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.

Modest Expectations – Cheers Bar

Cheers Bar

The actual address of Cheers Bar was 112½A Beacon Street, Boston – in other words I have resorted to an approximation for this week’s blog.

One of my former partners, who was a very good mathematician, said that he always judged his peers by knowing whether they knew when to approximate. I have never been numerical, but I know you can vanish along the decimal value of π and end up in a different world where sanity evaporates in the pursuit of such accuracy in this relationship of circumference to diameter of a circle. Endless fun.

One of the matters that used to irritate me was when I was seeking certain data, I was told it was unavailable because 100 per cent of the data had not been collected. In other words, the data publication had been delayed by over-zealous statisticians when 95 per cent would have been adequate – if the distribution is normal then approximation of data around the mean of the distribution is mostly likely to be good enough for policy considerations.

But this wise mathematician also told me that when coming to conclusions make sure your assumptions are clear and transparent; something unfortunately becoming less and less evident in public policy. Then, your approximations could be assessed as to validity in the pursuit of making the particular decision.

The excellent Dr Paul Kelly, the Chief Health Officer, clearly outlined the government assumptions in his critique (let us not say criticism) of the government’s reasoning in invoking the provisions of the Biosecurity Act to keep Australians in India from returning. His was calm, measured, sensible advice, which the Government, now scrambling to save face, will follow. Within this prediction, it shall become clear how accurate is the approximation of 9,000 Australians in India who require repatriation.

And so it was, when the COVID-19 infected Dutton emerged in their midst, it was fortunate that Kelly was there to quell the Cabinet hysteria.

I do not know just how the Government have guessed, estimated, approximated and predicted the number of Australians who have visited our near neighbours. After all, the assumption is that each of the verbs in the previous sentences mean approximately the same thing, but with an ascending order of assuredness in their use in media releases.

With most of Asia plunged into pandemic considerations has Mr Coates, in that tattered remnant of his imperial cloak – the Olympic Games, issued an approximation of the number of athletes that will become infected during this festival. My assumption is that he will say “none”. Just an approximation after all!

The Divine Light of the Gods

One of the interesting aspects of the spread of COVID-19 in India is the reaction it has generated in those who, one way or another, are driven to comment. The threat to put Australian citizens in prison because they want to come home and escape the virus was hysterical. The fact that some of our best cricketers were caught up in this catastrophe only complicated the situation.

Now I am not one of those who believe that the Government’s immediate midnight reaction would have not been approved by a strong segment of the population. These have remained quiet while megaphones from both left and right have given Morrison a roasting, to coin a phrase. However, what has been most confronting here has been the sight of the funeral pyres night after night on television. As somebody said, it is a vision of hell.

In India, fire is a very important symbol. Yet India was associated with the flower generation where there was always some swami in some ashram somewhere in India where mostly privileged Europeans were drawn to seek “enlightenment”, and lotus flower symbolism was everywhere.

I first had the privilege of traveling the length and breadth of India when it was a secular state. Then the Nehru-Gandhi hegemony was strong.

With the ascension of the charismatic Modi, India has been converted into a Hindu state, despite the fact that India’s Muslim population is the World’s third largest, close behind two avowed Muslim nations, Indonesia and Pakistan. Hindu intolerance is confronting. I have entered a Kali temple, one of the few not prohibited to non-Hindu people. To me Kali was a black doll monster, at the centre of a dark incense-ridden foreign place where I was both fascinated and yet repelled.

Contrast that with the elephant head Ganesh, where the myth of his head being chopped off by an enraged Shiva and that of an elephant sown on to replace the human head is just one of tales which surround the religion. Yet we have a figure of Ganesh in our home. Ganesh is a symbol of good fortune; and it gives a clue as to how pervasive Indian culture becomes once you have been and seen.

The COVID-19 pandemic was never going to bypass India, because wherever you go in India there are crowds, pressing in upon one another. Modi loves the theatre of the large crowd and given that Varanasi is his electorate we are constantly confronted with the spectacle of the crowded river Ganges. When I was first exposed to this crush of humanity, it was as overwhelming as the smell of India, which never leaves you. There is an axiom which tests the strength of any union, association or whatever you call two foreigners abroad. “One watches the bags, while the other creates the space.” It always seemed to work no matter where we were in India – and crowds.

It is easy to ascribe a national identity to India, and there is no doubt the Hindu caste system has embedded in itself a sense of entitlement – at least with some. This is pronounced whenever you deal with Indians as at some stage a sense of entitlement will bob up.

Again, as an example, I remember giving a talk to a group of health professionals, predominantly doctors. There were both male and female doctors at this meeting in a town in the very South of India. My talk was given over dinner in which we ate our curry served on banana leaves. The whole atmosphere was so authentic – down to the separation of the male and female doctors onto separate tables, including my partner.

This often overbearing regard for the place of women was one of the problems I have encountered, not only in India but also with some Indian-trained doctors here. Yet Indian men have a great reverence for their parents, and one of the most obvious examples of this are reports of the number of older Indian women in wheelchairs at airports; sons are very concerned to ensure the mother does not have to walk from the plane, but they clearly show their wonderful ability to walk when greeted by family and leaping from the wheelchair to run to the family. This atavistic reverence is reflected in the number of stories of the Indian-born Australian now caught in India.

The other is the number of small children who seemingly have been lodged in India. It is very difficult to see an infant apparently helpless against the encroaching Virus and to not elicit the reaction for someone “to get them out of there”. What is the reason for this? Could it be that the couple working full-time in Australia want a safe haven for their child’s care, and grandparents are an obvious place to park the children, even if it means leaving them in India for extended periods. Up until now that practice has gone unnoticed or unsanctioned.

The Indian-born population in Australia amounts to 455,389 or 1.9 per cent of the Australian population. The affinity for the country of birth, especially when there are close relatives in India, remains strong. However, one of the prices of being a citizen is that you also accept that some of your personal risks clash with public policy considerations. However, if one knows the risk, then one must also accept the consequence if risk translates into liability for the wrong choice.

The fact is that the Australian government has not factored in the need for a more long term sustainable quarantine capacity will inevitably mean hardship will occur to those waiting to return from overseas. Just as it is trying to contain the Virus where up to 50 per cent of incoming travellers may be infected throws this policy stumble into letters writ large. Larger and more custom-made quarantine facilities, where it is an accepted fact that when coming from most places worldwide there will be an invariable 14-day hiatus during which everyone will quarantine and be tested multiple times, with designated exceptions such as New Zealand and the island dependencies of our two countries. The volume of people needing to come here will increase with an impatient tourist industry scratching at the Government’s door.

Politicians try to fill the vacuum of uncertainty with unsubstantiated optimism (remember the vacuous Trump assertions as America died), which in this case is trying to predict the future of a disease in which the vaccine remains unproven in its long term efficacy – and long term in this situation means “a year”.

Does that prediction alter when our young politicians realise that their contemporaries in both Brazil and India are dying from the mutant strains stealthily and rapidly causing them to die unpleasantly; and be under no illusions this chameleon virus can mutate at the drop of a tartan rug.

Australia has achieved an enviable record in quarantine, even though there are obvious blemishes. Parenthetically, rabbits were one example. Eradication has been so successful that rabbits are now a luxury item on the dinner table. Nowhere else in a major country except New Zealand has achieved suppression of the Covid-19 virus to the same extent we have. However, you can never relax, as shown by our pursuit of the rabbit plague.  (I consider Taiwan a special situation being more an armed camp than a nation.)

But after the Indian tide, the biggest test will be to see how the Government handles the anticipated 1,000 travellers returning from the Toyko Games, without assuming that any will become COVID-19 positive while out of Australia. Now where will be the holding pen? Even if the team members don’t all return at the same time, there will be a significant number to be managed at any one time in quarantine.

An expanded permanent human quarantine capacity that is not a “make do” in willing hotels clearly is essential. This sector will require staffing. That means more staffing and where does that staffing come from? I have worked in rural health encompassing inter alia assuring workforce for many years.  To achieve sustainability in the workforce in a country such as ours is very difficult, especially when the policy makers are blissfully ignorant of what works because there is no readily available corporate memory nor empirical evidence of what works – just opinion and opinionation.

Ganesh

Here we Go Again

I have worked in rural health policy for a considerable time and it sticks in the craw when a doctor reveals his ignorance by hailing the modest injection of a rural element into the Medicare benefit for eligible patients as if it is something new. Since there has been no rebuttal, this statement just confirms that the profession has no realisation of what has occurred in the past, what has worked and what has not.

Throwing money at medical workforce problems has never worked.

Repeatedly I have outlined the challenges that face the provision of rural health, and the problem is that the structural change I assisted in bringing in through the University Departments of Rural Heath, the Rural Clinical Schools and the Rural Intern Training Program in Victoria can easily disappear if there are no champions for its continuance. This requires advocacy, not lazy policy makers, who do not care a “tuppenny tart”, as long as they seem to be doing something, even if it is a discredited strategy.  This reminds me of that New York wit, Ida Downer, who wrote “Maybe some consultant provided advice at an appropriate price in order to maintain their expensive watch vice.

There are four challenges which should be addressed in the development of any rural health policy.

  • Social dislocation – by which I mean that the spouse does not want to go there or where you have to send the children away to school. The concept of a young graduate going to a rural location and staying there for his or her professional life is increasingly a myth. The sensible response to this challenge is to accept that five years is a reasonable stint in one place.
  • Isolation – this occurs in a variety of forms, but professional isolation is one danger, even with the myriad professional development programs including online options, coupled with the availability of registrars and other doctors employed in subsidised training schemes. The sole doctor risks burnout, and one of the aims of the programs I promoted was to reduce the possibility of professional isolation.
  • Community tolerance – in country towns, especially if you are the only one, you have no privacy. Therefore, there are two options – immerse yourself and your family in the life of the town or get away from the town at weekends which, in a single doctor town, leads to all sorts of antagonisms. In other words, the way the community views its medical workforce is critical for retention.
  • Succession planning – often the hardest, because there is a push me/pull me syndrome in many country doctors. When the media spotlight is focussed on the local doctor, then if the request is not for money it is a plea for more doctors. The doctor should be planning for succession, but how many do that? Often, when the doctor is offered a doctor to assist, then the resident doctor changes direction because the fear is of another doctor impairing the incumbent’s income, which is generally a nonsensical fear unless there is deeper pathology than just basic insecurity. The successful country practices involve succession planning so there is a gradual ageing of the workforce and a balanced practice with each doctor having the general skills to provide emergency treatment but having a special skill required in the practice, such as anaesthesia and obstetrics.

Money is always an important component and I was involved in a number of Inquiries in which the level of Medicare (and before that Medibank) patient benefits was the focus. One of the misunderstandings is that doctors’ fees are set by government; the Federal governments sets the level of the patient medical benefit and when I had direct involvement generally the benefit and actual fee charged by the doctor did not have a substantial gap. That does not hold any longer, except for general practitioners for whom different policies have been implemented, such as those that encourage bulk billing. The rural doctor, whether general practitioner or specialist, nevertheless have other sources of income to supplement the income derived from Medicare Benefits.

If I were conducting a review again of the rural workforce, flying from place to place as I did in the late 1990s, I would ask the same questions to find out what was happening in relation to those four challenges outlined above. You need to stay overnight as I did, and not fly in and fly out the same day. This overnight stay can reveal the tension and the stratagems of avoidance when the simple question of more money and more resources are not automatically accepted as incontrovertible fact.

As a person who engineered one solution to rural workforce and see it being trashed after you have “left the room”, it is very sad, but as someone once said about me, my epitaph should be “He tried!” 

A Woman Scorned

I never liked her father, Vice President under Bush Junior. Not that he was unintelligent. He was, but dangerously so.  I’m sure that I do not like her politics, but then Liz Cheney is a determined woman, who has a set of principles and Trump in his disregard of such principles should be challenged and defeated.

Liz Cheney

She is the sole representative from the State with the smallest population, Wyoming. It is the one State that has one representative in Congress and two in the Senate.

Wyoming is a rich State, and the inhabitants pay no State income taxes because this is fossil fuel territory – oil, gas, and coal. To see the kilometre long coal trains traversing the Wyoming prairie is a sight not easily forgotten. Cheyenne is the capital in the southern part of the State two hours from the Colorado border and one hour from Laramie, where the University of Wyoming is located. Both lie on this altoplano dry area, and travelling across the country just after the snow melts, it is easy to see how the vegetation struggles.

But six hours away in the northern part of the State is Jackson situated at the southern end of the Jackson Hole Valley. Here the scenery is some of the most spectacular, with the Tetons jaggedly thrusting their snow-capped peaks more than 4,000 metres in the cærulean sky. Jackson epitomises the tax haven for the ultra-rich, with an average annual income of the residents being US$16 million, a place with which her father was heavily identified.  One commentator has encapsulated the Jackson conundrum.

This form of “gilded green philanthropy,” widens even further the ugly socio-economic divide, hollowing out the community and making it harder for workers to live nearby. Unable to find affordable housing in town, they are pushed all the way into the neighbouring state of Idaho, on the other side of the treacherous and steep 8,431-foot-high Teton Pass. These workers told many a harrowing story about just making up — and then down — to work in the dead of Wyoming winter.

Close by to the Tetons is the Yellowstone Park with his surface covering the subterranean turbulence, which manifests itself in bubbling pools and geysers spreading across and into both Idaho and Montana. Some have said this is where the destruction of continental America will occur with a massive explosion.

In the meantime, there is Liz Cheney, at the prime of her working life being repudiated on voices by her Republican colleagues yet receiving a standing ovation at the end of her speech to the Caucus yesterday. The explosion which she is engineering under Trump will come, if death or gaol do not supervene. Trump who requires a cosmetic shield to conceal his vacuity, his seditious behaviour and mental deterioration must maintain his profile for another four years. During that time, his support among his own age group will winnow with inevitable death.

Liz Cheney’s march to leadership of the Republican Party is now unconstrained by any faux-loyalty. I shudder though if Wyoming becomes the model for USA. Ironically, Trump tried, but his criminal streak and his narcissism saw him come up short.

Liz Cheney may succeed. In the short term I applaud her unyielding opposition to Trump, but I also remember she is the daughter of Dick Cheney, who was de facto President for eight long years.

Mouse Whisper

There is an entrancing book published recently called “Entangled Life”. Before anyone thinks this is one of those morbid novels about self-discovery, may I interject and say it is a very entertaining exploration of the world of the fungi. One insight into the truffle makes one realise that its smell has to compete against “the olfactory racket of the forest”. As the author, Merlin Sheldrake, writes “every visual disadvantage that truffles face -being entombed in the soil, difficult to spot once unearthed and visually unappealing once spotted – they make up with their smell”.

Elsewhere in the book, Merlin (how appropriate for a mycologist) describes one of the truffle experts as having olfactory flashbacks how powerful is the memory aroma of the top truffles.  But even so he admits there is still so little known about the fungus, including Truffle Mice! Boy, can we smell!

Modest Expectations – Stumps

After another 100 days I hope the world will have the same hope in Biden that it does now after the first 100 days.  Having survived the four years of President Trump with all his mimicry of Batman’s enemies, it is good to have Bruce Wayne alias Joe Biden back.  Sorry, so sorry I mistook your disguise as the doddering anziano, but your treatment of Anita Hill can never be disguised or forgiven because you begat Clarence Thomas, one of the great catastrophes of modern America.

Sometimes He gets it Right

Anonymouse

It was May and then June last year that this Blog started to advocate for custom built quarantine facilities. One of the Blog’s mates thought it would be too expensive, and in any event the hotel industry had near empty facilities desperately in search of customers, so hotel quarantine was born. People returning from overseas fitted the bill for the missing customers, but viral outbreaks from these hotels have sporadically occurred. However, use of such facilities has also produced lessons – all of which can be applied to the adaptation of or construction of bespoke quarantine facilities in each State near ports of entry.

The Federal Government seems to be able to wrap its collective mind around all sorts of spending needs – defence spending seems to be a bottomless pit with an endless time frame.  However, when the matter of defence is against an invisible foe, with so many tricks in its RNA, then Government seems not able to grasp the enormity of the problem and has sat on its hands for 12 months now apparently wishing it would all go away. COVID-19 will persist, with no idea when it will be conquered. At the same time, the social links between countries will be irrevocably changed.

Quarantine facilities require their own expertise and one of the various expertises needed is to ensure the rapid construction with best practice observed. That is why hard-nosed visionaries such as the Wagners in Queensland who were asked by that Government to prepare a plan, should be taken seriously; their Toowoomba airport venture should be sufficient proof as to their competence and ingenuity.

But in true Australian style, Government asks for a report. Jane Halton’s report was adequate in that she articulated the obvious – a national quarantine capacity – although it’s hard to see that recommendation, together with a collection of documentation, to be worth the alleged $118,000 it cost. The Report nevertheless provides the weasel words for the Government to ignore the positive parts of the report.  For instance, the Halton pronouncement set out such a situation for the “Commonwealth Weasel”.

States and Territories should now consider their hotel quarantine operations in line with the features of good practice and make adjustments where necessary to meet these baselines. Noting issues about scalability and the specialised nature of the workforce required to implement hotel quarantine, States and Territories should also investigate establishing standing arrangements with AUSMAT in the event of the need to scale up operations quickly.

Stripping out the verbiage, of which there is plenty, the recommendation is to get a national system of quarantine, with agreed standards and scalable capacity.  Too much to ask that our Federal and State Governments behave like grownups and just do this? The Federal Government’s admissions about quarantine in relation to returnees from India demonstrate the scale of the problem.

How long ago did Halton write her report? 

Concept village – mining, quarantine …

The Inglenooks of Age

When I was a young doctor, elderly patients who presented in hospital, with apparently uninteresting symptoms and signs, besides being old, were called “old sloughs”. Now I have reached that “old slough” age, it just confirms how offensive that description was. Even then I recoiled from the dismissive way hospitals were places where these patients were admitted. Care was a secondary consideration. Therefore, old people when there was considered nothing more could be done, were left in a bed with minimal attention until they could be moved to a geriatric hospital, which was one step before the nursing home.

One case stood out when I was reviewing some of these older people in hospital. It was at a time before the specialty of geriatrics had been carved away from general medicine and general practice. In Victoria there were geriatric hospitals; later I received a more detailed insight into such care when I had to run the rehabilitation unit at one of the large teaching hospitals in Melbourne and later still spent time reviewing facilities when I was responsible for certain sectors of community aged care.

I stopped at the bed of an elderly lady who had been classified as suffering from dementia. I reviewed her charts and there, on her drug charts, was a nightly dose of Relaxa-tabs. She had been taking these for years and the order seemed not to have been changed. Naturally, with the dose prescribed, she would sleep, but I was taken aback by the quantity.

Relaxa-tabs contained bromine and so, out of curiosity, I ordered a serum bromine. When the result came back it showed her serum bromine was at toxic levels and clearly explained her apparent dementia.

The tablets were stopped at the time of the test, and once the serum level was known treatment was instituted to flush the bromine out of her system. Over the next fortnight her mental state improved to such an extent that I cannot remember whether she went home directly or had a staged return to a more normal living. The demented state cleared – I know that much.

To me it was a salutary lesson in labels, especially now I am of that age. Bromine in not the problem it was in the past as it has been removed from reputable pharmaceuticals. I have read that in the USA it is licensed to be added to the water supply of naval ships and oil rigs, as in addition to having sedative properties, it also allegedly dampens the male libido. I grew up, myth or not, believing that bromine was added to the tea of soldiers for such an effect.

You can have as many government inquiries into aged care as you like, but society has passed you by when you strike 80. The elderly with money can have their care softened by the cushioning effect of their money. I had an aunt who lived for her last years in a very plush nursing home, but even in that home, it was evident how many of the staff were recent immigrants, particularly from the Philippines and Nepal.

Yet neglect remains the headline for much that goes on in the aged care sector. The stories on the one hand of the Greek Orthodox Church demanding its nursing homes pay a tithe so the archbishop can have a wardrobe of fancy raiment or, on the other hand, of nursing home owners who live lavish lifestyles, complete with the signature matching yellow Lamborghinis, running nursing homes with minimum standards of care. I well remember the whole fiasco of Bronwyn Bishop’s stewardship 20 years ago when she was the Minister responsible for defending the use of kerosene baths in nursing homes Nothing much has changed, except perhaps the kerosene.

The exploitative areas of the nursing home industry should be shut down. When Governments crab away from such a drastic solution, they tacitly agree that the immensity of the problem of nursing home care requires not only more but also better trained resources in a coordinated environment and regulatory unification between the sectors – and Governments keep saying that, but effectively do nothing about solving the problem. It is ridiculous for the Commonwealth to be running the aged care sector and the States the public hospitals, when it should be the one sector.

As indicated above, I have been involved at various times of my professional career with the aged care sector, and it is a no brainer. There should be a single system, because age is a continual wave eventually crashing on the shores of death.  At present, the method of distribution of health care is via aged care packages, depending on the funding source floating on the top of the wave. Quality is incidental.

There is a philosophy with certain government sources of shovelling out the cash – job done – but what about quality and outcome? To some bureaucrats that requires actual work, collection of data and, given the reigning politicians suppress as much information as possible, they may argue what is the point?

Political announcements are all about input and the immeasurable glorious future where the recipients of such input are chewing lotus leaves – or their gums. Who needs data, especially when this is the third or fourth time the same announcement of government largesse has been made? To make the point, sometimes irony is the best way to highlight the problem, especially when the government itself is the very epitome of irony when it says, “We are taking the matter very seriously.”

The other public problem is the lack of an articulate advocate for reform on behalf of aged care residents. If you look at the vast array of those who appear on the media, there are none who regularly appear when the topic moves onto the way to actually improve the lot of the aged. The last woman of consequence to appear regularly on a panel show and make an impact by clearly showing that age was not automatically the gateway to dementia was Margaret Scott, the Tasmanian poet, who was a regular guest on Good News Week in the 1990s.

It is mainly a variety of social workers and health professionals who are some way away from being aged, often well skilled in the vocabulary of “shock and horror show”, but stopping short of doing anything.

There is the vaudeville act that the ABC has twice arranged by mixing the very old with the very young. This concept was aired first on the BBC and, given the COVID-19 pandemic, the ABC have been venturing into perilous territory, but it is assumed everybody involved has been “dry cleaned”. The concept is very interesting, but not just as sporadic entertainment. After all, grandparents looking after their grandchildren has been around for a long time, just ask the Indigenous community. I am just not aware of any program which seriously looks at the benefit of those arrangements long term and whether a program such as the ABC is airing is demonstrating anything sustainable or generalisable.

There is also that myth about 70 being the new 50. However, it is illusionary. The general improvement in the welfare of the community has improved. Too many in the years after the “new 50” start to die in a manner not befitting of a reborn generation 20 years younger.

The problem with age is invalidism and the daily humiliations that accompany it. I am reminded of the words of a young woman with motor neurone disease who said she most feared the time she could not wipe her bottom – to her this represented a turning point. Don’t just be appalled about the frail and elderly dealing with such daily humiliations. Demand that every politician spend a week or two in community service looking after the aged and contemplating their own probable destination before they can pontificate about the problems of aged care. Although perhaps their pensions will be such that their choices will be much easier in the future.

The Drums are beating

This past weekend, Essential Quality came fourth in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Louisville is the city in the middle of this blue grass country and Bourbon distilleries.

Essential Quality

As the NYT has reported, pre-race talk among the racing fraternity was all about what Sheikh Mohammed’ al-Maktoum’s money has accomplished, and the fact that the same group completely ignored the international human rights scandal over the Sheikh’s role in the disappearance of Sheikha Latifa, one of his daughters.

But others are speaking up. A group of human rights lawyers and students at the University of Louisville filed a complaint with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, asking it to bar Sheikh Mohammed and thus Essential Quality from the Derby.

“The Horse Racing Commission must also use its authority to end his involvement in Kentucky horse racing, at least until Princess Latifa is free of captivity,” the complaint document insisted. The Kentucky Racing Commission went for the long blue grass; after all, the pervasive influence of the UAE ruler who pays the wages of a large segment of the racing industry not only in Kentucky but also across the world. In Australia where the racing industry has a disproportionate influence, one can only cringe when one hears our equine commentators falling over themselves to address “His Highness”.

Two weeks ago a panel of United Nations human rights experts, including members of a panel that deal with forced disappearances and violence against women, asked Dubai for proof that Sheikha Latifa was still alive and called for her immediate release.

Evidence of life and assurances regarding her well-being are urgently required,” the U.N. analysts said. In recent years, videos have of Sheikha Latifa, saying she was imprisoned in a Dubai palace and afraid for her life. In a 2018 video she said, “her father only cares about himself and his ego.” In an ominous premonition, “I’m making this video because it could be the last video I make,” she said. She was last seen at a meal hosted by her father that the former Irish President and erstwhile defender of human rights, Mrs Mary Robinson attended. She later said she had been tricked into attending. Yet her excuses sounded lame in a report of the matter in the Irish Examiner when, in her attempt to rationalise the woman’s dire situation, she was reported to have said Sheika Latifa was said to have a bipolar disorder. I would say it was the least of the Sheika’s worries.

As widely reported, Sheikha Latifa hasn’t been seen in public since an attempt to escape in March 2018, when her Finnish personal trainer and a former French soldier joined forces to smuggle the Sheika aboard a boat, which was later boarded by armed Emirati commandos in Indian waters. Sheikha Latifa and her personal trainer, Tiina Jauhiainen, were captured at gunpoint, sedated and returned to Dubai, with Ms Jauhiainen released after a fortnight. No mention is made of the French soldier’s fate.

This is not the first time Sheikh Mohammed’s treatment of female family members generated outrage. Last year in Britain a judge found that he had abducted another daughter, Shamsa, off the streets of Cambridge in the UK in 2000, flew her by helicopter to France and then returned her to Dubai.

In addition, his youngest wife, Princess Haya, Mrs Robinson’s mate, has also left Dubai fearing for her life after she was subjected to a campaign of intimidation and harassment.

But then the Sheikh has 30 children from six wives. Given the attention being shown to women’s right in Australia, who will be the first to issue an invitation for Princess Latifa to visit Australia – if she hasn’t been killed already by Godolphin Blue.

Godolphin Blue

Tasmania – the place where it counts

Each of five electorates are called divisions. Each division has approximately the same number of electors. Voting for the House of Assembly is by a form of proportional representation using the single transferable vote (STV), known as the Hare-Clark electoral system. By having multiple members for each division, the voting intentions of the electors are more closely represented in the House of Assembly.

Since 1998, the quota for election in each division, after distribution of preferences, has been 16.7% (one-sixth). Under the preferential proportional voting system in place, the lowest-polling candidates are eliminated, and their votes distributed as preferences to the remaining candidates. If a candidate achieves a quota, their surplus votes are redistributed as preferences.

I was once elected to office by a similar system.

In this election Premier Gutwein in his Bass division nearly achieved three quotas. That is the way to do it, because once you reach the required number of votes, the surplus cascades to your fellow party members. If the level of this popularity for Gutwein had been translated across the other four division, he would have won in a landslide.

That is not how Tasmania works. Like Gaul, Tasmania is divided into three parts. Hobart in the south, Launceston in the north, and a conglomerate of towns on the north-west and west coast.

Hobart spreads westwards along the Derwent is a different constituency to Bass. Divided into Clark, where the Liberals struggled to gain a second seat and Franklin, where the Liberal and Labor Party gained two seats and Greens one, the electoral picture is far different in the other three constituencies of Lyons, Braddon and the Gutwein fortress of Bass.

Launceston, the overwhelming population centre of Bass, in fact is a much smaller electorate in geographical terms than the other two northern electorates.  Yet it does include Flinders Island, where the Islanders are the closest living remnant of an Aboriginal race despite some residual controversy, where its purity left with the death of Truganini in 1878.

Devonport is the largest town in the north-west electorate of Braddon, but this electorate has a number of settlements ranging along the coast (plus King Island) and then extending down the Murchison Highway to the “mineral shield” settlements of Rosebery, Zeehan and Queenstown and the fishing and tourist settlement of Strahan lying as it does on Macquarie Harbour, the third largest in Australia, larger than Sydney Harbour.

Within Braddon are some of most extraordinary examples of untouched temperate rain forests, despite the efforts of successive Governments to destroy it in the name of jobs. Here, in one the most magnificent wilderness areas, despite a strong working class population the electorate is strongly Liberal – the heartland of Morrison populism. The Greens are the foe. Yet the south-west is the State’s unique flora and fauna Treasury.

South-west wilderness

Lyons, also a Liberal State electorally, is an amoeboid electorate which spreads its pseudopods from the east coast through the Midlands into  Sheffield, a trendy watering hole just 22 kilometres south of Devonport which lies within Braddon on the north coast. Federally it has a Labor party member but in this State election it voted for the Liberal Party, a crossover trend which occurs in Tasmania; as does the number of Independent members of both State and Federal Parliament, which is not difficult to understand given how strong private politics are in Tasmania.

Last Saturday was the first time I had been in Tasmania when the State election had been held. The gracious concession speech of the Labor leader and the gruff laconic acceptance speech of the Premier contrasted with the predictable loquacity of the Greens leader given a post-election microphone. She unfortunately provided a strident tirade, and before turning her off, I had thought politics at the top here was refreshingly different. Not so.

For a population of about 550,000 with one in four of the population living in Hobart, it has 57 Federal and State politicians; and between 200 and 300 local councillors in the 29 municipalities (it was 79 when I first visited Tasmania).

Tasmania is grossly over-governed. Under the Australian constitution it is guaranteed five seats in the House of Representatives; and as with the US Senate each State has the same number, apart from the ACT and the Northern Territory.

Comparing Wyoming with a population slightly larger than Tasmania’s, it sends only one elected representative to Congress (out of 535). By contrast, Tasmania sends five elected members to the House of Representatives (out of 151).

Therefore, Federal Government policy towards Tasmania has traditionally been to fill the begging bowl and a tree not chopped down or a river not dammed or native species not exterminated have dogged policy considerations to the detriment of the State. It is private politics in its purest form. Take the health system: if Hobart gets A, Launceston and Burnie will want A too.  It is the root cause of so much of Tasmanian problems – the inability to live with one another.

I was just perusing The Advocate, the paper of the north west. The number of football teams in the area is extraordinary, and as I have written elsewhere the antagonism between towns is often reflected on the football field and the closer the towns are to one another, the greater the antagonism and failure to work together. Thus, in terms of rationalising resources, this part of the State presents a problem in getting agreement to any public policy.

My contribution to this private politics, since I am a ratepayer, is the following ; first the gorse along the Zeehan-Strahan road needs to be eradicated before it consumes Tasmania, just as Queensland was threatened by the prickly pear infestation before the introduction of cactoblastis beetle. The other problem with gorse is that below its impenetrable prickly greenery it stores all its dead wood which can act as a fire accelerant.

Peruvian goat herder

Peruvian goat herders have been used in the USA to oversee goats which eat noxious weeds. Paradoxically if you do burn the gorse, then four to five years’ worth of goats feeding on it will eliminate gorse. Andean Peruvians are said to be the most reliable goat herders; apart from which, having a goat herd in the area will provide an industry and something for tourism. However, don’t let the goats become feral otherwise it’s another cane toad.

Secondly is to upgrade the Strahan airport to a level where it can receive planes as big as a 737. The latter is unlikely in the short term even thought it could be used for tourism in the south-west and would certainly open up the tourist market, especially with a rental car franchise. The longer term consideration is with climate change – inevitably the forests will dry out, and therefore there is a need on the west coast of Tasmania for the airstrip to be upgraded so water tankers can land instead of being based in Launceston or Hobart. For those with short memories, no one seriously believed the rainforest of the south coast of New South Wales could burn the way it did.

Then thirdly, more a suggestion than a demand, there is another industry which I find it strange that the Liberal Government has not promoted and that is dedicated quarantine facilities. I would not advocate Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, once a prison, but a properly constructed quarantine facility in Tasmania is certainly closer to Australia than Christmas Island.

Sarah Island, Macquarie Harbour

But then the success of private politics depends on how determined and how committed one is for the long game. I wonder how well this is translated into the future administration of Tasmania.

Mouse Whisper

An unguarded comment?

As one of his colleagues recently remembered:

“30 years ago today, the wonderful C… H… died. Fabulous economist & mentor with unlimited time to talk. Friday drinks in his office often included Pichon Lalande, Lynch Bages & Chateau Talbot as he mulled over the next additions to his cellar. Great man; greatly missed.”

Different time – wrong look. Yet the connoisseur of lotus cuisine continues to be the role model for the current Canberra Elite.

Modest Expectations – Dalmatians

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

Merrick Garland

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

The Sewers of Canberra are not Backchannels 

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

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

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

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

King’s Hall

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

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

Facesaver?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quids from Quarantine

Anonymouse

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

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

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

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

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

All of this raises a few questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Déjà vu

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

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

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

Pictures of pileups on the interstate highways compound the chaos.

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

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

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

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

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

But not our Boy, Ted.

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

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

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

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

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

How very true!   

The King lived; the Prime Minister died

And the Answer is…

a red dawn

where laid

morula upon blades of green

urgency to become

spiky quilted ectoderm

sprouting

teal topknot

emergent wave to

a new world

where neighbours in serried ranks

wave back

until

with swelling yellow belly

we stand among the green detritus

of yesterday

proud that we alone know the answer.

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

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

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

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

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

The pineapple stroll

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

The object of transitory labeorphilia

Modest Expectations – Blue Balloons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brisbane West – A Quirk of Nature

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

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

Wellcamp Airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And from The Boston Globe at the weekend…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Trojan Horse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Churches of Romney Marsh

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

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

John Piper tapestry, Chichester Cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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

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

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

Taxicab 1729

Modest Expectations – O Come Let Us Sing

The Gracchi Brothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craig Reucassel

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

Mr Reucassel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking of which…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Bandiera Gialla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, where are we?

Hardly a case of local viral transmission throughout Australia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The NH&MRC is another story…

Winter on the Isle of Wight

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

Quarr Abbey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a winter of discontent.

Mouse Whisper

Sometimes you read something somewhere 

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

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

Macarthur Park, Los Angeles

Modest Expectations – Spitzbergen

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

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

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

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

Oliver Cromwell on getting rid of the Rump Parliament

Cromwell

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

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

Hawks Nest

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

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

What could we do about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eureka may at last have a long term meaning.

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

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

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

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

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

The Spectre of Parkinsonism

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

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

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

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

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

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

We shall see.

There is always a solution

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

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

Mundi Mundi Plains

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

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

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

All systems go.

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

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

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

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

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

Andrews – a Career going North?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penitents in Holy Week

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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

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

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

Modest Expectations – Round & Round

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thick as a Plantain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Young is unyielding – to a point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The little sparrow 

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

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

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

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

Scabies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letter from Victoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federally-Operated Quarantine Facilities

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

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

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

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

Howard Springs quarantine facility

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

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

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

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

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

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

The model exists in the successful evacuation from Wuhan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, let’s see!

O Panda Alaranjado

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

So has been written to me by an American lawmaker.

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

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

Burning the White House, 1814

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

Mouse whisper

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

Is Julian the Lesser suggesting that:

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

All in all, a rum statement.

Out of breath

 

Modest Expectations – Biblical Trivia

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

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

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

Maybe Sarah Cooper will be a suitable surrogate.

Hunted? Not quite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strangled by a Thread of Cotton

Birdlife in the marshes

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

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

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

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

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

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

That sets the picture for this almost lost resource.

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

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

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

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

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

The Pub in the Scrub

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

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

Fifield’s car graveyards

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

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

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

Ah, the wonderful irony of Australia.

Yuranigh

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

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

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

Aboriginal carved tree trunk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yuranigh grave site

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

John is not the Name

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

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

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

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

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

He was asked his name.

“Jack,” his uncle replied.

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

“Honey.”

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

One against me.

Mudgee Mud

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

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

Ulan coal mine

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

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

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

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

Different times then, different times.

Mouse whisper

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

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

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

all’aperto!