Modest Expectations – Lopez Nunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the way to Sturgis to catch a dose of COVID

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

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

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

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

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

In 1788, Sydney was all we had

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man of the people, Beaconsfield

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

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

The Lodge, Canberra

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

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

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

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

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

Kiribilli-by-sea

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

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

Wilcannia on the Darling River

“Jack Best, you should know better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whitefella heritage

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ghost of Al Grassby

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

Kristina Keneally

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

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

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

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

King Penguins on the bookshelf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic Books of Mexico

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

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

The next venue?

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

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

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

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

The Waste Land has never seemed more relevant.

This decayed hole among the mountains

In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing

Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel

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

It has no windows, and the door swings.

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

Mouse Whisper

How do you make an Armenian cross?

Mention the word accountability!

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

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

A khachkar

Modest Expectations – Renunciation of Citizenship

The Potala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I coulda’ been a contender …

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

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

Morton’s Fork

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinal John Morton

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

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

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

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

The World is based on getting your assumptions right

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

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

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

So where to from here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, I may be wrong.

Matt Barrie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey Gladys. Where’re You Going This Weekend?

This is a story for you, Gladys.

There is a family we know in Tasmania.

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

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

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

What is that about lockdowns here? None.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A suitable place for a quarantine village…

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

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

A Distant Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

How delightful, southern France in summer …

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

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

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

Now this is Freedom (Thanks to The Boston Globe)

What we are missing by having the lockdown.

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

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

Summer crowds at Martha’s Vineyard

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

Mouse Whisper

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

emulating Tom Lehrer’s picnic in the park:

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

…or a squirrel or two…”

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

By the way, Is Tom Lehrer still alive?

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe

Modest Expectations – A Rock in Utah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheynes Beach whaling station near Albany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mystery of Jane Halton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet this proved different.

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

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

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

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

COVID-19 was yet to come.

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

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

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

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

Sprod 

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

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

An exercise in whimsy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where has All the Influenza Gone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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

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

Modest Expectations – Geometric Progression

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

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

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

So wrote my American mate.

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

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

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

Tales from the South Seas

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

South Sea Islander flag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old man drew a circle in the dirt.

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

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

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

He thought, so much for forty years in Australia!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Robert Towns

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

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

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

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

God, I am sick of these people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The country needs now:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just an addendum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

If in Maio

You want on whim

To decide to swim

Remember to wear your Maiô

Portuguese water dogs

Modest Expectations – Arithmetic Progression 

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

Time to Throw away the Old Coates?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough said?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering Cuba

Cuba was what we expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Precautionary Tale yet One of Hope

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

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

Meanwhile…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

Heard it before, Topo?

Modest Expectations – Eleven Squared

One of our most extraordinary journeys across the USA was our drive from Los Angeles to Denver. Our first stop was at Furnace Creek. Several years before we intended to drive there, but Los Angeles was cut off by an unseasonable storm which dumped a load of snow around Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Mountains, cutting off the route to Death Valley.

This time it was on the cusp of summer and it was about a five hour drive straight after clearing customs and picking up the hire car following the flight from Australia. The drive was a little arduous. It takes a seemingly endless time to leave LA behind. However, it was a necessity as it happened to be the last day that the resort at Furnace Creek remained open before it was due to close for summer.

Death Valley

Death Valley has always been one of the hottest places on Earth, and even then was not open over the summer months. We had time to look around and feel the dryness and the heat, but hardly the temperature being experienced at the present time. Furnace Creek, where its temperature is measured, sits at 58 metres below sea level in the Mojave Desert.

As The Washington Post noted this past week: the third massive heat wave in three weeks kicked off in the West on Friday, Death Valley, Calif., soared to a searing 130 degrees. If confirmed, it would match the highest known temperature on the planet since at least 1931, which occurred less than a year ago. Friday’s 130 degree (54.4c) reading comes after it hit 126 degrees (52.2c) on both Wednesday and Thursday. It’s predicted to reach as high as 132 (55.6c) degrees on Saturday and 130 (54.4c) on Sunday. Night time lows may stay above 100 (37.8c) until the middle of next week.

What with the Pacific Northwest temperatures last week, anybody for climate change denial? What was that about coal fired power stations now?  I’m beginning to believe that nobody who is due to shuffle off the mortal coil should be allowed to vote, so much have we stuffed up the World.

But wait, there is more; from The Boston Globe describing the wettest July on record:

Flash flood warnings, tornado alerts, heat advisories, and of course, rain, rain, and more rain. Hey, whoever’s in charge here, we’d like a refund, please. We were promised Hot Vax Summer, but instead, we’re getting a soggy slap in the face. Couples who postponed their weddings because of COVID find themselves dashing to the church amid downpours. Families gathered for overdue summer reunions are enjoying more together time than they bargained for. Restaurateurs eager to make an extra buck on outdoor dining are chasing runaway umbrellas.

I doubt if this will feature on the National Party dashboards.

Information in the Soot

Neanderthal Man

I am indebted for the inspiration for the following blog to a review in The New York Review by Tim Flannery of a book just published entitled: “Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love Death and Art” by Rebecca Sykes. I have quoted from it.

Rebecca Sykes is a young Welsh palaeontologist who has spent a great amount of time in the south of France scouring the caves for signs of Neanderthal life. She is an inveterate writer and this book, which has attracted wide recognition, is her latest opus.

What I found especially interesting was the concept that soot on the cave walls can be used as a clue to age.

Fulginochronology was established three years ago as a scientific method. It is an advance in scrutinising our ancestral navel that has not been given much prominence. It involves the study of miniscule stratigraphic layers of soot on cave walls. The fossil soot build-up is a microscopic barcode printed on the walls of the cave. Each single bar line represents one specific moment of burning, around a hearth in a cave. These timelines can be read to create a chronology of events within the cave as different groups of Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens came and went. The technique has been used in the Mandrin Cave in south-east France and in the El Salt caves in Eastern Spain.

Esoteric, yet important in defining the life and times of Neanderthal man and their interaction with Homo Sapiens, and the overarching question of hybridisation. It is fascinating to think that those people roaming Europe are increasingly thought to be a hybridisation of the two occurring about 40,000 years ago. The discovery of skeletons in Europe dating from that period shows all were hybrids. It is as if suddenly the hybrids took over Europe at that time.

The concept of fulginochronology intrigued. I look forward to reading the book, once our copy reaches Australia. The question I would like answered is how do these data fit into the assertion that the Aboriginal people have been here for 65,000 years, in effect predating any hybridisation event. Maybe we need a bit of fulginochronology, Tim, in places like the Jenolan Caves.

The Cave of Niaux

We had always wanted to see the caves at Lascaux with gallery after gallery of images of animals, all painted in the Paleolithic period by the Magdalénians about 15,000 years ago. Sealed at some stage during this prehistoric period, they lay unknown until accidently discovered by a group of boys in 1940. Opened in 1948 to the general public, it took only 15 years before the caves needed to be closed to the public because of the damage being done by the carbon dioxide in the expired air of the tourists. There were up to 1,200 tourists coming through each day, including Picasso who, on seeing the art, said that we had not learned anything new. Thousands of years later the skills of the artists were there for all of us to see.

It is suggested that, at that time 40,000 years ago with abundance of food and the benison of tranquil weather in that period, these people had time for developing artistic talent and then marry it with a spiritual philosophy – and the appropriate alignment of such thoughts within their environment, the equivalent of the feng-shui of today’s interior decorators.

Very few people are allowed in to see the paintings, but it is one of the only shows in the world that I would use “my ticket of influence” to see, if I had one. There are at least three Lascaux facsimiles, as there is another depicting the caves of Altamira near its site in Cantabria in Northern Spain. There problem with facsimiles is that, although the reproductions may be excellent, they are not in context. The paintings are of animals, in particular bison, auroch and horse seem to dominate. The colours resemble the ochre colours of our Indigenous people and largely they are drawn using iron and manganese-based pigments. Carbon is used, but apparently not in the Lascaux paintings.

The Altamira caves were discovered in the nineteenth century, and they are almost as well known as those at Lascaux. However again, these caves were closed to the public as of 2002 for much the same reasons as at Lascaux – damage from expired carbon dioxide and the fact that opening the caves up induces changes in the temperature and the humidity so that lichen and moss overgrowth is occurring on what once were plain stone walls.  All of these factors contribute to the deterioration of the paintings.

The entrance to Niaux Cave

This is where the Niaux Cave comes into the discussion. For some reason we were actually discussing cave paintings and the frustration of not being able to see any of them. We were travelling around the foothills of the French Pyrenees, which is a long way from Lascaux but over the range in Northern Spain were the Altamiras.  We had stopped at Foix, a hilltop town and over coffee, we found out we were close to the Niaux Cave. So we drove down and there it was, a majestic entrance which would not have been out of place on the front of a cathedral, a line of steel poles guiding us down the mountainside to the entrance. As we found out the number at any one time permitted in the cave is limited, but we scraped into the afternoon quota.

Descending into the cave with head lighting, walking along a board walk knowing that there were shadowy forms of stalagmites and stalactites strewn along the way, the sound of dripping water, squeezing through and crouching low at several points to progress, it could have been difficult, but mostly it was just a stroll.  On the walls the headlights showed a series of glyphs – what may have been signs – and some enigmatic lines of red and black dots along the opposite wall.

We came to an area where pathways crossed. Then we found we were climbing a steep rise into what we learnt later was the Salon Noir. It was about half a kilometre from the cave entrance into this pitch black area. Here we stopped and were instructed to turn out our lights. Even in the pitch black, you knew you were in a large space with a sense of high ceilings. It is strange that this feeling of space did not require vision. The group surprisingly was silent, just outlines alongside me.

Then the guide turned on the light and there were the images of a bison and ibex, lines of black on a rust tinted wall. Time was limited. Photography was prohibited. Once the light was turned out, that was that. Sure, they illuminated the salon to show how domed the chamber was – the acoustic quality of the chamber was tested.

Niaux cave painting

There was hardly time to absorb the images; if we had been in a facsimile of the chamber, we would have had more time to view the images; even be able to photograph; there would not have been the conservation restrictions. Stepping forward, we now have virtual reality technology, so in future we will probably not be restricted to one gallery, but be able to see the whole complex through the eyes of the palaeontologist, being able to stop, rewind, fast forward – see more than we did without the discomfort and cost of being on site. We could be force fed a commentary; and with such devices able to store the memory, not even have to remember. Just press a button, and there they are, remarkable images in a virtual cave

I have seen many Aboriginal rock paintings on site; they tend not to be in the depth of caves, but then again if the mining industry continues to blow them up with the connivance of government here in Australia, it just becomes an academic matter. I have been privileged to see some of these paintings, but I admit I have not trekked for days to see them if there’s been an opportunity to see them in a book, in a museum, or on film.

So why do we do it?   Why trek to some cave? For me, it is a sense of a different space, each of these spaces is unique, and the fact that where I was standing some artist a few millennia ago was viewing his or her masterpiece, but at least he or she had control of the flame to show what had been drawn for me to see. My time was limited to wonder at the genius of these drawings deep in a cave where sunlight could not reach.

Tartuffi not Tartuffe

Lockdown is tedious, but that is the strategy which has worked to curb the spread of the Virus if properly policed and where the community is compliant. It is essential, and there is no point looking for scapegoats. You can fine them; you can penalise them within the confines of society norms, which no longer believe that stocks and pillory are acceptable, but in the end lockdown is group punishment.

It was in this context and realising it was the season for them, we decided to purchase a truffle. Our prime epicurean son who unlike us lives in free range Australia agreed that the best truffles in Australia do come from Manjimup in Western Australia in a season which extends through winter to early spring.

Snuffling a truffle

So, we purchased a substantial fresh truffle which was delivered, vacuum packed, a few days after it was ordered. The package contained a note from the Truffle dog that snuffled it out of the round. As she said in her dog-eared note, Gaby warned us never to get in her way when she was hunting.

These truffles are related to those found in Périgord, and we noted that ours has fine white lines running through it, the sign of a good truffle. This morning it was time for scrambled eggs with visible slices of truffle, not the normal dark sprinkled confetti when you order any eggs allegedly with truffles in that local posh breakfast establishment.

Needless to say, the online shopping outlet had a truffle slicer for sale. Now how could one resist the temptation to buy this vital everyday requirement for the kitchen? It was a handsome, if somewhat terrifying serrated stainless steel implement. What was interesting to me was this affettatartufi in acciano inoz con manico in pallisandro (stainless steel truffle slicer with a wooden handle) was made not in China but in Italy.

Although France is associated with truffles, the most expensive ones are the white truffles found in Piedmont and Tuscany. Their prices can approach $10,000 a kilogram (whereas the Australian black Périgord truffles retail for $2,000 a kilogram). The white truffles are scarce, partially because nobody has ever been able to cultivate them. Needless to say, there is all this palaver about their smell and taste to justify the lengths to which people go to find these potato-shaped fungi.

The truffle slicer was what intrigued me to find out more, because it was made in Italy by a firm which has been in this sort of business for a long time – Sanoma Ambrogio. Perhaps I am just showing my ignorance, but then is that not the reason for pressing on – to show how much you don’t know?

Ambrogio Samona was the founder of the firm, which bears his name in reverse, which still manufactures its high quality product in Premona, a mountain municipality north of Milan. Here in the surrounding mountains iron ore has been mined for millennia, but Premona came into prominence in the Middle Ages because many of the iron workers were lured to Venice, and there was apparently an exchange between the two.

Originally settled by the Romans as a castra in the first century, but as is known the Romans were not great metallurgists and used brass in preference to iron. Steel-making was known for a very long time when the early metallurgy-minded noted that adding carbon to the smelted iron resulted in steel, albeit as a boutique process, used from the middle ages – mostly for armaments. There were Premonan artisans in the Venetian arsenal from that time onwards, making arms for battle, including sword blades. The best steel then came from southern India, and how they produced it has been lost; but in the Middle Ages there were also renowned steel makers in Damascus. The technology spread westwards.

Steel increasingly switched from being the accompaniment of war to that of the butcher and the kitchen. This firm, which provided our truffle slicer, was founded in 1863, and built up an international reputation so it has not only survived but also diversified.

Stainless steel came into use when it was found that the addition of chromium inhibited rust. Now the steel used by Sanelli has many additives, vanadium, molybdenum and others like spices in a kitchen so that the knives of Sanelli are just as much a symbol of Italian excellence as Bugatti or Versace, Gucci or Bulgari.

Amazing what you find when you read the outside of the truffle slicer box. And mark my words, this Tartuffo is not, dear Molière, a Tartuffe – it is the real thing.

The Stubbornness of Scott Morrison 

On 25 June, the AFR, the cheerleader for the Sydney business community, ran an Editorial entitled “Let’s hope NSW can hold out against lockdown”. Its opening lines were “Sydney remains on a knife edge”. Correct. Then it commends the Premier for keeping her nerve and not locking down the State, “leaving citizens to do the right thing themselves”. Then it goes on that line, “It is a proportional response, says the Editorial writer, whatever that means. This crap is in the same league as “We are taking the matter seriously.”

The Editorial accepts without much conviction that NSW has the best contact tracers on the planet, a claim made by Berejiklian to shore up her initial decision not to lock down Greater Sydney and the Illawarra. By saying that, she may not have recognised the potential damage she has done to the credibility of contact tracing as part of the armoury against the Virus.

This idea that lockdown infringes civil liberties and is Orwellian socialism as contended by the Liberal Party flakes in Victoria ignores the fact that the Virus does not read Hayek when that State was locked down. This neoliberal approach is the sort of dangerous twaddle that has accelerated the pandemic across the globe. Victoria had to deal with its outbreak before a vaccine was available. There’s no need to stir the embers of the disastrous decision making in relation to the choice and purchase of vaccine, which have resulted in the present level of vaccination in Australia. Australia just needs more, both in quantity and in diversity.

While accelerated vaccination provides a security blanket, there is no clear indication of long term efficacy of any of the vaccines. Vaccination provides a level of protection that is an important retardant in the spread of the Virus, even with its cleverness in its ability to change. The uncertainty is attested by the way the timing of the second AstraZeneca vaccine dose has been promoted; and there is no doubt that this vaccine has a noticeable level of morbidity as well as absolute contraindications.

Therefore, at this time and that needs to be stressed, the State Premiers have opted for suppression of the Virus, not the least because of the poor decisions made by the Federal Government and what some see as its indecision. However, it is more stubbornness in relinquishing positions that Prime Minister Morrison takes which probably owes itself somewhat to the rigidity of his upbringing. Maybe that is too sympathetic and just say Morrison has poor judgement.

Tracing the contacts

What worries me is that the contact tracing capacity becomes a casualty – a scapegoat for political indecision. I have been a severe critic of Kerry Chant as I thought the handling of the Ruby Princess was a disgrace and smacked of political interference. As Chief Health Officer, I assumed that she bore responsibility, but others closer to the action said it was not her fault, and she had minimal involvement.  If this was so, it was even more an indictment of  NSW Health.

A year on and implicated in a pandemic disaster, where politicians are essentially fearful of making difficult unpopular decisions, Dr Chant retains her job, with a tenacity and determination to pursue the Virus. I suspect that when her advice was for lockdown, it was ignored because of her reporting to a Premier whose neither makes  difficult decisions nor accepts responsibility when things go wrong. Worse, she had a Health Minister who, at one point, was advocating waving the white flag and saying we may have to live with the Virus, even though Australia has low levels of vaccination.

Hence the very visible presence of Kerry Chant, who could have resigned as I suggested and who would have to be blamed given the continuing scrutiny of NSW having to live with the tag of being the gold standard – a very two-edged foil when a catastrophe occurs.

Just ask Brendan Murphy, who at the beginning of the year was the hero of the pandemic, ACT Person of the Year and now the subject of rumours that the bus is being revved up for his demise. Certainly, his exposure has lessened as the Prime Minister seems to have taken over his role with a new military sidekick called Frewin and no sign of Dr Murphy. Fortunately, Paul Kelly still appears, but how much he is listened to is anybody’s guess.

Kerry Chant was given the title of NSW Woman of the Year in 2020, in effect binding her to the NSW Government and more particularly to the artful Premier. She therefore walks that narrow corridor where a person has to defend her scientific integrity while working for a Government at any moment liable to throw her whole strategy out the window.

It is the same dilemma that Fauci faced with Trump. Having to resist those who want to let the Virus coexist. “Let it rip”. Report of another minister in relation to the northern beaches lockdown that  she should take a cut in salary because the Virus had escaped is denied, but from my long experience, such reports are not magical – there is always a source. The dark art of undermining. Then there has been the unfair twittering about her wiping her eye with her mask – an instinctive reaction for which she apologised immediately – and then her crooked glasses (one arm of her spectacles inadvertently broken while she was being interrogated by the media). For God’s sake!

So here I am, championing Kerry Chant. What I fear is that everybody has limits, and I worry how close she is at that limit no matter how great her inner toughness. The contact tracing system is a vital defence mechanism, for the pursuit of the Terrorist Virus. Her devotion to the cause has revealed a steel I did not think she had.

One thing is certain is that singling NSW out as “gold standard” just because it has the same political complexion as the Federal Government, has to  stop.

All it does is invest Berejiklian with “teacher’s pet” status, so cessation hopefully will discourage the Prime Minister from continuing to plant wedges in the population. The disgraceful infantile behaviour of the Liberal Party opposition during the Victorian lockdown contrasts with the maturity of the NSW Labor Opposition response in supporting the government.

Perhaps the discussion may turn to ensuring that there is a uniform contact tracing system across the country, rightfully using NSW as a one of the models to be emulated. The problem with suggesting that quarantine and the processes surrounding it are a national responsibility comes against the stubbornness of the Prime Minister – or is it only stubbornness?

Mouse whisper

A sobering introduction from the May 25 New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) editorial. 

When the IOC postponed the Tokyo Olympics in March 2020, Japan had 865 active cases of Covid-19 against a global backdrop of 385,000 active cases. It was assumed that the pandemic would be controlled in 2021 or that vaccination would be widespread by then. Fourteen months later, Japan is in a state of emergency, with 70,000 active cases. Globally, there are 19 million active cases. Variants of concern, which may be more transmissible and more virulent than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, are circulating widely. Vaccines are available in some countries, but less than 5% of Japan’s population is vaccinated, the lowest rate among all Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

I’m probably glad that I was not selected for the Rat Run. Perhaps after this Games hopefully the motto will still be Citius – Altius – Fortius, without Aegrius being added.

Modest Expectations – My Brilliant Career

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

Donald Rumsfeld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miles Franklin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What beats No Trumps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the long house

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were no cans of beer.

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

Confusion

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

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

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

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

Thoughts, drifting like soap bubbles …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big English Guinea Pig

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

 

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

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

“Abe laments”

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

This is a dark image.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because if they win, America ends.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whyalla?

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

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

Whyalla steelworks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whyalla is saltbush.

Giant cuttlefish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queensland coal

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

An Opportunity Missed

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

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

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

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

The following illustrates the unhelpful nature of the Report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wellcamp and its endless plains

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, what the community knows is:

  • Social distancing works
  • Vaccine works
  • Masks work

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

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

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

Time to move away from this model

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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

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

Modest Expectation – An Apple Once in Paris

Just to put Australia’s lack of flexibility into context, where the AstraZeneca vaccine has been prioritised for vaccinating the population Moderna, as reported below, seems to be leading the pack. Where are we, Mr Morrison? Are you across what is happening, and if you have recently done a deal with Moderna has this advance been factored into the deal? AstraZeneca technology is apparently increasingly obsolete in the face of such coronavirus vaccines.

I remember a different time, when the polio vaccines first came to Australia. I was first injected with the Salk vaccine and then, when the Sabin vaccine arrived, it was able to be administered easily orally because it was a live attenuated virus; the Salk vaccine was quickly jettisoned. But then Australia avoided  political furore; we relied on the medical evidence not the share portfolios of various people in influential places .

Also, Prime Minister there is one statistic which you use to justify the continued use of hotels for quarantine – your “99.99 per cent effective at protecting the community against COVID-19” mantra. However, when the air flows are mixed and internal, the problem of cross infection exists, whereas in the case of the Howard Springs facility the air flow is to the outside, with little or no chance of a compromised airflow. Thank God it is only that tiny percentage, Prime Minister. That causes enough chaos as we are now seeing in Victoria, without tempting Fate any further. This is where the use of data only shows what a catastrophic situation it would be if the effectiveness was any lower.

But let’s hear what the CEO of Moderna, based as it is in the Boston area, had to say about its advance, as reported in The Boston Globe, and draw your own conclusions.

Moderna’s chief executive on Wednesday discussed the biotech’s progress in developing a booster shot against COVID-19 variants, saying the company hopes to have authorization from the Food and Drug Administration on one of three booster strategies by the end of the summer or early fall.

Stéphane Bancel said Moderna is working on three different options for a single-dose booster shot against variants of concern: the current vaccine, a new variant-specific vaccine, and a 50/50 mix of the two.

Moderna last week shared early study results that showed its first two options — the current vaccine at half the dosage and a shot of its reworked vaccine — both appeared to raise antibody levels against variants that first emerged in South Africa and Brazil. Bancel said the company is expecting to receive data on the third booster strategy in the coming weeks.

“And then we’ll work with the FDA to get the safe and effective variant-specific booster to the American people as fast as we can,” he added.

The data showed that Moderna’s current vaccine “looks good” in protecting against variants, Bancel said, but the reworked vaccine tailored to fight off newer strains of the virus “looks stronger” against the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa.

Bancel said it’s “not impossible” that a booster could be ready for the fall for people who were vaccinated against COVID-19 in December 2020 or early January, especially for high-risk groups.

“When we have that data [on the third booster strategy] in the clinic, we will pick which one we’ll take for authorization,” Bancel said. “We’re hoping that toward the end of the summer or early fall, we should be able, if the data is good, to have authorization for a boost to be used in the fall to protect all of us so that we can have a good fall and a next good winter.”

Bancel also said the company is working with federal officials to test “the mixing of vaccines,” ensuring that regardless of which vaccine a person initially received, it will be safe for them to get Moderna’s booster shot.

“We shared last Wednesday news that the Moderna vaccine in the 12 to 17 years of age has 96 percent efficacy,” Bancel said. “The safety profile is like what we saw for the adults, and we’re working with the FDA to get the vaccine authorized as soon as we can.”

Moderna is continuing to study its vaccine for children 6 months to 11 years old, Bancel said, and that data is expected to take a few more months.

“We have to go very slow down in age to ensure the safety of the children,” Bancel said. “And we’re also starting at the lower dose, because given their lower weight, we might need to lower the dose for children. But for the teens, it will be the exact same dose, which will help the distribution of a vaccine.”

And also….

Under the heading “Breaking Alert”, The Boston Globe publishes the ongoing COVID-19 situation. An example is reprinted below.

The death toll from confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts rose by 19 to 17,413, the Department of Public Health reported Monday. The number of confirmed cases climbed by 281, bringing the total to 657,119.

The number of coronavirus vaccinations administered rose by 25,904 to 7,168,399, state officials reported.

As the population of Massachusetts is about 6.3 million, and about 20 per cent are under 15, it means that many of the residents are being given their second injection of an mRNA vaccine.

Every day, the NYT has a comprehensive list of the data down to county level. Where can you obtain such data published daily in Australia, in relation to vaccination?

Casey Briggs, Master of Clarity

When the pandemic was rife in Australia we could follow its course every day with the ABC’s Casey Briggs, whose clear informative manner showed Mr Briggs as The Master of Mathematics; to which he could as well have added The Master of Clarity.

He could report vaccination levels in the same manner on a daily manner if the data were available.

Only criminal idiots would want to the fiddle the supply demand relationship by manipulating the data for so-called political advantage.

You may never recover

This is the only comment I shall make about the Princes. I sympathise deeply and know that probably their relationship, in whichever way it existed after their mother was killed, may one day be repaired to the extent that they do remain civil towards one another.  I suspect the attitudes of their wives in this is vitally important.

A loving mother taken from teenage sons in the presence of an inadequate father – undoubtedly a good man but because of his own stunted upbringing with an inability to show compassion – is very familiar.

Genuine compassion is something one recognises when you yourself lack it. People may try and manufacture compassion, but fail because it is an inherent attribute, just like a sense of humour. Most of those who are afflicted with the combination of loss of a loving mother, the inability to ever come to terms with the wakening nightmare of your last glimpse of her, coupled with the attempts by the remaining father to fill the void and failing, who then eventually gives up, marries again and gradually become to you an irrelevance.  Onwards into an adulthood for which you are ill prepared and then you have to muddle through life in a cloud of unforgiveness, episodic self-pity and destructive fury.

A Sisyphean existence?

Occasionally, in among the circumstance of life with a variable dollop of pomp added, you may do something worthwhile. But for what? Your other life upon which the flashlight is never dimmed, wherever you try to escape, always haunts. For those for whom compassion does not pay, there is a delight in having all your trespasses laid bare, yet as those who trespass against you seek justification in hypocritical comment only, which encourages you to further trespass. A Sisyphean existence?

Alas, poor Harry, I knew him well.

Is anybody listening?

The three articles on China published last week in the AFR are almost like the last hurrah from one of the most insightful and level-headed journalists still living. Max Suich is one of those people who has lived a long and varied life; and his reflections on the current state of play in China draws upon his own views and those of a number of his contemporaries, and their apprehension about the course of current Sino-Australian relations.

This trilogy commences with reference to the world conditions when the AFR was started 70 years ago. It was not long after that I was on a cargo boat in the South China Sea in sight of one of the disputed islands of Matsu and Quemoy, tiny National Chinese outposts close to the mainland and Communist China. It was a time when the Chiang Kai-shek regime in the island of Formosa was seen as the legitimate representative of China in the United Nations.  How fanciful that appears now, but then as we crossed the South China Sea, we were buzzed by American Starfighters which swooped out of the clouds and came over the ship just above mast height – twice.

Bloody hell, was it necessary to demonstrate to a small ship carrying wool and grain to Japan how powerful America was? The power equation certainly has shifted over the past decades in the Southern China Sea. American planes intimidating ships close to the Chinese shore in 2021 – I don’t think so – unless America was on war footing.

As for Australia: The conclusion is that while we dramatically changed our approach, we did not define a policy objective for the new relationship with China or a strategy to achieve it. Nor did we thoroughly review alternative options. We elevated anger about Chinese activities in Australia and latent ministerial hostility towards China, turning threadbare slogans into policy. Traditional measured, thoughtful policy-making in an area of such great importance is lost.

Thus spake Suich. He sets out his conclusion succinctly and directly on the first page of his trilogy. He then spends much of the rest justifying the conclusion, which is more a thesis. He had come to that conclusion as the anti-Chinese forces in this country were emboldened by Trump’s antics. No matter how Turnbull may want to re-write history he should share the opprobrium which Max dishes out.

We have no hedge – we are “all the way with the USA” but what if the USA is not there? How does our military, naval and air force stack up, in the face of an aggressive China? Not much, is his assessment. Australia is vulnerable especially, as he pointed out, Pine Gap would be an early target for any Sino-American conflict. Therefore, whether or not America proved to be a steadfast ally, part of any war strategy in this part of the World would be to knock out Pine Gap, inevitably leading Australia being locked into the conflict.

Max Suich has dissected the Australian government approach into three phases, “push back, call out, out in front”. The three stage approach typifies a crude approach to the reality where the right wing infiltrate in the intelligence always inflates the danger in order to maintain their relevance to government. Max quoted one still serving official – “without Trump the hawks would not have the mode to develop their own insane line that we had no choice but to divert trade flows and supply chains.”

As he goes on to write, the John Howard approach twenty years ago “we don’t have to choose” between America and China has been dumped, but echoing experienced advice there was no way that Australia, with its limited defence forces, could possibly back up its bellicose rhetoric. In fact, as Turnbull has written in his recent opus, Australia has to be careful where its warships sail in Asian waters because there is no doubt that the Chinese are watching. The Americans may have the power to extricate a ship which ventures too close, but Australia by itself does not.

Nevertheless, paranoia is fanned by the idea that the Chinese government is penetrating the Australia community and in particular the Chinese diaspora. Such investigation of this has only yielded Sam Dastyari who, despite his indiscretion, still seems to be involved in the sensitive vaccine rollout. There was all that flurry around Gladys Liu, the Coalition member for Chisholm, because of her apparent ties in China, but that seems to have dropped off the intelligence schedule and is not mentioned by Max anywhere in the article.

The Government seems not to be bothered by the experience of South Korea where, earlier in the last decade, it experienced a Chinese trade freeze. Yet for all the bravado, the articles note three forces operating currently in our dealings with China. The alienation from China has been aggravated, as he points out, by the circumstances of the COVID-19 virus first being seen in Wuhan and the subsequent lack of co-operation by the Chinese in the investigation of its genesis, where one of the major cheerleaders for the investigation has been Australia.

The first force is the feeling of being abandoned, and if one delves into the history of the ANZUS pact, it was constructed originally against the wishes of the State Department in Washington – the nightmare of “Washington not picking up the phone.”   Then the rise of Xi Jin Ping, who has disturbed the comfortable trading arrangement that some Australians had built up with various Chinese businesses. The impression of a free enterprise economy able to exist under a one-party system was brought to a halt by Xi .

Max recognises that Xi’s assertiveness and his expansionary vision for China as a truly Pacific maritime power was another impetus for the rise  in Australia of the intelligence community influence and their political hawks on both sides of the parliamentary aisles. Any moderating influence of DFAT is seemingly ignored and Max quotes Foreign Minister Payne going it alone on the Wuhan inspectors seeking answers on the Wuhan connection with the virus, and particularly whether the virus escaped from a laboratory there.

He doesn’t attempt to analyse Xi’s character, because being pragmatic, Max recognises Xi is what he is, and nothing will change him. However, this is not to say that defining his strengths and weaknesses is not more than a parlour game. Remember XI was a princeling forced to eat dirt – he understands how the game “Go” unravels. In this game, there is a need to understand its length. Xi does not intend losing; he has tasted the soil. As someone said to me, he doesn’t care about the niceties.

Max says that the breakdown of our government’s foreign policy development process and its supplanting by the security and intelligence services and their vociferous supported is a main driver of Australian government attitude.

I know there is a younger brigade of Australians who have repeatedly dealt with the Chinese and who believe that Obama’s soft position towards China would have been reflected in the present Biden administration. However, free of Obama, these so-called liberals have adopted a hard line almost indistinguishable from that of the Trumpers. In this narrative, Obama is the villain.

As Max said, we took more risks than we should; we could have been adroit. This is the position of “former senior officials who lament the lack, still, of policy making and disciplined public language about China, that weighs up options and employs some subtlety and seriously considers the risks of war.”

One source, Paul Dib, compares the situation to the 1930s where the risks set off by territorial confrontation were ever present, in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In the meantime, Australia then lived in bliss, ostensibly under the wing of the British Empire. Now it is the USA to continue to shield us, but the hawks are everywhere so that his conclusion of this need to follow the USA is “a bleak but realistic view…if the hawks of Washington and Beijing are not stifled, if compromise is rebuffed, war will be the consequence, a disaster for Taiwan and the combatants and a disaster for the rich and growing economies of our region.”

China is not complicated as suggested in the article – the World exists at the whim of Xi Jin Ping.

His adversaries are varied; have we ever really looked into the eyes of these hawks of ours – these eyes exhibiting uncertain bravado and fear?

These are not the fanatics which drove the agenda of the 1930s but more the muddle-headed wombats who took us into the Vietnam war. This time, the War will not be an away game.

I do not want the prospect, if I survive, of stumbling through the rubble which was once Sydney. Everybody, look carefully at Gaza and that was only an 11 day’s conflict.

Thank you, Max for encouraging me to write this critique.

 A Prickly Situation

My eye was caught by an article in the NYT this week. It concerned the poaching of rare species of cacti from the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile and them being found smuggled into Italy.

The Atacama Desert is not particularly large compared to other deserts, but it is a remarkable ecological structure. There is an area where it has not rained for about 500 years; there is another part where the largest copper mine in the world is located.

Licancabùr

As we looked out from our hotel in San Pedro de Atacama in this patch of green, the dominant view rising high from the desert was Licancabùr, the volcanic cone rising high above the desert. The volcano is very close straddling the Bolivian and Chilean border, and as you near it, sulphur is mined on its slopes. Sulphur – ah, the whiff of hell, but here the winds tend to cart the smell away.

This desert has historically been an area of dispute between Chile, Bolivia and Peru. It was called the Saltpetre War, and ostensibly it was about Bolivia retaining access to the Pacific Ocean but, as the name implies, it was a battle over the nitrite deposits used in both fertilisers and explosives. Chile won that war, which has enabled that country to exploit the mineral rich Atacama and, since discovered, also the site of substantial lithium deposits.

San Pedro de Atacama is in an altiplano pocket of the desert, the remnants of the Andes, which mean one is strolling and riding around at 2, 408 metres. The highest point we reached were the Geysers del Tatio which lie at 4,330 metres, a large cauldron of boiling water where there are signs in English and Spanish warning for you not to get too close to the edge of the multiple pools. The sudden spurts of boiling waters and steam at such an altitude are very impressive. There are no fences; you are able to freely wander. At least one tourist did step too close apparently and ended up boiled in one of the pools.

Even though we were only 14 kilometres from the Bolivian border we skipped walking up the volcano which tops 5,920 m. For comparison, Mount Kosciuszko is 2,200 m high.

This area of the Atacama altiplano is very diverse. What with the geysers, and flamingos standing in salt water at an alkaline PH of 10 and eating the crustacea out of the brine. These tiny marine life determine the flamingoes’ colour. Every desert has “bad lands” of rocks and gulches. Here Atacama has its red rock folded into buttes and jagged cliffs. They were thought to mimic valleys on the moon rather than a scenario from a Hollywood Western.

Here I found myself rooted, unable to move, halfway up one of these hills, on a goat track not one-person wide, winding itself to the peak. I have always suffered from vertigo, and stupidly I looked back and down. The cheerful chatter ceased. There is nothing more debilitating than being stuck like that, with feet in the shifting sand unable to move. Here, feminine resolve came to the forefront to uproot the fear – women on either side of me giving me their hands, encouraging me onwards.

We stop on the way in stone cottage villages where the construction of the houses would not have changed since Inca times. One of these villages called Machuca had about ten houses, was situated at 4,000 metres but still had its church perched on the hill above the houses. This is subsistence living. Guanacos can live at that high altitude and like their relatives, camels, will drink salty water, but like the vicuñas are not domesticated. The flightless rheas dot the landscape, not venturing close.

It was an enthralling landscape and the hospitality overall was great, the only blemish being locked in a poorly ventilated minibus with an English family for three hours as we went back to Antofagasta to catch the plane back to Santiago, but they probably had the same feelings towards us – a little more Albion disdain. Having sprawled across the front rows they objected to us wanting the windows being open. Not even my wife’s imitation of Shrek’s donkey colleague amused them.

But you see what is pointed out to you or what you are looking for, and in the desert, on this trip I failed to appreciate the flora.  In the Atacama are some of the rarest and most intricate cacti. I suppose I should have been interested given the use of cactus wood to make the doors of the cottages.

Now there is an increasing market for those unnoticed cacti.  The cacti of the Atacama are special. A year after the robbery from the Atacama happened, the NYT has reported on a cactus “heist”. This had been uncovered in Northern Italy.  Most of the stolen plants, many over a hundred years old, had been taken from the Atacama.

As the NYT said in the article:

Cactuses and other succulents are hot business today. They have become the darlings of social media, promoted by indoor plant influencers for their outlandish looks and minimal care requirements. The pandemic only increased their popularity, with shops struggling to keep some species in stock.

The average hipster’s cactus collection will include only common species propagated in nurseries. But for some specialist collectors — who tend to be middle-aged or older men — the hobby is much more serious.

“A lot of what drives the interest and passion for these plants is their uniqueness and rarity.”

Atacama cacti

Of course, that is the problem. People with too much money, bored by their hedonism, looking for something different and in this instance, something requiring little maintenance. Perfect!

There is a line to be drawn between appreciation and acquisition. I have never been a xerophile, and in fact cacti watching has always been low on my attention span. Having written that, cacti can be striking. I wrote a piece one winter in Arizona called “Snow on the Saguaro”. Seeing those majestic cacti, their branches smothered in white, reflects how severe the winter was we were then traversing.  While we marvelled and I wrote this, there was no passion to dig up all these cacti and transport them Los Angeles to become a prop for silver tinsel and light. A silly notion, but no more silly than digging up the cacti in the Atacama for them to be festooned on balconies of the palazzi of Milan.

One wonders how many of those who buy plants illicitly taken, really appreciate them, or do they just want to have something nobody else has.

Anyway, this story had a better end than most of these robberies. As has been reported:

844 cactuses made the return journey to Chile. Around 100 others had died, and 84 stayed in Milan for study.

Mr. Cattabriga (responsible for apprehending the shipments which had first passed through easier EU custom controls in Romania and Greece) has been making daily video calls to try to ensure the plants are being properly cared for while they are in quarantine. According to Bernardo Martínez Aguilera, head of the forest inspection department at Chile’s National Forest Corporation, the final goal “is that the majority of these individuals return to their natural environment, which they never should have left.”

Rules have been introduced among cacti lovers not to purchase the seeds for such exotica, on the grounds that if these cacti are allegedly propagated, it provides a cover for the poachers’ lack of provenance. A worldwide problem but this is a salutary tale. The answer is always the same – curbing the poor attracted by the cash, harvesting the cacti and a cohort of wealthy humans who always vote for subsidy, tax breaks and entitlement with rapacious middlemen who always vote for subsidy, tax breaks and entitlement with greasy paws.

Mouse Whisper

Is it an unnoticed cultural cringe? The Swans are a Sydney Australian Football team, which was transplanted from Melbourne where they were known as the South Melbourne Football Club. The colours are red and white which earned them the early nickname of “The Bloods’. But somehow, presumably because South Melbourne was originally a marsh from which the Albert Park Lake was carved, the idea of calling the team by the name “Swans” was floated. But the white swan, whether cob or pen, is not an Australian; it’s a Pom!

Black swans are as Australians as Vegemite. If the club wanted to call itself the Swans, it should have adopted black. I am surprised that my indigenous brothers played with colours and name which reflected colonial attitudes. Especially as there are only black swans on the Albert Park Lake.

Imagine the Sydney Swans changing to a black and red strip. What would they say at Essendon?

And don’t me started on the St George Illawarra Rugby League colours taken from the St George Cross which I believe has some relationship to an island off Europe.

Dragons – yes, they have relation to Australia – water dragons can be seen all over Sydney in nurseries.

By the way, the native animal of NSW is the platypus and the bird kookaburra, but a Major Mitchell cockatoo has all the elements of red (if actually pink) and white. But barracking for the platypi, the Kookas (or Burras or the Cockatoos) – could be very authentic like the Eels.

My preference. Come on The Majors.

 

 

Modest Expectations – Biden & Boehner

Here I am still writing a blog over two years from one I started inter alia with a eulogy of Jacinda Ardern, which caused some ruction among my acquaintances. I use the word “eulogy” because I was seen as being over complimentary. Yet in retrospect, given the revelations which have come out about the predatory behaviour embedded in the contemporary political scene, she has emerged as an exemplar of how a female political staffer can become Prime Minister – and not only become Prime Minister but also be prepared to hand over the reins to her then deputy, Winston Peters, while she had a baby.

Now the self-confidence that exuded coupled with the compassion and leadership she has shown in the face of the tragedy of volcano eruption and mass shooting have been so heartfelt. But I better not lay my comments about Jacinta Ardern on with a trowel; otherwise others may wonder aloud why I am still Mr Starry-eyes. Maybe it is because she does not wear a baseball cap – well not often. It also helps if instinctively you know how and when to smile and how and when to grieve.

A Woman in White

The question always arises – am I responding to an illusion? The quote below is elegant in the way it describes such a reaction.

In the novel’s famed opening scene, art teacher Walter Hartright is walking back to London on a desolate street around midnight “when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.”

He turns to see “the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to toe in white garments …”

“’Is that the road to London?’” she asks.

The encounter is both unexpected and cinematic. The dark deserted road, coupled with the late hour contrasts vividly with the light touch of the extraordinarily dressed woman and her mundane question.

No; the woman in question in this excerpt is not Christine Holgate coming home from a Parliamentary ordeal, but the woman who gives the name to Wilkie Collins’ 1859 novel “The Woman in White”, some say the first mystery novel. Her name, Anne Catherick, a woman dressed so by her mother, but it is a different way of looking at the one subject – a woman dressed in white.  Beware what you wish for, even when wafting as a Friday AFR supplement apparition, who was once a Premier of a State of Australia. Was it is meant to create an illusion like Anne Catherick?

Order Arms!

During the Vietnam War, there was an increased requirement for doctors. My relationship with military activity ended when I left school and, among the many wonderfully mindless activities I left behind, was the cadet corps for which, despite my years of faithful service, I was never rewarded with promotion.

My friend and I bore scars of our service. On our uniform sleeves – mine with crossed flags to signal my devotion to the signal corps – and my friend’s, who was also a crack shot and had crossed rifles in recognition of his membership of the school shooting team. The school even then had a rifle range on the top of one of the buildings – long since gone.

But perhaps if my early love for the military camaraderie had not been dampened, who knows where Sousa would have taken me. At the annual cadet camp my friend and I tried to implement that camaraderie by inviting some of our fellow cadets who, unlike us were distinguished with stripes of authority, to share our gin in the methylated spirits bottle. Our invitation was met with undue hostility. We were not to know they were militant abstainers. The problem was we had no chevrons to be stripped from our sleeves, so long-term punishment was limited; and the matter was settled within the tent. I still remember being hit from behind and the rifle butt on my neck.

When it came to national service, which persisted into the late 1950s, I was excluded because of my calcanea vera which, in common parlance, translated as very flat feet. All my life, if I walked long distances or had jobs which required my standing on my feet for many hours, the spasticity and consequential pain particularly of my peroneal muscles and tendons and the small extensor muscles on the dorsum of the foot was intense. The pain was often incapacitating for a day or more, and the only antidote I found very late in life was R.M. Williams boots. Surgery was excluded very early.

My friends came back, but apart from the “Nasho” anecdotes very few continued with any association with armed forces. A number of the medical students committed themselves to the various armed services in order to pay for their tuition but also to provide 1,500 pounds tax free a year until they finished their course.

On graduation, they would be promoted to Naval lieutenant or equivalent and in return after their intern year they were expected to give four years of service. My father, who had strong links with armed service through his work in the Repatriation Department as a doctor and somebody who spent both pre-war and later during World War 11 as an officer in “the wavy navy” was keen that I join the Navy. His attention to polishing his handmade shoes I could never emulate; so that fantasy drifted away.

However, during the 1960s, with two kids and a wife also involved in post-graduate study, money was tight. I was working in the Monash Department of Medicine at the then Prince Henry’s Hospital in St Kilda Rd Melbourne, which was conveniently located next to Victoria Barracks. Out of the blue, a doctor with strong links with the medical corps whom I remember as Colonel Hogan, asked whether I would do some of morning sick parades at the Barracks. This led to more work undertaking the annual medical examination of the ranks, there and elsewhere in Victoria.  Then, as the ballot came in for Vietnam recruitment, I was asked to undertake the medical examinations of the conscripts.

I had kept my opinions very much to myself, but I was personally devastated by the 1966 khaki election where the Coalition achieved a landslide as they played “jingo bells” all night. It is why I find this continual beating of the tom-toms of war even now so appalling. Apparently Vietnam has not been lesson enough, witnessing a generation of damaged men and women who emerged from that conflict and initially without the plaudits of a substantial number of their own generation, who instead protested in the streets.

Yet here was even the opportunity to examine young men who had been conscripted by the roll of a roulette wheel to fight in a foreign land for what proved to be vacuous objectives. I did not hide my distaste but nor did I volunteer my opposition on a street corner.  The fact that my step-mother shared the secretary role of the Australia-China Society with Myra Roper at that time and that she and my father went to and were lionised in China several times during the course of the 1960s did not affect my job with the army.

We were a strange bunch, who used to gather several nights a week to examine each bunch of conscripts. Two doctors were teamed, one older and one younger who did not know one another beyond vicarious professional association. Nevertheless, there were times when I was rostered alone to undertake the recruit examinations. One night when alone I had about ten young blokes, all of whom failed my medical examination. My strictness on ensuring fitness to die perhaps swayed some of the decisions that evening. It was such a calamity that such a number were unfit, but it passed without comment from above. Incidentally we were asked not to say anything beyond that required to elicit symptoms, but if a significant disease was discovered then all one could say was that the potential recruit should go and see his local doctor.

The ability to detect mental illness was very limited and the illness had to be florid. This was the case when I was confronted by a restless young man walking up and down the corridor who insisted he wanted a gun so he “could kill some commies”.  When I found he had an eyeball tattooed on each buttock, I regretfully failed him by writing “atypical strabismus” on his form, thus avoiding an essay on his obvious mental troubles. These examinations did not give us leeway to highlight mental health problems; I hoped that the local medical doctor, if he ever saw one, recognised that the young man had a serious problem.

At the other end of this medical cocoon was the recruit who turned up, complete with caftan, beads and sandals, a flower child in all ways. He stood defiantly with his principled stance, refusing to be examined. Fortunately, the only doctors left that evening were a few of the younger ones, who knew one another and thus were never rostered to work together. This defiance was an exceptional situation. The older doctors left us to sort out this problem.

Thus, we did have an advantage of youth in that we did not pull out the “I’m a doctor; you’ll do as I say” line. We just negotiated and as the night wore on, he knew that we would wait him out. He wanted some exposure as the “victim” being taken away, but as my fellow doctor said, “Look, we all want to go home. Just get up on the couch and let us do a quick examination”. For us, it was about the minimal set of words which should have given him the hint, if he had listened, that we were going to fail him. After some more tedious palaver, he consented to a limited examination.

We did not have to examine far – only needed a stethoscope on his chest. Listening to his heart, he had a very loud “machinery murmur”; all that trouble he had put us through. There was no way he could pass his medical examination; in fact, he needed to see a cardiac specialist.  He had got his exemption.

Realising that all was not well, his attitude changed from truculence to fear – poor bugger – as he saw us discussing the finding – but all we were permitted to say was that he should go and see his local doctor as soon as possible. Even here we were not even allowed to tell him he had failed, even after such close contact. “Just don’t delay, but go home – and good luck”.

A Catalyst

Nick Coatsworth is an unusual doctor.  He has an impressive career inter alia working for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) from 2004 in Congo-Brazzaville, the Republic of Chad, and the Darfur region of Sudan. Before becoming President of MSF Australia in 2010-11. I have never met him, but during my professional career, I have met a couple of doctors with his easy confidence and natural charisma with the underlying skill to match. “This man ain’t no desk jockey,” as they say. However, this past  week he has shown perfect political timing. The boyish grin has been replaced by the serious “defender of the Faith”.

I think he is a beacon, despite being the face that tried to flog the COVID-19 App, which was such a dud, and which I thought might have precipitated him moving out of the Department. He was truly handed the Australian “sandwich”. There are two ways such involvement can be interpreted, apart from bad judgement – of which we were all guilty of at one time or another. The first is that he genuinely believed; and/or he was the epitome of the loyal public servant.

The Toblerone Zone – 1942

There is such uncertainty about the government. This is a government once applauded for its suppression of the Virus. Now, its success is being assailed. Words like “hermit kingdom” and “gilded cage” are bandied about. But the polls suggest that Australians support border closure. There is another metaphor for the current situation “Switzerland in 1942” – a neutral country surrounded by ongoing war.

Australia has been inured to defending the borders. Against the “boat people”, we have an enduring policy of making asylum seekers very unwelcome and thus over more than 20 years of border closure and the construction of basic facilities offshore, in PNG or Nauru and countries like Cambodia which took money for not much of anything. However, it fuelled the flame that has never fully died of “White Australia”.

Stripping all the self-interest away, there are distinct matters that face the Government linked to the changing times –

  • The intertwining of political and scientific speak – the prize example is “herd immunity”. Ask a politician to define it; I remember when the late Senator Button asked the then Minister for Science a question with notice along the lines of “what was the relationship between an inch and a centimetre?” The Minister could not answer. Here are the key words – “without notice” – to which I would add, “without understanding”. Senator Pattison, in his cameo appearance on Q&A this week, has shown in his responses that this lack of understanding has persisted in the plush red of the Senate.
  • the efficacy and uptake of the various vaccines. The Government bet on the AstraZeneca vaccine where controversy seems to have engendered the hesitancy beloved by the anti-vaxxers. Unfortunately the chance to obliterate that hesitancy by providing a choice of vaccines has not been an option. Choice is important provided there is a similar proven efficacy. As for anti-vaxxers – they are not hesitant – they are clear about their opposition.
  • the prevention of community spread and the fact that there has been an attitudinal and behavioural change towards hygiene – masks are one example. There is a developing phenomenon of living with the virus as vaccination rolls out; the images of Australian intensive care units and dying patients have been removed from the media screens to be replaced by images of India. Nevertheless, so long as the health services are not compromised within Australia, then the government has eased restrictions locally. After all, there are few politicians who want to be unpopular, and in many countries this loosening of the restrictions is very much ad hoc and often premature.
  • the construction of dedicated quarantine facilities for incoming travellers, where it seems there is no plan beyond expansion of the current Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory.
  • the agitation for Australian border opening. Now the Genie is well and truly out of the bottle as the business groups are beginning not only to agitate but also, as one influential person initially showed by her disdain for the collateral damage of lives lost, to question what might be an “acceptable” level of deaths from COVID that would accompany open borders. “Death at the Australian Open” would be a title for a crime novel; or schadenfreude.

The Coatsworth message was at its heart very authoritarian. All the seers, laureate prophets, tea leaf examiners, bird augers, and hand washing experts should be sidelined, and the only collective voice should be those who have to articulate and implement the policy.

It could be a long shot, it but sounds by his oratory that Coatsworth is submitting his application, and the one image I have of him is a very thoughtful guy, but one who when he makes up his mind that’s it! He may be able to accomplish this huge Medusa head task, especially as he has a track record of leadership. Good to give him a go.

On second thoughts, maybe the application should be for Prime Minister.

Reformation – COVID1517

The Clown at 95 

In Danville, the boy spent a lot of time at the movies. Fifteen cents bought a ticket to the Palace to see westerns, Bela Lugosi’s latest or slapstick comedies with Buster Keaton, the moody pratfall master, and Laurel and Hardy. Stan Laurel, the British-born comic with the bow tie and bowler, was a particular favourite and he would practice his routines. Years later, after his own rise, he tracked down the reclusive Laurel and visited him at home. When Laurel died in 1965, he delivered his eulogy with a tearful Keaton sitting in the front row. “God bless all clowns,” he said, delivering his hero’s favourite poem, “The Clown’s Prayer.” “Who star in the world with laughter,/ Who ring the rafters with flying jest,/ Who make the world spin merry on its way.”

A year later, he did the same at Keaton’s funeral. 

Dick & Mary

I could not resist putting this extract into my blog. The “he” is Dick Van Dyke, now 95 but in amazingly good fettle, an actor to whom I have never paid that much attention. His show “The Dick Van Dyke Show” with his co-star Mary Tyler Moore was always somewhere in the background wherever there was a television set in a house. The times I watched it, it was a combination of slapstick towards us, the audience; yet an underlying sexual attraction between him and Moore. Otherwise, it was just conventional American sitcom.

I knew he was very tall, and that he was always fresh-faced youthfulness disguising a man who was both an alcoholic and smoked too much. Yet, teetotal but still chewing nicotine gum, he now looks remarkably fit and ever broadly smiling, his signature.

I was fascinated by the reference to Stan Laurel, and the fact that as a relatively unknown actor he gave the eulogy to Laurel at his 1965 funeral, where another famous comic, the deadpan Buster Keaton, was sitting in the front row. Keaton died a year later and again Van Dyke was the eulogist at the funeral. Before his death, Keaton gave Van Dyke one of his most valued possessions – a set of billiard cues – which Van Dyke still possesses.

These names mean very little today, but in their day, each was huge at the box office. Comedian Stan Laurel was one part of the Laurel and Hardy duo. Stan Laurel was in fact English born, in Ulverston in Cumbria, where a statue of the two has been erected.

All very interesting along the pathway of nasturtium trivia, but what caught my eye was that there is a Clown’s Prayer which, in abridged form, is somewhat different from that quoted above, says:

As I stumble through this life, help me to create more laughter than tears, dispense more cheer than gloom, spread more cheer than despair. Never let me become so indifferent, that I will fail to see the wonders in the eyes of a child, or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged. Never let me forget that my total effort is to cheer people, make them happy, and forget momentarily, all the unpleasantness in their lives. And in my final moment, may I hear You whisper: “When you made My people smile, you made Me”.

Clown’s service, Hackney

It did not take much further research to find out that there is a Holy Trinity Church in Hackney in the London East End which is known as the Clown’s Church, because every year there is a service in February to celebrate the life of Joe Grimaldi, the first archetypical clown to use the white-face makeup and the term “Here we go again”. Since 1967, the congregation has been permitted to dress as clowns. Notwithstanding, the most recent vicar is not only a chaplain to the Queen, but she has been made the Suffragan Bishop for Dover (which means she hangs out in Canterbury Cathedral).

I have travelled a long way from Mr Van Dyke, unless he has performed at one of the Clown services – but then meandering, as I say, plucking the nasturtiums as I go is one of the features of blog writing. And I refrain from suggesting a new form of opening prayer for Parliament – but the words of the prayer belie the title the Clown. More I think of Pagliacco.

Mouse Whisper

In many places of worship my image has been carved under many a pew.

I as a mouse may be one thing, even venerated. Mice in plague proportions overrunning and destroying the world are another. Mice showed the way in demonstrating the efficacy of penicillin, and you humans have benefited mightily by our sacrifice. Ask Howard Florey who also said that humans were 500 times the size of a mouse.

You as a human may be one thing and you too may be venerated. But humans overrunning and destroying the world are another.

It is just a matter of how the plague is controlled, especially when all who are running around don’t acknowledge that they can be a plague within their world of Horizons.