Modest Expectations – Totally White

The ship is sinking. Most of us are begging the passengers to get into the lifeboats. Others are telling them to ignore us, that they’re better off trying to swim. Or, worse, denying the plain fact that they’re in danger at all.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a practice run for the even bigger global catastrophe that is climate change.

And instead of doing everything we can to save as many people as possible, we’re trying to get past the morally bankrupt right-wingers who would sooner see our fellow passengers set adrift on the ocean than admit they’re wrong and lose sway.  Boston Globe 12 August 2021

When the Ruby Princess catastrophe occurred last year, it smacked of undue influence in high places. To clear the ships, various influential Liberal names bounced around – somebody had relatives on the ship, and so on, rolling around the rumour mill. However, the media bias tended to scrub the political decks clean before the miasma could take over. The problem with NSW is that the history of the colony and then the State has been laced with corruption, and it is no different under this Premier.

At the time of the Ruby Princess debacle and for weeks following when Dr Kerry Chant was reported as advocating an incomprehensible “zig-zag approach”, I was firmly of the opinion she should be sacked. That did not help my reputation among some of my public health colleagues. In this fiasco, there were others who were the fall guys and were sidelined, but as they had no public profile they could be sidelined without fuss, irrespective of the ultimate consequences upon their respective careers.

There is an old saw which says that the controversy generated is inversely proportional to autonomy of action. Even if you try to be professional, are basically honest and hardworking, in the end if you become of no use to government, you will endure the spin, labelled the scapegoat. That unfortunately is happening now, quite unfairly, to Dr Chant. This is especially so when the State has a Premier who is a genius in deflecting responsibility. As I have written before, Berejiklian shows all the Armenian traits for survival, regularly changing her political raiment to ensure survival at the expense of others.

Dr Chant has been pilloried in the conservative press. She has been humiliated by her Minister Hazzard in front of a Parliamentary Committee.  It was her fault that the lockdown did not occur earlier … that is the spin from the Premier’s office. In the guise of praise, Berejiklian has always heaped the consequences of any COVID-19 Government decisions on the shoulders of Dr Chant, presumably the Berejilkian office ensuring that an appropriate story is fed to the media. In line with abandoning Chant, she has now stopped talking about decisions being based on “medical advice”, it is now “a whole of Government approach”.

At the time I felt very sorry for Dr Chant being consigned to irrelevance as the Premier seemed to be doing, centimetre by centimetre. There is one impediment that the Premier has created for herself by installing Dr Chant as NSW Premier’s Woman of the year 2021 with accompanying effusive praise. Hence the methods being used to erode her standing by the corridors whisperers, who inhabit all political systems.  After all, that cynosure of NSW Government intelligence, Dominic Perrottet, is reported at one stage as saying Dr Chant should take a cut in salary, presumably as punishment for not quelling the pandemic. As one dark wit has said about Dr Chant, she has come from Punchbowl to Punching Ball.

One thing I found out when holding an influential advisory role – one minute there is lavish praise heaped on you, with the danger that you believe it; the next minute, not. Chant does not fit into that category of being sucked in by that spin. Rather she has had the naïve view that politics will yield to logic, but in the current Coalition culture that is the last thing that is valued.

At the time I thought that Chant was at the point of resignation, it would be interesting to see how the public health community reacts.

Despite the usual AFR prediction the day before, there was certainly a volte face by the NSW government on Saturday 14 August when the cases rose to 446, and spread had seemingly occurred in the Aboriginal population in Western NSW?

Dr Chant returned on the Sunday and gave a report of the public health situation without political spin, controlled emotionally, but intense in her message. The Premier in the same session admitted the Saturday was a wake up call and that “she went upstairs to Dr Chant with the Deputy Premier after the briefing”.  Hello, Dr Chant was not at the 11am briefing; she was “upstairs”. One can only speculate on what occurred after that briefing apart from the Premier’s crabbing mea culpa. Furthermore, Berejiklian has reversed her previous strategy of not discouraging the dark shadows denigrating Dr Chant.

I thought Dr Chant realised that public health is part of the mysteries of political science.  I hoped she had enough resin on her hands to contain the slippery Gladys, whose business mates face the task of whether they go to ground or continue to be a noisy claque.  Unfortunately, Dr Chant, you can only use that stratagem of threatening to resign once.

Hence, by Wednesday, Chant had all but capitulated. The SMH reported her performance at the media conference where she had the opportunity to maintain her grip on the proceedings but no! As reported in the SMH, “The Premier and I are very committed to achieving the same outcomes,” Dr Chant said. “We have a shared vision: a shared vision which is high vaccination coverage and very low levels of community transmission.”

Vision or hallucination? The circuit breaker that Dr Paul Kelly had yearned remained connected. The only glimmer was that the Premier had found out that a basic reproduction number exists.

Then Dr Chant was again absent from the Thursday briefing without any comment and the moveable feast of ostensible deputies commenced again with 681 cases today.

The Commonwealth Chief Health Officer, Dr Paul Kelly, has said there is a need for a circuit breaker. Dr Chant’s resignation, or threat thereof, could have done just that. However, I am getting around to the belief that the Kelly circuit breaker will be the resignation the NSW Premier. That is not liable to happen in the short term with the neutralisation of Dr Chant.

By the way, Oliver Cromwell lurks in the South. Not Premier Andrews but “the eliminationist”, Dr Brett Sutton, the Chief Health Officer of Victoria.

Soon the comparison may well be stark if Victoria succeeds. Then the heat will be on the soles of the Berejiklian footwear. 

The Level of Incompetence

Every person with COVID will have 10-20 contacts to trace, which means if you have 100 cases a day, you need to trace 1,000-2,000 contacts within 24-48 hours. If you don’t trace them rapidly, you will miss the window of opportunity to prevent them infecting others. If you don’t trace them all, you will face a growing backlog and lose control of the epidemic.

This comment was made last year to the National Cabinet by the then Chief Scientist, when he also said that for every outbreak, the government reaction should be to go early and go hard. It seems that the NSW Premier was not listening at the time.

No matter how good the contact tracing system is, in the end it will be overwhelmed if the case load gets out of control. It is no good boasting about the number being tested if there is not the infrastructure to process the tests and report quickly; and then having identified those who are positive, they need to be isolated and their contacts traced.

There are those who believe that you can turn contact tracing into a digital exercise.  All the attempts at using computer codes or computerisation in relation to health status has been dotted with unmitigated disasters, but while the governments are under the pernicious sway of the big consultancy firms then like the poor, they will be with us always. A prime example was the COVID-19 app, which was flogged mercilessly by the government at the onset of the pandemic. This app has been an unmitigated failure.

The introduction of QR codes has improved the situation of identifying people who had been to exposure sites, but the success of any system, as with face-to-face contact tracing depends on honesty and compliance, and here, as some American source said, Australians are compliant whereas in America it would be impossible to initiate the lockdown Australians have endured without there being open opposition, in all probability, violent. Just how compliant and honest the population is in relation to the use of QR codes in the long term remains to be seen, but the maskless opponents have crawled out of the long grass and are barking at shop assistants about their “rights” to be non-QR and maskless.

After all, the Government has the tools to punish lack of compliance, by increasing penalties, both monetary and incarceration; it should use these tools.

Nevertheless, in relation to honesty, I have always wondered whether some of the cases of breaking lockdown rules hide criminal activity; presumably drugs and other illicit stuff does not move magically and lockdowns make the transport of drugs somewhat inconvenient. I wonder whether this question has been investigated, or even asked, because if a person has something to hide, he or she is not liable to confess to a contact tracer unless the contact tracer is a priest, and even then, if you are COVID-19 positive, are you going to tell them about the contraband in your possession and your contacts aka clients?

A Family Tragedy

All families need at least one mystery. On the night of 13 December 1929, a tragedy occurred in our family. Rupert Clarke was my Aunt Grace’s husband. He was also Ararat’s Shire Secretary. Ararat has always been a government town, since being a railway hub there were many workers located there.  On the hill surrounded by high bluestone walls was the prison, which held the most dangerous criminals – the mad and the bad – men who had killed and having escaped hanging were there at the Governor’s pleasure because they had been adjudged insane.

My aunt had gone to her sister who lived in the nearby town of Stawell for Christmas. Rupert was to follow, but he had work to do before he could go up to Stawell. Since he had been left to his own devices and presumably wanting to avoid the domestic chores, he decided to move into the Turf Hotel.

Turf Hotel, Ararat

The Turf Hotel no longer exists but it was then a three-storied hotel. Whereas the second floor had direct access to the balcony with its cast iron lacework, the next floor was aligned to the roof of the balcony, and the windows opened onto this roof; it was a somewhat curious construction.

As described in the local newspaper, Rupert had spent the evening yarning with the Assistant Shire Secretary and was said to have retired at midnight, stating that he wanted to study the municipal books. Did he find something puzzling – a little untoward? Who would know, because next morning he was found on the street below, in his pyjamas, in a pool of blood. It was speculated that he had sleepwalked – climbed out of bed and through the open window, wandered across to the edge of the balcony roof, and then plunged onto the street 50 feet (15.2metres) below. Apparently it was known that he walked in his sleep.

He was still alive, although he had compound fractures of both arms and one leg. He was unconscious and was described with “serious injuries to the head”. He was seen by the local doctors, obviously there was nothing much they could do, and he died at 11.00 am without regaining consciousness. He was 30 years old.

It was one of those things I heard about, but nobody ever talked about it. My aunt, with whom I had a good relationship, never talked about it. She died in 1975, and I found the newspaper cutting relating to her husband’s death sometime after.

Sleepwalking is often linked with stories of horror and there is no more famous scene than that where a highly agitated Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking and trying to wash her hands of the bloodbath in which she has been a willing participant, while her doctor stands on the side making commentary without interfering.

I have been reassured without delving back 90 years that Rupert’s death was an accident. No defenestration here. But did he find anything untoward in the municipal books? Maybe his yarning with his assistant involved consumption of a drink or two. I do not know and nobody has volunteered whether there were underlying genetic factors. Sleepwalking runs in families, and children are more likely to sleepwalk, and then grow out of it.

So, there it is.  Death by misadventure, but for those with a suspicious mind, the basis of a good story.

As for Aunt Grace. She never enjoyed Christmas after that. She never remarried.

The Meeting at Telgte

Many years ago, I read the famous history of the Thirty Years’ War by Cicely Wedgewood which was published in 1938, the work of a young historian. Cicely Wedgewood, always known as C.V., was a member of the family which has so much penetrated our lives with their china, apart from anything else. It was a long time ago when I read it and I marvelled at this most significant piece of European history happening at the same time as the rise and fall of the Stuart kings and the accession of Oliver Cromwell. We were taught about this period in England but nothing about this immensely destructive conflict in Europe happening at the same time.  Moreover, there was this magnificent historical source written by a very young Wedgewood.

There was a link with the English Monarchy as James I’s daughter, Elisabeth, was the wife of Frederick V, ruler of the Palatinate and briefly the King of Bohemia, after the defenestration of two of the ruling Roman Catholic aristocrat Regents from the windows of Prague Castle by Protestant allies of Frederick, who then ascended the throne – for a year (a cardinal rule in Prague is – don’t go near a window – it has happened before and since).

The Roman Catholic aristocrats, although falling 70 feet, survived because they all fell into a dung heap. Nevertheless, they disturbed the heap enough for some of it to hit the fan, in a manner of speaking, to fuel the beginning of the destructive sectarian Thirty Years’ War.

Günter Grass wrote his historical allegorical novella concerning a meeting of poets in Telgte, a city near the Dutch border, at the Bridge Inn there. A group from across the German states had been called together to exchange their poetic gems and provide, by the force of their deliberation, significant moral persuasion to end the War.

This gathering, although convened by a major historical figure in the Prussian poet and hymn writer Simon Dach, was mythical; even though it did not happen as written it still bore a certain sense of authenticity.  The attendees were real persons, but unless versed in the German language writers of the 16-17th century, the names just become a brain-numbing cascade, and thus for the inexperienced reader as myself, I need to read the novella again. I say German language, because the disparity within the German nation indicates the various linguistic preferences of the participants in the convocation.

This convocation, in a world where it was perilous to move about, was held under the protection of a Hessian soldier poet, Christoffel Gelnhausen and his band of Swedish musketeers and cavalry.

The innkeeper, Libuschka, had participated in a number of military incursions herself. She had been on “harum-scarum” campaigns, participated as a soldier in the distribution of loot.  She captivated her literary audience by detailing her exploits when she had been in her twenties, “in breeches and on horseback” she had served in the Battle of Lutter and taken a Danish captain prisoner. This Battle 20 years before had been a spectacular defeat of the Protestants under Christian IV, the Danish king. She is the only woman whose personality is drawn out in the novella. There is the normal background of young women who could have walked out of Moll Flanders, free love being the escape amid the squalor of war.

The book weaves a background of violence, ever-present fear of atrocity, and yet central Europe had been at war for nearly 30 years, the countryside had been laid waste, food was in short supply. The description of the feast in the book where, at a time of famine, the assembled company rationalised their gourmandising by not asking too deeply how the soldiers had obtained the ingredients.

The key historical association was that Telgte was close to Münster, where ultimately the Treaty of Westphalia, which meant the end of the War, was concluded. The literary figures had no effect on the Treaty deliberations, as they were brutally informed.

In the end, protection of the soldiers was removed and the inn burnt down, but those participants, although vulnerable, all returned to their disparate homes safely.  I suppose that was the closest one could get to a happy ending.

The Treaty of Westphalia

The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 gave the Swiss independence from Austria and the Netherlands independence from Spain. The German principalities secured their autonomy. Sweden gained territory and cash, Brandenburg and Bavaria made gains; France acquired most of Alsace-Lorraine. The prospect of a Roman Catholic reconquest of Europe vanished forever. Protestantism was in the world to stay.

The above is a concise summary. Grass wrote this novella post-WW2. Germany had suffered a cataclysmic defeat and been divided into four zones by the foreign victors. This was not a Treaty, but an unconditional surrender. Central Europe, as it was three centuries before, had been laid waste in the prosecution of territorial aims and ideological pursuits.

How ironic to read such a book at the time when the President of the United States  has called a halt on a pointless war, recognising there is no gain in prosecuting it further. Yet the political braying within his country for what he has done – for what?  Only to save military face and spend billions more in dollars?  The guilt-ridden neocon shadows who have led us into this War of the Willing are now very much more the older but, as is in evidence, not wiser men unfortunately – or dead themselves.

Just a Normal day with the Lobbyists

Limitations of Authorized Use 

Sotrovimab is not authorized for use in patients: 

  • who are hospitalized due to COVID-19, OR 
  • who require oxygen therapy due to COVID-19, OR
  • who require an increase in baseline oxygen flow rate due to COVID-19 (in those on chronic oxygen therapy due to underlying non-COVID-19 related comorbidity). 

Benefit of treatment with sotrovimab has not been observed in patients hospitalized due to COVID‑19. SARS-CoV-2 monoclonal antibodies may be associated with worse clinical outcomes when administered to hospitalized patients with COVID‑19 requiring high flow oxygen or mechanical ventilation – GSK/Vir Technology release for media and investors 26 May 2021

With all the concentration on vaccination to counter COVID-19, the purchase of 7,700 doses of sotrovimab, described as a “novel monoclonal antibody treatment”, occurred in early August. The drug’s efficacy has yet to be peer reviewed. The Government was coy about the cost. However, from information available it costs about USD2,200 a dose and is given intravenously as an 8ml bolus. This drug was purchased while it still had only an Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA) from the FDA in America.

Much of the drug company information is parroted back by one “Greg Hunt, Liberal Party of Australia Somerville Australia”. This authorisation is jammed in the middle of a Ministerial media release by this resident of Somerville in Victoria. There is reference to the support it is receiving from one of the  expert committees.

The day after the Hunt release, nevertheless, Australia’s top COVID-19 clinical advisory group was reported  (sic):

There is not yet enough high-quality evidence to support use of a new monoclonal antibody treatment, of which the federal government recently bought more than 7700 doses.Based on the fact it was an interim analysis of a single study, with relatively low numbers, the panel decided to give an only-in-research recommendation, pending the availability of more data,” he said. “We don’t base our recommendations on press releases. Other countries have also purchased Sotrovimab. The government is trying to get ahead of the curve and purchasing a drug, pending review by the TGA, is reasonable.”

This is a two-bob-each-way answer, especially given the “killer” information in last line of the pharmaceutical company’s release is “between 30 June and 13 July, the drug was administered to 6,175 patients with mild and moderate disease, and within 14 days 92% of recipients had fully recovered with a 99% ICU prevention rate”.

With a Government grasping at straws, why have we not heard  much about this wonder drug, especially given the haste in purchase?  Given the Government propensity to magnify every minute scrap of positive information, here the Federal Government has been strangely muted.

Far be it from me to suggest that a well-placed lobbyist got in the ear of the Boy from Somerville and cleaned up – not the huge bucks of some of the expenditure – on the Treasury line item labelled “Rorts”.

Where now are the vials of Sotrovimab? Into which veins has this drug gone? If any? More information please, before it is an invitation for an avalanche of unproven drugs with unpronounceable names dumped on our “fatal” shores, courtesy of a very persuasive lobbyist.

Or emerging into a more positive light, just how is the administration of this life-saving drug progressing?

The cost of this exercise – about $20m?  Just petty cash, so inured Australia has become that it has not been questioned.

Mouse Whisper

I am only a mouse but I can’t keep out these whispering echoes.  The sounds are persistent. Perhaps a bent banana may help – certainly the glint of gold does not.

 Japanese government auditors have estimated the true costs are likely at least to be $25 billion, which includes projects related to the Games.

You actually have very limited possibilities of stripping down cost because the majority of the business decisions are made by the IOC and international athletics organizations.

Even under the best circumstances, putting on the Olympics is quite a burden financially … covid-19 definitely hasn’t made it easier for Tokyo.”

You have been warned, my fellow mice gnawing on the sugar cane ambrosia, oblivious of the world tomorrow.

These recent Games are sure to put an unprecedented burden on the host city of Tokyo and the Japanese government, which is facing a ballooning national debt that is worsening because of the pandemic.

Remember all that is yellow is not gold. Bananas eventually lose their yellow glow, blacken, then rot.

Modest Expectations – Clive Lloyd

In this lockdown, gazing up through the grate of our oubliette at the caerulean blue sky above, I thought about the place in Australia where I’d rather be more than anywhere else. After all, we love the West Coast of Tasmania and I love driving out from Broken Hill at sunset and seeing the Mundi Mundi Plains spread out below me; the small dust speck of a car streaking across the plain lives in my memory.

I could ramble on and on – Jacob’s ladder in the Indian Ocean at Broome; the total eclipse of the sun at Ceduna and even my first adventure in the bush when I, still in kindergarten, climbed up Little Joe – and so on – wallowing in the reminiscences of being privileged, able to travel around Australia.

No, the place that I would rather be is sitting at the edge of the river where the Darling River empties into the Murray River, near Wentworth. It is the epitome of serenity, where all you have to do is just watch as these two major arteries which maintain life in the Southern Part of the Continent sustain life, come together.

It is not as though being there you are far from civilisation. If you you’re your gaze away from the rivers you can see through the river red gum foliage a collection of nondescript houses, a recreation reserve and even paved streets. The hospital at Wentworth, essentially a nursing home of 22 beds when I was last there, lies on a spit of land near the junction of the rivers – unfortunately the rooms at the hospital do not have a river view. There is also the disfigurement of a viewing tower.  Fortunately, that and the buildings do not contaminate my view of the river.

What is beautiful is being able to shut all that out at the water’s edge. Just watching the rivers move; one having flowed from the Snowy Mountains, the other from Queensland, picking up many a tributary along the way – as a giant imperial force, until it finds that the real emperor with its own of tributaries from NSW and Victoria justly receives its homage as the Darling salutes her, not as a rushing torrent but as a genial meeting of the waters. Yet there is always the vulnerability of the Darling river being bled until in parts it is reduced to pools of water.

I have seen where other giant rivers come together, such as the Missouri and the Mississippi at St Louis and the Rio Negro entering the Amazon at Manaus. The first conjunction is not spectacular – just one meandering around low marsh land as though accidently meeting. The other is more spectacular, bringing its distinctive colour, seemingly black at a distance but in reality umber, to be dissipated by its mighty tawny relative. “Mighty” is the word attached to big rivers. I had a colleague who always prefaced Murray with “mighty”.

River red gum

Shaded by the river red gums that provide the arcade through which one moves towards the other there is a certain tranquillity, which even the sulphur crested and the black cockatoos screeching above, cannot disturb. Their noise enables me to block out the sounds of the dusty dirty city to coin a phase. Their racket is counterpointed by the black swans noiselessly passing by and the wild ducks which move with the merest splash.

Near the open space there is patch of long reed and sedge, which has to be negotiated if you want to wander down the river to get a better vantage point. I have always watched for snakes because water and tiger snakes go together in Australia. Fortunately, there is a narrow path cut through the reeds, but unfortunately I cannot pivot this story. I have never seen a tiger snake there.

I found a relevant scrap of paper to complement the above reminiscence. In the past, I would jot things down, but did not have the time to do anything more with them then. However, I tend to find them tucked away. This is the story of my life. I once wrote a series of short stories, which I labelled Outlines in numerical order. I remember giving them to the late Brian Johns and he gave them to someone to assess. The reviewer came back and said they sure were outlines – implying how little content there was. I thought that somewhat cruel, but I shrugged; I had other outlines that needed attention – and these short stories ended up in my chaotic filing system.

I have been thinking about that criticism as I‘ve being doing an archaeological dig through my existence. Maybe that has been the description of who I am – an outline that has drifted along through a series of those undulating hills – perhaps towards that “green hill far away”. Anyway, enough of that!

This scrap of paper which was obviously written for some long-forgotten speech as it floridly commenced: “I was festooned with gown and caduceus” as the rather awkward opening gambit.

When I worked onwards through my notes, it described a route I travelled very rarely, between Broken Hill and Mildura. Mostly I drove the Silver City Highway, which was a sealed road. That was never a guarantee against the odd kangaroo, so I tried to avoid driving at dusk.  But the early morning was also a dangerous time. I was somewhat shocked to see this grey furry blur disappearing under the left headlight and how I missed it, God only knows – as well does the kangaroo.

The other route from Broken Hill to Mildura is partially sealed. Driving to Menindee, the road is paved. Menindee is a strongly aboriginal township, but without the notoriety of Wilcannia.

When I would reach Menindee, I usually sat down for a beer in the internal courtyard of the hotel. Here was where Burke and Wills stayed, but since that time the pub has burnt down, losing that authenticity, and that single hibiscus which grew in the courtyard.

Burke and Wills campsite

When I was there then, there was water in the Menindee Lakes because rainfall had been moderate in the early 1990s. I since have seen the lakes waterless. I found it distressing because dry Menindee Lakes signal a distressed river. Near the four Menindee Lakes, there is a sign that says Burke and Wills camped there; well, they had taken 18 men with them, and those that had not resigned stayed by the Lakes.  Burke and Wills were ensconced in the inn. The journey from Melbourne had taken two months to arrive there with their wagons, horses and 22 camels. As I sat in the courtyard drinking a beer and looking abstractedly at the walls, I wrote down “…we all have magnificent obsessions, for in the end we are a long time dead”.

In the annals of Australian exploration the Burke and Wills expedition was a gigantic “cock-up”, but as with the Gallipoli disaster, it is a part of the national psyche to not only remember but also venerate these occasions.

From Menindee to travel south, I drove on to Pooncarie, also on the Darling River. The road between the two townships was just bulldust then. Not only does an oncoming vehicle create a sandstorm, but what may appear to be a smooth sandy roadway can be a cover for large craters. A nice little trap for those who want to “fang” along. If you want to deviate away from the delights of Pooncarie, population 48, you can drive towards Mungo National Park, named after Mungo MacCallum whose forefathers inhabited the region before they anglicised their name to Wentworth, that nearby town standing on traditional land.

Va bene, I have been known to pull the end of a leg. But MacCallum inherited certain of the Wentworth traits.

Anyway, apart from being back on the Darling River, Pooncarie has a pub, a community health centre and an airstrip – but not much more. The fact that the Pooncarie Cup in October is the highlight says a great deal about these tiny settlements. This is not a value judgement, just an observation. If it is not an annual race meeting, it is a rodeo. The next step up are the annual shows or field days – I don’t quite know where to rank the B&S Balls.

Wentworth and Mildura are not that distant from one another – the orange groves surrounded by arid land soon appear. After a drive through the waterless land, citrus groves are civilisation. They have proliferated all along the road. This is the Sunraysia District.

The road is sealed and it has been the work of the then local member of Parliament who, as he always did when he was determined, had the road made some years before, after a time when the township was cut off by floods and a pregnant woman died because she could not be evacuated in time.

The medical service at Wentworth was appalling at the time I was there, but that was the problem with rural medicine. Out there were a number of weird doctors, who survived because they were often in single person practices and nobody was watching them.  Wentworth was one of these captured townships. As I found out, it was almost impossible to get dysfunctional doctors deregistered then.  Wentworth residents had some solace of knowing that Mildura was only 30 minutes away. However, as was demonstrated, Pooncarie was a township too far. Needless to say, its population did not justify a doctor.

Confluence of Darling and Murray Rivers

Then again, I am sitting here in my favourite place where the rivers run together and as I watch silently, I recall what Yeats once wrote:

“…Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence
.”

Snakes alive

I have always been wary of snakes. As I wrote above, I always look where I am putting my feet. The reason is that when I was about 14 years old, I went to retrieve a football which I had kicked over the fence into the long grass. I was wearing thick socks and football boots. I forget why I was kitted up – but fortunately I was, as it turned out.

Eastern brown

It all happened in such a flash. I was about to pick up my football when I felt as though I stood on a pipe, there was this sting in my leg and a saw a greenish brown body of what I presumed to be a snake slithering away.

When I went back over the fence to home, I pulled my sock off revealing two distinct puncture marks in my calf. The ambulance was called; I don’t remember much after that – until the ambulance arrived. I know my father, who was a doctor was not there. Somebody in the house may have tried to tourniquet my leg. There was nobody there to try do anything much with the puncture marks apart from washing it.

As I remember it, nothing much happened. The ambulance drivers arrived with polyvalent antivenene. First, they had to give me a small amount to test my reaction. I had a major local reaction. They did not give me the full dose.  While this was going on, minutes were ticking over and I remained symptomless.

I had been bitten, that was clear. Why had nothing occurred? The snake was later to be identified when a few weeks later, workers clearing the site for the construction of a telephone exchange killed an eastern brown snake.  That would fit the fleeting picture I had.

Ever since I have speculated while I had no systemic signs. Perhaps the football sock absorbed the venom; or as does happen, the first strike often does not contain any venom. The eastern brown snake is very venomous, and even though its fangs are short, they were still able to imprint my leg with the tell-tale puncture marks.

Anyway, that is my snake story. Anticlimactic but true. Come on, do you know anybody who was bitten by a snake?

Not a household name

Allyson Felix won her 11th career Olympic medal Saturday, combining with her American teammates to finish the 4×400-meter relay in 3 minutes, 16.85 seconds for a runaway victory.

The team of Felix, Sydney McLaughlin, Dalilah Muhammad and Athing Mu was never in jeopardy in this one. Poland finished second, 3.68 seconds behind, and Jamaica finished third.

Felix, who became the most-decorated woman in Olympic track history when she won bronze in the 400 the night before, now passes Carl Lewis with the most track medals of any US athlete. Of the 11 medals, seven are gold.

No doubt an amazing feat, but she is hardly a household name in Australia. Similarly in USA, who had heard of Emma McKeon, certainly not the NYT.

The Olympic Games has been used by the venal to justify their existence by these fleeting illusions. Unfortunately, it is a drug for politicians to cloak their venality in collaboration with the dark forces of the IOC.

Norman, Smith, Carlos

Yet the Olympic Games has spawned for each nation a pantheon. Even re-telling the story behind the famous photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their arms in the Black Panther salute in the 200 metres victory ceremony, Americans fail to recognise the role of the whitefella on the podium with the human rights badge. He was Peter Norman, and his intrinsic solidarity with the two others was victimised by a spiteful hierarchy which foreshortened his career. When Norman died in 2006, both Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral. Needless to say, these three men have been belatedly recognised for what they did. However, the essential humanity of this trio have been brushed away by the Olympic seigneurs with their “joy-boy” vassals that still roam the upper feudal reaches of the “sporting family”.

Perhaps the man most associated with the Olympic ideals was Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. The story is well known of his friendship with the German athlete Luz Long, who assisted Owens in his long jump style. Long’s name dissolved into time as he had been killed in World War 11 in Italy. His legacy, a letter to Owens re-affirming his friendship, was written just before his death on the battlefield.

However, there is a lesser-known story about Owens in Berlin where he was befriended by one of the Finnish sprinters, Toivo Sariola. When Owens said he felt unsafe in the streets, Toivo said Owens should join his group and thus the Finns would protect him in the city. Owens greatly appreciated Toivo’s gesture. After the USA’s victory in the Men’s 4x100m relay final, Jesse donated the USA team’s baton to Toivo and wrote on it “With friendship to Toivo Sariola”.

Paavo Nurmi

From 1912 to 1928, Finland was never lower than fourth in the medal count and, in 1924, finished second with 14 gold medals. This was the time of the distance runner Paavo Nurmi, who was always mentioned in the same tone of reverence as Owen. At the 1924 Paris Games, Nurmi made history by becoming the first athlete ever to win five gold medals at a single Olympic Games. Over four days, Nurmi won the 1,500 metres, the 5,000 metres, the 3,000 metres team event and the two cross-country events. He was prevented from competing in the 10,000 metres because officials thought it would be too much. Nurmi broke the record for the 10,000 metres very soon after, a record which stood for 13 years.

But how times change. In 1924, Australia sent 37 athletes; the Finns 121. In Tokyo 2020, Australia sent 472 and the Fins 45.

At the 2020 Olympic games Finland won two bronze medals. Since 2000, Finland has only won one gold medal – in shooting.

Helsinki was due to hold the Olympic Games in 1940 and, although the Finns had built some of the venues, it was a difficult proposition to hold the Games and at the same time battle what we would term today as “the Russian variant”, while the whole of Europe was succumbing to a much more virulent “Hitler variant”. Compare that with Tokyo today, and if the world had been able to visually enhance the virus particles so it could be visible, I doubt if Tokyo would have gone ahead. After all, Spanish flu did not disrupt the Olympic Games cycle in the 1920s for perhaps the same reason. It was unseen.

One the major scandals to have coloured the modern Finn’s view of sporting success has been in 2001 the Finn Nordic skiing team being caught systematically doping. Six top Finnish skiers were caught and disqualified.  They were using a plasma expander to mask erythropoietin usage, for which there was no reliable test at the time. The scandal was covered in the national press as a matter of public shame, and there was a sense of collective embarrassment in the country.

As one commentator said: “For the Finns, the worst thing about the doping scandal was not, however, the scandal itself. The worst thing was that, along with the facade of honesty in sports in general, the myth of the honest, hardworking Finn came crashing down.”

Yet before there had been the Finnish runner, Lasse Viren, who dominated distance running in the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games. He claimed reindeer milk and running long distances in the snow and at altitude was his secret. He never admitted to blood doping, which was then not illegal (until 1986). One reflection:

Scandinavia had helped pioneer the practice for winter sports, particularly cross-country skiing. It was very much in vogue in Finland at the time of Viren’s arrival on the world stage, and that he only seemed to peak at the major competitions added fuel to the speculation that blood doping had to be part of his preparation.

Even though it was legal at the time, to some people it offered a clear and unfair advantage, while others reckoned it was merely a more scientific form of say altitude training, and simply used the body’s own resources in a more productive manner.

Salla, Finland

The Finns are intense people with a dry sense of humour. One of the bids for the 2032 Summer Games was from Salla in the very north of Finland, one of the coldest places there.  The bid for 2032, was based on  the climate with global warming being just right for Salla  holding the Summer Games. One Finnish word for this parodic exercise is ironinen.

Helsinki did eventually hold the Olympics Games in 1952, using those facilities which had been built pre-war. Even now they are impressive. One source has stated there is no way of telling even the approximate cost of these ventures.   One figure was an “on books” cost of 1,580 million finnmarks and the Committee reported a 49 million mark loss.

It is significant that for Tokyo, the Finns sent their Minister for Science and Culture, Antti Kurvinen, who was there to discuss the themes of education and competence, especially from the perspective of the digital transformation, research and innovation.  Not sport. He is a significant figure in the Finland Government, being also head of the Liberal Party Parliamentary Group. The Finnish words for “political junket” are “poliittista roskaa” (literally political rubbish). One would be forgiven for thinking that is the overall Finn view of the Olympic Games.

Over Coates

There is one fact that has got lost in the ebullience of Brisbane overcoming the sturdy opposition of Salla, that Finnish megapolis within the Arctic circle of 50 people.  There has been no announcement for the 2030 Winter Olympics. Yet.  The Washington Post has wryly commented that: “you’ll notice an unprecedented hole, the 2030 Winter Games, still looking for a home. There’s a reason for that. The world has caught onto the ruse and the Olympics need to respond by acknowledging their process is outdated and unnecessary.” To use that new collective noun, it may well be that there is an inadequacy of bidders, or perhaps serious bidders.

Curling, 2030

But wait! What about Canberra? What a great idea!  Could use that Parliament House foyer for curling. Come on, Scotty what about it? Worth a few media releases. Send the hares running up the ski runs at Perisher. But be prepared for those “over coates” to guard against that pending reign.

Mouse Whisper

For Finns, silence is golden; talking is silver.

This was demonstrated to me when I met my cousin Hiiri dragging a large vial of vodka across the sauna floor.

He motioned to me to open the vial, and I poured each of us a thimble. Before each thimble in honour of his presence, I would cry “Skål”.  Hiiri remained mute again. I raised the thimble and again cried out “Skål”. Hiiri said nothing.  Again… and again. Skål. Skål.

Even though he said nothing, I could see Hiiri was getting irritable.

Then suddenly Hiiri burst out: “The trouble with you Australian mice, you talk too much.”

That was ten words.

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 – Arithmetic Progression 

“The first most precious thing in life is food in your mouth.” Rowan Atkinson has visited the local food bank I volunteer at regularly over the entire period of the Covid-19 pandemic (where visits have increased tenfold in the last two years). He brings massive amounts of tinned fish which is exactly the luxury our customers ask for first, tuna runs out so quick I’ve seen people queue for hours in the mornings to get some. He never stays around to shake hands or give some self assured speech or anything despite how everyone comes out to see him – he just passes us a few big Sainsburys bags full of tuna and fresh vegetables then drives off. A real man is defined not by his words but by his deeds. – Joel Dixton

Time to Throw away the Old Coates?

You have to understand how important these events are for small countries that are isolated. It was wonderful to have all those people and be the centre of the world. Events make them important and the focal point as they think they should be.” Quote from NYT.

As I schoolboy I went to the Olympic Games in 1956. I was sports mad and there I was, in the queue 18 months before, on the day ticket sales opened. I am there staring at the camera when I was snapped by the National Geographic magazine photographer just after I had purchased my tickets. The most expensive tickets for the opening ceremony cost six guineas, but none of these were on sale for the “unwashed” even on the opening day. After alI, I was not very far back in the queue which snaked up Lonsdale Street away from the retail store Myers.

I was able to buy tickets for the opening ceremony costing three guineas, and then there were tickets for one guinea. All very quaint, but I had the sum of 100 pounds which had come from cashing out an insurance policy my grandmother had taken out when I was born. I bought a variety of tickets, including the closing ceremony as well.

Sydney was somewhat different. Some time after Sydney was awarded the 2000 Games in 1993, my mate and I each bought two of initial ticket packages, which included the opening ceremony, for about $3,700 each. We could pay in instalments, and by far the most expensive component was the opening ceremony. That was $1,500 a ticket. The opening ceremony was a spectacle, and it is easy to dissect and criticise, but you remember some of the gloss and then the interminable parade of each country’s fashion sense as the nations marched by. The highlight for me was being included in the Torch relay, courtesy of Ansett Airlines. I had my gig in Nowra, kept the torch and, for eternity, stare out of the pages of the Illawarra Mercury.

On both occasions, I was very enthusiastic about the Games.  Here was a time to be recognised on the world stage. No matter that the 1956 Games were nearly victim to Australian mismanagement led by the fumbling fascist war hero, Wilfrid Kent Hughes, bumbling away with the irascible American IOC chairman, Avery Brundage, an admirer of Hitler, knowledge of which was airbrushed away by 1956.  Then, before the Games, inconveniently came the Suez crisis and the aborted Hungarian uprising, which resulted in a smaller Games than in Helsinki four years earlier. The Dutch inter alia did not come to Australia, and Australian quarantine regulations meant the equestrian events were held in Sweden. However, all this was lost on this 16 year old called me.

Those games were not then mired by the systemic cheating initiated by the Eastern bloc which, in 1976, led to Australia winning no gold medals, the first games at which this had occurred since Berlin in 1936. As the Australian finalist in the women’s 400 metres final commented, she was the only runner without a moustache.

There were the riots in Mexico City in 1968, the murder of the Israeli athlete hostages of Munich in 1972, the Moscow Games boycott because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. One could hear the death rattle, with the IOC under the Irish peer, Lord Killanin, only to be rescued by the American Peter Ueberroth, who made a profit on the Olympic Games in 1984. He injected an element of humanity, whether cynical on not, in encouraging the incorporation of the Paralympics into the main schedule, to ensure that from 1988 they were held in the same city as the main games. The Paralympics had arisen from the Stoke Mandeville project in England and the first was organised in Rome in 1960, but not under the Olympic movement banner.

Somehow, despite the stench of doping and of a privileged and corrupt IOC, the Games have survived, but the death rattle can be heard again in the Tokyo Games. The Games are no longer a diadem, and Brisbane has been bullied and cajoled by one man to take on the financial burden. Can the fact get into the heads of our politicians as they grasp at the straws of our disintegrating country that nobody is really interested in taking on a massive debt, except Queensland (with, of course, the Federal Government picking up 50 per cent of the cost on behalf of the Australian tax payer)?

Australia just does not need the IOC pied pipers to allure the children of now to the Bananabender Boondoggle called “Brissie”.

Yes, I was one who marvelled at the exploits of Ralph Doubell while the smell of tear gas drifted over the Mexico City stadium and when Shane Gould was our swimming heroine and angry when Raelene Boyle was cheated out of greatness by an East German doped so much it precipitated her early death; all the while terrorists were killing 11 athletes in the Munich athletes’ village.

Sure, the magnificent swims by Ariarne Titmus and efforts of Jess Fox provide a short term boost in national pride.  They are exceptional athletes. There is no doubt that the exploits of our current Olympians feed the traditional image of a sporting nation and temporary jubilation from a nation imprisoned by a Virus. But what of 2032?

Ueberroth provided a false dawn by providing a model of running the Games profitably. He stated a clear objective; he ruthlessly pared costs, re-used venues, and achieved a profit measurable in real money. Following that, the World has had a series of Games “striving to be declared the best ever”, increasing the number of sports, some of which border on theatre and judged by subjective opinion rather than the objectivity of being “first past the post”. Along the way there have been burgeoning TV rights – until somebody may stop the carousel to do the numbers. The IOC and the successful cities in his aftermath had forgotten Ueberroth.

The local press is celebrating Brisbane for being chosen in 2032 with Coates, as the driving force, being forgiven for his boorish behaviour. In the cold light of tomorrow, Australia may realise how it has been hoodwinked by Coates, there was no other city interested apart from his adopted hometown. Nobody else wants it. It is too expensive for dubious gains.

Coates  yet has rescued the IOC, saving them from going cap in hand to some other city to strike a deal. Instead Australia, which will be coping under the economic and social cost of the COVID-19 pandemic for decades to come, has been conned into more debt. Sure, the athletes will come, and the quote from the NYT at the head of this article will ring all so true as our Clutch of politicians will bask in the sunlight of praise until, after two weeks in 2032, the light is turned off leaving the Clutch in darkness, and in debt.

I suggest that failing the employment of a latter-day Ueberroth, Queensland do a poll to determine the level of sponsor interest. It is noteworthy that the AFR was gushing in its Editorial about Brisbane’s win. Are they the same writers who, just a couple of weeks ago, advocated that Sydney not go into lockdown to halt the spread of the Virus?

Enough said?

Well, not quite. Remember in 2003 when the NYT ran an article on the financial aftermath of the Sydney Olympic Games. This quote is salutary:

For a party that lasted only 16 days, the Games carried a big bill. In a 2002 report, the New South Wales auditor general put the Games’ cost at 6.484 billion Australian dollars, or about $4.77 billion, of which 2.037 billion Australian dollars came from the government. The report cautiously accepts estimates by the government of New South Wales that the Games generated 653 million Australian dollars in additional tax revenues from visitors, but even that figure leaves a loss of 1.326 billion Australian dollars.

All the extra costs of the Games were paid for from the budget, meaning they did not leave much of a fiscal hangover. (Unlike the Montreal Games where the 1976 Olympic Games billion dollar debt was not finally extinguished until 2006.)

“A lot of our planning was very extravagant,” Richard Cashman (then a UNSW academic) said. “There was a decline in the health and education budgets in the years before the Games.”

The value to the Sydney after the Games has been minuscular – loaded with unusable infrastructure – stadia that are dismantled or provide a haven for weeds.  Cycle paths through a wasteland are not a big deal. Such disasters writ large in both Athens and Brazil. All the while the IOC provides the world with specimens such as John Coates, immersed in formalin jars of the past.

By 2032, an Australia Olympics may find itself drowned by a Viral debt, rising seas and irrelevance, through a lack of sponsors and tourist attractions dying from global warming. I believe this is not too much a dystopian view given what’s happening, looking around the world and seeing the ecological disaster being played out well beyond the horizons of this current euphoria.

Remembering Cuba

Cuba was what we expected.

Now we went to Cuba as members of an American delegation. I suppose that was somewhat unusual, having been invited by the leader of the group of health care professionals, Dr Bill Jessee, to join the delegation. It was an easier time then when Obama had loosened the restrictions, and relatively easy to get to Havana. After all it is only  370 kms from Miami with a flight time of  one hour. The plane we flew in was not marked but on returning it was clearly a Delta flight. In the flight magazine Havana was not listed as a Delta destination but on questioning the flight attendant she was quite offhand in saying, “Oh, we fly every day to Cuba.”

We were booked into the Mela Cohiba, a so-called 5-star hotel close to the beach, but a half hour walk from the Old Havana centre. It was a somewhat strange experience when we arrived to be sitting around the pool drinking the first of countless mojitos – the signature white rum, sugar, lime and soda with mint garnish. A walk up the shaded street with the broken concrete footpath showed an interesting sight: the British Embassy was next to that of the Northern Korean.

Despite the protestations of Cuba being an egalitarian country, this Havana suburb could pass as any middle class suburb.

What was evident was that despite the general ramshackle nature of Havana, there was still an underlying enthusiasm for what Castro had done. For instance, there was the wiry little guy who was introduced with reverence. He was small, hard faced, leathery and harangued us in Spanish. He had been one of the 26th July crowd, they whispered, the original band of men who had followed Castro into the Sierra Maestra mountains – hence the reverence. When we were there, Castro, albeit ailing, was still nominally in charge. Castro’s brother, Raul, maintained the Castro power.

However, as you read the papers today, there is street rioting. Fidel is dead; Raul retired. The Castro legacy of the romantic saviour, in a population winnowed by the original opposition being crushed or fled to Florida, is now of decreasing relevance to this younger urbanised group. They have no memory of a rural revolution; the energy which drove the victory over the corrupt Batista regime ruling a Cuba that was the louche playground of American gangsters.

Once the largest World supplier of sugar, exploited by American and other foreign interests, and then after the Castro accession distortion in the market  by Russian subsidy, Cuba has had to restructure what was a sugar economy. Now Cuba is way down the list of sugar cane producers and therefore having to adjust its economy to sustain its socialist ideals has become increasingly difficult.

In 1959, Castro offered a different world, and whether you agree with his methods, he was able to establish, govern and improve the standards of living. Whatever you may think of the methods, Castro had a cleansing effect on Cuba as a haven for criminals and resisted over decades American interference, starting with the Bay of Pigs in 1960.  Notably when we were there, there were no beggars on the streets, no overt poverty. The unemployment level was said to be less than four per cent, but there is some controversy about what that figure means. The level of “hidden unemployment” may be a factor underlying the recent rioting.

The American automobiles around the streets were remnants of the fifties. They had become a tourist attraction. We were driven about in a sky blue Ford Mercury, but mostly we bussed around the various locations to see a variety of health facilities in what appeared to be a school bus.

The hospitals reminded me of the country hospitals that I had known in the early part of my medical career, just shorn of the technology which I had come to accept as de rigeur. Their pitch to us was laced with propaganda, matter-of-the-fact, no overt hostility to the Americans, mildly surprised to find a couple of Australians in their midst. This was the home of the the barefoot doctor!

One of the local leaders of our delegation told us how her parents had been part of the communist ethos whereby if you were a labourer on building a block of apartments you would be given one. The problem now, however, was that these small one or two bedroom apartments that housed a small family 40 years before, increasingly were housing two to three generations because housing development under the communist regime had not sustained the increasing need for new housing.

The visit had its ups and down. I was laid low for a couple of days with severe food poisoning, which I suspect came from a fish lunch. I was the only one to be poisoned, so I wondered whether I had been a mistaken target for some dastardly deed. Anyway, it reduced the amount of health facilities I had to visit, so there is always a silver lining. Nevertheless, I did avoid being a customer of the Cuban health system, whatever conclusion can be drawn from that.

Havana’s old city was just what you would expect – the picture postcard vista of the Old Spanish American town.  At the dinner when I was serenaded for my birthday, she could have been a sultry Lena Horne look-alike stepped out of a 40s movie, and I trying to be cool as she fixed me with her gaze as she sang. But I don’t do nonchalance well.

Wandering into the Nacional Hotel with all the memorabilia of its heyday strewn around, it was easy to be transported back to that era of Clark Gable and Ernest Hemingway. This was the place in Havana where the movie stars flocked because you could drink, you could gamble, you could frolic with money and in so doing could escape the Puritan eye of their American forefathers. Built on a hill overlooking the sea, with a large lawn, the hotel was not difficult to imagine being in one’s tux strolling out in the evening, cocktail in hand, and watching the lights of the hotel skip along the sea swell.

In 1959 this romance was transferred to revolution, but that has long gone and given way to an ageing, ideologically-driven nation increasingly having difficulty paying its way.

Yet in 2011 I suspect there was enough residual nostalgia and reverence, because of the Castros. They epitomised this romantic image of revolution, where the face of Che Guevara was still everywhere.

In a restaurant where we went for lunch I noted a stack of those T-shirts with Guevara printed on the front. Red starred berets were on sale. I went across to the stand where they had been stocked, a much better word than displayed because there was nobody trying to hawk them. I extracted a red and black one with the imprint of Che on the front – and a beret. Once the others in the party saw what I done, they flocked over, and then there were none.

Needless to say, this group of health professionals had a number, somewhat incongruously, who went off to buy that other commodity for which Cuba is famous – the cigar. Together with Cuban rum, cigars were still a prohibited import into the USA. There were constant warnings that the customs would be there, searching for any sign of Cuban tobacco leaf or the smell of rum. The funny thing was when we arrived back in Miami at the end of the week, there was not a customs officer in sight. Irony on a number of levels.

The footpath along the sea wall provided a wide vista of the foreshore, although you had to be wary of the rogue wave breaching the wall and giving one of good dousing. Here  was another reminder of the American presence. In Havana, walking along the seafront, there was this large  anonymous building surrounded by a formidable fence.   This building was the one which later achieved a degree of notoriety when the embassy staff were subject to microwave radiation during 2016-2017. They complained of symptoms ranging from dizziness, loss of balance, hearing loss, anxiety and something they described as “cognitive fog”. It became known as “Havana syndrome”. It coincided with the time of Trump, who predictably re-imposed  sanctions on Cuba.

The memories of Cuba seem a long time go. I suppose being on an American delegation we could watch the interactions. Apart from the irascible “hero of the revolution”, the reception for the Americans was warm; whether any thing long term developed from the trip I doubt it. The problem is that the Caribbean is a beautiful area contaminated by European adventurism. The Cubans had freed themselves from that, at a price, but still exhibited a warmth in welcoming these health professionals without any feeling that we were meeting a set of selected ideologues spouting inanities.

You get to know when you are on a mushroom tour. Cuba was not one of these . I like to believe in the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club – the optimism and exuberance of these old guys, could not have come from a totally dark past.

As one writer put it recently: “The musicians you hear on the street corners of Old Havana aren’t playing current styles like reggaeton, or hip-hop, or even salsa. They’re playing music by the Buena Vista Social Club.” As it was when we visited. Thank God, Trump did not destroy that; I do hope that element does survive amid the rioting of a youth that has no memory of the 26th of July.

A Precautionary Tale yet One of Hope

Below is an edited article from The Washington Post this week. It is at a time when some Australian journalists seem to be advocating “eating our young”. In other words, singling out ATAGI is not particularly productive. It gave the typical conservative advice, narrowly based and what they did not say was based on the wrong assumption. There was insufficient Pfizer vaccine to allow for unfettered choice.

Australia is in a time of rationing, not seen since World War 11, and therefore if ATAGI gave advice related to a time of cornucopia rather than rationing, the decision should have been the role of government, rather deflect on the meaningless “we rely on medical advice”. In any event, the government has changed the chair of the ATAGI – just one way of defining scapegoat.

Meanwhile…

Kim Marin and her 12-year-old daughter, Kate, isolate at home Friday in Fairfax County. Both are fully vaccinated and recently tested positive for the coronavirus.  

Kim Marin planned to spend her 51st birthday on Friday eating a cherry pie made by her 80-year-old mother and 12-year-old daughter. But Marin and her daughter, Kate, began feeling ill earlier this week. On Wednesday the pair, who are fully vaccinated and live in Fairfax County, tested positive for the coronavirus.

At first, it seemed like they just had a bad cold: They were coughing, sneezing, and feeling achy. But their symptoms got progressively worse. Kate developed a bad sore throat and the two were outright exhausted. 

“Because my daughter and I were feeling so badly, I just thought, let’s go to urgent care and while we’re here, they should probably test us [for the coronavirus],” Marin said. “We both got tested and we were shocked. We both were first in line to get vaccinated when we were able to.” 

Breakthrough cases are rare. Just 0.031 percent of the 4.5 million fully vaccinated people in Virginia have developed covid-19, according to the state’s dashboard. Just 0.05 percent of the more than 375,000 fully vaccinated people in the District of Columbia have tested positive. And out of the 3.5 million people who have been fully vaccinated in Maryland, just 2,493 have tested positive, according to state officials. 

“I think the thing that’s so startling is that we have been really sick,” Marin said. “The messaging has been that cases like ours should be pretty mild... We’re not in the hospital, so we’re so grateful for that. But it still has not been an easy week.”

Marin has been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine since mid-April, and Kate, also with the Pfizer vaccine, since mid-June. Both Marin’s 48-year-old husband and 14-year-old son, who are both fully vaccinated, tested negative Friday. 

Marin said she isn’t quite sure how she and her daughter contracted the virus. Her family still frequently wears masks when going to the grocery store, only having walked into a store a few times without one. Health officials have yet to contact Marin and her daughter for contact tracing, she said. But Marin immediately notified her doctor and the family’s paediatrician about their results. Marin said her nurse told her she was getting more of these calls from vaccinated people, and told her to go back to wearing masks full time.

Officials in the Washington region haven’t moved to reinstate mask restrictions.

The delta variant has already become the dominant strain in Maryland and Virginia; it makes up 1 percent of cases, but officials are working to increase their sequencing of specimens. While the risk of contracting the virus for vaccinated people is still low, it has increased compared to earlier strains.

The delta variant is much more infectious than the alpha variant was, and than the wild type was before that, and so a better understanding really is — in the short term, in the past 30 days — what proportion of new cases were in individuals who are vaccinated, because that gives a better picture today of what the risk is today to any vaccinated person. 

Los Angeles County officials, for example, look at breakthrough cases in a time-bound way and are able to say, for instance, that 20 percent of the coronavirus cases in June in the county were among vaccinated people. While time-bound figures can help show how exactly the risk for vaccinated people is increasing, officials say it’s still important to note that the risk level for unvaccinated people is higher and increasing, too. 

For her part, Marin plans to go back to taking the precautions she followed in the spring. She has young nephews whom she doesn’t plan to be around without a mask anymore. And she no longer plans to go maskless in any public spaces. But she’s still grateful for the vaccines has made that possible.

“I’m struck by how much worse it could have been,” Marin said. “While it’s been very unpleasant, and scary, we have not felt like it was life-threatening.”

Mouse Whisper

This involves two doctors who were discussing the fact that one of them had been able to diagnose a middle-aged man, whose heart condition had baffled a variety of clinicians. The first doctor asked how the other had come to the diagnosis of cardiac amyloidosis.

The second replied by saying he used the Uncle Bert Sign. “If I described Uncle Bert to you and sent you out into a crowd to find him, you’d probably fail. But if you’d ever seen Uncle Bert” — he snapped his fingers — “no problem. You’d find him in a second. It’s all about recognition.”

Heard it before, Topo?