fairy, together with other settlements on Victoria’s southern coast and the offshore islands of Tasmania, owed much of their origin to whaling. The cottage was named for Ben Bowyers, himself a whaler, who built it.

In April 1979 Malcolm Fraser pledged his government’s “total commitment to protect the whale”.  It was said that he was heavily influenced by his daughter, Phoebe. Nevertheless, a total ban on whaling in Australia and the development of policy for the protection of whales further afield in international waters followed. For this, Fraser could claim that he had achieved a major change in Australian policy and attitudes.

The cessation of whaling did not convert Albany into a ghost town. I think of an ongoing prosperous city today when, across the Continent, there are coal mines dotted all along coastal New South Wales. Yet Albanese and Plibersek, if not cowering under the assault of the coal mining industry and their union collaborators, are certainly not indicating a co-ordinated program to reduce coal mining either.

That is the worrying problem. That if Australia is faced with ridding itself of a corrupt government prolonging the moral desert, do we need a timid alternative with a blank record dedicating itself for minimising change, thus retaining a compromised bureaucracy with a carousel of consultants looting the country? Moreover, where is the plan to rid the coastal strip from the Illawarra to the Hunter of coal mining? After all, I am old enough to remember the despoliation of the beaches in the same area near Newcastle by sand mining and the bleat about loss of jobs. No sand mining in the Myall Lakes now. Loss of jobs? Not that you ever know whether these sand miners were ever reduced to penury.

Do we trust a government led by any NSW politician of any political colour? When last in power in this State, the ALP government was full of corruption, as we the community are being reminded as we watch the fall out still be played out in the courts.

More spine, Albo. Dig up the “goat tracks”, as Eddie Obeid so colourfully described the trail of lobbyists and hucksters wandering to and around the Parliamentary Executive Offices!

Additionally, a small piece of advice, get yourself or at least one of your trusted lieutenants to become fluent in Health as Neal Blewett did. The lack of appreciation that Health has a separate language leaves any politician such as Plibersek at a disadvantage. Certainly it did when she was Minister.

When I met her some years ago it was clear that she and her advisers spoke a form of Health creole. However then, speaking fluent Health was not as critical as it is today, especially in the misinterpretation of the meaning of vaccine percentages.

The Mystery of Jane Halton

Vaccine advances, including the remarkable success of mRNA technology, made it possible to develop jabs for a previously unknown pathogen in less than a year, rather than the decade or more it would traditionally take. But as much as we improved, the delivery of vaccines still took far too long. In the future, our goal must be to roll out vaccines in just 100 days. This goal, first articulated by CEPI, has been adopted and championed by the UK Government as part of its G7 Presidency. Achieving it could save millions of lives and trillions of dollars should we face another pandemic threat. – Richard Hatchett – June 2021

Richard Hatchett is the Chief Executive Officer of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the Oslo-based organisation formed in 2017. The following blurb, even suitably abridged, sets out the objectives:

CEPI works to advance vaccines against emerging infectious diseases…and establishes investigational vaccine stockpiles.

CEPI also funds new and innovative platform technologies with the potential to accelerate the development and manufacture of vaccines.

CEPI is working with partners across the world on the development and manufacturing of a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 and is seeking US$2 billion from global donors to carry out this plan. 

Australia has given CEPI a relatively small amount of $13million (half of which has already been provided) towards the $2billion. In addition to governments, notably the UK, the Gates and Wellcome Foundations have each given $100 million.

Richard Hatchett has had a remarkable career and it is outlined most relevantly in a recent book by the prolific Michael Lewis titled “The Premonition – A Pandemic Story”.  In short, Lewis focuses on a group of scientists and doctors who spent years trying to ensure America was prepared for a deadly pandemic. A medically-trained epidemiologist, Hatchett is first mentioned in the book as having being recruited by one Rajeev Venkayya, a relatively junior medical graduate himself part of a group planning for governmental response to pandemics.

Serendipity is often but not invariably associated with momentous change. Dr Venkayya arrived at the Bush White House at a time when Bush, as described in the book, was “pissed”. Bush had been at the helm when 9/11 occurred; there had been the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina – and he did not know what to do. In fact, my personal memory from afar at the time of 9/11 was of the dazed, uncomprehending look on Bush’s face when he was interrupted reading a story to pre-schoolers, to be told of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Yet there, in this book “The Premonition”, it was said that in the summer of 2005, Bush read a book about the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak and the devastation wrought. The book influenced Bush to such an extent that he wanted a plan to prevent this happening again. Bush had had many plans pushed his way on a number of matters, a number of which yielded catastrophic situations occurring, for instance, in Afghanistan.

Yet this proved different.

At the time in 2005 we had the outbreak of avian flu H5N1, and dire predictions of massive loss of human life, which never eventuated. Yet in the previous two years, the world had got its first spread of the SARS coronavirus, the forerunner of the COVID-19 virus.

Bush listened to Dr Vekayya, who wrote down a sketchy plan – 12 pages “which amounted less to a plan than a plan to have a plan”.  Bush asked Congress for $7.1 billion to spend on this three-part pandemic sketch plan, and Congress gave it to him. It was an insight into how Bush governed by instinct but, on this occasion, he was mostly right. Yet the business of getting a policy into place, which was little more than vaccinate and isolate, proved very difficult, given that it crossed the influential Centres for Disease Control (CDC) way of thinking.

To the Vekayya group another doctor was recruited, Carlton Mercer. He came from the Veterans Administration and over time this little-known figure became, with Hatchett, the vanguard for turning the Vekayya sketch into a defined course of action, namely when a pandemic appeared imminent, in the absence of a vaccine it was to go quickly and hard in locking down the community, close schools and social distance people from one other. The problem with people who genuinely drive change is that there is always the research/medical establishment prepared to cast aspersions. In this case, this was the CDC.

When Obama came to power, he stopped listening to these Bush appointees and their accumulated experience. He was bolstered in 2009 by predicted dire consequences of the swine flu pandemic – caused by another influenza virus H1N1 – that did not eventuate. Mexico had followed their guidelines; so what! America did not; and nothing much happened.

COVID-19 was yet to come.

Richard Hatchett in 2017 ended up running CEPI, which was a critical position as related in the book, because it was able to redirect substantial funding in the development of vaccines, particularly Moderna and AstroZeneca, when the pandemic struck and the Virus was isolated. Funding was also provided by CEPI to the University of Queensland for its ultimately failed vaccine. Considering the hype surrounding this group, perhaps more reliance was placed on its success than should have been. In any event, it left Australia with very few vaccine paddles, later in 2020. At that time Australia was basking in its success of suppression of the Virus.

Since leaving the advisory role to a President who had stopped listening to him, Richard Hatchett has been very active nevertheless.

The mystery of Jane Halton? Given her position as Chair of CEPI, which she is always flaunting, the question has been asked as to why she did not influence Australia in its acquisition of vaccines by Australia in 2020, given the directions being taken by CEPI, given the obvious international standing of the CEPI CEO, Richard Hatchett. I would have thought she would have told the Government what to do, as is her wont. She certainly should have known about the efficacy of the various vaccines under development around the world, including that of the University of Queensland, and the need to stockpile a range of vaccines, not just one.

Very strange, almost as mysterious as why she is the Chair of CEPI in the first place.

Sprod 

A drawing of a Grecian urn. The athlete on the urn being offered a laurel wreath. The caption – “no thanks I’ll take the money.”

The children on the beach watching a Punch and Judy show. The sign against the beach stage read “Now in its 290th year”.

An exercise in whimsy.

George Napier Sprod was an Australian cartoonist who, for much of his working life after the Second World War, worked in England. A cartoonist who signed himself Sprod? Who would believe the name was not just a humorous pseudonym? But George Napier Sprod was indeed born in South Australia.

As has been written elsewhere, in 1938 at the age 19, George Sprod left home without notice. He had decided to ride his bike along the Murray River en route to Sydney. He got as far as Hay before selling his bike and continuing by train. Once in Sydney he set up residence in Kings Cross and started freelancing as a cartoonist and working as a street photographer.

World War II intervened. He joined up, became a gunner, was sent to Singapore, was captured and then was a POW in Changi until the end of the War. During that time he teamed up with Ronald Searle and the two of them edited a paper called “Exile”. It must have been difficult for the Japanese to comprehend, given their distinctive styles. Searle in fact had a marked effect on the Sprod development

After the War he went back to Australia, worked for a time on the Packer papers, the Daily Telegraph and Womans Weekly, found out he was not a political cartoonist and went to England, where he hit paydirt, particularly with then Punch Editor, Malcolm Muggeridge.

In the “Introduction” to a collection of Sprod cartoons, mostly ones that had appeared in Punch, published in 1956 under the title “Chips off a Shoulder”, Malcolm Muggeridge described Sprod’s drawings as very funny, with a gusto, an earthiness. “The inherent absurdity of human life positively pleases him, and his bold and uproarious situations convey this pleasure. I would say he was in no tradition at all, but just Sprod.

Muggeridge, later on the Introduction, opined on why Australia produced and nurtured more humorous artists than anywhere else. He suggested it may have been the harshness of life and the vastness of Australia, which elicited the wry smile as the readiest and most natural response, as Muggeridge so elegantly puts it. Muggeridge mentions a number of Australian cartoonists, but lumped David Low in with them. Low, probably the most acclaimed political cartoonist of them, was a New Zealander, who did work for eight years in Sydney before spending the rest of this life cartooning in England.

Just before I left running the community health program in Victoria, one of my nursing team, as an impromptu gesture presented me with a first edition of “Chips off a Shoulder”. The year was 1979, the book having been published two decades before. On the fly leaf, she had written my initials and under these the words “A sense of humour” and then below at the foot of the page “Best wishes, always” followed by a long dash. I remember once she did ask what I would like as an epitaph. I don’t remember how this matter came up, but I remember my response, “I tried”.

It is funny what you treasure and would never sell. After I left the job, I never saw her again. Her name was Beryl.

But then I never went searching for Sprod, who by that time had retreated from England back to Australia because of some messy domestic relationship there. He died in Marrickville in 2003, I know that much and that he did go on to publish a number of other books of cartoons.

Where has All the Influenza Gone?

Influenza is very much part of the discussion swirling around the COVID-19 discussions. Reference is continually being made to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic; and reference is made to the fact that people have died of influenza in the past and we did not lock down Australia.

One can speculate about this. My view is that the Australian community has become used to the winter appearance of the virus, and there was always at the outset of “the flu season”, the Australian representative of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Reference on Influenza appearing to warn us of its dangers.  Australia was thus well placed. Scientists at the Centre in Melbourne—one of six such centres globally—faced an imprecise predictive process because of the variability of the various strains. This explained the vaccine’s varying effectiveness year to year as the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory (CSL) tried to make the most effective vaccine to counter this shifty virus.

Thus, there is a yearly vaccine, and there were established rituals. Those working in the health sector were encouraged to be vaccinated, and each health centre, generally as part of infection control, provided a systematic approach. In any event the prevalence of influenza waned as the country emerged from winter.

People died, and in fact up to 2020, every year from 2014 onwards the number of people who died increased, almost reaching 1,000 a year – until 2020 when the number dropped to 36, and then this year nil. The average age of death was 88, and hence influenza mortality was conventionally believed to be confined to the very old.

This year the community was advised to space its influenza and COVID-19 injections. I had the influenza injection first, when it became available. This I did because early in the year the COVID-19 virus seemed suppressed and the Delta variant had yet to emerge as the scourge it has become. So, in my case, “vaccine hesitancy” was an artefact, because of the expert advice to space the injections.

There is much speculation about why this apparent extinction of influenza mortality has occurred. The first is that it is only a lull in the disease progression and it will come roaring back with enhanced infectivity. Others suggest that the measures taken in regard to the current pandemic, such as social distancing, better hygiene and school closures have contributed.

Whatever the core reason for the current situation of zero mortality, the course of the influenza virus should be closely monitored but, from this unexpected effect, it does suggest that the hard approach is working.

In 1918 the community was hit by the influenza pandemic which, some say, never really went away. It just became attenuated; but there have been pandemic years. I remember the Asian flu pandemic in 1957 because I ended up in Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. There have been outbreaks since, all caused by descendants of the Spanish flu virus, generally milder and seasonally self-limited. In summary, seasonal influenza has tended to kill the oldest and youngest in a society but has been less virulent since the 1918 pandemic – roughly half of those who died were men and women in their 20s and 30s, in the prime of their lives.

Why does the community not get so worried about influenza? First, I suggest it is because of its predictability. This is reflected clearly by the ritual of flu vaccine injections. Yet have the measure that have been put in place over the past two years fatally suppressed the flu virus? An open question.

Secondly, the coronavirus is different. The common cold is a coronavirus; the conventional wisdom – we don’t die of the common cold. But this is different, and the world was unprepared for this relative of such a mild disease to rear up and become a dangerous lethal virus, initially with no vaccine and then, as if in response to the emergence of vaccines, the more dangerous delta variant appeared.

Influenza has a predictability; this virus has not, especially as the messaging changes almost daily. These changes have increased the uncertainty, whereas the rules to deal with pandemics from a pure public health context have always been simple and unequivocal, with perhaps the added use of masks. Social distancing, school closure, restriction of all movement, personal hygiene, use of hand sanitiser, the importance of the reproduction factor – all well known.

Thirdly, another difference compared with influenza is the way this current pandemic has been handled in Australia. This is the politicisation with the inability of politicians not to interfere. The failure occurs when politicians panic, want instant solutions, unfortunately showing both ignorance and weakness at the same time. Politicians always seem to know better, especially when it interferes with business and political donors.

Ignore the public health rules, as is happening at present in NSW, and how long will it be before it is not only Afghani seeking refugee status in States with low rates of infection. One person, being a proponent of the “Let it rip” school of dealing with the Virus, said to me that he wanted to leave the country. Don’t worry. Currently, NSW is the place for you.

Mouse Whisper

Michael Kirby is an illustrious man of the people. He is known to deliver newspapers. Yet he has 30 honorary doctorates – quite a collection. There are 23 from Australian universities. Shame on the University of Western Australia and the University of Queensland. You are real laggards. But has anybody else got more honorary doctorates than our Michael K?

What a fancy dress party Michael, the Thespian, can stage. But why the number?  I suppose it is because some people collect stamps; others, like Michael, collect Tudor caps.

My mausmeister has fond but distant memories of him and that other colourful figure of Sydney University politics, the late Vincent John Flynn. He remembers the things which were said about him by those two worthies during those halcyon days of student politics, not to his face, but after he had left a meeting early.

You see Flynn had inter alia currency issues; and so does Michael. Different form of currency; different definition. Both defined by spotlight, one avoidance of it, the other always searching for it.

Modest Expectations – Geometric Progression

I rarely post on Facebook, but I feel compelled to comment on the large number of unvaccinated people there are. Many think that is awful. But the more I have thought about it, the more I conclude it may be the best thing that has happened to the human race in several centuries.

Those who choose not to vaccinate are, and will continue to be, the vast majority of those who contract COVID-19, as well as the majority of those who die. While I feel sorry for the friends and families of those people, in the long term that may be the best thing that has happened to the human race in a long time.

By weeding out the dumbest of our people, the average intelligence of our race will clearly improve!! So look on the bright side—the human race will be better off in the long term with the dumbest of our people being the largest bloc of deaths!!!

So wrote my American mate.

It demonstrates that the ferocity, which is consuming American society, being played out between those in favour of vaccination and the antivaxxers. Thinking about this invective I am reminded that my forebears survived the Black Death. But so did those of everyone who is living at present, even the progenitors of the anti-vaxxers. On this basis, some of these survivors proliferated, so stupidity is never totally extinguished.

Do I disapprove of anything sent above? Well, I do think the multiple exclamation marks are a bit over the top.

Seriously, despite the robustness of the comments, I genuinely worry about any suggestion of eugenics, for whatever reason, even in the case of America given the action of the disgusting Trump in dumbing down the community over the past four years and dismissing the seriousness of this pandemic.

Tales from the South Seas

South Sea Islanders have always seemed to me to get the rough end of the pineapple, as it were.  This mob is largely confined to the sugar growing areas of Queensland. Mostly, they have been ignored, despite the appalling way their ancestors were treated. Their forefathers were the victims of blackbirding, the trade in men mostly, from modern day Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, who were kidnapped, transported to Queensland and northern NSW, where they cut sugar cane.

South Sea Islander flag

Most were repatriated in the early years of our Federation, but a number remained – the actual figure being a subject of conjecture. From a peak of 60,000, the estimate now is about 5,000 although how rubbery that figure is, who knows.

When South Sea Islander leaders, Faith Bandler and Dr Evelyn Scott, died, politicians, the media and the wider community labelled both as Indigenous activists and gave no recognition to their South Sea Islander heritage.

Later, on other hand, when Dr Bonita Mabo died, she was widely recognised as a leading Australian South Sea Islander activist, also involved in Indigenous activism.

Therefore, the recent very public apology by the Mayor of Bundaberg, Jack Dempsey, to the South Sea Islanders reinforced the success of the Islanders over the last generation or two in educating their fellow Australians about their existence.

Australia flies both the Aboriginal and Torres Islander flags widely, but who recognises the South Sea islander flag? The argument may be that they are an insignificant number, but then if you apply that rule, the Aboriginal population and even more so the Torres Strait Islanders would be similarly considered given their respectively small percentages of the whole population.

The root problem goes back to the 1975 report of Australian Law Reform Commission where South Sea Islanders’ claims for recognition were dismissed contemptuously.

I am sure that Rugby League fans would dispute this, given that one of the greatest Rugby League players ever was Mal Meninga, himself of South Sea Islander heritage. He is not the only one.

In my 2017 book I wrote about the experiences of a young Philip Morey, when he had worked on the then New Hebrides island of Erromanga between 1932 and 1934. Here he had encountered a man who had been taken to Queensland as a youth who, after 40 years, returned to his village on Erromanga. The exchange between the young Australian and the old native needs no further commentary. It is nevertheless instructive. The extract starts with Morey asking a question while the old man was harvesting his plot of sweet potato.

The Sheep of Erromanga – Messages from the Martyrs Isle, Jack Best

“What was life here like when you were a small boy?” 

The dreaminess reappeared in the old man’s cadence. “Son, that was a long, long time ago.” The dreaminess vanished as quickly as it had come and edginess came into his voice. “I was less than twenty years old when the boat took me to Queensland. It was not even Australia then — just a group of colonies where you white men wanted me to make you some money. And I did. You know, I cut cedar and kauri for a shilling a hundred foot. I even worked on cattle stations.”

The old man drew a circle in the dirt.

“The pay wasn’t much, but I made enough money to rent fifteen acres and a farm in Northern New South Wales — on the Clarence. Married a white woman.” He stopped.

Philip thought he expected a question about mixed marriage, but miscegenation did not trouble Philip. He had read too much French literature to share the English fear of mixing skin colours. The French were very much more tolerant. He wondered whether there was a Creole culture in this strangely governed group of islands. 

Philip was quiet as he pondered this old fellow who had lived forty years among white people and who, after twenty years back on the island of his birth, could still speak fluent English. He had lived and worked under white men’s rule in a white man’s house with a white woman as his wife. He had seen and enjoyed the comforts and pains of civilization. Now he was living in a dirty and dilapidated old native hut wearing a dented old hat and a dirty threadbare loincloth.

He thought, so much for forty years in Australia!

The old man turned as if he felt Philip’s final thought as a laceration. 

“Son, civilization is not only in the eye of the white man.” His clouded eyes belied the directness, the clarity of the comment.

“You know what made me come home?” The old man continued without waiting for any acknowledgement. “I had learned enough about the way you white men handle your riches — you are always selling that lie to others to make even more for yourselves. I found out what civilization was all about. I lived as a white man — I saved and then I gambled money that I had earned on making money that would come without me earning it. What do you call it? Dividends? Interest? It has taken a long time for me to forget the words of deceit.” 

Philip thought that the way he said “deceit”, with his teeth clenched, was an expression of repugnance at a life he had once tried to embrace. 

“I lost my money,” the old man continued. “Any money I had got over that first twenty years went in the 1891 bank crash. Lost my farm, lost my living — lost my wife. Went back to the cane fields. But that life is for a young man, and my back started to give out. In the end, in my last ten years in your newly created country, I made enough to live on, but when I came home I left every penny in there — in your Australia.

What this man did not say, because there is no record of him having any children, was when the descendent of the first wave of South Sea islanders was repatriated, many of them were the product of mixed marriages, particularly with Aboriginal women. They suffered discrimination from the locals, who were of Melanesian stock. Strange world. Nevertheless, when I visited the Torres Strait, the comment was made that Torres Strait Islanders discriminated against those who lived on Horn Island, who were predominantly Aboriginal.

During World War 11 for instance, as an example of interracial discrimination, it was reported that while only earning one-third pay compared to whites, Torres Strait Islanders were compensated at a higher rate than Aboriginal soldiers. The Australian army viewed Torres Strait soldiers equal in combat with white soldiers, while they considered Aboriginal soldiers to be liabilities.

The experience the Erromanga man had in Australia from his first-hand account does not mention any discrimination – only that he lost all his money and his wife, and yet had returned home, content with obvious wisdom gained.

Captain Robert Towns

Nevertheless, even today, one matter rankles with me. At a time when the world is dishonouring slave traders, there is no move to change the name of Townsville away from one of the most notorious slave traders of the South Pacific, Robert Towns. He was British born and now is buried on Castle Hill. There has been some protest, but that has been ignored. Just imagine if Towns had been associated with an Aboriginal massacre.

I suppose it is a part of the Australian diaspora that we have a large regional city named for a mass murderer.

On what was the Vanuatu National Day, the last word should go Waskam Davis, whose forebears came from Tanna, one of the southern islands of Vanuatu. In response to the apology from the Bundaberg Mayor, she said: “We’ve grown up watching this struggle for recognition, and also working alongside our Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander families for greater recognition, greater inclusion, better outcomes for our collective communities”. 

Well, they could start by renaming Townsville. After all, we were once New Holland.

God, I am sick of these people

One source has suggested that vaccine supply logistics has been a form of a Ponzi scheme, although in this case there was a lot of smoke and mirrors about non-existent stores of vaccines or those sitting, waiting to be validated, coupled with much encouragement to “book a vaccination”. 

Such a comment displays a dangerous lack of confidence in Government.

Soldiers are joining police on the streets to ensure compliance, which has been sadly lacking in those suburbs where there has been a high immigrant population.  Those who have used their migrant groups to establish their petty satraps in local government, these so-called community leaders, have failed to accept the responsibility of both reassuring the population and reinforcing the compliance message. These community leaders should be accompanying the police and the soldiers in walking the streets, instead of braying from the sidelines.  Instead of explaining that Australia is at war with a Virus, which has killed or maimed millions of people across the World, and that this involves everyone making hard decisions about their lives in the short term, these so-called community leaders are selling this confected tripe that these people have fled from war torn countries and these immigrants will be totally blown out of their minds if they see soldiers on their streets.

Why are they doing this? Why are they sabotaging the State Government?

There are a number of reasons. I would hate to say that it is easy to whinge and in effect do bugger all. After all, do people go into local government primarily to help others?

There is a lack of leadership. The face of a Prime Minister who acts like a Cheshire cat with that very distinctive smirk, but whose default button is the media release and blame shifting.

Then there is the Premier, who is completely hapless, talks too much, has had a pet albatross called Darryl still bobbing around in this ocean of discontent, and an expertise in document shredding to list some of her achievements.  Perhaps I have missed something but there is nothing Churchillian in her desperation.  Her default button is “on the best medical advice”.

Therefore, the blame is shifted onto Kerry Chant who has shown, as I have said previously, remarkable resilience. However, everybody has his or her breaking point, especially if the contact tracing system, however well organised, is being overwhelmed.

It should be recognised that one positive outcome in NSW has been the QR code, originally devised in Japan in 1994, which was introduced after a month-long trial in Dubbo last year.

All Ministers of Health should be ensuring that the rest of the health system is working, and there are worrying signs. The problem is that all health bureaucracies are steeped in people who may know the regulations, but as I have written before, “health” is a separate language. In time, bureaucrats learn to speak “pidgin” health. While the NSW Health Minister is suitably authoritarian, he gives the impression he is not across his portfolio despite being the Minister for four years.

The key quality of a strong health minister is being able to speak fluent Health, as this is the major defence against the central agencies always wanting to trim the health budget. The problem for health ministers is that on most occasions the central agencies “plant” their own bureaucrat in the health portfolio to do their bidding. As an example, you don’t have to look past Jane Halton when she was Secretary of the Commonwealth Health Department.

As for the current Federal Minister of Health, he has presided over a failed app, a failed social marketing advertising strategy and a collection of mates getting jobs in relation to the failed logistics of distribution of the vaccine. The result is that there has been a series of poor decisions in choosing vaccines, a disjointed rollout of vaccines and, in regard the aged care portfolio, just a schemozzle when, with little additional effort, the workforce could have been vaccinated at the time of the vaccination of the residents. It does not help when the general in charge of the vaccine distribution looks as if he is about to cry at any moment.

There are so many opinions flying about that it is time to call a halt. Instead of this so-called national cabinet as seeming to be an exercise in shoring up fiefdoms and ensuring every political leader has their own pet scapegoat, it is time for political games to stop for the good of Australia.

As an example of this is the numbers flying about from the modellers about the percentage of those vaccinated which will enable Australia to move through the putative phases. The Doherty mob were asked by Government to provide an indicative figure to minimise lockdown. Fair enough – clear direction. But it seemed to let loose a storm of academic babble.  It is time for the academics to stop thinking this pandemic is a research conference.  The problem in a world of imperfect information is to know what to believe, leaving a confused community which eventually stops listening.

The country needs now:

  • A national contact tracing system. Here I agree with Stephen Duckett’s opinion piece in the SMH. Those of both NSW and Victoria have been tested. The initially woeful Victorian system was rectified; the NSW system has been resilient. If we had a national system, then it would signal that the Federation lives. Those who are starting to question the NSW system must recognise that if enough stress is put on a system, it will break. It needs continual engineering not scapegoating.
  • Custom made quarantine facilities, along the lines of Howard Springs, where there have been no recorded breaches, are essential. Its success was evident from the very start with the repatriation from Wuhan. Of course, whenever the profit motives intrude, as they did with the hotel quarantine, disaster follows, and thus the decision to look after one sector may end with the whole business sector compromised. The absurdity of continuing to talk about building them while doing virtually nothing is breathtaking. Endless useless contracts have been given to consultants over the past year; if the private sector as epitomised by the Wagner Brothers had been contracted to construct quarantine facilities they would have been in operation months ago.
  • The logistics of timely supply of testing materials and vaccines needs to be properly organised so it isn’t used as a conduit to just give taxpayers’ money to mates. Maybe somebody should take a lesson from Essington Lewis’ playbook from World War 11. If we had these turkeys in charge then, each State would have raised its own militia and Tasmanians would be making sake instead of gin.
  • The evidence of the best venue/s in which to distribute the vaccine and the need to have a national disaster plan using the evidence gained from this pandemic, particularly in the use of masks and hand sanitiser.
  • The QR code system, which has been an example of success, should be made uniform and compulsory across Australia. The communication strategy, the failure to acknowledge the app dud, and instead of subjecting the whole community communication strategy to public scrutiny, it will be buried from scrutiny to the overall national detriment. There have been some spectacular successes in social marketing campaigns in the past. Remember the success of the NSW anti-drink driving campaign orchestrated by the incomparable John Bevins.
  • Recognition of the danger of the lockdown and border closures where there is no uniform national control by the Federal Government. Say NSW decides to loosen all restrictions a lá Boris, in conflict with the other States with harsher restrictions, then there is the potential for community chaos and a fractured Federation presided over by an impotent Federal government. The actions of the West Australian Premier in particular fill me with a sense of foreboding; Australia does not need a re-enactment of the 1890s.

One of the great successes Wooldridge had when he was Commonwealth Minister of Health was improving the vaccine rate across Australia. I recognise he has had a chequered history since he left that job, but it has not stopped him from advising Hunt, particularly in the way the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme can be nuanced.

I wonder whether he would agree with “jab” as part of the politician’s lexicon, and if there is hesitancy, the best place to test this in schools is to make it compulsory for all children, say at 12, to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Once you introduce a program into schools, then it is a perfect road to eradication – rubella and polio are prime examples, or have the current policymakers forgotten about those scourges? Such a decision would reinforce some of the calls to redirect inoculation to the young.

In the interim, give the residue of children aged between 12 and 18 the vaccine. It is only a matter of organisation to get them all vaccinated – and incidentally a good way to identify those among the parents who are avowed anti-vaxxers and those who are just hesitant.

While it has been admirable that the Government has concentrated on the elderly, the assumption being we are the most vulnerable, and therefore vaccination is a community anodyne for not clogging the acute hospitals with the most unproductive sector of the community, particularly applying to the intensive care units. Any COVID-19 patient admitted to hospital can spread the nightmare.

Another matter is the long-term morbidity, which will contribute to the cost on the system. The post-viral syndrome is protean in its manifestations and it seems that COVID-19 can be particularly severe. Then there is the murky world of the auto-immune disease, and having a chronic auto-immune disease myself, I would not flirt with the disease, with preferably having a choice of vaccine. My second injection is due tomorrow.

The overarching concern, despite much work being done in relation to SARs vaccine development in the past 15 years, none of them have had the usual level of testing that most vaccines undergo before being approved for usage. This is the baggage which Australia has, given investment in the Queensland dud and the almost exclusive Governmental preference for the AstraZeneca vaccine.  That is the risk one takes when there is urgency, and where hindsight is a wonderful attribute.

Hence, with long-term morbidity, there will always be the search for a cure. Given the nonsense in relation to bleach, zinc, ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine and whatever, it is still important that all treatments are not dismissed.  The example of the nucleotide, remdesivir with the associated use of cortisone has received attention and seems to have some role in the most serious cases, but there needs to be more convincing data.

Finally, one area which has remained relatively untouched in the mountain of commentary is the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). It should not be forgotten in any national review. Here Australia is in a pandemic and there is the spectacle of national chemist chains peddling the usual remedies for the common cold and other respiratory complaints on national television every night. Most remedies have been shown not to work, and normally can be tolerated, but this is a pandemic, and mixed messaging needs to be eliminated – not gaily spouted on national television. The medical advice is to be COVID-19 tested if you have “the most minimal of symptoms”. Yet the advertisements are full of contradictory advice encouraging use of ineffective patent medicines that are likely to delay being tested for COVID-19.

The problem is that the Commonwealth Department of Health’s Health Products Regulation Group needs a large shakeup. The current deputy secretary in charge, John Skerrett, is in a long line of bureaucrats who, in the words of the Health Department, contribute to the stewardship of Australia’s health system. Exactly! It was one area which, in hindsight, I should have weighed in when I had some influence in the area.

In all, public health specialists sit uneasily with business community. There are few bridges. An American view was that the public health specialists are Democrats and Business Republicans. It has been shown in the unfortunate politicisation of this pandemic, particularly in the United States.

There’s business, and then there’s seriously good business.

Victoria, with its vocal proponent Peter Doherty, is pushing ahead with plans for an mRNA research and production capacity in Australia. Of course, the race is on internationally.  After the spectacular success of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Sanofi announced on June 29th that it will invest more than USD475 million a year to develop mRNA vaccines against other diseases, and much of the work will be done in Cambridge, a suburb of Boston in Massachusetts

Sanofi is creating a vaccines mRNA Centre of Excellence that will employ 400 people both there and in Lyon, France. The French pharmaceutical firm has about 4,200 employees in Massachusetts. Sanofi hopes to have at least six potential vaccines to test in clinical trials by 2025 against a range of diseases.

While Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca both vowed to sell their vaccines on a non-profit basis during the pandemic, Moderna, which has never made a profit and has no other products on the market, decided to sell its vaccine at a profit, as did Pfizer, notwithstanding that it didn’t need the profits because of its already healthy bottom line. Last year Pfizer showed USD9.6bn in profits, before the COVID-19 vaccine. In the first three months of this year the COVID-19 vaccine delivered USD3.5bn of revenue.

And that is just the start. Like the eponymous Magic Pudding, the vaccine is expected to keep generating significant revenue, especially because of the likely need for regular booster shots, already before the FDA. Pfizer has said it expects its vaccine to generate USD26bn in revenue this year and the company has been signing supply deals with governments as far out as 2024. Nice work if you can get it.

Just an addendum

I could not agree more with Gideon Haigh’s comment made last Sunday about the nature and future of the Olympic Games, much in the same vein as I wrote about last week. The euphoria generated by the number of Australian gold medals in the first week made those who reckon that the Olympic Games is now in need of a thorough overhaul seem like the Grinch. The Games have provided a degree of fairy tale theatre for those of us caught in the lockdown.

The problem is that life has many airheads, often former Olympians who “are on the tit” directly or living a life that they once had in amongst the gaiety of the Games, not to mention the close contacts that some have made and persisted.  What do they call it?  Yes, the Olympic Family.

Apart from hubris, there is no reason for that appalling decision of the Queensland Premier to commit to the same contract which has left the IOC again wallowing in cash, when it was clearly on its knees. Here, the host city and, on this occasion because we have a drongo Federal Government prepared to cough up 50 per cent, every taxpayer in Australia will be saddled with debt. A form of neoliberal communism, you may ask. Don’t bother.

It was interesting to note that the residual Sydney Games debt is still bouncing around 20 years after the end of those Games.

The country, particularly Queensland, may come to curse Coates, who will be 82 when the Games come around – or dead.  Coates may think he has fenced his legacy, but as I said last week, in 2032 there will be a different World. Indeed, fire-fighting may have become an Olympic sport by then.

And by the way, that winner of the mens’ 100 metres the other day, from the vantage point of mia sedia in salotto, appeared to have the physiognomy of the Canadian Ben Johnson.  He certainly has made massive strides, as they say, over a short time, as distinct from the IOC. Could have been something in the tagliatelle.

Mouse Whisper

As my cousin Camundongo from Lisbon has warned me that before entering the swimming pool remember to circumflex since:

If in Maio

You want on whim

To decide to swim

Remember to wear your Maiô

Portuguese water dogs

Modest Expectations – My Brilliant Career

“There are known knowns — there are things we know we know,” (US Secretary of Defence) Rumsfeld said in February 2002, when asked for evidence that Saddam Hussein tried to supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. “We also know there are known unknowns — that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Donald Rumsfeld

It was 120 years ago today that Miles Franklin’s novel My Brilliant Career was published. Let me say it was a brilliant title, but the brilliance of its content has always eluded me.

I have a very tenuous connection with Miles Franklin by staying over Easter one year at Brindabella Station, where Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin spent her early years. She was 16 when she wrote this melodramatic piece of Victorian passion, the choice between the bloke or the brilliance. Initially rejected, her book was taken up by Henry Lawson, who took it to England where it was published.

We were invited to the Brindabella station by the then owner Richard Carleton. The station lies to the south of Canberra amid the Brindabella range. The Goodradigbee River flows through the station. Carleton’s ashes were scattered on the river after his death in 2006.

Carleton was an avid fisherman but, knowing him, it was the prospect of owning a famous piece of Australiana that would have been high on his agenda in purchasing this property. Richard Carleton was a complex, highly intelligent, outwardly affable but emotionally taut person. That weekend at Brindabella I unfortunately upset what had been a relationship of mutual respect, and for a period in the mid-seventies, when I had fallen from grace as it were, he had been one of my Canberra associates, who proved not to be fair weather. So, the station was one of mixed memories.

However, that is a different tale from My Brilliant Career. Several years earlier, the film of the book of the same name had won international acclaim.  The tension between marriage and career was a relevant theme at the time in the seventies transitioning into the eighties.  The film’s director, Gillian Armstrong, had been a young Australian at the outset of a successful career as a film director; the film’s heroine was played by Judy Davis, who has played “mood indigo” so very well in her long career.  The hero was played by Sam Neill, who as usual played “Same Neill”, which he does, as always, so well. The success of the film gained the book and the author, who had died in 1954, belated recognition. Franklin is a minor author at best. Her link to feminism and her foresight in setting money aside for the annual eponymous award for “the novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases” – the award first presented in 1957 to Patrick White for Voss – has vaulted her into a position of literary eminence.

My Brilliant Career was the only novel written by her or under pseudonyms, which gained her the recognition during her lifetime that she craved.  Phyllis Rose, in an essay in The New Yorker written after the release of the film, was very critical of the novel, saying it was over-written and in fact what would have been expected in an immature person. Phyllis Rose reported that Franklin herself would later refer to it contemptuously as a girl’s book, tossed off in a matter of weeks (10), written out of ”inexperience and consuming longing”. It can be noted that Franklin prohibited its re-publication until at least 10 years after her death in 1954.

This was a somewhat different interpretation from that of Jennifer Byrne who wrote, in a foreword to a later reprint, that “the young author was stung and refused to allow My Brilliant Career to be reprinted for decades”. Allegedly this was due to controversy caused by its publication because of the aspersions cast upon certain characters in the novel, which was presumed autobiographical – presumably it was seen a betrayal of the bunyip squattocracy.

The book is very much “Come on, Goodchum, we must be going” – interspersed with the heroine’s interpretation of home teaching: “I calmly produced my switch and brought it smartly over the shoulders of my refractory pupil…but bringing the rod down on the table, I threatened to thrash every one of them if they so much as whimpered.” Nothing like a bit of domestic violence to remind the reader of its relevance to modern day.

Miles Franklin

The photo of Miles Franklin dressed in black with a matching bonnet is that of disdain and withdrawal. There is no charm in this woman. She is still young, but the image in the photograph is not that of a young woman with an umbrella tucked under her arm like a swagger stick. Judy Davis, in her portrayal, converted this cardboard woman to that of a recognisable feminist in period costume, full of smoulder and volcanic dormancy. Judy Davis was The Brilliant Career.

Why have I identified a link between the Rumsfeld Quote and Miles Franklin?

Rumsfield, in his response set down, established a quadrate for whatever reason, but presumably at least as a clever conceit. He mentioned “known knowns”, without an example, but for him presumably his date of birth would satisfy.

Then he mentions “known unknown” and gave as an example the weapons of mass destruction; but given what later transpired – the lack of these weapons which he knew about, but we mug punters did not – was an example of an “unknown known” (in this case deceit). He did not mention this option in his quoted response – the “unknown known” – and it seems nobody thought to ask him why he left it out.

Finally, for him as with us still alive, “the unknown unknown” at the time he made this statement was that he did not know the time of his death.  However, for us that survive Rumsfield, his death has become a “known known” (29 June 2021) – trivial though it may be.

I have never thought much about Miles Franklin, although her contemporary Australian female authors dominated my childhood – Mrs Aeneas Gunn of We of the Never Never and Mary Grant Bruce and Ethel Turner; their books were all in the cousins’ bookcase; I remember Katherine Prichard’s Coonardoo as a year 12 book, which I loved at the time, despite it being compulsory reading.

I started off from square one in this pursuit and took the text from Rumsfeld, which typified his “look-at-me” approach; “I’m smarter than anybody else, you stupid interviewers”, and yet he left out one of the squares of his quadrate. Why he did this? Who knows?

The more I have read about Miles Franklin, the more intriguing the person becomes. As with Phyllis Rose, I thought her writing in places unintentionally hilarious. Her writing may also be self-conscious and stilted, but that is not what makes her intriguing, especially when she was searching for that brilliant career which later, in 1946, when she wrote it, “went bung.” But did it?  Her working in the Balkans as a volunteer cook during the latter part of World War 1 was one instance, and her observations in the summaries I have read are brilliant.

The late Jill Roe spent most of her academic life at Macquarie University, concentrating on the life and times of Miles Franklin. Hers can thus be said to be the definitive biography of Franklin. Like Franklin, she grew up in the country, she at Tumby Bay, a fishing village on the Eyre Peninsula where the leafy sea dragons frolic in the nearby gulf. Unlike Miles Franklin, Professor Roe was able to resolve her sexuality and undoubtedly did have a brilliant career, judged by her baubles of success.

The more I have thought about that brilliant title, the more I see it portrays the essence of what Rumsfield was saying, even if he did not know what he was saying. As Jill Roe herself once said when accepting another piece of Tudor fancy dress from Macquarie University, “that is what I shall be arguing!” Brilliant title or brilliant insight?

What beats No Trumps

(Two Trump biographers) both said the indictment of the Trump Organization comes during what appears to be the company’s most difficult moment since Trump’s financial crash in the early 1990s.

During that period, Trump found himself hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and lost control of prized assets — including an airline, a yacht and New York’s Plaza Hotel. His business empire did not fully recover for a decade, until Trump gained television fame and made tens of millions as the star of NBC’s “The Apprentice”. 

The financial picture for Trump today, based on his government disclosures, is dramatically better than it was then. On his most recent financial disclosure form, Trump reported around $300 million in income for 2020. But experts and former employees say the reputation of his brand among consumers and potential business partners is arguably worse. 

Barbara Res, a top construction executive at the Trump Organization from 1980 to 1998, said Trump was already facing a problem caused by his political career: His company is still built around the old gold-plated luxury brand, aimed at wealthy urban dwellers and tourists. But his political career alienated most of that demographic. Now, Res said, “most of his [company’s] brand talks to people who are not his supporters.”

This is a somewhat different angle on Trump. The Brand Trump and the Political Trump are increasingly dissociated according to this former insider.

The Brand Trump will take a battering if the prediction is proved correct. When he was President, the Brand and the Political merged. Now that he is not President, his only political ploy is to keep saying the election was rigged. His mind is consumed with revenge and pillage. That is the basis of his residual power – he maintains his harness on the dark recesses of the American mind. He has turned illusion into hallucination. Yet negativity only has a limited life span, and therefore for Trump political success is vital.

Brand hedonism played out to gated communities does not respond well when his Political Brand is continually depicted as pitchforks and mob harangue. His Brand constituency should be looking around for somebody else; the Brand has been jolted by his electoral loss, and his refusal to go away. However, it is easier to believe midterm election success next year is the last shot in maintaining the sharpness of the pitchforks.

As I have said repeatedly, Trump is old and the decay is showing. His survival from COVID-19 was helped by an array of drugs, unavailable to his own constituency, and he showed resilience despite years of poor diet, obesity and pig-headedness. Nevertheless, that episode will have taken its toll, especially with a brain already fraying at its cognitive edges.

America is a violent society. That is a known, and Trump is known to fuel such violence. This community violence is mirrored by a propensity for political assassination. The unknown is whether his continual provocative antics will entice someone mad enough to emulate those who have gone before as political assassins:  Using the Rumsfield quadrate, “E Ea Ignota”.

Thus the “known” is, in the end, that Trump will fall from grace, whether by violent death, natural causes or just because to be demented and maintain authority he would need to be installed as Pope. The demise of the demagogues from that of the Gracchi brothers in Ancient Rome is a known fate. In the case of Trump, the unknown is to know how long it will take; and whether when the head is gone, the lumpenproletariat body will survive.

The Long House

From childhood I have always been fascinated by the wild men of Borneo, comic strip characters associated with jungle fantasy.  In my childhood, most of Borneo became independent from the Dutch in 1949 with the establishment of Indonesia, but there were enclaves along the coast, which remained part of the British Empire for about a decade longer.

One of these was Sarawak which, from 1841 to 1946, was the fiefdom of the Brooke family, the so-called White Rajahs, one of whom was the model for Josef Conrad’s “Lord Jim” – a book I have started so many times but never completed.

To me Sarawak was always distinctly exotic for three reasons – it is the home of the Orang-utan, shrunken heads and the long house. Inevitably when mention is made of these latter two, the talk is of Dayaks – the sea Dayaks to be more precise. These fierce Dayaks were the models for the wild men of Borneo.

We had made one of those on-the-spur decisions to spend time in Sarawak – it was around Easter time. We flew to Kuching, the capital.

I had been especially interested in the long house concept and have wondered whether it would be a useful model to be adapted by  Aboriginals. Having seen the living conditions of Aboriginal people in various parts of Northern Australia, where the community has close links with one another, it always seemed to be that the suburban house design with conventional rooms was never appropriate for Aboriginal living.

Therefore, when we were offered the opportunity to stay at a long house in the jungle up the Sarawak River from Kuching, we immediately accepted. The means of getting there was the distinctive Iban long boat without a paddle but with an outboard motor.

The long house was perched on stilts close to the river, access being by both a narrow concrete staircase on one side and a ramp on the side where the ablution block was placed. The slope of the river bank was steep, but we noticed there was abundant horticulture. Rubber trees were growing further up the slope, as were pepper vines (we soon learnt that the best pepper in the world came from Sarawak). There were even pineapples.

All around to show off the lush vegetation were red, yellow and variegated cordylines, slashes of colour in this tropical garden. No wonder Sarawak has been a botanist’s paradise.

Inside the long house

It was the inside of the long house which intrigued me. Down one side of the house was a stretch of poles, which defined the sleeping quarters, low platforms with a basic foam mattress and individual mosquito nets, hung away during the day. Outside access was provided via doorways with canvas flaps, a convenient way to go to the toilet at night, although the literally potential pitfalls of the broken concrete pathway posed their own challenge en route. As for other hazards, there were the roaming community dogs.

The long house owners were our host, sea Dayaks, small leathery friendly people, the men covered in tattoos.  We the guests were us two and a group of young Germans. The kitchen was located off the main area in the “apartments” of each family, and we were invited to participate in preparation of the meal, which was fish and pork, rice cooked in bamboo. Our job was to clean the bamboo leaves.

In the evening, there were demonstrations of Dayak culture – women and young boys dancing and then suddenly an older man with hornbill headdress stepped up. Our guide whispered to me that he was his uncle, the headman. He was recognising my presence by the hornbill dance.  Hornbills presage purity and strength and it is how the Dayaks communicate with their ancestors.He was according me a great honour.  Whether it was always regularly performed to recognise the oldest visitor in their midst, I was still “chuffed” by such a spontaneous gesture. The next morning, I did not justify such an honour by failing miserably in using the blowpipe.

Reflecting on this visit to the Dayaks’ long house and having stayed in Aboriginal settlements on several occasions, notable was the lack of organised horticulture in the latter. We whoever, whitefellas, have imposed our buildings on Aboriginal lands – the missions, a sign of permanency for whitefellas.  The difference is the Aboriginals foregather on their own land and move around within that space.

I remember driving into Beswick, a settlement in the Northern Territory, and seeing this lawn of green shimmering in the distance, it suggested horticulture. As we came closer it turned out not to be cultivation, but a layer of flattened VB cans covering the earth – just outside the boundary of this “dry” settlement.

Aboriginals know their flora, as shown by the myriad demonstrations of “bush tucker”. For example, I was shown  at one settlement where they knew the bush potatoes were growing, they had their digging sticks – but it was not a matter of deliberate cultivation. Why bother when there were no competitors and the potatoes came back in the same place every year.

In their kitchen, the Dayaks had large terracotta amphoras where they stocked their rice. There was minimal evidence of western tinned food; they lived off their produce and where they did not grow the commodity, they bought or bartered in bulk. The Dayaks had their own spices, in addition to pepper, which they used in every dish which was served.

There were no cans of beer.

We were very glad that we stayed in the long house, which we had always wanted to do –and it provided us an insight into successful communal living.

Confusion

Israel backed the Pfizer vaccine, and was prepared to pay the price; Australia, by not accepting the Pfizer price, is paying a different price. Moderna was never in the equation.

The great unknown is what are the deals, the kickbacks, the political and bureaucrat beneficiaries of the AstraZeneca (AZ) preference and purchase; and the various consultancies handed out to the Government mates for vaccinating the sector of the health care area they directly control – those who come under the aged care and defence portfolios. Not knowing what the conditions for the various deals were, yet knowing that there is effectively no scrutiny that will yield any immediate information, how can the community know what the hell the outcome will be?

The AZ vaccine, in a community which is unused to death by COVID-19, has received a far different response than that of its spiritual home – Great Britain, where there have been overall 125,000 deaths (the last figures available still showed 27 deaths in a single day).  Over 1,000 people have died there in a single day.

Whereas in Australia there have been 910 deaths overall, a large proportion of which were in Victoria in August/September last year, but not one since late October last year. It is thus unsurprising that in Australia every death from a reaction to AstraZeneca will be magnified; and there is rumbling in the community about how ill the AZ vaccine makes some of us feel.

Thoughts, drifting like soap bubbles …

Once the view that the government has something to hide, “gets traction” then the stigma sticks.  Here this adhesive is on the AZ vaccine. The Government seems to have little idea at times when the mRNA vaccines will become available, given the different dates being put out. Therefore, we have a range of fumblers, braided or in mufti, wheeled out to fill in the air space without saying much. Thoughts drift like soap bubbles, never reaching terra firma. The business community, medical students, paramedics are all to be enlisted into this gigantic national initiative of jabs and feints, and more jabs and more feints amid a cascades of thought bubbles – in a country with not enough vaccine.

The Prime Minister talks about phases to fill the black hole of failed policy. And thus it will go on – the strategy being to treat us as fungi – and stupid fungi at that.

The one thread which has showed as the ray of sunshine is the strength of the contact tracing system within Australia which, despite the Berejiklian wont for hyperbole, is probably among the best in the world, a fact acknowledged by Dr Chant to be due to the work of Sue Morey, who was her predecessor over 20 years ago. I wonder whether she will get as much acknowledgement that the Government has accorded other great humanitarians who have saved our country, even if it did take Victoria a considerable time to recognise the fact last year.

But even contact tracers get tired, especially if their political leaders act like buffoons and prematurely loosen restrictions or continue to leave the current bodgie hotel quarantine in place. Every potential outbreak is started by Mr or Ms 00.01% in the Prime Minister’s quarantine system.

As a postscript, it seems that the Treasurer is the last shot in the government locker, with his rallying call of the business community to marshal their workers. The strategy is anybody’s guess, but if the incentives for vaccination are free sausage sizzles and frequent flyer points, then these are in the league of offering axes, beads and mirrors.

The worry is that of filling in the policy void with public relation burble. as substitute for organised action. This is dangerous if there is no concomitant systematic collection of data when there are so many variables. Jane Halton bobbing around, with commentators on her report obviously having not read it, providing gratuitous advice does not help. “People coming home fully vaccinated need not quarantine” – given your Tampa experience, how do you police that thought bubble given this apparent Damascene conversion to open borders for Viral refugees?

Big English Guinea Pig

Uncertainty abounds; the long-term efficacy of the vaccines is anybody’s guess. There is already talk of the need for a booster; imminently Prime Minister Johnson’s initiative to sweep away all controls leaving vaccination as the only defence in the United Kingdom. Australia should watch England as the Big Guinea Pig, before doing anything precipitous.

Finally, the symbolism of the General and the Treasurer leaving the meeting of the business representatives two days ago should not be lost on the wider community. The General put on a mask immediately; the Treasurer did not.

Mouse Whisper

He was musing there, leaning on his cane, stuffing his face with cheese and wine, oblivious of my crouching beneath the table enjoying the messy Stilton droppings which were raining down around me. I always enjoyed such murine canapés.

“You know” he said to the Mop lounging in the corner of the room, as if that were his only audience, “I would not be standing here if my ancestors had not survived the Black Death.” I thought that was one way of defining survival but – looking up at him – hardly of the fittest.

 

Modest Expectations: Try a Tray in Troy, the weight is 3826

The portrait of Abraham Lincoln arrived yesterday from America. Unlike much of unframed portraiture, it did not arrive rolled up, but flat, ready for framing. The portrait is a dark image of Lincoln, with a red tear falling from his right eye.  This red drip became a widened red smudge over his shirt and bow tie. There is a red drop on his left cheekbone – a weeping stigma for a country that lost its nobility for four years.

“Abe laments”

This is not the Lincoln of the Washington Memorial, a commanding white seated statue carved in Georgia marble which, as one approaches it, becomes increasingly dominant.

This is a dark image.

The portrait is subdued as if located in the depths of American despair, the expression more sad than horrified, shedding a tear for his country. America is used to carpetbaggers and within the list of undistinguished Presidents, there have been the usual complement. Before Trump, Warren Harding was generally agreed as the worst President by the level of corruption which blossomed during his tenure, cut short by his death before completion of his first term. When all the details of Trump’s machinations come forward, some of which may have to wait until he dies, then Warren Harding will probably appear to have been overseeing two-bit chiselling.

A day after I received the portrait, this terse comment came by email from a Lincoln Project operative:

“The line between what America should be and what the dangerous edge of a radical anti-American movement wants us to become has never been clearer. 

Our mission is to defeat the sick, poisonous ideology of a growing authoritarian movement and expose the co-conspirators, enablers, and funders for their attempts to destroy American democracy. 

This is what we have (to do to) stop Trump’s return; McConnell’s Senate takeover; McCarthy’s retaking the house

It’s all on the line. This is the mission.

Because if they win, America ends.”

The Lincoln Project was founded in early 2020 to go after Trump. The core were all Republicans, who had been linked to senior Republican Party figures, carnivorous apparatchiks united in their distaste of Trump. They were certainly not idealists as more recent revelations have shown. Nevertheless, they are important players in the Republican movement, as long as they survive the questions being recently raised by the Trumpians against some of their founding members.

As The New Yorker stated in an article just before the Presidential election in October last year about the purpose of the Project:

Republicans have always invoked their connection to Abraham Lincoln, the Party’s first President; the Project sought to weaponize it. On February 27th, several of the founders appeared at Cooper Union, in the East Village, where, in 1860, Lincoln delivered an address that urged the containment of slavery and the preservation of the Union, propelling him to the Presidency. His speech began with “the facts”; in his conclusion, he said, “Let us have faith that right makes might.” Exactly a hundred and sixty years later, Wilson (one of the Project founders) stood at the same lectern that Lincoln had used and invoked a tough-guy monologue from the vigilante movie “Taken”: “We have, as the great political philosopher Liam Neeson once said, a particular set of skills—skills that make us a nightmare for people like Donald Trump.”

I made a trip to the United States in 1977, after the American public had unexpectedly elected Jimmy Carter, and when there was a wholesomeness about American politics trying to scrape away the Nixon Legacy.

There I met senior members of the Ripon Society, named for the place in Wisconsin where the Republican Party commenced. This Society had been the first element within the Republican Party that came out in support of the civil rights movement in 1962.  In 1977, it then was still differentiated from the neoliberal approach with which the gradual rise of Reagan was beginning to dominate the Republican Party. They had been in the vanguard of rejecting Barry Goldwater and his zeal in wanting to privatise everything, even the Tennessee Valley Authority, and his view on “law and order” as a means of suppression rather than protection of civil rights. Goldwater did not go so far as to encourage mob rule and the disintegration of the American polity, but he was the harbinger of it. Thus, the mildly progressive utterances of the Ripon Society within the Republican Party were overwhelmed – drowned.

The Lincoln Project is not a rebirth of the Ripon Society. The Project may say something about policy, but it is focussed on attacking Trump.

As an example of the “attack dog” approach, quoting again from The New Yorker, “The Project’s strategists metabolize news quickly enough to create spots within hours, or even minutes, of an event. In June, after Trump timidly descended a ramp at West Point, and struggled to lift a drinking glass to his mouth, the Project combined footage of the appearance with other videos of him looking feeble, and released “#TrumpIsNotWell”. The viral spot subjected the President to one of his own tricks: he mocked Hillary Clinton when she stumbled in 2016, and constantly suggests that Biden is senile. Trump was soon wasting time at a campaign rally defending his ability to walk and to drink water.”

These are thus disaffected Republicans with all the tools in trade. They have powerful friends in the Republican Party that existed before the Trump takeover and are now isolated by the populist lumpenproletariat that is the Republican base, for now.

These Lincoln Project guys are no idealists, no saints, and the recent concentration on its leading figures suggests that some of its leaders have unsavoury pasts, to say the least.

One is an alleged paedophile; and two of the other funders have been accused of siphoning money from the Project into the business. If this is so, then it reveals a systemic problem in the Republican side, whether pro or anti-Trump. The Lincoln Project notwithstanding has fought back against the allegations, and there is an accusation following an “independent” review of the truth of the above that there is an underlying smear campaign being mounted by Trump allies.

The battle rages. The Lincoln Project videos tear at the kleptarchy heart of Trump and his allies. Some ask, why persist, since Trump no longer has the real levers of power to endorse his ongoing criminality? The Lincoln Project disagrees in a mixture of above and below the belt rhetoric. The possibility of The Project being an electoral spoiler for Trump must give him a great degree of concern.

It ain’t pretty, but then neither was the storming of Democracy that occurred on January 6 in Washington.

Whyalla?

When I first heard about Sanjeev Gupta and his plan to be the saviour of Whyalla, I then expressed doubts to my wife. She looked at me, having read a distillation of his recent antics, and said my comments four years ago were hardly that mild.

Yet Gupta secured a promise from the previous South Australian government for $50 million which, in the grand scheme promulgated by Gupta, is “bugger all”, except that it was taxpayers’ money. Gupta was juggling a billion dollar commitment underpinned by Credit Suisse both through Greensill financing and directly to revamp the Whyalla steelworks, the biggest employer in the city.

Whyalla steelworks

Now four years on, Greensill is being investigated for fraud and in the words of the Financial Times, Credit Suisse was “not willing to accommodate its once highly valued client”, namely Gupta. Increasingly he is running out of friends, but continues to press the Government for a guarantee to raise further funding.

Gupta is in deep, and the question is, will the South Australian government give him a paddle? Government, having been sucked in, is probably trying to extricate itself from the labyrinth, but to save face may just be tempted to throw more money into the project “to save jobs”. It would not be the first time that private enterprise has milked money for governments with this type of blackmail. The one saving grace may be that it was a different government – a government of the workers – which provided the initial offer of $50 million. But it is not that long ago that car manufacturers walked away with billions of dollars having promised to save jobs in that industry; South Australia was right in the middle of this fiscal misadventure.

Gupta is one of those charismatic characters who obviously speaks with honeyed tones, played on an ostentatious lifestyle.  He has made a habit of acquiring tired steelworks in rust bucket cities around the world. There is always the promise to renew, to resurrect, to restore – and politicians, seeing their constituency vanish or turn against them, become Canutes. They build flimsy walls of paper – subsidies, grants, favourable legislation, which inevitably dissolve in the face of superseded need and technology.

Unfortunately, we have a political culture of survival of the dim-witted corrupt lulled by a torrent of subcontinental sweet talk. It is so easy to take the perks and do nothing except to pray with a forest of outstretched arms that nothing will happen, and all this change will just go away in some miraculous rapture.

Whyalla should start reinventing itself. After all, it has lost its ship building industry and the future of the steelworks is perilous – some would say on life support. The iron ore mined locally to feed the steelworks is low grade magnetite and, in a country which produces nearly 800 million tonnes a year, these mines in South Australia contribute only 10 million tonnes.

Whyalla lies on the Eyre peninsula, an inverted triangular zone bordered by Spencer Gulf and the Southern Ocean. It is a wonderfully diverse area. From these surrounding waters over 60 per cent of Australia’s seafood catch comes. On land there is both an arid and arable zone; below the meandering yet accurate Goyder Line, the predictor of mean rainfall, divides saltbush from wheat.

Whyalla is saltbush.

Giant cuttlefish

Yet Whyalla was originally constructed as a port, and near an iron ore deposit, once considered significant now dwarfed by the Pilbara.

It has a uniqueness – it just happens to be where the ever-changing coloured giant cuttlefish are best seen for three months each year as they mate. Spencer Gulf may not be the Great Barrier Reef, but it has a sea profile populated with exotica – the blue groper and sea horses, as well as the giant cuttle fish – that renders it an attraction for snorkelling, recreation, tourism. At the same time it is able to exist alongside the commercial seafood industry, from oysters to the tuna  found in the waters off its Southern coast. Inevitably there are tensions been ecology and pelagic farming.

In other words, between the two, with fish farming now bruited in the Gulf, Whyalla has other ways to survive Gupta.

At present there seem to be no such problems with Queensland politicians about supporting an outdated industry. The challenge is to differentiate the short term gain from long term pain. But coal is a major constituent of steel manufacture and steel manufacture worldwide has increased by 15 per cent in the past year.

It was 11 years ago that Adani came calling into the Queensland Galilee Basin, and life has changed, so much so that it is rumoured the coal from these mines is to be used in the manufacture of plastics – not steel.

The price of the Adani mines will be the water table in Central Queensland. Ironically, like the pub with no beer, Adani-sourced PVC pipes may have no water. Before that, Adani will make sure that Central Queensland is sucked dry in the pursuit of this coal for plastics. In the end, will Adani prove the Queensland answer to Mr Gupta – or worse?

Gupta has been stopped in his tracks, so Whyalla can now take a good look at its future. The “more jobs” rhetoric is vanishing in a pile of debt and unfulfilled promises. Adani has already adopted the same public relations approach in relation to the number of jobs being created in Central Queensland.

I first went to Moranbah not that many years after it had been established as a custom-built coal mining town south-west of Mackay, in the Isaac Region. Two comments struck me that I still remember: this would be the last mining town built in Queensland by a mining company; and that the newness of the town was reflected by the fact that it was yet to get its first interment. Over the years, Moranbah has kept a stable population. The cemetery is no longer pristine. There is nevertheless the need to assess here and elsewhere the number of the fly in; fly out (FIFO) miners.

The problem with assessment of the FIFO number is that counting only relates to the number on a shift at any one time, and hence the total number may be underestimated. This is the Adani constituency and, by extension, the National Party coal lobby. It is overwhelmingly male.

The population centres, which reflect the families who have settled in these small coal mining settlements, while not universal, still tend to vote for the ALP, but their vote is dwarfed electorally. The point is that a review of the voting patterns in the last Federal election shows these townships in the coal mining areas of Queensland did not uniformly vote for the Coalition.

Queensland coal

The Galilee basin is sparsely populated. Mining here is not going to lead to any permanent population shifts, especially when in the future there is no potable water available. It took four years for Gupta to unravel in Whyalla; how long will it take the Adani coal promise to unravel into stacks of coal unable to be sold; and which, by 2050, nobody will want, just another pollutant industry.

An Opportunity Missed

The objective of Hotel Quarantine is to prevent the spread of the virus from any arriving traveller who is infected into the wider community. The design, management and delivery of quarantine services is therefore critical to the achievement of this objective. However, the current system does not balance or calibrate all risks nor take decisions informed by absolute or relative risk (for example, exemption categories, transit passengers, airline crew, and the impact on people in quarantine). Report on National Review of Hotel Quarantine

Jane Halton is adroit. She conceals any inadequacies under a haughty aggressive exterior.

She is an exemplar of the person “who knows where the keys to the executive toilet are”. This art is reflected in the report she wrote on hotel quarantine – one eye on the politicians and above all one on her own skin.

It is not that the Report was badly written, but it says what her political bosses wanted her to say. It reads like a manual, listing “do’s and don’ts”, interspersed with jargon “quarantine journey”, “continuous improvement” and convoluted sentences (which reflect lack of editing) “Approaches to balancing or managing relative risk in a measured way…”

The following illustrates the unhelpful nature of the Report:

With a large number of Australian citizens and permanent residents currently offshore, the need to significantly increase arrival numbers, including for business and agricultural purposes, and the changeability of the COVID-19 situation, consideration should also be given to the establishment and maintenance of a national facility in reserve to facilitate large scale evacuations from international ports, if or when required.

As they say in the classics, “tell me something I don’t know”. No mention of cabins as Malcolm Turnbull has said Halton recommended.

However, it is not the point of this blog to parse this Report, but to highlight the opportunity missed.

October last year was a critical time for an innovative approach for quarantine, providing her with the opportunity to start mapping out a program for national quarantine, outside the hotel and home programs in place then.  She did make a last recommendation for “a national quarantine facility” which, if she had thought about it, was completely impractical in a country as big as ours. After all, her involvement in stopping the boat people had given more than a clue as to how to isolate people.

My family were infected by the Virus in early 2020, before hotel quarantine was established, and managed to quarantine at home. Two adults on testing had the Virus; the three children did not. It was a time before any mask wearing policy. They lived in a house with enough space to make social distancing possible,  with easy safe access to the outside. The family adhered to a protocol which enabled  living in the one house without becoming infected. While the family coped well, it was due to its discipline rather than demonstrating the normal home is constructed for quarantine, any more than the various designated hotels are.

Nevertheless, that family’s experience had some important lessons. The first was the cavalier way the State treated potential carriers of the Virus in the early days, which delayed the diagnosis and caused unnecessary transmission.

The second was once the diagnosis was established, the family had a makeshift environment in which to isolate the infected from the non-infected, yet maintain communication, for instance those isolated knew when to pick up food and other supplies within the house.  The house had two separate bathrooms. It all worked over the 14 days and reaffirmed the need to keep people in an area where there was both space and access to outside air. This environment had all the advantages of Howard Springs in suburbia, but clearly everybody does not have the same optimal home environment.

It was thus evident from early on that a facility with easy access to outside air would be the best solution. The initial evacuation of the people from China confirmed that.  Halton mentions only the Howards Springs facility (25 kilometres from Darwin) and the air base at Learmonth (1071 kilometres from Perth). She fails to mention Christmas Island, where there was a large facility which had taken a first group of evacuees from China successfully quarantined and then only housed four refugees with a platoon of gaolers.

While it is still fashionable to isolate people in the middle of a city, because of the specious requirement to be close to a major hospital, Halton should have considered whether a custom-built centre should  provide either a preventative barrier or a treatment centre or both. To be close to the major teaching hospital suggests that people are confusing this primary role of preventative  quarantine centre with a locked down holding facility for Virus sufferers. For me, the expectation is that those requiring quarantine would be predominantly healthy individuals or even the infected having mild symptoms. There is scant information about the number of those infected in quarantine, who require hospitalisation, and of those, who require intensive care. There is nothing to suggest it is other than a very small number.

She sets out a flow chart of the various steps in the current quarantine process, but she does not explore the vulnerability of such a flow chart, where every step introduces a process where something can go wrong – in some cases, catastrophically.

Unfortunately, she used a piece of data which gave the Prime Minister an unreal optimism about the process. “Since implementation of mandatory hotel quarantine, 851 travellers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 during their quarantine period; a positivity rate of 0.66 per cent.”

I have no idea why it takes so long to do anything in this country these days. Maybe it is the problem of a government so immersed in spin and looking after its mates that it has forgotten that the country needs innovative and lateral thinkers. Unfortunately, Halton is not one of those, by a long stretch.

What she should have done was set out options for what standalone facilities should look like. If she had ever gone to Toowoomba, she would have encountered the Wagner brothers. Perhaps because they upended the government’s favourite psittacine spruiker, she was discouraged from investigating the Wagner proposal. I first landed in Wellcamp just after it opened and have returned periodically since. This impressive airport facility shows what can be done by private enterprise and industry, without government handout being the first priority in the developers’ business plan.

Wellcamp and its endless plains

Wellcamp has the capacity of an international airport, as it was designed for large air freighters with the prime purpose of live beef exports.  The passenger terminal, while not the size of Sydney or Melbourne, is worthy of any international air terminal. What is equally noteworthy was the amount of land available around Wellcamp.

Having once been directly involved in the Toowoomba health care system, I cannot understand the Prime Ministerial objection about Toowoomba as a site of suitable health care. By contrast, his favoured site – now known as Damascus – was developed by the Americans during WW2 as a defence storage and is now a clapped-out warehouse facility. It is right in the middle of an industrial area of Brisbane next to the old Eagle Farm Airport. So, it is owned by the Commonwealth … but what has that got to do with efficient quarantine arrangements?

If there had been some concern about involving the private sector in fighting COVID-19, selected for being mates rather than expertise, then the platoons of large consultant firms receiving massive contracts have shown that funding of bespoke centres should not be an issue.

The Federal government, without reference to the Halton Report (which is excusable given the lack of consideration given to this option in the Report), seems to have given provisional approval for a Victorian facility near Tullamarine Airport at Mickleham where the Federal Government already has a pet quarantine facility. The lack of urgency and the back-of-the-envelope calculations worries me about whether it will ever be built, given that one could be excused for thinking that the main objective of this government seems to be looking after its mates rather than the community.

If the Halton Report had seriously dealt with this matter, rather than it being a passing comment, then it would have put pressure on the timely establishment of a national network. I advocated in the middle of last year for such facilities to be built, before any vaccines became available.

Now their role is perhaps even more crucial. The speed with which the vaccines have been tested and approved is far different from the conventional approach, where 15 years developing a safe vaccine is not unusual. Here the scientific comment is changing frequently, and while the scientists equipped with the appropriate health dialect may understand what has been happening, the message to the community at large comes out as a jumble of conflicting comments.

However, what the community knows is:

  • Social distancing works
  • Vaccine works
  • Masks work

And above all, border closures work. However, this belief is shaken by breaches in the ad hoc hotel arrangements. When these breaches have caused such significant effects, it just reinforces a need for quarantine facilities where the conditions are reasonable in a self–contained system, with the equivalent of FIFO workers providing a dedicated workforce for a set time on duty and a set downtime off site. Once these are established, then Australia would be able to develop more flexibility in its immigration patterns.

Australia is not going to abandon Virus suppression. It is very much built into the community psyche because of the 2020 success, and the fact that the spread is out of control in Asia provides support for such behaviour. Countries which were held up as paragons such as Taiwan and Singapore are no longer so. The prospect of an infected Japan hosting an event where representatives of various countries with different Virus profiles will gather together in several weeks makes me uneasy, if only for the logistics of the return.

This anxiety would be less if there were dedicated quarantine facilities. The immediate benefit of such facilities would be ease of monitoring 1,000 plus people during the compulsory quarantine rather than their being scattered around the myriad hotels. If the decision is made to house the entire Olympic team at Howard Springs, then that simply confirms the need for that type of quarantine facility. Remember evacuation from Wuhan!

Time to move away from this model

In the longer run, dedicated facilities will make immigration easier, because for the foreseeable future, entry into the country will require two weeks quarantine, especially if that even more transmissible and/or more deadly putative Epsilon to Omega strains emerge.

To me custom built quarantine centres have always been a no-brainer.

You could have done so much, Jane Halton, to engender so much positivity and flair into the policy conversation. But then again that is not your style.

Mouse Whisper

When Dvorak was teaching at the National Conservatory of Music in New York, he insisted that black students be allowed to enrol with no tuition. “The future of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies,” he declared.

What this quote was referring to was the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony and the choral adaptation “Going Home”. Among the many of those who have sung this, only the great bass, Paul Robeson, has moved this mouse to tears.

Moreover, my fellow mice, of whatever colour you may be, listen to the second movement of this extraordinary work. The melody is played on the cor anglais. I had always thought of Robeson being akin to the bassoon, but so much of his voice is embodied in the warmth and richness which is the cor anglais.

This instrument is not often given the solo role that the Bohemian genius gave here, a genius who perceived the Open Door through which we all shall pass in Going Home – and not just from the New World.