Modest Expectations – Dalmatians

“The label racist is not one I would apply like that,” Garland said evenly — without a hint of are-you-a-dolt? in his voice. “Implicit bias just means every human being has biases. That’s part of what it means to be a human being. The point of examining implicit biases is to bring our conscious mind up to our unconscious mind and to know when we are behaving in a stereotyped way. Everybody has stereotypes. It’s not possible to go through life without working through stereotypes. Implicit biases are the ones we don’t recognize. That doesn’t make you a racist.”

Merrick Garland

In his current Senate confirmation hearings for Attorney-General, Merrick Garland shows in this above response to one of those rubber red-necked Republicans what an acquisition he would have been to the US Supreme Court if it had not been for the Kentucky Kernel, Mitch McConnell refusing to let his nomination be considered. Yes, the sobriquet kernel. Is that not a nut case? 

The Sewers of Canberra are not Backchannels 

And less welcome sexual attentions in the form of sexual harassment also have been a standing problem. In decades past there was a discreet backchannel operating between the prime minister’s office and the opposition leader’s office to keep sexual misconduct in check. Each side kept an eye out for rogue behaviour by members of the other and duly alerted the leaders’ offices accordingly. That system fell into disuse years ago. 

I was surprised reading that piece by Peter Hartcher in the Sydney Morning Herald. Given that I was very senior in one of those offices, the “backchannel” must have been sealed up at the time I was there. I knew of no conversations. It was a time when Parliament House was much smaller, and there were few offices which were not the size of shoeboxes; people lived cheek by jowl. Yet it was a time when there was considerable fraternisation across all political parties and the media, with the non-members bar the central meeting place. Parliamentarians came down rarely.

The Lobby was the place where there was considerable mixing, and I remember one prominent journalist supressing his laughter. Something was happening at a table behind us. Judi Morosi was feeding Jim Cairns. Well known non-relationship, as there was considerable smokescreen about extra marital calisthenics. I was not around during the Ainslie Gotto saga, but hardly a time I thought when Gorton would have been exchanging notes with Whitlam. These were the few associations then which attracted notoriety in the media.

The number of staff was far smaller, but even so, there were not many inglenooks in the old Parliament House where inappropriate behaviour would not be discovered. In fact, given the intimate environment, not much was unknown around Canberra. There were a number of consensual arrangements, but drunkenness was more the problem.

King’s Hall

It was also somewhat ironic that in those days, having finished in the office when I left Parliament House often after 1.00 am, it was just a wave to the guys on the reception desk at the King’s Hall entrance. King’s Hall was a very open space – especially at 1.00 am. Any antics would thus have been on a large stage.

The advent of security, presumably at the Ministerial entrance of the new Parliament House, did not save Brittany Higgins; as has been reported the security even facilitated the entry into the Ministerial office, although it must have been clear that she was too drunk to sign her name properly.  These days it would appear that there is a very short backchannel between security and coverup within the burrows of government

Facesaver?

To my everlasting shame, I have never used or looked at Facebook. I must have missed something judging by all the furore. Facebook is a free service. I choose not to use it. I remember when Facebook first came into prominence at a time when Zuckerberg had not yet worked how to make it profitable. It was originally a means by which a kid in college could communicate without the distasteful business of actually meeting somebody face to face. There was more than a hint of misogyny in the original motivation for Facebook.

Zuckerberg introduced advertisements into Facebook very early on after he launched it in 2004, but not until 2007 did he launch the first co-ordinated advertisement campaign.

He said at the time: “The core of every user’s experience on Facebook is their page, and that’s where businesses are going to start as well…The first thing businesses can do is design a page  to craft the exact experience they want people to see.”

Before he even made money, there was a film made in 2010 about Zuckerberg called “The Social Network”.He was only 26. Aaron Sorkin, the guy who wrote “West Wing” wrote the screen play and promulgated the Zuckerberg myth – the socially awkward nerd who created the greatest social communication platform the World has ever experienced. To put that into perspective, Rupert Murdoch was a running a small Adelaide newspaper when he was 26.

Zuckerberg did not start making money on Facebook advertisements until 2012, and apparently the business has worked. He never promoted Facebook as a news channel. It just happened that organisations jumped on it because of the popularity of that and other platforms the company acquired. In initially opposing the Australian law, Facebook argued that publishers willingly post news to its site, which helps them reach a larger audience. It says that the model differs from Google’s, as publishers don’t voluntarily provide articles that appear in the firm’s search results. The Australian proposal penalises Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for.

As the Facebook boss in Australia went on to say – “The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content. It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia.

In the Washington Post this week, Roger McNamee, in reviewing “the current state of play today with the tech industry” has stated “Internet platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter aided the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and have contributed to the slow national response to a deadly pandemic. The algorithms on which the firms rely amplify hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories, and their recommendation engines manipulate behaviour because doing so is good for business.”

Has Facebook learnt from the experience with Cambridge Analytica, which shamelessly stole data and manipulated data as part of the Trump 2016 election?  Arguably Facebook served to amplify such behaviour and this remains an unanswered question in the reports of this feud the Australia Government is having with Facebook.

Facebook pulled the plug on the news pages, and there was the predictable response of those deprived of a free service. However, it gave Facebook an opportunity to see in the real world what the response was. In fact, the news media responded very quickly, by setting up alternative pathways to Facebook. Therefore, in a far-off country, Facebook was able to sample the reaction and appear to give the politicians a victory.

Zuckerberg is obsessed with maintaining his monopoly. He believes he has the “old media” covered, but by his actions, in a few hours he set up a “wildfire” of innovation to compensate for the loss of Facebook. If this goes on long enough, the next raft of innovators will appear to challenge the Facebook sovereignty.

On Monday, Facebook agreed to the Australian government’s added amendments to the proposed code. That included a two-month mediation period, giving the two sides more time to negotiate commercial deals that could help Facebook avoid having to work under the code’s provisions.

In other words, Facebook has not lost – not by a long shot. They have bought time, and to Zuckerberg, what does he care if Morrison and Frydenberg claim victory. “To me, victory in always unconditional”, Zuckerberg might say.

I still believe that if Facebook is making such big profits in this country, the Government should tax them more than the current 2% for the benefit of the community; not push them into a Mafia-style protection racket to benefit a lot of old men who are on the obsolete side of history. Just the normal lazy politicians not prepared to confront the need for an equable tax.  And what they said originally probably remains true. Facebook is expert in gathering data – and they certainly gained some this week in the response to their actions, which they will already be dicing and slicing to work out what is what. Has the Government collected the same data to use in future negotiations?

Quids from Quarantine

Anonymouse

You always know there’s a quid to be made when the big players start to throw their hats in the ring, and in the past few weeks we have had the Wagners in Queensland, Lindsay Fox in Victoria, and now Sam Shahin in South Australia, all wanting to get into the quarantine business.  The Howard Springs facility has shown the effectiveness of a low-tech facility offering separate cabin accommodation, individual air conditioning, access to fresh air, and importantly, little requirement for staff to enter cabins while they are occupied; worker accommodation on site is an added benefit. Re-purposed it might be, but it’s turned out to be a good solution. Nevertheless, it is subject to the vagaries of a monsoonal wet season

Wellcamp Airport outside Toowoomba has ‘abundant’ room for the proposed 1,000 bed quarantine facility, with another 300 beds for staff.  As noted in an earlier edition of this blog, a Boeing 747 can land at Wellcamp – it was designed for large scale cattle export, avoiding the need to move the cattle through Brisbane. Unlike the backward planning endemic in government circles, Wellcamp has much forward capacity – its terminal is large and there is plenty of space. International flights can go direct to Wellcamp.

The Wagner Brothers own the land around the Wellcamp airport so they could start work immediately – and seemingly they already have the blessing of the Queensland Government.

Lindsay Fox’s Avalon Airport proposal already has the imprimatur of the Victorian Premier, which might well see a sod turned for a facility for up to 1000 international arrivals before the others.

Mr Shahin’s proposal to develop a “purpose built” facility outside Tailem Bend was very promptly booted by the SA Government which then announced the opening of a dedicated CBD hotel for positive COVID-19 cases. The SA Health Minister said the Tailem Bend plan lacked a hospital in good proximity. Tailem Bend’s hospital is not the “level” of hospital required because, according to the SA Health Minister, “If someone develops COVID, they can very rapidly develop to the level that they need an ICU and isolation – Tailem Bend doesn’t have an ICU.” Tailem Bend is one hour from Adelaide on a dual carriageway. The problem with health care perspectives in South Australia government is that it is a health care wasteland once you lose sight of North Terrace. For goodness sake!

All of this raises a few questions:

  • If the Commonwealth plans to continue keeping its hands off the quarantine reins, why did it commission a report by former Health Department Secretary and Crown Director, Ms Jane Halton AO PSM, into hotel quarantine?
  • Is there an agreed position on the optimum template for quarantine facilities and is there agreement on how long they will be required – something the Australian community isn’t being told?
  • The figure of 40,000 Australians wanting to return home has been quoted for months. Why is this number not falling? Given the difficulty of getting an exemption to leave Australia – unless of course you are a celebrity or ex-politician – who are taking up the hotel quarantine places if not returning Australians?
  • What is the optimum location for these facilities? Do they really need to be in the middle of the city a block from a tertiary hospital?
  • What percentage of COVID-positive cases in hotel quarantine end up in hospital, and of those, what percentage require ICU (and tangentially, if ICU is such a pressing requirement, why not upgrade ICUs in regional hospitals where quarantine facilities can be located)?

Hotel quarantine is now the single source of any new COVID infection in the Australian community.  “Escaped” COVID has caused problems in Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia, with a greater or lesser impact. Currently Australia faces a hiatus with no new cases. The media is focussing on vaccination. Even with the vaccines rolling out, no one knows how effective they will be at large scale prevention of COVID (as opposed to prevention of serious illness). Quarantine is here to stay for the foreseeable future and is likely to remain the key to opening Australia’s international borders to business and tourists and allowing the Australians overseas who want to return to do so. But it needs to be more affordable and the metropolitan hotel-based quarantine has lost any lustre it had. Did Halton comment on affordability, talk about fair and reasonable charges? See above questions?

The States do not appear in any hurry to hand quarantine back to the Commonwealth; on the contrary, it is the States looking to develop permanent quarantine facilities, presumably with funding by the Commonwealth.

Which brings us back to the National Review of Hotel Quarantine and the point of it all. The sum of the recommendations was that States and Territories should have quality assurance mechanisms and continuous improvement. There needs to be information available to travellers, quarantine options developed for National Cabinet, travel bubbles, and finally the Commonwealth Government consider a “national facility for quarantine”. Did we need this Review to tell us any of this which is just stating the obvious? The undated report was released around October 2020. The author’s name appears only once, in an appendix.

The report did highlight one thing however, and that is the lack of a comprehensive set of data on hotel quarantine.  Then, as now, there appears to be no single accessible source and the daily data are just that. The data provided in the National Review report are as opaque as they are revealing; they highlight the fact that no one knew what was happening with flight crews (we know that now), or exemptions, still a matter of extreme annoyance to the general population who have been serving their own time locked up, and the lack of demographic and hospitalisation data on quarantine inmates. Together with the total number of beds and quarantinees, this is the information most relevant to planning.

What is interesting however, is how difficult it is to find out something as fundamental as how many quarantine places there are – what is Australia’s current quarantine capacity (even the maximum and minimum based on a sliding scale of demand)? Phone calls to State health media elicited no information:  for example, NSW Health – send us an email; Vic Health – we don’t run quarantine, email the Department of Justice; Qld Health – talk to State Disaster Management, Health doesn’t run quarantine; SA Health – send an email; NT Health – has no media contact and no one on the only phone number knew who knew anything … and so it went on. Tasmania was the standout though – there is a media page, headed “Media” – it’s blank. More next week, if any information is forthcoming.

After a year of COVID the matter of quarantine is still being bounced around – a dedicated series of regionally-located facilities (as recommended in this Blog #76 and 78) could have been constructed and commissioned by now, but perhaps doing that lost out in the economic rationality of providing an income stream to the hotel industry while tourism has been shut down. But without the data that show the vaccines are very effective in preventing transmission of COVID, quarantine is here to stay. They may be expensive to develop, but the need for dedicated facilities should not be taken off the table in the current excitement about vaccinations. These facilities can be mothballed and then rolled out again (as with Howard Springs) for the next pandemic – or even a variant of the current – which, as those who analyse these things have said, could be just around the corner. And after all, Ms Halton did recommend a national quarantine approach. 

Déjà vu

I was alerted by the recent activities of that Texan, Senator Ted Cruz … his antics this week reminded me very much of those of another politician early last year, much closer to home.

Let take up the story of Senator Ted. As been reported, the weather in Texas has been appalling – it has taken out the energy grid for the simple reason that the State does not invest in infrastructure, it is a mighty big land mass and the State is run by a group of climate change denialists, including Senator Ted.

So, there is no heating, but further, there is more.  Water pipes have frozen, burst, or the water has become contaminated. In other words, much of the State is without running water; and in any event where it can be tapped, it needs to be boiled.

Pictures of pileups on the interstate highways compound the chaos.

Senator Ted Cruz took a trip out of Texas because his alliterative children, Caroline Camille and Catherine Christiane wanted to go to Cancún in the middle of a Catastrophic pandemic.

As he is alleged to have said, “Look my wife Heidi said to me our children are freezing, let us get out of the hell-hole and go south to Mexico.” As the newspaper said “Also, way to throw your kids under the bus, senator.”

In contrast, as the paper went on, “most responsible parents would have told their tweens that the closest they’re getting to Mexico these days is a chalupa from a drive-through at Taco Bell.”

Instead, the Swift Family Cruz packed a suitcase “the size of a steamer trunk”, left their poodle, Snowflake, behind and dashed off for fun in the sun. This action contravened what CDC has recommended for nearly a year, i.e. that US residents should avoid travel to other countries. The advice was ignored but that it is the way of the Cruz. His problem virtually duplicates that of Australia’s Prime Minister, who disappeared to Hawaii, did not let us in on this voyage north, and all this while Australia burned. The American media, which is less controlled (and apparently more observant) than Australia got onto Cruz almost immediately and there he was, scuttling back to Texas mouthing a number of mutually-conflicting self-serving reasons for him going to the Mexican Resort in the first place.

The American media has shown its public service usefulness (without recourse to Facebook). “There’s no need to reiterate the extraordinarily poor timing of Cruz’s trip while Texas froze. That burro has been beaten to death, shamed, and then beaten some more. This is a look at a man who should be setting an example for the millions of Texans who are aching to travel. But in order to be able to see their families and friends again safely in the future, they’ve followed Dr. Anthony Fauci’s advice and stayed home as much as possible. They’ve worn their masks, practiced social distancing, and washed their hands diligently.”

But not our Boy, Ted.

The Prime Minister apparently has stopped asking his wife Jen for advice, at least publicly. There is a political playbook, where “mistruth” is very much part of the narrative – an uncaring narrative which Trump over the years exploited even beyond the wildest nightmare of the original Florentine Editor.

Politicians who flirt with the edges of the narrative, hide in the marginalia, indulge in palimpsest or have their own scriptorium where their life becomes an illuminated manuscript finally have to face that question – are they up to the task of being a genuinely caring person, sensitive to their constituencies? Let’s face it, most aren’t. Unfortunately, the community elects images, not the sordid reality.

By the way Prime Minister, when did you last go to the bushfire ravaged communities to see evidence of the fruits of your Government’s response?

This quote below sets out the damage that Trump has done, and how an insidious callousness has invaded the proto-narcissist political mind, and unfortunately the Cruz scenario will increasingly play out, especially when nobody is told or worse ignored. 

As Jennifer Rubin wrote incisively in the Washington Post in the past week: “Incompetence is not the purview of one party. But when you view politics as theater and grievance-mongering, chances are you are going to shortchange governance, elect a president with no public-sector experience, no interest in learning, no desire to hire competent people and no ability to accept responsibility, and you get something like the covid-19 debacle. Moreover, if your party is hostile to government and exercising regulatory power because it is beholden to a donor class and right-wing ideologues, you will not be prepared for disasters when they strike.”

How very true!   

The King lived; the Prime Minister died

And the Answer is…

a red dawn

where laid

morula upon blades of green

urgency to become

spiky quilted ectoderm

sprouting

teal topknot

emergent wave to

a new world

where neighbours in serried ranks

wave back

until

with swelling yellow belly

we stand among the green detritus

of yesterday

proud that we alone know the answer.

I have a particular reason to remember my time in eSwatini. My wife has a friend who has a large plant nursery in Malkerns in what was Swaziland when I last was there, but is now renamed eSwatini. The Swazis have their own country, ruled by a king who has a penchant for wives. Once a British protectorate, eSwatini is a tiny enclave wedged into a corner between South Africa and Mozambique. It is one of the last absolute monarchies in the World. The capital, Mbabane, lies in the Highveld (1000+ metres), whereas Malkerns lies in the Midveld, (770m), a fertile valley where the mountains form a distant hazy rim.

This is the country like so much of Southern Africa when you leave the coast, the climate is milder, less humid but nevertheless tropical. Behind her property stretched a huge expanse of pineapple cultivation, which prompted me to write the verse which heads this piece.

Our friend’s property was unusual because close to the house she had a large dam, constructed to provide a reliable water supply for the nursery. The dam also attracted hippopotamuses, who would wander up from the river in the nearby Mlilwane wildlife sanctuary, through the pineapples, to spend quality time in the dam. Then they would leave. Several years ago, a worker accidently got between a mother and calf and was trampled to death. Otherwise, the pilgrimages have been peaceful.

More recently, a large Nile crocodile came to share the dam. Crocodiles apparently intermittently appear. This means that going outside is a hazardous exercise, especially for Suzy, her large black dog, which had to be kept inside until the crocodile was captured and returned to the river. Hippopotamuses and crocodiles will happily co-exist, but this crocodile’s presence has acted as somewhat of a deterrent to the Hippo Walk.

What I remember clearly was that the day before we left, my wife and I went for the longest walk that I had done for months because of my progressive tiredness. I knew even then that all was not well, but the walk enlivened me. I felt more freedom, less stiffness, the weakness had evaporated and the pain in my legs had been reduced to a dull ache. The pineapple stroll had been recuperative – or so I thought.

The pineapple stroll

The next day, the pain, the weakness, the stiffness had come back with a bang. For the first time, my denial fell away. I knew that there was something wrong. Fortunately, the bathroom was well supplied with therapy aids which had been installed during my wife’s friend’s husband’s terminal illness.

However, it was not for some weeks later that I saw the doctor on return to Sydney, who immediately diagnosed me and ordered tests, which confirmed the diagnosis. I had seen or been close to a number of doctors in the preceding three months – and this was the first doctor who diagnosed me. Yes, the diagnostician was an orthopaedic surgeon.

As a footnote to describe the headline, King, Mswati III, has just recovered from his COVID infection. His Prime Minister was not so lucky. He died in December of the Virus. Currently, the number of infections in eSwatini is nearing 17,000 with 13,500 having recovered and there being 645 deaths. eSwatini brought in strict anti-COVID measures very early on. In perspective, the population is 1.14m. Infections seem to be dropping as the second wave rolls on.

Mouse Whisper

Tegestologists and labeorphilists. Now there are words which you don’t often use to describe obsessive losers.

Tegestologists have a great excuse to spend time in bars since they collect coasters or beermats. They should probably team up with labeorphilists, or collectors of beer bottles. Having decried the above, I must admit to souveniring the odd coaster, but as for beer bottles, I have transitory labeorphilia but only when they are full of beer.

The object of transitory labeorphilia

Modest Expectations – Blue Balloons

There is a Bartleby cartouche in the latest issue of The Economist in which “loneliness” as one specific fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is the central point.

The actual Bartleby is the hero, if that is the word, for the main character in a short story written by Herman Melville. Bartleby is a scrivener who, after a promising start in an office, ever after replies “I would prefer not to” when asked to perform a task. There thus is a progressive decline of this person who increasingly does nothing until ultimately, he dies of starvation.

In the midst of a pandemic, loneliness appears to be an appropriate topic, even though the current columnist concealed behind this non-de-plume is a journalist who has won awards for his ability to communicate, and who previously wrote the Buttonwood column in the same journal. Buttonwood was alleged to be the plane tree under which 24 gentlemen signed an agreement in 1792 which led to the establishment of the New York Stock Exchange. Hardly loneliness.

What the COVID-19 pandemic has shown is the way society in all its forms copes with solitude. Solitude is not loneliness. Yet loneliness is a by-product of solitude when it is enforced. Solitude is the monk in the cell where solitude is voluntary. Loneliness is the prisoner in solitary confinement where the outside world is through a grate high on the wall.

Solitude you can deal with on your own terms. Often, I used to go for walks alone because in solitude there is space. Night time was always a good time. I controlled those strolls in what I did; where I went; what I avoided.

Yet it is night time when loneliness is most prevalent. In daytime there are social and business contacts complemented by family; and for those without family then there were night time activities – bars, theatre, nightclubs, gambling. At least before the pandemic. Lockdowns and curfew changed that with the advance of the Virus and enforced self-isolation has aggravated the sense of loneliness. After all, being alone and sober and awake at three am – the witching hour – is a complete test of loneliness.

I have written before of the image of the politician, the man and less commonly the woman, alone in the staged photograph. This image is interpreted as a sign of strength, until you realise that behind that camera lens is a mob, ready to engulf “the person alone” who is paradoxically the centre of attention, even when the photographic image would ask you to believe otherwise.

Now that I spend many hours in “retirement”, is it solitude or loneliness when the phones have stopped ringing and there are days when nobody calls? It must be difficult when you go into a gated community for the aged where you have no companions, except the fell sergeant. Increasingly your friends and acquaintances have gone with him – and thus it’s a lonely crowd.

But real loneliness is when your partner walks out on you, becomes demented or dies.  Loneliness thus is when you have no control, when you realise power has been taken from you, a situation which leads you to the conclusion that life eventually will become intolerable. Pandemic or not, there is an inevitability with age that once lost, societal relevance is never regained without help.

In a pandemic, there need to be ways in which loneliness can be ameliorated.  The Bartleby column provides some limp commentary. Technology does provide some relief, but there is always going to be an artificiality whenever any of one’s senses is blocked, as they are by technology. You can see and hear using texting, zooming, phoning or whatever. But you have no sense of the proprioceptive influence of the whole person with whom you are interreacting remotely.  So, when the technology is switched off, then you are alone. Normally proprioception is considered an introspective sense, like one navigating a dark room, and knowing that it is your head which bumps the ceiling not your foot.

But what I call proprioceptive influence is how you react when you meet anybody. You immediately sense the space that person inhabits and how it is affecting you. Crucially this interaction depends on face to-face contact. Zoom can cut that sense right out. You also enter into that artificial world of constant texting to convince yourself you are not alone, until no-one responds.

In doing so ever more frantically, loneliness is enhanced. The external proprioceptive influences are lost. Once the stimulus of this external proprioception is lost, then one is at first lonely and then like Bartleby – some may say profoundly depressed until death relieves the pain of loneliness.

Brisbane West – A Quirk of Nature

Below is part of an email I wrote to a friend on January 25. Having been there on a number of occasions, I canvassed the use of Toowoomba (Wellcamp) as a site for quarantine.

The Wellcamp airport facility at Toowoomba is impressive. The Brisbane Lord Mayor Quirk lived up to his surname when he objected to it being called Brisbane West. Don’t know why?

Wellcamp Airport

A quarantine facility here is very feasible, constructed at this airport which is surrounded by plenty of broad acres; the transfer time from the spacious terminal to the potential facility is negligible. It was ludicrous to hear one of those cossetted commentors on the ABC this week saying that the dangers of being cloistered in cars with others for hours, travelling to hypothetical remote facilities beyond some black stump or two. She must have been watching too much of “Back Roads”.

The Wagner brothers, who built the Wellcamp airport without subsidy, represent the very best – honest and tough, as Alan Jones found out.  It is a pity that when the Prime Minister went to Queensland recently, it seemed mostly to go to Katter’s demesne.  I hope Morrison understands that politics in Queensland is dynastic. The Premier herself is a prime example. In Kennedy, Robbie Katter is next in line, outwardly different from his father but still just as canny. John McVeigh recently stepped down as the local member for Groom, a seat his father Tom held until 1988. Pity the Prime Minister did not take in Toowoomba during that last trip. As I wrote:

To me the fact that our health system is operating well, where there is no need for vaccines, must be beneficial to the business community. Everybody wants the magic bullet, but it does not exist, except in very rare circumstances and then admittedly it changes society – take antibiotics for instance. But on the other hand, we are far from conquering cancer, but that has been factored into our daily life, and you would know as an economist. We have cancer centres, and there is thus some degree of certainty, which is bolstered by such measures as “five year survival rates”. I would not put a lot of faith in the vaccines until I know whether they work or not. Yes, they say governments have thrown a lot of money at it, but that does not necessarily provide a solution to a virus which can rapidly mutate. 

Do what we are doing? Keep it out of the country is the first response. If the vaccine works, good. But like the ill-fated App which was supposed to locate the infected, don’t bet your house on its efficacy.

Sorry about the cruises and the overseas trips. I remember my father went back to England in 1919 and then apart from the War did not go overseas until 1953. My mother never did. I do not know what your father and mother’s experience was.  The world did not come to an end, but as I remember it, travelling was expensive, especially by plane – and perilous.  When I first went overseas in 1956, I had smallpox, typhoid (which gave you a painful arm and was not very effective) and cholera vaccinations. I think it was the year we all had our Sabin. Apart from that we had triple antigen as children. Therefore, we will have to adapt to a fortress nation, just as we did between 1939-45.

Business will adapt, as I said above, to there being no magic bullet. There are always going to be smarties on the stock market, but presumably with ongoing exchanges as you and I are having, information (in the health sector) becomes less asymmetric because of such exchanges. 

What Australia needs are dedicated quarantine facilities in just the same way as we have emergency services. I advocated for them in an August Blogs (No76 & 78). We have ambulance services although less than 10 per cent of their time is spent on emergency work. But we need them standing by. Thus, there will be a great deal of downtime, but at least quarantine facilities will be dedicated, and not be non-purpose-built hotels. In the short term, because government is not faced with capital costs, they will continue to use hotels, but the Queenslanders have the solution borrowed from the NT – disused mining camps kept in good nick. If Victoria had these, it would not be going through the trauma of the tennis “bratology”.

The next argument used will be that no health professionals will want to go to them. I battled this furphy for 10 years setting up the rural clinical schools, and they have been hugely successful. Students now want to go. Therefore, following the success of clinical schools, put incentives like specialist research facilities alongside the quarantine facilities, even drug manufacturing facilities. Rural Australia has plenty of space.

Take the concept of Toowoomba being one such area. Ever been to the Wagner privately built airport? It can take the biggest air freighters, because the idea was to export beef and other livestock from there without needing to go to the coast. International planes could easily be diverted there. Exmouth is another where, when they left, the Yanks left fully operational hospital facilities. God knows whether they have been maintained. 

From the outset of the pandemic, I have always advocated permanent dedicated quarantine facilities and if this had been the original intention Australia would have been spared all the problems that inappropriate hotel quarantine has caused. The Wagners of Toowoomba have now proposed they build a large quarantine facility adjacent to the Toowoomba airport, with accommodation and facilities for staff and testing. International flights can land there and quarantining passengers would be in the facility within minutes.

While there is a reluctance to admit the original hotel quarantine had more to do with the economics of the hotel industry, hotels have been adapted, at a cost, to having a quarantine role. Having said that, I have never seen a unit cost of an average hotel stay compared with that of the Howard Springs facility, which seemed perfectly adequate for the first tranche of evacuees from Wuhan.

When I raised this idea at the time with a former Departmental head, he said that the cost of building from scratch would be daunting. However, as I replied, they would provide more protection than of couple of unusable submarines which may never be constructed, at the cost of how many millions, or billions? 

And from The Boston Globe at the weekend…

The 66 per cent global effectiveness rate for the one-shot vaccine fell significantly short of the performances of the two-shot vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna that the FDA cleared for emergency use in December. Those vaccines prevented more than 90 percent of coronavirus cases in large trials, a remarkable showing considering that they were the first to successfully use new synthetic messenger RNA technology.

Dr. Dan Barouch, who runs the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel, which developed different technology for the (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine, said the pandemic has evolved, with the emergence of more resistant variants, in particular a worrisome South African strain that was detected in the United States for the first time last week.

Several vaccine experts agreed and highlighted a particularly encouraging finding in Johnson & Johnson’s announcement last week: The one-shot vaccine was highly protective against the worst cases of COVID-19. Worldwide, the shot prevented 85 percent of severe cases, and none of the vaccinated people needed hospitalization or died from COVID-19.

Dr Fauci acknowledged last week that public health officials will likely face a “messaging challenge” to persuade people to take a vaccine that prevented 66 percent of symptomatic cases compared with roughly 95 percent.

But, he said, “If you can prevent severe disease in a high percentage of individuals [as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine did], that will alleviate so much of the stress and human suffering and death.”

He and other officials also said the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines would likely get lower efficacy results now, given the emergence of the South African strain, which appears to be more resistant to immunization.

The FDA said last summer that a vaccine that was safe and at least 50 percent effective would likely be cleared for use. The annual flu vaccine is typically 40 to 60 percent effective at preventing influenza cases, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.(CDC)

The Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine relies on a design that Barouch pioneered nearly 20 years ago for two experimental vaccines that have shown promise against HIV and Zika, and a third vaccine that won approval from the European Union in July to prevent Ebola.

A Trojan Horse

It uses a harmless and relatively rare cold virus, adenovirus serotype 26 ― or Ad26 ― as a Trojan horse to deliver part of the distinctive spike protein on the coronavirus surface into cells to trigger an immune response without making people sick.

Despite its lower performance in preventing all COVID-19 cases, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has major advantages over its Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna rivals. By requiring only one shot, it would simplify and speed the vaccine campaign. In addition, it is stable at refrigerated temperatures, unlike the other vaccines, which must be frozen at ultracold temperatures when shipped and stored before use.

The FDA cleared the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec. 11 and the Moderna vaccine a week later. But their rollout has been frustratingly slow and cumbersome, and public health officials want more vaccines from other drug makers to bolster the supply. As of Thursday, the government has distributed more than 57.4 million vaccine doses, and 27.9 million people have had one or more shots, according to the CDC.

Dr Eric Rubin, (the editor -in-chief New England Journal of Medicine and member of the FDA advisory panel), said Thursday that “it’s been frustrating how long it’s taken to roll out vaccines, but if everything were perfect and we had a perfect distribution system, we’d run out of vaccines really fast. We just don’t have enough supply.”

Therefore, vaccination in America has been beset by a number of problems with open criticism by the experts, especially given how slow and complicated the rollout has been, if the above quote gives a reliable picture.

One benchmark which politicians will always grasp when justifying their decisions is the places where the rate of vaccination has worked well. Israel seems to be the shining example.

Three million one hundred thousand Israelis have been vaccinated and 1.8 million have had their second dose. It is rumoured that Israel paid Pfizer far more than other countries to receive preference; hence there have not been any questions raised over the supply line integrity. Israel is a wealthy country, well able to afford paying a premium.  Israel is also the 150th largest country in the world, and that makes lines of supply relatively short; and given that Israel seems to be on permanent war-alert, then it is reasonable to believe the bulk of the population are more disciplined and compliant without coercion.

Israel has the luxury of having apparently solved the supply chain problem and systematically collected data which have shown (in peer reviewed journals) that the vaccination is 50 per cent effective 13 to 24 days after vaccination. Nobody under 16 is being vaccinated; nor any of those who have been certified as being infected before vaccines became available. 7,000 cases had thus been previously recorded with 10 per cent having had “moderate to critical illness”. There were 307 deaths. To put all of this into perspective, Israel has a population of just over 9 million.

After vaccination in the vulnerable over 60 age group, only 531 of almost 750,000 have developed symptoms of the virus, with 38 requiring hospitalisation; there were three deaths. Not a bad interim outcome, but it is early days and there is evidence of spaces in knowledge still to be filled. The obvious question is how generalisable is the Israel experience? What gives some comfort is that the Israelis seem to have an excellent data collection.

The Churches of Romney Marsh

I have stayed on Romney Marsh and have watched the eastern sky darken across the dyked flats to Dymchurch and the Channel towards the French coast as the sun set at my back and have noticed the strange unity of sea, sky and earth that grows unnoticed at this time and place – Paul Nash 1940

John Piper knew the artist who penned the above quote well. He himself was a very prolific English artist, and besides his artwork he was known for his stained glass. Much of his work can be found in churches across England.  My starkest memory of his work is the red centrepiece in tapestry daubed with Christian symbolism and surrounded with panels of purple, green and blue which shines in all its vibrant entropy out of the gloom of the sanctuary in Chichester Cathedral. Funny word “stark” to describe a brilliant multi-coloured woven cloth; but there you are. It absolutely complements the severity of its environs.

John Piper tapestry, Chichester Cathedral

I first read the name John Piper some years ago on a King Penguin “Romney Marsh”. Even before I had laid eyes on the book, the name “Romney Marsh” conjured up a sense of mystery because it always looked so desolate. Normally to offset the bleakness, the photographs were always dotted with sturdy, white faced Romney sheep with their cream fleece.

Romney Marsh as described by Piper in words and in his sketches of the villages but particularly the churches, encouraged us to visit there. This happened to be on a characteristically windy and grey day. In the distance on the Dungeness headland are the twin grey blocks of the nuclear power stations, which were working when we there, but have since been shut down for safety reasons – temporarily until the engineers get things right. Stretching away from these blocks was this severe wasteland, and one might have expected the spectre of T.S Eliot tripping through the low undergrowth and holly bushes.

The nuclear power station was not there when John Piper prepared his book. However, there were watercolours of the circular black and white painted brick lighthouse and the keeper’s house. This was replaced in 1961 by a far higher concrete structure, so as not to be obscured by the nuclear power station. This latter one is floodlit so the birds can avoid it but the two lighthouses (one now a tourist attraction from which to see the land and sea) exist side by side, testimony to the advances in “lamp” technology over the centuries since the first was constructed.

When we there we avoided the villages (Romney was one of the Cinque Ports of which our beloved homegrown Knight of the Thistle was Warden, sandwiched as he was between Churchill and the Queen Mother). We concentrated on the churches, many of which were isolated and only accessible if we walked across the squelching terrain. For although the Marsh has long since been drained, lying as it does between shingle shores, there are still marshy reedy areas.

As is said, from most areas of the Marsh, a belfry, tower or steeple are visible, so ubiquitous are these churches. Most of the Marsh population in the eighteenth century was engaged in smuggling wool and Fuller’s earth (a form of clay used in cleaning and purifying) to France; and brandy, silk and lace from France. The churches became useful storage facilities, even extending to the use of empty stone lidded coffins. The churches were therefore a crucial link in the black economy of the time.

John Piper’s sketch of St Thomas of Canterbury, Fairfield, Romney Marsh

Our visit was a far more pedestrian in more ways than one. We chose to visit the churches where, in his book, Piper had inserted coloured plates: St Thomas of Canterbury – Fairfield, St George – Ivy Church, St Clement – Old Romney and St Mary – East Guildford. We visited some others as time permitted.

There are 27 in all, one meriting a one-line description, “fragment of a ruin, near a farm”, and others not much more. Some of the churches exhibit Norman influence and can be traced back to the fourteenth century. Many have been modified and in some cases such as St Thomas squatting as it does in the middle of a field have been restored. Otherwise, the seven-word description above indicates in this comprehensive list there are still ruined remnant churches.

Wandering around Romney Marsh is just one example of being alone in history, as it can be found in the churches. In this case, we were very lucky to have this bonus, John Piper’s comprehensive and illustrated guide.

Mouse Whisper

And now again for something completely different: what a revelation to watch a film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, about the life of the Indian mathematical genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan. His mentor at Cambridge was G.H. Hardy who, with his colleague J.E. Littlewood, were already mathematical luminaries at Cambridge when Ramanujan came there just before World War 1. The fact that these men went by initials rather than names indicated the stitched-up era in which these academics lived.

The last scene in this brilliant film shows the two men, Hardy and Littlewood – Ramanujan having just died in India of TB at the age of 32 – seeing a taxi labelled 1729 and saying, we must take that one.

This taxi number, as my master found out, was a bit of a complex mathematical licence.

In fact, the actual truth was that Hardy had once taken a cab to visit Ramanujan. When he got there, he told Ramanujan that the cab’s number, 1729, was “rather a dull one”. Ramanujan said, “No, it is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as a sum of two cubes in two different ways. That is, 1729 = 1^3 + 12^3 = 9^3 + 10^3.” This number is now called the Hardy-Ramanujan number, and the smallest numbers that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in n different ways have been dubbed taxicab numbers.

I now know what the last scene in the film is about; well, sort of. Need to consult that mathematical doyen of the murine world, Bertie Rustle.

Taxicab 1729

Modest Expectations – O Come Let Us Sing

The Gracchi Brothers

I remember in my wanderings through ancient history, that I heard the aphorism the mob that creates you tears you down. From my fading memory, I believe it referred to the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius. They were Roman populists in the style of “Make Rome Great Again” populism of the second century BC, but unlike Trump they had an agenda beyond shallow slogans and self-aggrandisement. They were interested in land reform and giving slaves a better deal. It is a scenario which has been repeated through the course of human history, but I’ve always associated the saying with the Gracchi brothers, because they were both beaten to death at different times – one of them being killed by a slave and the other by a chair leg.

In a way, egged on by Trump who then went back to watch his incitement on television rather than leading the mob, as one would expect for someone intent on making himself Great, the mob attack on the Capitol had its roots with the Gracchi. That mob has unwittingly destroyed Trump. To the people who matter, those who run American golf, erasing him is the greatest death for the narcissist – the most potent way for a mob to destroy him, this coward narcissist. He even fears germs.  But the people he wanted to impress because of the control over his mob are on their way to an FBI charge sheet.

Those of us who have grown up in a democracy, even as we were born into a time when Hitler was rampaging across Europe, Stalin was quietly executing on sight anybody who disagreed with him and Franco was twisting his heel on the Spanish Republic, have watched from afar.  Since 1945, we have seen America become the tar baby in too many wars just to maintain some mythical machismo “greatness”. Trump has allowed the country to be pulled down even further.

He has no way to go, because the fate of most narcissistic unhinged populists is death by the mob that constructed them.

He should be reminded of Mussolini, hung upside down with his mistress in Milan, like a slab of meat on an abattoir hook.  Already metaphorically, they have done that. Trump’s only exit will be an ornate box, his pall bearers being those to whom he has awarded the Legion of Merit – or pardoned.

For my part I would not want to be the watcher on a cast iron balcony if Tinpot Trumpism leads to the burial of America which, despite its flaws, so epitomises the best of Democracy.

Craig Reucassel

He is a very personable man but wasted. Why? Because he is not taken seriously. After all, his bio says “comedian”.  The problem is that he presents a very important subject in a very engaging manner. He employs stunts, but the problem with a stunt is that when it is over it leaves no residue.

Mr Reucassel

Craig Reucassel is a serious person. I have no doubt about that. However, he is one of the Chasers and seen as an iconoclastic entertainer. When he pursued the Prime Minister, he was cast back in his role of one of the “Chasers”, a humorous irritant. In fact, what he did show very clearly was the authoritarian, humourless nature of the current Prime Minister, unwilling to confront without the public relations machinery. This inability to face up to people was clearly shown in his visit to Cobargo during the bushfires.  Since then, he has had to have a crafted scenario, and he uses the lectern and the microphone to project this crafted image.

It was so different from the time Reucassel confronted John Howard with a plastic axe to jokingly test the Prime Minister’s security arrangements and asked for a hug – Howard provided him with it. So different, but then Howard was not a one-dimensional man, despite those who sought to paint him one shade of grey.

But is it enough to try and demonstrate the foibles of the Prime Minister when you are outside the Court by clowning? After all, the fool was an integral part of many a mediaeval court. The fool  was an “insider”.

Reucassel should be in Parliament. He is far smarter for instance than another entertainer Peter Garrett, whose lack of intelligence and guile was soon shown up in his short parliamentary career.

Reucassel has built a reputation with his on war on waste, but eventually he will need to tackle the hard end of what we all want – the formation of a national policy and its implementation. The world cannot continue to accumulate waste. Waste management once could be sloughed off to China, but no more. The sea is now yielding our waste, and while having the annual Clean Up Australia days in March may make the community feel good, obviously the awareness created by such days has not been translated to a national change in behaviour.

I once was asked to review single-use medical equipment and report on those that would be economic to reuse. Of all the instruments that were reviewed, the re-use of only one could be justified in economic terms.  For the rest, to buy a new instrument rather than sterilise for re-use was the most economic outcome. The arguments to which government listened were economic; it was not an era where degradation of single-use instruments was a serious consideration.  It was the era of fear of “mad cow disease” and deadly unseen prions in the nervous system, which resisted conventional sterilisation procedures. Thus, re-use was surrounded by bogeys, some of which have been answered or rendered less relevant by technological advances providing alternative outcomes.

There are parliamentarians who attention-seek by performing stunts. These chaps are variously labelled “eccentric”, “lovable” and all the words you don’t want when you desire to be considered serious.

In any event Reucassel, with his intrinsic sense of the ridiculous, would make a perfect parliamentarian. Watching him he has a touch of the ironies which adds to his charm. There is one caveat, irony does not read well in Hansard – the printed word misses the inflection.

I think his ideas and objectives are correct, but he needs a legislative platform to achieve it. Time to stop the destruction of this planet being considered a big gag.  There is so much social media – too much communication static for that to be achieved by his current course of action.  It is time for him to take his message into Parliament and form the appropriate alliances – that is, if you believe that the Imitation of Trump is not the way to run this country – and eventually vote the denialists out.

I would suggest one of the New South Wales’ seats held by one of the Trump neophytes would be perfect for him, given that upending Abbott showed the way to do it. Maybe Falinski, whose seat is MacKellar, would be the way to go. Falinski is the typical Liberal Party hack toeing the party line.

As Falinski said in his maiden speech full of the pieties expected:

And so a politician is accountable to their community – I am accountable to you.

Wrong, he is beholden to his masters, never voted against any government.  He has a voting record which would please Donald Trump – he should be vulnerable to somebody with the Reucassel values. I would love to see them debate why, for instance, Falinski has inter alia disagreed recently with the proposition:

The Prime Minister to attend the House by 2 pm Tuesday 8 December to make a statement to advise the House whether Australia is speaking at the Climate Ambition Summit and table any correspondence with the summit organisers relating to whether Australia is speaking at the summit. 

This is but one example, but Falinski’s voting record is reprehensible to any person who is genuinely Liberal.

Reucassel is genuinely concerned with climate change and the world becoming a rubbish dump. He should be elected to Parliament to pursue this goal and hold the government to account.  Falinski seems unwilling to do so. Is it Mitch Falinski, or is that your second name?

Talking of which…

David Sharma, suggesting some bureaucratic mechanism to review Trump followers being bumped out of social media. Since clarified…no…not really…but all things considered…

David Sharma is a Jew, an ex-diplomat and within his electorate are both survivors of the Holocaust and the heirs to those who died at the hands of the Nazis in concentration camps like Auschwitz.

I appreciate that January is the silly season for media releases, but before he provides more detail of his scheme, he should read this description reprinted from the Washington Post about the January 6 Insurrection – the consequences of a relentless misuse of social media by a sociopath in power.

Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, writes: 

There were crosses, “Jesus Saves” signs and “Jesus 2020” flags that mimicked the design of the Trump flags…

Comfortably intermingled with Christian rhetoric and these Christian icons were explicit symbols of white supremacy. Outside the Capitol, Trump supporters erected a large wooden gallows with a bright orange noose ominously dangling from the center. These Trump supporters managed to do something the Confederate army was never able to accomplish — fly the Confederate battle flag inside the U.S. Capitol. One widely shared image showed a rioter with the Confederate flag strolling past a portrait of William H. Seward, an anti-slavery advocate and Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, who was seriously wounded as part of the broad assassination plot in 1865 that killed Lincoln.

At least one protester sported a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie, a reference to a concentration camp where over 1 million Jews were killed by the Nazis, even as others made outlandish comparisons between Christians as victims of American society and European Jews in the Third Reich.

I wonder if David Sharma were to paraphrase the comfortable words of Prime Minister Howard by saying that the Liberal Party is a broad synagogue what would happen? I’m sure people in his Party like the Member for Hughes would offer an opinion on social media.

La Bandiera Gialla

Quarantine power is vested with the Commonwealth under the Australian Constitution. It seems such a clearly defined power that the enabling legislation beginning with the Quarantine Act (1908) has been rarely challenged. Perhaps in 1901 it was simply a matter of ensuring that ships ran up a yellow flag before entering port.

The problem was that before Federation, such as it was quarantine was the responsibility of the colonies. Enforcing quarantine costs money and while there have been epidemics before, memories are short. When COVID-19 invaded the country early last year, the public health defences were thin.  Then, using crude measures of lockdown and closure of movement including borders made sense. When in the dark, fumbling for candles and matches, it is best to make sure the doors and windows are closed. Hopefully there is enough moonlight until the sun comes up.

The other problem was that of a Federal Government being pressured by their business mentors to keep everything functioning. The decision to ensure priority be given to public health measures was touch and go; otherwise, Australia might have been placed in the same place as America and Europe are today. However, fortunately it all started in China, and given fear of the Yellow Peril lies deep in the Australian psyche, border closure initiated by Morrison, on advice, was instituted. Deep-seated prejudice led to a correct decision, but border closure should have been far more widely adopted then.

The government kept being badgered by its business mates to disregard public health, amplified by their foghorn in Alan Jones and his mates skulking in the Fox network.

Lip service was paid to social distancing, hand washing and remember the app? Before any vaccine, it was going to be the panacea. Like so much of the IT work overseen by the Department it proved to be a useless but not an unexpected piece of crap. It is fortunate that it did not interfere with the contact tracing system, where NSW in particular had a very strong system due to a previous Chief Health Officer’s foresight. Sue Morey’s work 30 years before in instituting a system saved Australia.

What turned out to be positive at the Federal level was Paul Kelly and Nick Coatsworth, public health physicians. Both of these doctors have a clear eye, and had both expertise and experience of the link between process and outcome.

They helped Brendan Murphy, who had been cast into an unfamiliar role as Head of the Department at the outset of a pandemic, the dimensions of which were not yet clear. He is not a public health physician, intrinsically shy and in the early days an appalling communicator but nevertheless assiduous, intelligent and with a proven administrative record and unlike his predecessor – as heads of the Health Department have been for nearly 40 years – he is a doctor.  This was a very important characteristic especially if you look closely at the performance of his predecessors, especially Jane Halton. You know, the person with her epidemiological expertise on display on the Crown Casino Board.

The problem with those who believe that Health can be administered by anybody is the same as saying you can govern Russia without speaking Russian. As “Pansy” Wright, that professor extraordinaire, said about the second year of medicine, one needed to increase one’s vocabulary by about 7,000 words in that year– such is the language of health. Well, on reflection, I suppose you could administer Russia if you had skilled interpreters and a very big knout.

Public health was in a lamentable state in Victoria, because its systems were tested and found wanting. New South Wales on the other hand had a system devised by Morey. The challenge of the infected cruise ships and outbreaks of the Virus in nursing homes showed its intrinsic systemic strength. Queensland with Jeanette Young at the helm did what Queenslanders always  do– keep it simple and authoritarian. The Queensland system has not been tested, and in the past, Young, who is not a public health physician, has been a bit of a “panic merchant” which suited the Premier just fine. However, there is always unease because both Queensland and Western Australia have to come out of lockdown sometime and have yet to gain the experience provided by Victoria and New South Wales.

South Australia has been tested and its Chief Health Officer like her Commonwealth counterpart has a clear eye, and therefore the State is fortunate. Having personally experienced recent travel around South Australia, everything being undertaken seemed eminently sensible. I have also been to Tasmania. I am not sure that the Burnie experience has been translated into policy reform; there was a degree of the sensible, but again the Premier likes to close borders

During this pandemic, Australians have shown compliance, unlike other countries which seem to delight in being unruly. When faced with public health advice translated into law, the number of those who have been defiant has dwindled. The Victorian experience, where Andrews initially presided over a disaster, ensured compliance which saved his political skin. He left the Trumpists in his wake. He discredited them here in Australia.

The problem is that Berejiklian still listens to them, and that is a real danger. She pretends to be liberal, on the left of her Party, when she may be a closet Trumpist. The images of her striding out to deliver her daily dictum and not wearing a mask when all others were doing so says it all and her disdain for her self-isolation is troubling; at times her behaviour seems at odds with the public health advice.

The institution of a so-called national cabinet which has no legal standing provides a public relations aura of cooperation, but it is a means of the Prime Minister taking credit for success while laying blame at the feet of the Premiers (with the exception of Gladys) when things go wrong.

Now, where are we?

Hardly a case of local viral transmission throughout Australia.

So why are the borders closed? This continued closure is shown in relief that some guy can go from Sydney to Broken Hill, which is about the same flying distance as from Sydney to Launceston or Sydney to the Sunshine Coast.

In other words, it is not about borders, it is about trust in the public health systems being uniform nationally. Where is the leadership here from the Federal Government?

Infections are all coming from overseas. Therefore, as the Constitution sets out, quarantine is a national not an individual State responsibility. The laws should be uniform. Everybody coming into Australia must be subject to quarantine, and at last there is some movement on my suggestion that there should dedicated facilities. I was only this week reflecting on the success of the original evacuation from Wuhan, where Howard Springs was successfully used. There is the furphy that the quarantine facilities should be located next to major teaching hospitals. If you drive between Barooga and Tocumwal in southern New South Wales, you can see a commemorative cairn to the 1,000 bed hospital which was built there during World War 2 – no major teaching hospitals there. That area would still be ideal for a dedicated quarantine facility.

Vaccination is now the go. Given that in the past coronaviruses have confounded the scientists wishing to make a vaccine against the common cold, why would devising a vaccine against this coronavirus be any easier, giving it is beginning to mutate – and there is no indication that it will stop at two. The protagonists would say that not at any time before has so much funding being flung at finding a vaccine in such a short time, when the technology is so clever if diverse.

I do not want to sound cynical, but Pfizer knows that to keep the vaccine which needs storage at minus 70 degrees means ultimately it is probably financially and administratively non-viable unless modifications can be made. The company needs to recoup its investment as soon as possible, and therefore it has to get its vaccine out as quickly as possible. How it is administered is not the company’s responsibility.

In Australia, John Skerritt, Head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), can be infuriating, but he is honest. The TGA Advisory Committee on Vaccines being chaired by Allen Cheng gives me further reassurance. Paul Kelly has shown a resilience not to buckle under political hysteria. His role in calming the Cabinet when they learnt that Dutton had returned infected from America last March was crucial; he made the Cabinet listen to science. Hopefully his authority now extends to those politicians caught trading in AstraZeneca shares.

There should be no hurry in Australia. The public health measures are in hand and seem to be working in isolating the infection now into clusters before it can spread, unlike elsewhere in the World.   The country must be sure there is no political interference, and all politicians’ portfolios in pharmaceutical shares should be declared now.

My greatest fear is that we live in a land where politicians are corrupt and/or corruptible with a government prepared to turn a blind eye to such activities.

I do not want to be jabbed with an unproven vaccine because some inner suburban politician is trying to make a buck out of it.

I listen to the Chief Medical Officer, and he has been mostly right during this whole saga, but nobody is infallible. I prefer to wait, even though I am a very strong advocate of vaccination, BUT when the vaccine has been proven.

Yet at a community level it is time to trust each other and open the borders, after ensuring that all measures are uniform. After all, that was the original intent of the National Health & Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) when it was set up in 1936 to be inter alia a meeting of all the Chief Medical Officers to seek a uniform approach to public health matters.

Unfortunately, it took 15 years after the Spanish Flu pandemic to be established, just before the major poliomyelitis outbreak in Australia in 1937, which incidentally started in Tasmania.

The NH&MRC is another story…

Winter on the Isle of Wight

It is on a trip like this when we expected to circle the island comfortably in a day that you meet the unexpected.

Quarr Abbey

Quarr Abbey was the place to visit. Here is a community of Benedictine monks. As we approached down the drive, this large red brick building suddenly emerged from the fields. This abbey church is not quite what one would expect. It looks modern. As we entered, the monks were filing out from nones, a short set of psalms sung in the early afternoon. The Abbey was designed by one of the original monks, who came back to Benedictine lands and helped to build the new Abbey in 1907.  The genius is in the brick arches which encase the spectacular nave, where the eye is attracted beyond the altar to the yellow light which comes through the windows at the east end of the church, in the way the light suffuses the modern red brick construction into a glorious whole that glows, even in the wintry light.

The monks were selling their recordings of Gregorian chants.  They are an accomplished choral group. The monk who served me volunteered that his voice was among the choristers, but not in the front line. The CD we purchased had been recorded nearly 10 years before. The monk himself had just celebrated his jubilee of being in the order. When he had come as a novice 50 years before, there were more than 40 monks, but the numbers had now fallen to 25. The monks live a subsistence existence coupled with devotion and the monk who served us had lived most of his life in this cloistered rustic life – where a life of tranquillity had given him age without wrinkles.

As Osborne House was closed at that time of the year, we stayed in Yarmouth some distance away, at The George Hotel, overlooking the Solent at the mouth of the Yar estuary. The room was the prized number 19 with an expansive balcony overlooking the estuary.

The George Hotel has been described as a winter hotel. Oak stairs that slope, a plaque that said that Charles 1 had been there on one of his last nights of freedom. A breakfast room that looks over the sea where you partake of porridge, kippers and that centrepiece of British life, a pot of Earl Grey, his lordship perfectly buffered in two tea bags.

Winter means virtually no tourists.  We thus were able to move about and find that the next person was likely to be a Caulkhead, as the locals call themselves. When tourists arrive then the pace picks up and time to chat to find out why and how the island ticks diminishes. The ship’s chandler in Yarmouth – Harwoods – established in 1893 is a great place in which to ferret. We ended up with two models of working fishing boats, a couple of pennants and batteries. We resisted purchasing the brass clock and brass barometer, and one of the boats anyway turned out to be made in China. But who cares – the feeling of being in a seaside community, rather than being a working fishing village was strong.

Winter in the Isle of Wight exuded a different sense of identity and that makes it charming – even when you stand on a bluff overlooking the ocean and the wind goes through you like Masefield’s whetted knife. There is always an unencumbered view to compensate, a coastline that starts West at the Needles and then along the white cliffs overlooking a surly sea.

Not a winter of discontent.

Mouse Whisper

Sometimes you read something somewhere 

“I will do my best to keep this short. I was listening to Sirius ‘Sixties’ when they were giving requests if the song had a story. This girl called in saying she was scared one night at home during a storm while listening to the radio. She called up the radio station and the DJ answered and she told him her plight. He said he would play the longest song he had just to comfort her on the telephone. Well, it was this one. They talked every night for two weeks and then he said he had some bad news. He was being drafted into the Army. He was leaving in a week. They wrote to each other when he was in basic and then he was shipped out at once to Viet Nam. They still continued to write but the letters weren’t coming as often. He came back to the States but got offered another DJ job hundreds of miles away. They still wrote but the letters were dwindling and finally stopped. She never knew what happened to him. They never met. She told Sirius that day that she prayed he was listening to this story and he would remember her. She didn’t care if he was married or not, she just wanted to hear from him. The 60’s DJ at Sirius promised to give him her number if he called in. Don’t ever know what happened. So, she requested this song, hoping he was listening.”

The song, Macarthur Park.  I have not interfered with this stream of consciousness it as I would not have done to that song. It is too compelling even for a Mouse.

Macarthur Park, Los Angeles

Modest Expectations – Spitzbergen

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice. 

Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government.

Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess?

Oliver Cromwell on getting rid of the Rump Parliament

Cromwell

In the first weeks of working for Bill Snedden in 1973, I remember the office in Canberra was visited by a delegation of Myall Lakes’ miners. At the time, Myall Lakes was a major source of mineral sands, the source of the then new wonder metal – titanium. They were concerned with the intention to close the mining. It seemed genuine and that they were not proxies for the mine owners since they had a union representative with them.

In their minds there was no consideration of the need to preserve the beaches and dunes that constituted part of the landscape. It was understandably all about their jobs, a familiar theme. A very relevant theme now that there is an intention to close some coal mines in the region.

Hawks Nest

I knew about the Myall Lakes at close quarters because a decade later, after the mining had been closed down, I and three others walked the colourfully named trail between Mungo Brush and Hawks Nest. It was a very varied walk through coastal rainforest before emerging upon dunes and then back into scrubland and wetlands. It was a superb if challenging walk, the last part of which was through a marsh where there were supposed to be blocks of wood forming a boardwalk. This had collapsed in places and we were forced to wade through water up to our waists, and then at the end of the walk to rid ourselves of the leeches. However, on that day, I was very much a conservationist.

The miners thus had come to Snedden as a last resort, because they had been told that even the union was not supporting the sand mining being retained. Yet this was not far from Newcastle, where the ALP is electorally entrenched.

What could we do about it?

Snedden chose to be publicly sympathetic. He realised very clearly that there is a political divide in this country, where one side saw representing its task of protecting labour, including here the role of the State, as paramount. Any support in any case would have been seen as opportunistic and fleeting, while alienating traditional supporters.

On the Liberal side, which Snedden led at the time, essentially the policies were around encouraging individual enterprise and the development of wealth, independent of the State, yet not entirely disregarding that the State had a crucial role. It provided certain services, which had been shown or were deemed better to be public enterprises. The problem with such a separation is that in a democracy, such attempts at differentiation are riddled with inconsistencies, paradox not to mention conundra.

Disaffected union members thus do not easily fit with the so-called Liberal side of politics when a basic two-party adversarial system forms the basis of this country’s democracy. The adversarial system has been distorted by the alliance of the protectors of free enterprises with the agrarian socialists who, in their purist ideological form, have been known to ally themselves with the ALP briefly.

There are other elements. The sectarian division in the ALP, which has resulted in once defenders of worker rights, albeit with more than a tincture of Roman Catholicism, separating themselves into the DLP. They crossed the political divide, were regarded as renegades by the ALP and eventually were destroyed as a Party. Elements remain as a core reactionary Falangist rump now embedded in the conservative side of politics far away from their traditional roots. Their ideological basis aligns more easily into the “new liberalism” which has evolved.

The other political party, which probably has progressed beyond the charismatic individual, is the Greens party, but there is no discounting the effect of Bob Brown on promotion of environment protection in Tasmania.

However, a proto-anarchic party, which paradoxically has blind beliefs as a substitute for reasoned policy, is doomed to irrelevance. As was shown in Western Australia hugging trees wearing a twinset and pearls does not win a constituency.

In the end, political parties which do not progress beyond the individual who sets them up or the individual who works the Senate system, primarily but not exclusively a Tasmanian phenomenon, exists so long as they exist. Who still remembers Brian Harradine and the antics he inflicted on this country to secure largesse for Tasmania? So in your lifetime, you were influential, but that Life of Brian, your legacy?

I believe very much in the definition of conservatism that to change your view can be done by persuasive evidence-based reasoning. However, such logic seems to be in short supply these days.

The problem with politics in Australia as I have written elsewhere, is that vested interests typified by the urgers, rent seekers and mercantilists on both sides of the political spectrum have emerged to distort and compromise the political process. They have one basic belief, irrespective of what side of politics they profess, and that is: “Government is an ATM. All I need to have is a password; that is a politician in my wallet”.

Vested interests squeeze out those who have a belief that the political party of choice will take account of your views, if you are a member.

It was salutary watching the 2010 documentary of the GFC debacle and how Wall Street and an array of “respected” academia were involved in almost destroying the world’s financial structures. What happened to them? Many of the perpetrators ended up not only with handsome dividends but also as faces among Obama’s trusted advisers.

Was anybody prosecuted as a result of the Wall Street shenanigans? Nope. No wonder Obama paved the way among the deprived for the ascension of a “saviour” who has avowed to clean the swamp with a broom, he himself infected by fake news and conspiratorial theories.

The Haynes Banking enquiry in this country showed the extent of our diseased society, but already the Government are unravelling the structural cures so recently put in place. Symptomatic?

Don Chipp had the right idea when he used the slogan “Keep the Bastards Honest” as his party’s brand. Unfortunately, Chipp did not have the intellectual capacity to articulate policy arising from what was a strong call for change and, most importantly, integrity.

However, 40 plus years on, with ongoing corruption so evident across the political spectrum, the demand for a “National Integrity Commission” is the perfect way in which what seemingly is a simple issue could become the centrepiece and rallying call for a national party. The issue should be attractive to most of the independent members in the House of Representatives. It seems a single issue, but it is not.

A simple single issue upon which to campaign has the potential to focus the electorate – an Integrity Commission – so much to say about how to promote such a body; so many reminders of integrity lacking in the current crop. Contemplate a party with a pristine white banner with a blue “I” one way-intersecting at right angles with a blue “I”. Maybe throw in a few stars as well.

Eureka may at last have a long term meaning.

The problem with any centrist party is that it has to have a structure, funding, and a strategy attuned to that. In an earlier blog, I suggested a Haircut Party aimed at reducing the entitlements, perks, and the overstaffing which politicians are afforded – something which would test those already within the “parliamentary tent”.

Being a member of Parliament as I identified in articles I wrote years ago when the entitlements and perks were far from what they are today had a number of challenges and bogeys. Staffers then had legitimate policy roles, rather than just harassing bureaucrats and playing puerile undergraduate one-upmanship scherzi. The individual targets such as the choleric Craig Kelly are many, but need to be franked in terms of lack of integrity.

I mention this just to assure those who do glance at this blog, that the two notions are not incompatible – a good haircut gives one a good view of integrity.

However, I am also mindful that after Cromwell died, five years after he uttered the above exhortation, the Rump resumed and needless to say, they exhumed Cromwell’s body and hanged him.

Says something for cremation – but also about embedding policy so that it has no single author.

The Spectre of Parkinsonism

The discussion about post-infective sequelae to viral infections should not surprise anybody. However, those people who carelessly disregard history should at least take notice that the possibility exists.

I had an uncle. He was a very active, successful businessman who built his father’s agency into a profitable business. He was closely involved in attracting Roger de Stoop and his Belgian enterprise in high-end fabric weaving to set up a factory in Melbourne.

However, during the 1930s as a young man my uncle contracted encephalitis lethargica, the aetiology of which has never been worked out beyond an influenza-type pathogenesis being suspected. It was also known as “sleeping sickness” because of the severe alterations in sleep patterns. Within the family, I was told that my mother helped nurse him.

In any event he seemingly recovered and was fit enough to serve in World War 2. However, in the late 1960s, he began to show neuro-psychiatric symptoms, which were initially diagnosed as “anxiety attacks” for which he was prescribed chlorpromazine. That just made him worse, and soon after he was diagnosed as having Parkinsonism, which rapidly progressed – the trembling hands, the mask face, the rigidity. It was the time that levodopa had just been introduced and to that was added the then experimental dopa decarboxylase inhibitors to try and dampen down his movement fluctuations. In hindsight, once his prior medical history was disclosed, the association with his prior disease was made.

The disease progressed and he eventually died, not the death that such a previously active man would have wanted. Nevertheless, even though I was never close to him, I have two strong contrasting memories of him. One was the uncompromising man with a fierce expression in his late forties telling me off in no uncertain terms when I was barely twenty-one – and rightly so; and the man 12 years later in a wheelchair barely able to talk. We two were alone briefly then. I got up to leave, shook his trembling hand and said good-bye. It was the only time I have ever touched anybody on the cheek; his brother, my father, had died years earlier when I was not allowed to see him until he was dead, cotton wool already stuffed in his mouth. But that needs more explanation at another time.

However, the spectre of Parkinsonism is real, especially if theoretically there was a long life ahead of you before the Virus came. I wonder whether it will be associated with a loss of smell, one of the symptoms of the Virus infection, because that may suggest an entry point into the brain along the olfactory cranial nerve, which is not only the shortest cranial nerve but also originates in the brain itself (rather than the brain stem, unlike all the other cranial nerves, except the optic nerve).

We shall see.

There is always a solution

It was a Saturday morning. The phone rang. It was my son. I was working in Broken Hill at the time and coming to visit me, he was in Mildura. He had been booked and had a ticket to travel on the Eastern Airlines Cessna 402 flight. However, he arrived in Mildura at the same time as the camera crew, with its baggage, which was about to film a Coca-Cola commercial outside Broken Hill.

The tiny settlement of Silverton outside Broken Hill had served as the image of the Australian Outback in multiple films, and the road out to the Mundi Mundi plains was the backdrop for the early Mad Max movies. The Mundi Mundi Plains are flat land stretching to the South Australian border, and sitting on a rock overlooking the plains watching the sunset makes one realise how lucky you are to be an Australian as long as it was not a set for Mad Max.

Mundi Mundi Plains

Coca-Cola was rumoured to have a set somewhere on the plains where they shot commercials, and who was this young man with a ticket to stand in the way of a commercial eulogising dark fluid which looks like haemolysed blood but a tried beloved method of stacking on calories for many generations of the world’s youth.

Anyway, son was bumped, and when he rang he presented me with the problem. There was one fight on Saturday; none on Sunday. He enquired whether there was anybody flying to Mildura that day who could pick him up for free. There wasn’t. We quickly dismissed the idea of him hiring a car to drive the 300 kilometres between the two cities. The cost would have been prohibitive for someone of his then age hiring a car under “remote” conditions. Hitchhiking: forget it.

However, there was one outfit from whom I could charter a plane and pilot. They said they could accommodate me – at a price. The pilot had to be roused and when he arrived unshaven, I ignored the fact that he drank a whole bottle of milk immediately.

All systems go.

I phoned the Mildura airport and let them know to tell my son that I was coming down to get him. I went with the pilot, who still stank of alcohol. Despite all the signs, it was uneventful; an hour down and an hour back. I cannot remember the type of small plane, but it was adequate to fit at least four. Flying to Mildura and back on a clear morning as this was before the thermals made their presence felt was diverting. It was a time when the waterholes were filled after substantial rain. When that occurs, it took about a year or more for them to dry out, if there was no more rain – and the farmers used to sow them – it was a harvest of pocket money. Generally, two harvests could be obtained. A tremendous sight.

Yes, I remember clearly this morning and these vivid spots of green, distinct from the unending blue grey of the saltbush, blending as it does into the ochre of the desert.

I always remembered this morning as one in which a potential disaster was so quickly solved – at a price. My son was given a taste of why Broken Hill is what it is – a place that everyone should see before they die. It is the essential Australian whitefella legendary Outback.

My son met Pro Hart while he was there, said he was broke, and did Pro Hart have anything he might have for free. Pro Hart probably thought he was an urger, but generously remembered he was probably the same when he was my son’s then age. The son still has the purse with the Hart dragonfly painted on one corner.

In a way, it was a variation on that wonderful “The Gods Must be Crazy”. Here the Coke bottle stayed in the plane, and bumped my son onto the tarmac. Never thought that I was a bushman or my son was a surrogate for the Coke bottle.

Andrews – a Career going North?

The future is not about his response to COVID-19. Andrews made the wrong decision, just as he narrowly avoided a similar debacle had he allowed the Grand Prix to go ahead in March. If he had done that, and it must have been a close call, Melbourne’s “first wave” may have been as bad as the second. So I hope he remembers who gave him that advice to pull out. Otherwise he would have been cactus.

The Health Minister, Jenny Mikakos, recently resigned and conveniently, being a member of the Upper House, her resignation will require no by-election to fill her vacancy and thus few ripples. Depending on the media, she will become a footnote and then forgotten like so many. However, the parliamentary election of her successor may generate a platform for some of the more infantile in the Opposition.

Ultimately no matter how softened, Andrews will be tainted with the decision to hire the private contractors. Whether it was out of contempt for a Department over which he once ruled or not, Victoria was ill-prepared for a major public health emergency. The problem with Victoria, and Melbourne in particular, is that the politicians are continually being told how wonderful medicine and medical research is in Victoria and thus there is a belief that Victoria can weather all ills because of the Parkville precinct. It is more the Parkville rather than the Stockholm Syndrome. Generation after generation of politicians and business leaders have been lulled into believing this.

In this sea of self-congratulation, public health was a casualty. Now public health is very central, and what is happening clearly has been painful for those within Melbourne in particular; but are we witnessing what has to be done when the Virus calls. It is obviously shambolic elsewhere in the world where the Virus is rampaging. Does it need politicians with the resolve of Andrews and his tactical skill to control the outbreak?

Andrews tried the carrot but needed the stick to bludgeon the Virus out of the community. Victoria has surely seen a winter of discontent, but Australia faces a summer far better placed than elsewhere in the World, where the Virus has already conquered and colonised. Here the Virus is being forced into the underground – a terrorist force nevertheless, which will break out. Think ISIS; think Virus – a smaller form, but nevertheless terrorist.

Thus, the challenge for Andrews is to know when his anti-terrorist support is strong and reliable, able enough to be maintained, so that he can “declare a peace” and free his people, who are now knowing the anguish of wartime.

Are the lessons learnt in Victoria generalisable? What time is required to suppress the Virus once it is rampant? What is important is that Andrews has overseen a bungle, responded decisively, and did not cave in despite some attempts, particularly by some elements of the media intent on giving him a permanent pariah status. The legacy of these decisions is yet to be known in full; the Virus has been suppressed – but at what cost?

Reponsibility has been handpassed from Department to Department. But we all know. Of course, who caused the stuff up was the Channel-9 cameraman.

Penitents in Holy Week

In the end, scherzi aside, let’s face it, if you stand out there as the Premier has done, enduring all the slings and arrows day after day, recognise that this is an act of penance. Soon, the penitent can remove the purple drapes, forgiveness has been given? Who knows whether the electorate will give absolution. In the meantime, Victorians, you should move on. There will be no Pallas Revolution.

Mouse Whisper

“Thanks be to God,” Father Ted was breasting the bar of the Balaclava pub in Whroo when he heard.

He remembers when his mate from school, George Pell, could not travel back to Australia because of health problems.

In 2016, supported by a two page medical Report, “Cardinal Pell’s office in Rome issued a statement at the time saying his heart condition had worsened, making it unsafe for him to travel.”

In 2020, glory be, miracle of miracles, a medical report unnecessary because of such a miracle, Cardinal Pell did not issue a statement that his heart condition four years later has improved to such an extent, he was able to scuttle back to Rome on Qatar Airways.

Or perhaps the clouds of civil cases have begun to gather.

Modest Expectations – Round & Round

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thick as a Plantain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Young is unyielding – to a point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The little sparrow 

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

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

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

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

Scabies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letter from Victoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federally-Operated Quarantine Facilities

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

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

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

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

Howard Springs quarantine facility

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

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

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

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

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

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

The model exists in the successful evacuation from Wuhan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, let’s see!

O Panda Alaranjado

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

So has been written to me by an American lawmaker.

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

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

Burning the White House, 1814

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

Mouse whisper

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

Is Julian the Lesser suggesting that:

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

All in all, a rum statement.

Out of breath

 

Modest Expectations – Biblical Trivia

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

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

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

Maybe Sarah Cooper will be a suitable surrogate.

Hunted? Not quite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strangled by a Thread of Cotton

Birdlife in the marshes

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

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

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

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

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

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

That sets the picture for this almost lost resource.

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

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

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

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

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

The Pub in the Scrub

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

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

Fifield’s car graveyards

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

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

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

Ah, the wonderful irony of Australia.

Yuranigh

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

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

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

Aboriginal carved tree trunk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yuranigh grave site

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

John is not the Name

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

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

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

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

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

He was asked his name.

“Jack,” his uncle replied.

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

“Honey.”

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

One against me.

Mudgee Mud

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

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

Ulan coal mine

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

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

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

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

Different times then, different times.

Mouse whisper

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

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

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

all’aperto!

Modest Expectations – Gary Indiana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jingo

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

Welcome to Sturgis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quaranta giorni?

Katherine, NT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Memorable Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollywood comes to Melbourne

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

How so very different!

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

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

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

Fast forward…

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

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

Modest Expectations – Vince Gair

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kamala Harris

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

However, the Obama imago prevailed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Australia prepared for the next Pandemic?

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

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

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

Angels dancing on a pinhead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fairfield Hospital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An evening looking down from the loggia

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

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

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

Once upon a time in Lithuania

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

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

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

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

Protests in Belorussia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaliningrad

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

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

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

Fanciful? Better to call it out?

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

As the Washington Post recalled this week:

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

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

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

Modest Expectations – Christmas at Bethany

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

Oblomov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wherefore? What was the cause?”

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

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

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

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

Hijacking the Narrative

John Kitzhaber

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

Portland, Oregon

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

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

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

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

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

Possible steps in that direction could be:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The outbreak we had to have

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nursing home owners’ conference?

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

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

All my problems come at once 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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

Modest Expectations – Siatonta

Grisons, Switzerland – where they say siatonta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swamp life

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

Strong as Your Weakest Link

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

Pudding Lane, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US forces give the nod

It’s a setback for your country

Bombs and trenches all in rows

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peril at Buck House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a joke!

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

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

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

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

Putin and His Kosher kitchen

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

Putin with his matzah bread

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

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

A kosher blowtorch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capturing Moscow has been a mirage for many invaders.

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

H.B. (Marlo)

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

Guy Fawkes