Modest Expectations – Chasen Hines

Farmed maggots

My eye was drawn to an article in the Guardian Weekly by Amelia Tait on the commercial production of maggots inter alia. Apparently, There is a maggot farm in Wales, which sends 600,000 packaged live maggots every year to various areas of the NHS and other health care providers. As Tait noted: “It is believed that ancient aboriginal tribes used maggots to treat the wounded and some academics argue that the practice ‘dates back to the beginnings of civilisation’. Hundreds of years later, these superbugs are now used to fight superbugs. In an age of growing antibiotic resistance, maggots are an alternative to modern medicine, as they help to fight infection by consuming dead tissue and bacteria. Between 2007 and 2019, the number of NHS patients treated with maggots increased by 47%”.

My encounter with the medicinal effect of maggots came very early in my medical career when I was working in the emergency department of a then outer Melbourne suburban hospital. I was called to see a man who had been found in a semi-conscious state in the bush somewhere in the nearby hills. He had been there for well over 24 hours as I was told, but actually how long was never clear; and he was a man who was sleeping rough anyway. When I was introduced to him, he was conscious -surprisingly alert.

When I moved his tangled hair, still matted with a mixture of blood and mud, I could see the white surface of the skull where the tissue had been removed. It was a little taken aback by the mass of white maggots wriggling on the cranial surface. I tried to look unconcerned seeing maggots since I was being accompanied by staff in the treatment bay with a penchant not to touch the patient. They were closely watching my reaction, but I just asked for an instrument to remove them. As I bent over with a pair of tweezers, I sensed feelings of revulsion beside me. Yet there was a wound to clean and there was no need of debridement. Still, the maggots were reluctant to leave their succulent eatery. It took me a considerable time to remove the bulk of the maggots before the patient was transferred to the ward. I heard there were maggots dropping out of a convenient hole in the galeal aponeurosis for the next week. It caused some unusual form of barrier nursing, when a maggot unexpectedly dropped onto a nursing arm.  Let me say I did not follow him up, but he must have been able to resume his wanderings at some time, maggot free.

Maggots have many uses, and one is their use as live bait in fishing if you’ve the personality to thread them onto little hooks and then attach a berley container, shaped like a ski lift gondola packed with more maggots. I’ll leave that piscatorial maggotry to others.

There are thus providers – the insect farmers. The article was almost breathless in describing Olympia Yarger, ACT Person of the Year 2023, in creating new jobs almost as fast as she’s breeding maggots. She is described as an insect breeding pioneer. Her Canberra-based food-waste-management “start-up”, Goterra, breeds maggots and houses them in internet-connected, remote-controlled shipping containers into which customers dump their food waste. When the insects have eaten through the waste, they’re harvested and sold to farms for use as animal food.

Finally, “white maggot” has long been a term of endearment heard bellowed around Australian football grounds, but recently not so much used now when the umpires are dressed in yellow shirts and coloured shorts.

NSW Elections

A few comments, which immediately occurred to me.

Number one: John Howard is not an electoral asset. Repeat after me:  John Howard is not an electoral asset. He emotes sagely after the election as he closes the stable door. So, when he comes calling in the future, resist the urge to disinter him.

Chris Minns

Number two: Chris Minns, the Premier-elect, has an interesting history. His only real job has been as a house husband; otherwise he is the successful detritus of the Catholic right, an essential conservative who, judging from his history, would have been comfortable with Bob Santamaria and his “Movement”. He has not been deterred from rebuff.  His adherence or not to a strict Catholicism, reflected in the conservative diocese with an archbishop with his shock-trooper Maronite brigade trying to repel most social changes, will be a matter to see in his future behaviour as Premier. The Sydney diocese seems immune from any of the Vatican reforms being introduced by Pope Francis.

The other worrying matter is his failure to hold the gambling industry to account.  Minns has a limp-wristed response in only setting up some half-baked trial. The challenge is to stop this insidious tax on the most vulnerable through the poker machine and defying the “joy-boyo” culture which festers in rugby league clubs and horse racing.

In an acknowledged success story, his wife, Anna has made her name and fortune in her Australian franchise of Terracycle, a waste management business founded in New Jersey. Some symbolism here. But there is more, she has started a new company, Boomerang Labs, which spruiks that it is the first circular economy accelerator, “by finding and helping grow the ideas and talents of entrepreneurs and small businesses that have circular systems and solutions at the heart of their businesses”.  It sounds that this is an interesting family, given that their social presence is interlaced with three sons, seemingly well-spaced. But then the Minns family exudes a calm sense of order, despite the odd aberrant T-shirt.

Southern Lights 

It is Friday evening. The Bureau of Meteorology has issued a space weather forecast indicating the prospect of seeing an Aurora Australis across the whole of Tasmania are excellent tonight. The optimal time in the Southern Hemisphere for viewing this phenomenon is between March and September when the Earth’s magnetic field is best oriented to interact with solar winds. Yes, the television transmission is being interrupted so the electromagnetic gremlins are at work. Then suddenly in Brisbane, the lights have gone out in the last quarter of the Melbourne versus Brisbane football match.  A power outage at the Gabba is the signage along the bottom of the screen. Surely the gremlins have not tracked northwards. Talk about outage, the outrage simmers just below the service among the TV commentators.

Aurora Australis, Strahan, Tasmania

My wife has returned from her perch three minutes’ drive away at Lettes Bay. She has had a clear view to the South. This following night there is a cloud bank to the South obscuring the Aurora, but there is still a red glow visible above the clouds. It is a pity because it is a dark night, and there have been nights where the view has been unobstructed as shown in the accompanying pictures.

Saturday morning, and the Aurora images were rife in the media, sent from all over Tasmania, where there had been no cloud interference. Every colour of the visible spectrum could be seen in these images. The images reflect a show only Mother Nature can show when she is at the height of her powers, The Kp-index describes the disturbance of the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the solar wind. The faster the solar wind blows, the greater the turbulence. The index ranges from 0 to 9, the latter figure denoting that an intense geomagnetic storm is under way. Last night it was an 8 here – highly unusual. There were people on the mainland wanting to come down, but it is a challenge to the tourist industry to catalogue these times, because as with all natural space phenomena there is always a degree of unpredictability – you need both an aurora and a clear night.

When I was in Iceland, Aurora Borealis bulletins were released daily at the hotel where I was staying. The hotel was situated well away from the lights of Reykjavik, but nonetheless to see the Northern Lights in Iceland does not mean long treks in the snow as occurs in Norway or Alaska, accompanied by some celebrity. For a time, it was such an accomplishment. In Iceland, as I have noticed before, if one is booked into the right room, the lazy way of seeing the Aurora Borealis is to stretch, sit up, push your nose against the windowpane – and it may be there. But there is something about standing out in the freezing cold to watch Aurora in her many veils dancing on the horizon, which watching from the warmth of your hotel room can never match.

By the way, the football match finally finished with three of the four light towers in operation. Twelve minutes had to be played, and Brisbane won – just.

Ramadan has Come

I was attracted by this article from the Boston Globe, which sets out what is available after dark during Ramadan. I remember being in Turkey during Ramadan. The early morning banging on a drum woke us up, but unlike the Moslem population, we turned over and went back to sleep. When we reflected back on our time as Christians at a time of Ramadan in a Moslem country, the only real privation was not being able to order alcohol with our meal.

Hagia Sophia

Whilst in Istanbul, we were fortunate to visit the Hagia Sophia in the early morning before the crowds arrived. This is one of those buildings which has remained while Byzantium became Constantinople and then Istanbul.  We were lucky to visit while it was a museum; and as such the Hagia threw out a sense of ecumenical tolerance.

When we roamed the upper gallery we very much alone. We were able to contemplate the icons of Christ and Mary holding the Infant Jesus, which had been covered over for many centuries but must have been painted soon after the Emperor completed the building in 538 – and had survived. This Justinian cathedral became a mosque following the Islamic conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and remained a mosque until Kemal Atatürk changed its role from a closed place of worship for Muslims to a museum. Predictably, Erdogan has turned it back into a mosque – and the Christian symbolism presumably lime-washed.

Now Ramadan in Australia. There were reports of Muslim doctors being asked whether they were ill because they were not eating food nor drinking during the day. After several reports, I thought it would be useful if the health services where I worked set up an instructional lecture on Ramadan and the reasons for it, which in turn plumbed the core of the Islamic faith. One of the young female interns, came to our attention because of her mixture of piety and wanting to achieve perfection. This led to behaviour which clashed with the health service staff initially. She needed counselling early on in her internship but her quest for perfection proved appropriate when I suggested she might prepare a presentation on Ramadan. She agreed and it proved extremely popular because she revealed herself as a storyteller and one who had an ability to impart her piety in very simple terms. It had an impact on her colleagues, and her devotion to Islam made her a person who epitomised the very best of Islam. In the end, this work helped her professional relationships.

To me as a Christian, I’ve never been much for other religions – other than recognition that the very best of them have been a massive contributor to the world. After all, without Islamic mathematicians, the World would not have any concept of zero.

But then again, my knowledge of Islam remains scant. I have thumbed through the Qur’an, but the Bible is difficult enough, given the sense of craziness which some of the text creates in my mind.

Comparing Holy Script is one route to better understanding. Customs are also informative to reproduce this article from The Boston Globe (albeit lightly edited) indicating what Muslims consume after dark during Ramadan, in Boston at least.

The local Muslim community has roots in many cultures — 64 nationalities are represented among the 1,500-plus congregants of the Islamic Society of Boston, for example. But whatever dishes appear at iftar, the Ramadan fast is always broken in the same way: with dates, the food with which the Prophet Muhammad is said to have broken his own fast.

Ramadan began Wednesday evening, March 22 with Muslims fasting from dawn until dusk during the holy month, a time of prayer, reflection, service, and charity. When the sun sets, customers might break the fast at home with family and friends, at the mosque, or at one of the area’s diverse halal restaurants, some of which serve special meals for the occasion. {Ramadan ends on Friday April 21}

At Peshawri Kebabs in Waltham, patrons can climb a few stairs to a nook lined with cushions, carpets, and tapestries to share potato-filled samosas; chapli kebabs, flattened, minced patties flavoured with herbs and spices; the mutton stew nihari; and other specialties of Peshawar, in Pakistan near the Afghan border.

In the Fenway, Sufra bakes manousheh, Lebanese flatbreads, to order, topping them with the spice blend za’atar, cheese, ground beef, and more. Hummus, grape leaves, fattoush salad, and chicken shawarma are served with pickles, garlic sauce, house-made pita.

Lazuri Cafe in Allston serves kahvalti tabagi — Turkish breakfast plates laden with eggs, cheese, olives, salads, bread, and sauces — plus stuffed eggplant, the flatbreads pide, Iskender and yogurtlu kebabs, and many other specialties of Turkey.

“That’s a tradition for all Muslims,” says Rokeya Chowdhury, who runs Shanti in Cambridge, Dorchester, and Roslindale, as well as Dudley Cafe in Roxbury, with husband Solmon. “That’s a must. Dates have to be present at that table. They are the first thing you consume after water.”

The fruits are included in the meals Shanti puts together for iftar, the breaking of the fast. This is the second year the Indian restaurants have offered iftar meals. “My husband and I observe Ramadan,” Chowdhury says. “This is our offering to people who may or may not have families here, or even if they have families, we’re all busy. It’s our little part in offering it to people who are observing this, as well as sharing it with others who may not partake in it but could still experience the food.”

Shanti’s Iftar Box, available March 22 to April 20, includes kala chana, black chickpeas with potatoes, onions, and spices; piaju bhaji, lentil fritters; vegetable biryani; traditional sweets — and, of course, dates. Friday through Sunday during Ramadan, Shanti also offers haleem, a thick, savory stew of goat, cracked wheat, lentils, and spices. “It’s a comfort food similar to a porridge,” she says. “You simmer it for hours as the meat and lentils break down. It’s a dish traditionally you would see in South Asia around Ramadan a lot. It’s near and dear to our heart, so we really wanted to offer it to others as well.”

Yahya Noor, owner of Tawakal Halal Cafe in East Boston, describes a similar dish made with oats that is traditional for breaking the fast in Somalia, the country his family left when he was a young boy. “It’s sweet, it’s very savory, it’s pretty much delicious,” he said. “That’s something we grew up on. It has a lot of protein. It was almost like a poor man’s food. We also make drinks — passionfruit or mango or avocado — we usually make smoothies with that.”

During Ramadan, in addition to the regular menu, Tawakal will add things like a light breakfast that includes a few dates, tea or coffee, sambusas, and a kebab. “It’s a lighter way to start,” Noor says. “Everything becomes a reverse during Ramadan. We break fast at night.” Each year, the restaurant also approaches area mosques, offering its services for iftar. “A lot of young single guys, people who don’t cook, people who are working, they depend on going to the mosques to break fast.”

To everyone who comes into the restaurant after fasting, Tawakal offers dates. “It just brings an extra good feeling,” Noor says.

Boston Kebab serves a menu which includes a lighter iftar course of olives and the stuffed Turkish pastry borek for breaking the fast before returning for more prayer. Then there’s a heartier meal that includes lentil soup, salads and appetizers, a plate of mixed kebabs or other daily specials, baklava, and more.

When the sun goes down at Bab Al-Yemen, the buffet begins: Come for the sambusas, stay for the Yemeni honeycomb bread, stuffed with cheese and soaked in syrup. “Some people go to the mosque and some people go to the restaurant” to break their fast, says owner Ahmed Mahmood. “We’re kind of the only Yemeni cuisine in the area, and it makes it an exotic thing.”

Iftar – evening meal during Ramadan

The Kenmore Square restaurant is offering a rotating smorgasbord all month long: dates, soup, bread, appetizers, spreads, salads, four main courses (one lamb, one chicken, one seafood, one vegetarian), and a variety of desserts, fruit, and cold drinks.

Reservations are required. They weren’t last year. “It was mayhem,” says Mahmood with a laugh. “We learned a lot from that.”

The buffet begins at 7 p.m., whether customers have been fasting or not.

“Nobody will eat until sundown,” Mahmood says. “But it’s open to everyone. We welcome everyone.”

The Deciduous Australian

This is our last week at our Tasmanian property. As we walk down the pathway where the tangle of tea trees has largely been removed, there was revealed a slender tree with small, saw-toothed glistening green leaves, some of the leaves are brown.

I always love the autumnal glow, the flashes of red, yellow, and brown. Having once followed the Fall-line in New England, it is an experience expected where there are stands of exotic trees.  Tasmania is no exception.

My wife walked in, having taken a small cutting from a tree which I initially thought to be a specimen from the only native deciduous tree species in Tasmania, and the only cold-climate winter-deciduous tree species in Australia.

Nothofagus gunnii

The Nothofagus gunnii is a compact alpine deciduous beech tree, believed to have been in Tasmania some say, for 40 million years. As those familiar with Tasmanian South-west, there is a belief some of the forests may have existed when the dinosaurs walked the Earth. But this is a flora which has been very little disturbed by human depredations. Strangely, Australia has relatively few native deciduous trees and this particular beech is the only one that loses its leaves in autumn. It grows very slowly and fire will permanently destroy it.

Nothofagus cunninghamii

But alas, our discovery was of Nothofagus cunninghamii, the myrtle beech, which is not deciduous but has foliage superficially similar to that of its relative, Nothofagus gunnii. When Nothofagus cunninghamii has brown foliage, it is not because the leaves are ageing, rather that the leaves are young. Yes, Nature has her own paradoxes. 

Mouse Guest Whisper

Despite a fondness for a mouse-sized macchiato every morning, I never aspired to own a coffee machine (apart from their size, which is not compatible with a mousehole-sized household). Visits to a well-known coffee emporium in downtown Leichhardt, Sydney’s little Italy, always showed the downside of coffee machine ownership – those machines all seemed to break down and join a very lengthy repair queue that snaked off into the distance, seemingly never diminishing.

So, I was interested in a tale from a coffee man in George Town Tasmania, Australia’s third oldest European settlement, that he was never concerned about the growing number of coffee machine owners. Every year, straight after Christmas, his coffee sales would drop off, but by March, like clockwork, they were all back … coffee machine owners, he said, can’t be bothered to look after their macchiato makers and so they would start to make “sad” coffee and would all come back to his coffee shop.

He had a particular claim to fame for a small-town coffee shop – he owned one of only two vintage Rancilio espresso machines in Tasmania, perhaps the whole country – a gold machine with a flying eagle on top. Personally, I would have thought a flying mouse more appropriate, but I kept that thought to my mouse guest whisper.

Modest Expectations – The astonishment of Keith and Cyril

I am indebted to the Boston Globe for reminding us of important festivals at a time we might just forget in this world consumed by the Virus.

Last Sunday, Jan. 16, was National Quinoa Day. The so-named food holiday is unlikely to garner as much interest as National Blueberry Pancake Day (Jan. 28) or National Tater Tot Day (Feb. 2) or even Bloody Mary Day (Jan. 1). But if even a little recognition for quinoa and other healthy grains gets us thinking about cooking and eating more of them, then a happy National Quinoa Day would have been attained!

A quinoa mountain

There are about 20 varieties of whole grains; these can take many forms, including whole kernels, cracked pieces, or milled into flour. In addition to quinoa, add wheat berries and its cousin Kamut, bulgur, farro, millet, wild rice, and brown rice.

Whole grains provide crucial nutrition at a low cost. Most grains can be cooked using the “pasta method,” which is to simmer them, uncovered, in a pot of boiling water. Grains like bulgur, quinoa, and millet can be ready in 10 to 20 minutes. Harder, larger kernels, such as farro and barley, if pearled take about 30 minutes; wild rice and brown rice, 40 to 60 minutes; and wheat berries (unrefined wheat) and Kamut (Khorasan wheat – known to be the wheat of the Mummes) can take from 45 to 75 minutes. Older, drier grains need extra time to become tender. Cooking times can be shortened by soaking harder kernels in water overnight.

So, there you are. After honouring quinoa, National Cereal Day is coming up on March 7. Just remember to take your whole grain as well as your bowl of quinoa.

No there is not a Grain of Salt Day, as far as I know.  But it would be one of the few substances without his own day of celebration, and while on this topic of celebration of all and sundry, how will those creators of lapel bows cope when they run out of colours?

 Albored The Unready?

One of the smartest moves on winning the 1972 election that Whitlam made was his two-person Ministry – he and his Deputy, Lance Barnard. It maintained the momentum of his election win, and the fact that he wanted to jerk a moribund faction-ridden Australia towards some sort of national unity, maintaining momentum. It turned out to be a mirage.

However, his statement on 5 December 1972 is worth reviewing. In it, he assured us that his Government was not mucking around. He ended conscription; he referred the question of colour television to the then protectionist remnant, the Tariff Board, to expedite its introduction; he committed to reversing the previous government’s stance towards equal pay and assured that votes made in the United Nations bore the stamp of his government rather than that of the previous McMahon Government.

During that interim time, Whitlam determined his definitive Ministry in its second iteration announced two weeks later without having the usual concentration on who gets what, who is slighted, who isn’t.

Whitlam’s immediate action is a blueprint for Albanese, who is demonstrating the normal querulous behaviour expected of an Opposition Leader but without raising confidence that he has any policies behind the mask. He unfortunately has a high-pitched voice which quickly can become a whine. And he has seemingly started to adopt the “zinger” of his predecessor, with the same embarrassing timing.

Let us review his approach to the current pandemic which is influencing every segment of government.

He must have on his team somebody who is expert in assuring supply chains, and this includes vaccines, pathology agents, masks and manufacturing. Pharmaceutical manufacture is one area in which Australia is well-placed, with a strong research base coupled unhindered by any massive transport costs. However, there is always another agenda to complicate any decision in relation to manufactured goods. Globalisation is being swamped by the rise of nativist populist politics, with an irrational call back to a past that never existed.

The way Brian McNamee built CSL from being a basket case to its present behemoth status is one example, but then there has been the bionic ear and the respiratory devices for sleep apnoea, all with a strong success story for our applied science.

Essington Lewis

The role model for the person who spanned these disciplines and was so important for the Australian war effort under both Menzies and Curtin was Essington Lewis. He was very much the person who cut his experiential fangs on assuring a vast enterprise worked efficiently. As the Australian Dictionary of Biography summed up his legacy: By following this precept he had made B.H.P. one of the most efficient steel companies in the world, and his influence was felt in every industry and occupation. His work in munitions was a prerequisite for many of the complex manufacturing ventures developed in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s. There can be little doubt that but for his premonition of war in the 1930s and his rare talents and dedication as an organiser during the war, Australia would have played a lesser part in fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.

Essington Lewis had the confidence of his peers. As the Financial Review once confirmed the above accolade: There is only one BHP and only one Essington Lewis, mainly responsible for the greatest series of enterprises in Australia, and through them, the greatest single contributor to the defence of the Commonwealth”. 

On 25 March 2020 Morrison established the National COVID-19 Co-ordination Commission to oversee the national economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. This Commission was responsible for advising the government on public-private partnerships and coordination to mitigate the social and economic impacts of the pandemic in Australia. It was later stripped of an executive authority to become as an advisory board. To head the Commission, Morrison appointed Nev Powers who, like Essington Lewis, had grown up in the earth of outback Australia, and with an engineering degree rose to the top in the mining and oil industries.

However, unlike Essington Lewis, his relationship with his business interests was never severed and the Government continued to generously subsidise his fossil fuel sector. That, coupled with Powers personally being caught out disregarding the quarantine provisions, just raised more questions about his role with the Commission (later advisory body). The clutch of mediocre bureaucrats that Morrison had assembled around him, meant that in that it did nothing of value. The two years since Powers’ appointment have been strewn with disastrous Government decision making in relation to supply chains.

Let’s face it, Albanese should have an easy ascension given how appalling has been the Morrison stewardship of the health sector. Unlike Whitlam, who had crafted a universal health scheme under the guidance of the able Bill Hayden, with the expertise of John Deeble and Dick Scotton. Albanese does not have an apparent expert team. The team behind Albanese gives little hope of anybody able to initiate action of comparable influence that Deeble and Scotton helped engineer in the 1970s and 1980s. The challenge of the pandemic has placed an unprecedented, immense stress on a system, not only in terms of the allocation of resources, but also the cost – both economic and human.

Therefore, if I were Albanese, I would make a prudent decision to have a blueprint to cope with this altered situation. Governments have been hesitant about custom-built quarantine facilities in each State in the Howard Springs mould.  A former senior bureaucrat’s immediate response was to back away from the expense of such facilities. Nevertheless, the nature of this time in the planet’s existence is clear: wave upon wave of viruses mutating just as we believe we have conquered this Chameleon Virus.

At the same time, it is appropriate for Albanese to assert that the Constitutional power on quarantine resides with the Commonwealth – and the Commonwealth alone. As such, the rules of border closures for quarantine purposes can be brought under Commonwealth control. Nevertheless, he should assure Western Australia that any changes will occur co-operatively, and at the same time absorb any lessons learnt by Western Australia’s period of exile (especially the discriminatory regulations in relation to the unvaccinated, which will increasingly be a “live” issue).

Once Albanese recognises that this virus is not short-term, and modifies the views promoted by Government – “rapid antigen tests will be available next month if ever” – “the mañana complex”) or (“we have just about reached the peak of the viral spread” – the Pollyanna complex) – and Albanese should publicly commit to the use of evidence, yet discard the mantra of “deferring to the experts”, when it is clear that this deference is little more than just shifting blame.

One last piece of advice – look at the past record of potential senior health executives. Look at what constituted a successful health executive in the past – Bernie Amos, William Refshauge, Bernie Mackay, Chris Brook. These are the role models that come to mind. However, beware of anybody who loves Albertan cookies – or the appointment of anybody else from overseas with such expertise.

Albored the Unready? Part 2 next week.

The story of Rochelle Walensky

Dr Rochelle Walensky

Dr Rochelle Walensky was President Biden’s pick to take over the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta after it was almost destroyed by Trump under the hapless Robert Redfield. To get a flavour from Vogue of those times “Health memos from the CDC were being edited by the likes of Kellyanne Conway and Ivanka Trump. Lifesaving practical advice was simply ignored—when the agency sought to issue a nationwide requirement that masks be worn on all public transportation last September, the White House blocked it without discussion.”

There was thus a hidden burden with which Walensky was faced – a disaffected workforce which had suffered the craziness for most of the past four years

Added to this was the face of embattled public health during the Trump years, Dr Anthony Fauci, who had grown old in the public health system, a man of resilience and not inconsiderable ego. Having himself as the public presence of the anti-Trump health forces, he showed remarkable powers of survival.

By comparison, Dr Walensky is an unknown outside health and medical circles. Yet there is still Fauci, who could have reasonably taken a lesser role once Trump was gone and has now been goaded into a sideshow, with a number of Republican senators. Nobody needs that, no matter how Fauci finds it offensive or is in the right. The last person the United States needs now is an ageing controversial figure who is not only polarising the public health debate but is a touchstone for Republican fund raising.

Hence Walensky had been chosen by President Biden to take over the CDC with promises to restore its credibility. With an ever-evolving virus still raging, and the country still deeply divided over the best tools for fighting it, it would not be an easy tenure.

Born in 1969, Walensky grew up in Maryland and after obtaining a BA in molecular biology at the Washington University in St Louis, graduated MD at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and MPH from Harvard. As an HIV researcher, her study of clinical effectiveness won her wide praise.

Over 20 years her effect on the formulating and implementation of national HIV guidelines in the United States had contributed to the improved care , testing and outcomes of that disease.

She became chief of the infectious diseases division in 2017 at Massachusetts General Hospital, which put her at the centre of the hospital’s response to the pandemic.

We’re in an unprecedented time with the speed of Omicron cases rising, and we are working really hard to get information to the American public,” Walensky said recently at that briefing on Jan. 7, describing health care staffing shortages as a harbinger of things to come. “I am committed to continue to improve as we learn more about the science and to communication.”

She has unfortunately been seen as not providing that firm, unequivocal leadership. Her missteps recently have been catalogued by the Boston Globe.

In February 2020, Walensky said vaccines for teachers weren’t a prerequisite for safely reopening schools — a statement the White House quickly downplayed.

In March, she suggested vaccinated people do not carry the virus, something that turned out not to be true and was subsequently walked back by agency staff (inaccurate headlines) generated by her comments, however, are still on the Internet).

In May, as virus cases waned, Walensky told a Senate panel that masks were still key to curbing the spread; then, just days later, she said fully vaccinated Americans could stop wearing them.

In early Autumn, disagreement among the White House, the CDC, and the Food and Drug Administration over who should get booster shots slowed their rollout with Omicron just around the corner. And just after Christmas, the CDC released its shortened isolation recommendations without requiring testing — and without laying out clear enough scientific justification. There was no initial explanation of the science behind the move, leaving experts and the public alike to wonder about its basis.

“In my view, they’re sensible guidelines in a very difficult situation, but they weren’t presented that way,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, a former CDC director in the Obama administration. “I felt like CDC kind of snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

On Jan. 4 this year, the CDC updated the guidance to include more information about testing, and then on Friday, also updated its guidance on which masks best protect against COVID, something many experts said was long overdue.

Some of Walensky’s allies point out that the CDC is frequently scapegoated for larger problems with the government’s approach to public health; the booster issue, for example, involved multiple agencies. One of her supporters said “Many decisions are being made by White House officials, who ‘lurch’ from one haphazard decision to another in the absence of a policy framework.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra has been conspicuously absent from the government’s public-facing COVID response and largely escaped media scrutiny; Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser who is often quick to step into the spotlight, has at times publicly contradicted Walensky.

Her task is thus not easy. The ability of political, content-free advisers who have emerged from the caves of public relations are the pestilence in destroying evidence-based advice.  Take Kerry Chant, the NSW Chief Health Officer, and having been a critic of her early missteps, I must admire her willingness to plant sensible suggestions with the community in the face of the Premier’s hare-brained approach.

The Undefinable Quality of Pat Cummins

Pat Cummins

Pat Cummins has that undefinable quality of leadership. Leadership demands authenticity and consistency in decision making. Cummins has inspired a group known for insensitive arrogant larrikinism to realise that this is not a productive role in a world convulsed with the Virus. It is the time for the hero; not the anti-hero.

There is always a concern that the qualities that make an exceptional cricketer do not translate into a sensitive leader as Cummins is showing. The fact that he is regarded as the best fast bowler in the world is the product of early success at Test level and then years of battling injuries caused by the stresses of bowling at the highest level. Natural talent fortunately conquered disability, but the demands on the body remain, especially as with age the joints are the first to feel the pressure.

Yet at the end of an over he has just bowled, Cummins does not just wander back to the boundary to recuperate. As captain he cannot rest, he must remain concentrated on the state of play; one testimony to Cummins’ judgement has been the number of successful reviews of umpire’s decisions during the recent series.

Then at the conclusion of the last Test, there was the “Khawaja incident” – Cummins’ immediate response snuffed out any potential controversy or calls of racism. More than anything, this incident highlighted the generosity of spirit that he possesses. This quality of leadership has brought into relief the limitations in Justin Langer’s ability to coach.

Langer may have been a very good opening batsman, but the qualities that made him that were not endearing to the community at large where he was treated with dislike. He has never demonstrated the same generosity of spirit. He was once called a “brown-nosed gnome” by a Wisden employee. Despite the furious reaction at the time by Cricket WA and Wisden’s apology, Langer had never achieved the trusted status of Cummins.

Cummins’ gesture towards Khawaja reminded me of the time not so long ago when I was director of clinical training in a number of health services in the North-eastern part of Victoria. There were several Muslim doctors from various countries, but also in a certain town there was a community of Marsh Arabs, Shiite refugees from Southern Iraq. Nevertheless, they were not the only Muslims.  Decades ago the Goulburn Valley had settled Muslim Albanians who now owned some of the orchards. They are mostly Sunni.  There were both Sunni and Shiite doctors in the community.

Apart from dealing with clashes in regard to treatment of women and ensuring prayer facilities were available for the devout, who pray five times a day, two other challenges emerged.

The first was circumcision. As a result of some zealous lobbying by paediatric professionals, the Victorian government had banned male circumcision in its public hospitals, except for three medical conditions. A more measured view has been provided elsewhere. It may be that the best interests of a child in relation to circumcision are different for a Jewish or Muslim boy than a child receiving a non-religious circumcision … ritual male circumcision is of special importance in Judaism and Islam. A child who is not circumcised may feel psychologically and spiritually cut off from his religion and culture.

Faced with the lack of information and a hostility to the procedure, one case reported to me was of a Muslim having difficulty in arranging for the children in the community to be circumcised.  One male child had even been taken back to Iraq for circumcision. One of the Muslim doctors, a woman with Syrian post-graduate qualifications in paediatrics, raised this question with me and as a result a seminar was convened of a cross-section of health professionals to discuss the matter.

The meeting included a number of influential doctors, who had supported the ban. It was clear that the plight of the Muslim population had not been considered. The meeting highlighted this deficiency in cultural consideration. One of the local doctors, who did not have any of the paediatric zealotry, agreed to it being known that he would be willing to circumcise Muslim children. After all, it had not been that many years since the majority of the male population was routinely circumcised.

This solved an immediate cultural problem there and subsequently circumcision clinics with ritual circumcisers have sprung up in Victoria, as has been the case in the Jewish community for years.

The second was lack of appreciation of Ramadan. One of the young female interns provided a seminar on the subject, after a worried senior doctor noted one of the younger doctors neither drinking nor eating during the day and asked what was wrong.

So, this and her subsequent seminars raised awareness of Ramadan, and that the time of Ramadan shifts from year. Over the years when she was in the North-East she would give a presentation before Ramadan was due to begin. These presentations were well received. I helped facilitate her setting up the first seminar, but that was years ago – and how permanent are such initiatives?

A celebration of Eid at-Fitr

My thesis is that every scrap of positivity counts in translating awareness into understanding to a shift in attitudes and ultimately behaviour to a more tolerant Australia.

Cummins could become a very influential figure in the absorption of Muslim culture into mainstream Australia. I am old enough to remember when Jews were considered to be a separate cultural strand, counterpointed by the number of prominent apostates adopting Christianity and thus bowing to a social norm prompting a change in belief. Just stand back in Melbourne, my hometown, and recognise by and large how times have changed with pride in our Jewish diaspora. No reason this should not occur with our growing Muslim community.

Anti-semitism, whether against Jew or Muslim, still is an undercurrent in our community.

That interaction – that gesture – between Cummins and Khawaja however small in the order of things, may it extend to become the normal societal and cultural expectation within the Australian community.

Mouse Whisper

This comment, from a Professor of Palaeobiology, Jan Zalasiewicz, who was part of the Anthropocene Study Group, writ large in the New Scientist nearly 25 years ago resonated with yon mouse:

“The signature we have left in sediments extends across large parts of the world, and is being carried into deeper seas.

So, with a favourable concatenation of tectonics and sea level, our species could leave behind in a geological instant a much more striking record than the dinosaurs left in a hundred million years. It is a prospect that speaks volumes about the way we have engineered the face of the planet over a few short centuries. The super intelligent, geologically aware rodents of the future, stumbling upon the newly uplifted substructure of, say, New Orleans or Delhi, would see evidence of aggressive colonisation unmatched anywhere in the geological record.”

Rodents of the future? And geologically aware? And intelligent? To what can we look forward?

One super intelligent mouse