Modest Expectations – Eleven Squared

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

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

Death Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Information in the Soot

Neanderthal Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cave of Niaux

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

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

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

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

The entrance to Niaux Cave

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

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

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

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

Niaux cave painting

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

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

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

Tartuffi not Tartuffe

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

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

Snuffling a truffle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stubbornness of Scott Morrison 

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

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

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

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

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

Tracing the contacts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse whisper

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

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

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

Modest Expectations – Twenty of dark chocolate

Neale Daniher

Neale Daniher is a very brave man. I admire him greatly as the epitome of all that is great about being an Australian. He fully deserves the Order of Australia recently bestowed on him; he also deserves to be invested with it as soon as practical while he can still walk.

For seven years his health has progressively deteriorated. He has motor neurone disease (MND), yet he has maintained a defiance against this progressively incurable disease.  Today, he has almost lost his ability to speak. It is a terrible disease, and I know that when I developed my own disease one of the differential diagnoses, soon discounted thankfully, was MND.

The symbol for what Daniher describes as “The Beast”, with inadvertently or not its Biblical imagery, has been the ice bucket, the ice bath, the ice pool – a plunge in order to raise funds for research.

The problem is that research into the cure for motor neurone disease is at the same level as it was when I was born. Getting nowhere substantially is not restricted to MND.  I have known researchers who have spent their lives trying to develop a malaria vaccine or find a cure for Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy – to no effect. Honourable failures – the dilemma for those seeking more money for such research. That is problem personally I have in contributing money for research into this disease – poor return on investment.

Lou Gehrig

Around the time I was born, a famous baseball player died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the most common form of motor neurone disease. The disease was given his name, Lou Gehrig. He too was a brave man; a film starring Gary Cooper was made of his life. Lou Gehrig died about three years after the onset when he was only 37 years old in 1941.

Now 80 years on Neale Daniher, in his time a very gifted footballer whose playing days were foreshortened by knee injuries, is dying of the same disease. The onset of his disease was when he was 53. Over seven years survival is testimony to something innate.

Increasingly, auto-immunity is being ascribed as the culprit. Auto-immunity, the tendency of the body to destroy itself when the immune system goes rogue, is the battlefield. It is an area where the disease has been victorious up to now, particularly in the case of this disease, which causes the destruction of the nerve cells that control voluntary muscular movement.

There are a few inconclusive drugs and conservative measures which may prolong life; and as long as Neale Daniher remains optimistic, then his will to live deserves every support. After all, more than 2,000 people have the disease in Australia, and the total cost of therapeutic support per person averages out as $1m. Two are diagnosed every day; two die every day of the disease.

When there is no longer Neale Daniher around fighting against destiny, let us make sure those with this terrible disease do not die alone, paralysed, slowly suffocating. In other words, strengthen palliation, help strengthen family support but do not – I repeat – do not raise false hopes of a cure.

A muddy Saturday

This is a very simple story about a group of University students who, in 1958, won the Juniors Premiership in the Victorian Amateur Football League. It was a time when there was only one university in Victoria and therefore most of the teams that we played reflected the division between “town” and “gown”, even though the diversity of the team list reflected the normal cross-section of society. The only bond between us was a desire to play football and being under 19 we were consigned to the Juniors.

The two adult teams were the University Blacks and Blues, which were in the top grade and produced a number of players for the pinnacle, the then Victorian Football League (VFL) where you got paid. The other University team for those who just wanted a game was the University Reds.

There was a hierarchy; even as 18 year olds there were a few university students who just played VFL. which, in those days, had an Under 19 nursery as well. They were just too good to play amateur football. Many were in fact champions, not just making up the then “twenty”.

There also was the Victorian Football Association which headed a cascade of suburban and country teams where footballers who had had enough of the paltry returns from playing under the then Coulter Law in the VFL, left to play and/or coach a country team. These players would receive a generous wage and were often set up as the licensee of the local pub.

Then there were the “lily-whites” – the amateurs. In the University hierarchy, this was the place where the cohort of youngsters who were not drafted into the Blues and Blacks played. Some went straight into the top teams; some oscillated between the top teams and the Juniors.

Nevertheless, the Juniors won the Grand Final, and three members of our winning team climbed onto the roof of the University Union Building. They were said to be in a jolly state when they climbed up and affixed the Premiership flag. As one said later, they did not know how they managed to climb onto the roof given the ethanol haze that surrounded them. The flag was returned early the next week neatly folded and nothing more was said.

After that year, the team went their various ways, but one person stuck in my mind and obviously the minds of many of the others, who had known him better. He was a few years older than us and had played for the University team. He was always immaculately dressed, with his signature furled umbrella, given the grounds we played on barely afforded any shelter from the Melbourne winter. He was in direct contrast to the coach, Peter Kelliher, who was a knockabout fellow who acted, as all coaches do, with a mixture of encouragement and invective.

Ian Hamilton Munro was different. He was almost the pastoral adviser to the team – a very kind and compassionate man who was always around when you were injured, when you were having a lousy game. He was a counterpoint to the coach – one person I could always picture on the side lines – often a solitary spectator on a windswept oval.

Somebody suggested that, as we approached the 50th anniversary of the Premiership, the survivors of that year should meet annually for lunch. The first, in 2005, was deemed such a success that it was decided we would have one every year, so that has occurred every year, including 2020. This cohort, then in their youthful sixties when the lunches started are now in their eighties. Our coach, having had a stroke a decade before, was an infrequent participant from early into the lunch cycle.  The immaculate Ian Munro was a regular attender, until he fell victim to old age several years ago – and then he too was gone.

Such a small group, men now who are bonded by a football premiership gained so long ago and all accepting their mortality, has now decided to establish the immortality of their achievement and to honour their paterfamilias by donating a cup in his name for annual presentation by the Melbourne University Football Club for an annual match between the now two Melbourne University Juniors teams.

The cup is made from spun brass, silver-plated. It sits on a dark tallowwood plinth around which is collar of silver-plated nickel with enough space to engrave the annual winners for the next 80 years. It was made by the silversmiths and goldsmiths that make the solid gold Melbourne Cup each year for “that race which stops a nation” – the first Tuesday in November; these same trophy makers also create the trophies for the Australian Tennis Open; they are the last such company in existence in Australia.

Munners Cup

Ian Munro might have been embarrassed, like all good generous persons who give much, but never expect recognition. However, he would have liked the enamelled crossed furled umbrellas – one black, one blue – under his name on the trophy – the Munners Cup.

Even to us well aged, he was still always Munners – not Ian Hamilton Munro. However, that name is the cup’s pseudonym inscribed on the reverse side of the plinth. A simple story with hopefully a long nostalgic tail.

Morrison – A Description in One Word

What struck me was the stony-faced Prime Minister who had been persuaded by his Mate, Mat Cormann, to attend a West Coast Eagles match. The boos around the ground when he was introduced were universal. As part of a meet and greet in the morning, he had been persuaded by one of his consigliere, the irrepressible Mr Forrest, to partake in morning PT. It was a more typical photo-opportunity to show off his eminently “daggy” self.

He does not like to be booed. I notice that he has not turned up at any of the football matches in Victoria.

The other fact about the Prime Minister is that he is not that intelligent; yes, smart in the ways of the Molonglo swamp but not particularly well read or thoughtful. Like all people not blessed with any real sense of personal identity, he is totally versed in public relations, and therefore takes the temperature of his quarry – be it Liberal Party pre-selection or Australia before doing anything; hence he leads from the rear.

His problem, and his is not unique in this regard, is to have as the rule of thumb that you never have any Ministers and advisers more intelligent than he is.  The Prime Minister has succeeded in that endeavour, with one exception. That is the recently departed German-Belgian-West Australian, a chameleon of great skill, Mathias Cormann. There is a genus of politician who, when the master rings a bell, will argue without any shame but on cue that black is white – and too many do it persuasively, all the time knowing where the career escalator is located. Cormann has shown himself to be such an engaging man.

Morrison does not brook dissent; he just cannot take it. Part of this is explained by his reliance on a Christian belief system that does not take criticism easily. Much of the Pentecostal beliefs are couched in uncompromising, simple terms, which require no thought but a belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible. This is a Book where the ambiguities of the authors have been reduced to cartoons. His father was one such believer, and here is a person who has been coached in what some would say is a heretical belief system.

Morrison’s trip overseas has been not unexpectedly revealing. The Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, gently chided him about his aggression in relation to China; and even in the matter of mask wearing he seemed to guide our uncertain Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister has been hoping to amble the world stage but having been relegated to a landing slot at an airport distant from the G7 meeting it should have warned him at the start. There are no better people than the Poms in insulting one and then being able to smooth it over once everybody recognises that the insult was deliberate, if nuanced.  The perfect word for British diplomacy – nuance!

The daggy “Scomo” image which he believes is the basis of his rural popularity – in Queensland and New South Wales – seems not to have translated as well into International Prime Minister. Here is a guy who not only threw himself at the feet of Trump but has an old friend with connections with the dark side of the web – one of those peddling those conspiratorial beliefs, which are so much of the Trump madness.

If he were to have someone close who is visionary, with ideas that he could sample, then he may not be in his current predicament – and if he did not have an adviser called Stewart.

Biden has proved not to be the doddering front man that some of us wrongly feared, but at the centre of some hard-nosed advisers, who probably worry that Morrison is a security risk – hence the intrusion of Johnson into the Biden-Morrison meeting. It would be a problem for our relations if his words “ritual sex abuse” get wide currency in the corridors of the White House. Can Biden trust that anything he says to Morrison will not appear somewhere as an unacceptable comment?

When Howard extracted special treatment in the Kyoto Protocols for our fossil emissions, the United States owed us for our support in the Bush War Coalition of the Willing; Biden owes Morrison nothing.

In relation to the domestic scene, obviously if your Government’s handout to Big Business is essentially little more than to further enrich, then the recipients of such largesse have every reason to support the current regime. It is not an unusual situation when both sides of politics are compromised, but there is a limit which the community, however rendered compliant by the Virus, will tolerate. Australia sliding into plutocracy is not a pleasant sight.

It is also helpful for Morrison that the Murdoch newspapers’ unceasingly support him, bolstering him in a constituency of flag wavers for fossil fuels and where the environment is being progressively degraded by climate denialists.  For the moment these Murdocistas are spooking the rest of the community.

However, this strange remnant from the Trump days has found the world stage somewhat guarded. As one would have expected, he was greeted in France with all the warmth that the appalling submarine contract with the French can muster. Whatever he may think privately, Macron has been polite; it will be interesting to see if he speaks to Morrison through an interpreter – or in English.  If the first, and from afar hard to know, Macron is maintaining distance so that any communications between the two can be properly interpreted, n’est-ce pas.

Another problem for Morrison is that not all the electorates in Australia are obsessed with maintaining coal mining. There are certain electorates in Queensland and NSW where urgent steps must be taken to transfer the workforce to other industries, not to bolster coal which has to be phased out if the world is to survive beyond the end of this century.

Unfortunately, Australia has a Prime Minister who is only concerned with his re-election, and his only response to climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions is an underlined word “technology” – as if Technology is a God like Baal to be worshipped not defined. Here a throng of happy clapping followers with arms outstretched towards this Solution and repeating over and over again, “Technology. For thine is the Answer.”

Maybe I’ll wake up and blame all this on something I ate.

Aduhelm 

“I had no sense of where to turn for help, support, or even how to express the diagnosis with family, friends or co-workers. I was lost and crept further inward. There is no single handbook one can read to prepare; each journey is different, each course of the disease takes different, meandering turns—no two are alike, the experts will tell you, an observation that is clearly numbing in so many ways.”

The drug is called Aduhelm. It has just been given the all-clear by America’s Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to be prescribed for people with early Alzheimer’s dementia. As one correspondent said, for many people Alzheimer’s disease has passed through the early stage of memory loss and is not recognised until the cognitive abilities have declined significantly.

The quote above is from Mary, the wife of a journalist, Greg O’Brien who has written On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s, which follows his own decline from the early onset of the disease. Her cry is clear; and there is no wonder that those families where there is Alzheimer’s disease in their midst want a cure. No wonder that news of a drug with any prospect for improvement will generate clamour for its availability – now.

Much of the excitement generated by this drug is that it is the first since 2003 to show any promise and it has cleared a path through the FDA, not without controversy, which resulted in some members of the committee overseeing its approval resigning in protest. The method of approval has also instilled a feeling of uneasiness in this blogger.

The drug is supposed to attack amyloid-beta, the protein which appears in the nerve tangle of the Alzheimer brain. However, nobody really can say whether it is the amyloid deposits which cause the disease or whether they are waste, the result of a process which leaves this protein functionally inert in the brain. Amyloid disease is one of those differential diagnoses for unexplained disease which my generation of doctors grew to know about and recognised with its distinct histological appearance on staining.

The problem is this drug, which is defined as an amyloid-beta-directed antibody reducing the number of plaques of amyloid, is that the benefits are minimal against its downside.

This is where the drug company, Biogen, which is set to make a “motza”, begins what I call the drug company gavotte. Immaculately arrayed in elaborate steps the gavotte dancers move around in intricate steps, a spectacle of elegant circles, arms waving, legs crossing, all to produce a mannered tableau.

Even the drug company’s paid expert, in a beautifully executed twirl, said the drug “potentially prolongs patients’ independence by several months, even a few years, as demonstrated in long-term study”. She said it is a “stepping stone for our next advances” gracefully executing a series of fluttering steps.

The consumer is transported into a trance, ignoring any side-effects, asking the government to make it universally available. Biogen proposes a charge of USD4,312 per infusion “for a patient of average weight”, or USD56,000 per year.

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, in a somewhat bizarre statement, has said Aduhelm should cost no more than USD8,300 per year, given the “insufficient” evidence supporting its benefits in clinical trials.

Dancing the gavotte …

Biogen has defended its pricing strategy, noting that the U.S. dishes out about USD600 billion in direct and indirect costs for the disease that affects roughly six million Americans. Now that is a beautiful sideways gavotte movement by the drug company.

Biogen plans to target between one to two million patients with early onset symptoms, executives said last week. The company, generous to a fault, says it won’t raise the price over the next four years.

It should be noted that this drug can only be given as an infusion in a healthcare facility; and then there are the side effects of brain swelling and bleeding, all factors to be integrated into the patient’s health status, a patient status which is directed only one way – down.

When the gavotte is transferred to Australia, it will be greeted by a solid history of successful lobbying for drugs of questionable benefits. First, there is the special pleading, which is always highly personal as one would expect. Ron Walker, the flamboyant businessman, was an influential example of this in his quest to have an experimental drug, Keytruda included for the treatment of melanoma, of which he was a sufferer. His influence on the then Minister saw the placement of this drug on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) for his particular indication at a per patient cost of $4,500 every three weeks for two years.

He achieved his goal; he died in 2018 with the benefit of an average life expectancy increase of 12 months over the cheaper chemotherapy. Not sure about the quality of that life extension. Nevertheless, the drug can now be prescribed to other cancer patients following the largesse of the current Minister, who provides a taxpayer subsidy of $120,000 annually per patient so entitled. Has Ron Walker’s intervention been cost-effective – or just costly?

The drug companies and their shareholders have a different requirement – profit at all costs. Lobbyists hang round drug companies like flies round questionable food, as one of my less than kind associates has said, ever ready to help with selling the product whatever its effectiveness; whatever its cost to the community.

Objectivity is the casualty. Hopefully, the Aduhelm saga will not get to his level, but sometimes I wonder whether governments have lost their sense of smell.

However, the cry from the wife still echoes. Yet will her husband, the author of On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s, take Aduhelm?

My mind drifts back to Neale Daniher, and the need to ensure that while we wait for a cure the palliative services are not ignored, nor the family, and most importantly, that even the person with lowest profile dies with someone holding his or her hand.

Mouse Whisper

In recognition of my friend from Dalarna, Kyrkomus, I am reminded of Carl Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist, who sometimes got it wrong. He said that potatoes were poisonous, because he noted that the vegetable was related to deadly nightshade. However, the first woman inducted in 1748 into the Swedish Academy in Sciences, Countess Eva Ekeblad, was so recognised by showing that potatoes were essential in the manufacture of wig powder, and more importantly that cool liquor, aquavit.

Skol!

Countess Eva Ekeblad

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 – Archie MacLaren

There never was a cricketer with more than the grandeur of A. C. MacLaren. When I think of his play now, years after it all happened, the emotions that stir in me afresh, and all my impressions of it, are mingled with emotions and impressions I have had from other and greater arts than bat and ball. 

Thus spake Neville Cardus, once the doyen of cricketing savants. But what is the relevance to this Christmas blog about an English captain who never won a series against Australia. I shall leave it as a challenge to those who can be bothered, like my teenage grandson Luka who is already a cricketing tragic with better-than-average all-rounder credentials.

One of the more recent cricketing traditions around Christmas has been the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, but in 1951, the third test in Adelaide finished on Christmas Day, with only the second defeat of the Australian cricket team since the end of World War 2. The West Indian cricketers broke into a spontaneous calypso. At that time, their major West Indian strike bowlers were:

(a) Sonny Ramadhin, of Indian descent from Trinidad, who bowled both right hand leg and off break without a discernible change in his action. His off break was not the conventional “googly”. He bowled with cap on head and his sleeves done up. It is not recorded whether he ever wore an overcoat while bowling during a damp English tour. However, at 91 he is still alive. A quirky fact about Ramadhin was that he was not given a Christian name at birth, acquired Sonny later on to disguise this fact and moreover was given fictitious initials “KT” presumably for further respectability.

(b) Alf Valentine, a Jamaican who bowled left-arm off-spinners with a vicious tweak. While Sonny was tiny, Alf was tall. Alf, who was a year younger than his “spin twin”, died in 2004.

Together, they destroyed Australia that day, and everybody was able to indulge themselves in a Christmas dinner as the Test conveniently finished before four in the afternoon. Given the Australian view at that time about doing anything on Sundays and religious holidays, I have no memory of any controversy about cricket being played on a Holy Day.

Memories of Christmas

When I was small, Christmas, even at the height of wartime, was magical because there was always a large Christmas tree and it was always decorated with the mostly homemade decorations that my mother made, scrounged and generally tried to drown the tree in cheerful decoration. Whence I was a small boy I loved the intense green colour of the pine tree. In the second week of January in the hot summer sun, it was sad to see the pine tree lying, browning, discarded on the nature strip when two weeks before its brilliant green frame seemed to touch the ceiling with the star on the top. Mother was religious; father was not. I felt that the Christmas tree bound our small family together.

I learnt early to read “not to be opened until December 25”; but everybody excused Little Johnny when his sneak preview damaged the signage too much to be repaired. Poor little Johnny can’t read – you can’t expect him to know. Oh yeah!

Notwithstanding, my father seemed to be a ghostly presence in my early years during the War when he was bouncing back from naval duty and then disappearing again up North. He came back to graduate as a doctor in early 1946. When I think about it, he seemed to buy my Christmas presents with an eye to himself. I remember the Hornby replica of the Flying Scotsman train; then there was a Meccano Set, much more complicated than my competence or interest. From a child anyway I was never much interested in building things or gadgets. My father on the other hand loved gadgets; and he liked collecting them and books.

I always liked the stocking because of the mysterious bulges which turned out to be mostly edible. However, the wonderment remained until I found out that Santa Claus did not exist. Not that we ever put out a glass of milk or a biscuit or whatever. Still, it was a shock I do remember, and after that Christmas never had the same edge of belief and wonderment.

I had never thought about the underlying deceit and lies from that first encounter at Christmas. At the same time we were all solemnly told not to lie as children, and I more or less obeyed. In our society, however truthfulness is not universally rewarded while untruthfulness is not punished. Truth is slippery, and our perception of it nudges our belief system. In the case of Santa Claus, it is rationalised by adults as a good spirit, but to a small child, such abstract thought is years away.

While deception is part of life and is the basic tool of the magician, lying deliberately can become pathological, and when occurring in a person of influence such as Trump it can be destructive. His apparent success has encouraged other politicians, especially those who have had a career of essentially talking in tongues, distorting perceptions, to abandon, ignore or be extremely inventive around telling the truth.

I wonder if the underlying cause is the harsh parent syndrome, where no matter what explanation, you are going to receive a severe dose of corporal punishment. “It was not me,” Donald screamed, “It was my bruvver.”

But then Trump’s father’s second name was “Christ”. 

Ruminations prompted by St Lucia’s day

In 1700, Sweden, which included Finland at the time, planned to convert from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. 

Therefore 1700, which should have been a leap year in the Julian calendar, was not a leap year in Sweden. However, 1704 and 1708 became leap years by error. This left Sweden out of synchronization with both the Julian and the Gregorian calendars, so the country reverted back to the Julian calendar.

February 30, 1712, came into existence in Sweden when the Julian calendar was restored and two leap days were added that year. Sweden’s final conversion to the Gregorian calendar occurred in 1753, when an 11-day correction was applied so that February 17 was succeeded by March 1 that year. Not everyone was pleased with the calendar reform. Some people believed it stole 11 days of their lives.

This exercise in calendrical calisthenics was also applied in terms of St Lucia’s Day which falls on December 13, which under the old Julian calendar was the winter solstice, but the tradition has persisted despite the Gregorian calendar.

St Lucia lived in Sicily in the fourth century C.E. and was an early martyr to male jealousy. She had a suitor who would not accept her giving her life to God. He and his pagan mates tried to burn her and when that did not work, they stabbed her in the throat. She has become the patron saint of virginity, kindness and the blind.  She was also supposed to have taken food to Christians hiding in the catacombs, wearing a headdress of candles to light the way so she could have her hands free to carry the provisions. Allegedly some monks brought her story to Scandinavia and everybody was so entranced that she has her own day in the Swedish calendar.

She even has her own signature buns (lussekatter)– dotted with raisins and a touch of saffron for taste, to be eaten for breakfast.

Lucia, the bearer of light

My Swedish friend sent me a link to wonderful choral performance, to celebrate the day. It was presumably at dusk on this shortest of days. A recent quote sums to beautifully provide another insight relevant to the celebration. The most important thing is to hold that tiny spark of life, if it is in a bud, in a seed, that is our work, to hold on to life, so when spring comes back, there can be growth. 

The choir is essentially composed of young people in white robes with a red ribbon tied around the waist. Red is the liturgical colour for saints. In this video they were all young women. The lead singer of the choir had a garland on her head, with nine candles. She represents Lucia, the bearer of light. In the background are a number of young male choristers who, as distinct from those in white are well rugged up in identical clothes and a scarf twisted over to cover their necks. The viewers know the depth of the cold by the condensation in the air as they sing; no indoor auditorium for these young people.

There is a section of young children singing in a snug festive room as they make Christmas decorations, there is a music section with an alto saxophonist and double bass; in one section the singer, who is accompanied by a piano accordion, is in traditional Sámi dress in front of a lavvu with reindeer roaming in the backgound. I presumed, by the presence of Swedish subtitles, that the singing in this segment was in Sámi. The concert was an hour long, and the link: https://www.svtplay.se/video/29267198/luciamorgon-fran-jukkasjarvi

Watching and listening to this concert made me think of the paradox of Christmas. Christmas has become just that – a celebration in the snow. All the trappings, all the sentimentality is linked to images of Northern Europe or those areas of North America where the pine trees are the backdrop and the images are of clear starry cold nights with reindeer, sleigh rides, snowmen (never snow women – or have I missed something?).

But when the Nativity was wowing them in Bethlehem, there was not a reindeer or sleigh in sight.

Yet in Jordan we travelled down from the freezing mountains, where shepherds watched their flocks by night, and the skies were clear. We encountered, in this country where Christ may have walked, both frankincense and myrrh for sale. These, together with gold, the wise men may have bought on the way. Sitting in the adobe shop, I could have imagined that this could have been the case, and then the three wise men deciding whether the baby needed swaddling clothes as well.

Petra – The Treasury

Travelling through Jordan, there is the reminder of not only Christianity but of other religions, their faith and their architecture. The most stunning is the rock city of Petra built by the Nabateans, Arabs of whom there is sketchy knowledge, but they were polytheistic and important in managing the regional trade routes. Petra is just the most breathtaking manifestation of the way the peoples who populated modern day Jordan approached their beliefs. Standing on the top of Mount Nebo, one of the most sacred sites for both Christians and Jews, we gazed out over the landscape where many of the settlements have Biblical reference, among these Bethlehem lying 50 kilometres away to the west.

One of the common threads in religious belief is the celebration of the winter solstice, and Christmas is no different. However, in Jordan there is a degree of authenticity, where snow may be on the peaks, in winter while at sea level the pasture remains green and fertile along the Sea of Galilee. By authenticity, it should be recognised that the Nativity was a time when Arabs and Jews merged into a common heritage as they gathered around the newly-born Infant.

However, to have a Christmas tradition re-cast in the starkness of the Middle East, where Peace on Earth is a rare commodity.  The nativity is not just a play for infants performing before treacly parents. The Swedes showed in their celebration of St Lucia’s day that children are only one part. The problem with so many of the Christmas carols is that they refer to the Northern European latter-day traditions rather than to the Land in which Christ was born. I portrayed this conundrum in a short story I once wrote; and there are only a few that tie the birth of Christ to where it occurred in their Christmas observance. The processional “Once in Royal David’s City” is one such hymn.

Let us have a Palestinian Christmas – just once. When I went to Bethlehem, there were a substantial number of Christian Arabs. That was 25 years ago when I took a ten-minute taxi drive from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. How times have changed. Still, in Australia we can have Christmas in the desert. It would be more authentic, but it is the longest day here. After that, it is all downhill to winter.

Still, as I write I see the decorated fir tree in the window of our house. We are prisoners of tradition, no matter how this observance contrasts with what I have written. Would I substitute a coolabah tree or native cypress covered in Antipodean detritus? I think I would, and who needs candles when we have so much daylight and the Southern Cross?

 My first Christmas December 25, 1939

Winston Churchill’s message on that day:

There is a certain similarity between the position now and at the end of 1914. The transition from peace to war has been accomplished. The outer seas, for the moment at any rate, are clear from enemy surface craft. The lines in France are static. But in addition on the sea we have repelled the U-boat attack … and we can see our way through the magnetic mine novelty. Moreover, in France the frontier is maintained instead of six or seven of the French provinces and Belgium being in the enemy’s hands. Thus I feel we may compare the position now very favourably with that of 1914. And also I have the feeling (which may be corrected at any moment) that the Kaiser’s Germany was a much tougher than Nazi Germany.

I shut my eyes. It is as though Boris Johnson is talking. Churchill was lucky; over to you, Bojo. Got a rabbit foot handy?

Mouse Whisper

I understand that this was not a boy called Christopher questioning.

Apparently, this little child asked his father “where does poo come from Daddy?”

His father explained it to him and a look of horror came over the child’s cherubic face, “And Piglet?”

Happy Christmas to all and May your Yuletide never go out.
Don’t forget putting Mirth into the Myrrh, Sense into Frank and Gold into AUz.

Modest Expectations – Earthquake in Hunter Street

I arrived at the Melbourne apartment having come down from Sydney on Wednesday 25th November. The desk calendar said May. I had not been here since then?

The Virus has wreaked havoc and it is time to reflect given that I have been writing my blog continuously during this time. Hence, once written, always there.

There have been two major disasters – one was the Ruby Princess. Some say the targets to whom I assigned blame were wrong. There is always the fall guy, and people have told me who it is.

Given the Premier seems to be wrestling with disclosing her misdemeanours, she is trying to deflect an increasing number of embarrassing disclosures by filibustering. The “poor little me” melodrama is becoming increasingly tiresome, but people should listen to her fellow Armenian, Mr Aznavourian sing “She”:

She may be the face I can’t forget

A trace of pleasure or regret

May be my Treasurer

The price I have to pay.

Increasingly her NSW constituents may begin to agree with her fellow Armenian’s summation. Obviously, the Queensland Premier may agree as she has used poor Gladys as a punching bag; the State of Origin biff has extended to the two government leaders.

Anyway, the Queensland Premier has her own idiosyncrasies, apart from Jeanette Young, including her insistence on being called “Palashay” and not the original Ukrainian “Palastchuk”. Perhaps it was this Slavonic heritage that loved the sound of Dr Young’s continual “nyet”. Who would know?

Border closures were initially effective as was confining people’s movements, but after a while it became a symbol of secession – even puerile schoolyard spats. It should be noted that if Andrews had not given it credibility by supporting Morrison’s “National Cabinet”, it would have floundered. In any event Morrison has shown little trustworthiness.

Lockdown had a novelty value as Insiders showed with their amusing washing troubadours way back in March and Daniel Emmet continued the fun with his banishment of the Virus to the sound of “Nessun Dorma”.

However, it progressed from a romp when Peter Dutton came back from the USA with the Virus and it was reported that his senior colleagues immediately panicked until they were quietened down by Dr Paul Kelly. However, the lavage jolliness had given away to a sense of vulnerability, albeit fear.

What has happened is that the State governments took the matter very seriously and closed the borders. It is a difficult area to manage because not opening borders can lead to two outcomes, as has been shown over the succeeding months. The first is that despite the Commonwealth having the quarantine power it was virtually ignored by the State Governments – except in one area – the actual meaning of “pandemic”.

However, in one way, the Commonwealth listened to the health experts, and those like Brendan Murphy, who was appointed Head of the Federal Health Department, listened to the health experts in his own team – Paul Kelly and Nick Coatsworth. There were myriad others with varying levels of health expertise, but apart from a number of superficial missteps, Murphy listened to the right voices and the distilled Health advice prevailed over Murdoch and his fellow Ignorants, most of whom could understood the share market but not much else.

In the end, apart from the tourist industry and interference with social communication, the real effect of border closure was magnified by the closure of the NSW / Victorian border. One of the worst happenings is to continually go into lockdowns, then open the borders, then go into lock down again – on and on heightening confusion. I am not a fan of hotels being used as quarantine facilities because in the end all are porous. This is the nature of the beast, especially when you impose imprisonment without accompanying health expertise, and then find out you did not have the expertise anyway. This occurred in Victoria and Daniel Andrews assumed control, locked the State down, imported the contact tracing expertise from NSW, where it had saved the Armenian bacon, and while all about were behaving badly Andrews gradually, over 112 days, bullied Victoria into compliance. It was a terrible time for those in the State but demonstration of the discipline needed to eliminate the virus that is raging everywhere else in the world, apart from selected areas in the South Pacific.

In the end, the strategy had its effect. It suppressed the Virus, and in the case of Victoria probably eliminated it. As a result, woe betide any tennis player who comes to Australia with a cavalier attitude. He or she will be faced with a battle-hardened population who are not going to allow a set of “celebrities” to import the Virus. The message is plain.  Get it into your heads, nobody is going to breach security again and bring in your own tidal wave of infection.

What Andrews showed was courage under fire from the Murdoch media and an Opposition who, if their actions were seditious rather than serious criticism, should be facing charges. He showed that once a lockdown is imposed, and his State embarked on a recovery plan, he had to get it right and not backtrack. That drifting in the political breezes is happening all over the world, in and out of lockdown with political rather than the resolute application of health priorities being uppermost . Under the recklessness of the Mad Trump or the hubris of the Swede Tegnall, people die, people clog up the health system and, as with any arterial blockage, the end result is death to the blocked area.  Andrews showed the way by eliminating the blockage and should be overwhelmingly elected Australian of the Year.

South Australia has since had a similar outbreak in hotel quarantine, and the lockdown was far shorter and the epidemiological weapons used had been improved across Australia since March. As this blog goes to posting, NSW has just had a breach in hotel quarantine.

Underlying all the political action is that there will be a viable vaccine available soon. There seem to be plans upon plans for distribution of an untested product.

There are two questions that seem to be consumed by the cacophony of the public relations spin. What are the side effects and can I die from the cure? How long does the immunity last? You see, I grew up in a world where we had injections before we went overseas, and they did not grant life-long immunity. You had to get injected for cholera and typhoid each time you went overseas – and the latter gave me a nasty local reaction. I’d been through it at that time, bearing my vaccination card, when overseas travel was a far smaller sector than in the modern world.

This whole area is complicated by the Head of Qantas saying that you would not be able to board an aircraft unvaccinated. Forced to take an unproven vaccine? Where is the duty of care? The world of business is treading a perilous pathway.

Finally, one thing I would say is that the media is braying about how well our political leaders have stood up in the recent polls. Did the polls award Morrison the Lodge in 2019?  Did the polls accurately reflect the votes in the recent US elections. Let’s face it. Polls stink.

Ah yes, but this is the poll I like. It says I am popular. The politician preens. It says that people think of me as a perfumed gardenia. Beware, gardenias die very quickly and leave a stench not a perfume. But then I am given another gardenia, and it’s alright, isn’t it?

Why not a Summit at ShaTin?

The Chinese are insulting us. The Prime Minister armed with his Pentecostal shield fights back. The Chinese are trying to strangle our industries. The Chinese have taken over Hong Kong completely. Dissidents are being locked up.

Sha Tin race course

But it is not all bad. There is still horse racing in Hong Kong – whether at Happy Valley on the Island or Sha Tin in the New Territories with Australian-bred horses, Australian-bred trainers, Australian-bred jockeys and even Australian-bred stewards. All their antics are broadcast by Channel 7 in the interests of Sino-Australian recognition of our long association with the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

The Chair of the Club is Phillip Chen Nan-Tok. He seems to be well connected, having been a senior executive of the Swire Group and of various property developments in Hong Kong and on the Mainland.

It is all unreal. Munchkin-like barrier attendants. The race commentary and in between race commentary is all very English, although the race-caller is obviously Antipodean; he does not have the languid style of the British race-caller or the unintelligible brogue of an Irish counterpart. There he is describing Australian horses galloping around these racetracks with not a whiff of tear gas or the young rioting against Mainland repression.

The betting brings Hong Kong plenty of money – and not an Australian boycott in sight. I wonder therefore if the Chinese will be at the Australian horse sales in the New Year.

Bliss

My son gave me “Abraham Lincoln” – which coincidentally was reprinted in 1939, the year of my birth. This book was written by William Thayer, an American educator, who was born during the American Civil War.

Lincoln

The book details a mob response to the death of President Lincoln in very graphic terms:

“In some localities the grief expressed itself in the form of vengeance. It assumed that form early on Saturday morning in the city of New York. Armed men gathered in the streets threatening speedy death to disloyal citizens. Their numbers rapidly increased, until fifty thousand assembled in Wall Street Exchange, bearing aloft a portable gallows, and swearing summary vengeance upon the first rebel sympathizer who dared to speak. One thoughtless fellow remarked that ‘Lincoln ought to have been shot long ago’; and he was struck dead instantly. The grieved and vengeful crowd seethed towards the office of the World, a disloyal paper, with mutterings of violence on their lips. It seemed scarcely possible to prevent violent demonstration. A bloody scene appeared to be imminent. At that critical moment a portly man, of commanding physique and voice, appeared upon the balcony of the City Hall, from which telegrams were read to the people, and raising his right hand to invoke silence, he exclaimed, in clear and sonorous tones:-

‘Fellow-citizens, – Clouds and darkness are round about Him! His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies! Justice and judgement are the habitation of His throne! Mercy and truth shall go before His face! Fellow-citizens! God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives!’

The effect of this serious address was magical. The raging populace subsided into repose. A hushed silence pervaded the vast assembly, when the voice of the speaker ceased, as if they had listened to a messenger from the skies. The change was marvellous. The speaker was General James A. Garfield, who became President sixteen years afterwards, and was shot by an assassin four months later! How strange that the inhabitants of that metropolis, who listened to the gifted statesman so gladly, April 14th, 1865, should be shocked by the news of his assassination on July 2nd, 1881!”

There are two stories in this excerpt from the book. The one directly showing that in times of crisis America always seems to unearth a saviour. Garfield’s ability to quell the mob reaction restored a degree of order into what was one of the most provocative acts imaginable to incite mob revenge – the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

James Garfield had been a major-general in the Union forces while still in his 30s and had seen action in some of the major American Civil War battles such as Shiloh while still a young man. He may have been described as portly in the above excerpt, but he was only 34, and “portly” is not a word I would normally associate with a person of that age.

Garfield

Moreover, as with Lincoln, Garfield was born in a log cabin – Lincoln in Kentucky, Garfield in Ohio – both Republicans, both with progressive social agendas.

When Garfield was shot, he had a doctor called “Doctor Willard Bliss” foisted on him. Doctor was actually his first name and in most of the description of this man, he is known as “D W Bliss”. Bliss was a rogue, in that he ran away under fire at the Battle of Bull Run, and then claimed that he participated in a great victory. He faced prison for stealing Army equipment but was helped to evade conviction by his political contacts.  He took the opportunity of an association with Lincoln’s son to spruik a false cancer cure.

Notwithstanding that, he bobbed up as Garfield’s personal physician again on Lincoln’s son’s recommendation. He was completely disdainful of Listerian concepts in mitigating infection. It is not reported whether he ever uttered something like “fake news” or “hoax’. However, it was his complete repudiation of infection control including shoving unsterilised instruments into the President’s body in a vain attempt to find the bullet that accelerated the President’s ultimate demise.

Despite a welter of optimistic reports on the progress of the President’s condition, completely fake, Garfield died on September 16 – two months after the assassination attempt. A long pus-laden sinus was found in the President’s body at post-mortem – the track outlined where Bliss’s probe had gone.

At trial, Charles Guiteau, the would-be assassin,  said in his defence that he did not kill the President, Bliss did. Nevertheless, it was Guiteau who was convicted and hanged in January 1882.

In fact, Bliss billed the US Government for an outrageous sum for services rendered, but in the end received nothing.

Real gallows humour, because with Bliss, quackery and fake news clashed with scientific evidence. Scientific evidence and the life of a President were the victim of the Bliss cocktail.

Ambulant recognition

Simple things are often lost in the grand sweep of the disabled. One of the problems with being disabled is the lack of uniformity of public toilets, those in restaurants and also those within service stations which are the most easily accessible, unless the service station has a sign which says “Express”, which stands for “no toilets”.

The problem:

There are four essentials.

  • The toilet seat must be about 50 cm from the floor.
  • There should be a rail to hold on to when standing up.
  • There should be a handle on the inside of the door; just try getting the door open if you have only a small bolt handle and you are too weak to use it.
  • There is a need to have an ambulant toilet, the use of which should be enforced with appropriate signage in each of the male and female toilets, so the first stall can double as the ambulant toilet with appropriate adjustment in size.

I am going to name one toilet. The one at the Pheasant’s Nest Service Station which is one of last on the Hume Highway before Sydney, and therefore has a strategic importance if you do not want to be caught short on the freeway, caught in an unexpected gridlock.

The disabled toilet has been converted into a shower for interstate truck drivers and was locked. You can hold all the Royal Commissions in the World, but the recommendations often float away.

It would be very useful if there was an enforceable guide for toilets – then there may be an attempt to get uniformity, to conform to the standards, which are clearly set out if one can be bothered to read them.

In Namibia, I once flew for more than three hours in a light aircraft with a bottle for use in the emergency. The flight was from Windhoek to the Hartmann Valley in the north-west of the country, close to the Angolan border. There, alongside the airstrip in magnificent solitude, was one the cleanest flush toilets I have ever used.  That was a very good definition of “relief”. I called the toilet – Mafeking.

Hartmann Valley

Dial M for Misnomer

I had one of those “Four Weddings and a Funeral” moments recently. You know when:

Charles:  How do you do, my name is Charles.

Old man: Don’t be ridiculous, Charles died 20 years ago!

Charles: Must be a different Charles, I think.

Old man: Are you telling me I don’t know my own brother?

This day, I was in a hurry and I thought I had transcribed the phone number correctly.

I rang. A familiar voice, as I thought, answered.

“Marcus, this is father.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. My father died 40 years ago,” followed by a piece of unnecessary invective.

The receiver was slammed down.

I checked the phone number. It was that of one of my cousins who was born grumpy. His name started with “Michael” but although I see him infrequently, I know he is deaf. I could not be bothered ringing him back.

Mouse Whisper

At last, the Trapdoor has been removed and I have been able to visit Melbourne and all my mouse mates who went to Murine Grammar School. I was with a wise friend, Melchior who travels every year here with his two friends, Balthazar and Caspar. Melchior in not Australian but apparently COVID-19 immune.  As we ran along a Melbourne street, we saw this newspaper poster on the newsstand:

SMITH

BLASTS

TON

Melchior was at once fascinated since Melchior is familiar with gold. So he pondered; “Goldsmith?”

“Blasts?” explosives –

“Ton” – unusual for a goldsmith to mine his own gold?

Melchior said such was the rarity no wonder it had made news.

“Good try but not quite right, Melchior!” was all I whispered.

Modest Expectations – Nisi

Today was Melbourne Cup day. You know, the sporting event that stops a nation. Except we have just driven 800 kilometres from   Dubbo to Broken Hill. It is not the first time we have driven between the two cities, but it served as a reminder that going on a long journey with yourselves through the Outback of Australia is a reminder of our diversity. Australia prides itself on its multicultural diversity, but even to my urban eye, Australia also has great climatic diversity.

In the brochures which highlight this diversity there are always pictures of the Great Barrier Reef, tropical rain forests and beaches, Uluru and red deserts, and the Sydney Opera House. However, along a road on a hot day, diversity springs out at you if you care to look.  The subtle changes in the landscape are there. The problem of being the driver is that one drives essentially with a strip of bitumen in front of you. Traffic is increasingly sparse the further you penetrate into the country.

The thin strip of bitumen

Whenever I go on one of these trips, I say to myself that I must learn more about eucalypts. There have been multiple experts who can tell a gum tree variety just by running their eyes up and down the structure. The fragrance of Australia is breaking apart a newly picked gum leaf and smelling it. Describe the smell and you describe Australia as it has been for thousands of years.

Between Dubbo and Nyngan, there are a number of small towns. This is wheat country interspersed with natural habitat.

There is a white blanket along the sides of the road. They are tiny white everlastings that nature has gathered into posy-like clumps and then strewn through the bush.

As the soil becomes drier, everlastings give way to small clumps of salt bush dotting the landscape and foreshadowing that there is saltbush country beyond the horizon.

The scrub varies from open woodland to areas of brigalow, with the grey feathery foliage atop a black trunk, the mallees – greenery close to the ground, then clumps of native cypress, some gidgee trees. These are interspersed with the gum trees I wished I could identify.

I well remember driving from Bourke to Goodooga in the north of NSW and my companions identifying the trees as they would their relatives. The most striking of all of them was the leopard gum. Each of these trees and others reflect microclimates in each of these areas being distinct, which in turn makes the whole landscape such a diverse experience.

On our trail today, animal life is scarce – one emu, no kangaroos, a number of feral goats, no cattle and a small flock of sheep in saltbush as we neared Broken Hill.

After Nyngan it is 130 kilometres to Cobar. At Nyngan, in a unprepossessing iron shed which houses the toilets, we find that rarest of commodity, soap – and something in my wide usage of such facilities I have never seen before – paper towels, all maintained by the volunteer group that run the adjacent wool shearing shed display.

Contrast this with the stop at the MacCulloch Range wayside rest area which boasts a children’s playground, a barbecue and a long-drop toilet without toilet paper – and where the birds are conditioned to congregate around the toilet when occupied, because the outside wash basin discharges its waste water directly on the ground for the birds to drink. Here there are several plaques identifying NSW Ministers who have made the journey to unveil them – one in recognition of the completion of sealing of the road between Nyngan and the South Australian border in 1972 and the other for the creation of the children’s playground and the other facilities there! Talk about turning up for the opening of an envelope – but then the latter was Carl Scully.

However, that stopover is closer to Wilcannia than Cobar, which owes its existence to its copper mines. Then it is 260 kilometres to Wilcannia from Cobar, with no settlements in between.

Wilcannia stone

Wilcannia was once a thriving river port where boats were loaded with the wool clip and sent down the Darling River. The magnificent buildings made from the distinctive Wilcannia stone attest to a past colonial magnificence. I was once shown the quarry from which the Wilcannia stone was extracted. It was disused although stone remained under a cover of bush. The stone makes beautiful cream coloured buildings, so much in synchrony with the intense clear sunlight. Perhaps the quarry has been worked out – but the stone would still attract use for building if that is not the case.

Wilcannia is now an Aboriginal town as it has been all the 30 years since I first stayed and worked there. Here was where I learnt so much about the Barkinji people. Today in 40 degrees heat, parked in a nearly deserted main street, we watched the Melbourne Cup on a laptop.

This year travelling the route was somewhat unusual in that rain had come and turned much of the country green.  The salt bush seemed to coalesce with this greenery. The red earth still broke through, and in particular there were some areas which had not received much rain.

The last kilometres through to Broken Hill pass through a plain almost devoid of trees. While there was a rim of hills in the distance, this land was flat and green – it seemed to be a continuation of the Hay Plains to the South, which are so treeless they give an illusion of a flat earth. It is said these plains are the area which most effectively demonstrate this illusion.

At last Broken Hill nears, we turn our watches back half an hour to South Australian time. Now on all sides we see what many people describe as the engine which made Australia – the huge silver-lead-zinc deposits – after the gold rush petered out. There is no way Broken Hill can be described in one paragraph.  I’ll reserve that for another time since this one day in the Outback stands alone – yet another tincture to colour the wonderful commodity – experience.

Old Broken Hill

The Three Horsemen of Politics 

“To spend a third of life in unproductive idleness seems a dreadful waste to some people, and now and then they decide to shun the slothful practice evermore.  No one has yet succeeded. After a couple of sleepless nights they are as sleepy as anyone else, eventually become incoherent and irrational and seek the season of all natures.”

                  The last six words are stated by Lady MacBeth.

When I listened to the tirade from Minister Frydenberg demonstrating his basic ignorance of what Daniel Andrews had done, I could not believe it – coming from the mouth of someone who in all public demeanour before has shown control albeit behind a quizzical expression.

So what did this outburst signify?  Many applauded him for it. I did not. I thought the content wild and illogical. I have watched politicians over the course of 50 years. Published many years ago in the print media, but seemingly forgotten, I have been jogged to repeat what I said then.

There were three challenges for politicians that I identified.

  • Sleeplessness
  • Isolation
  • Boredom

As I wrote about sleeplessness, it seems to be a badge of honour of some politicians not to sleep. I remember that Margaret Thatcher boasted about how little sleep she needed. She ended up with dementia. When I first wrote about the deleterious effects of lack of sleep, there was not the evidence there is today about its link with Alzheimer’s and Lewy body dementia.

I have always likened sleeping as the time you put out the cerebral garbage.  This image seems to have been validated by scientific evidence. When one does not sleep, then the garbage in the form of amyloid or other toxins is left to accumulate in the brain.

I well remember the experiment of “the tipping cat”. Here the cat would just be allowed to fall asleep and then immediately be tipped up. This was repeated time and again, eventually turning the cat into feline paranoia.

The image of Frydenberg scribbling away and then launching into the tirade made me wonder about how much “good sleep” he is getting. From a forensic point of view it would be interesting to know what he actually scribbled, and the psi impact on the paper hopefully not reflected in the way Trump violates paper with his black signature.

So that is the first question I would ask of Frydenberg. What about your sleep?

Turning to isolation; the figure brooding, looking out the window – the Person Alone – is supposed to indicate strength and a thoughtfulness, the ability to sustain 40 days and nights in the wilderness. However, the reality is that most politicians hate isolation. My thought is that when they all moved to that new Mussolini era-architecturally inspired mausoleum called New Parliament House, to offset the innate isolation of the long corridors and the vast atria with offices designed for excessive space with the consequence of distancing themselves from us plebs, the politicians employed more and more staff. In the Old Parliament House, people lived close to one another, which in itself reduced isolation – apart from which, the place was so small no one could fit a large number of staff.

However, now politicians have to work in a building which structurally promotes isolation enhanced by the ever-increasing levels of security; then, when a pandemic appears, the frailty of those isolated is shown. When isolation is a negotiable commodity, then it can be brushed aside – but when isolation comes with compulsion to save the health of a nation, then it becomes very challenging because it is real, physically.

Because in a pandemic that’s exactly what they should happen -one isolates oneself.

Another problem with isolation is that it breeds ignorance and, when combined with sleeplessness, an inability to adapt. One of the ways to combat this is to listen, not as a public relations exercise, nor one looking for an anecdote to bolster your belief system, but as a genuine effort to discover alternative views. I always remembered the politician who said he went to meetings outside his comfort cocoon, because there was often times one comment or an idea would jolt him from his “cocoon of isolation” and make him think further. Isolation thus has a mental component.

The final component which has grown over the years to feed isolation has been this obsession with security. The activities in the Middle East have fuelled this, together with the increasingly inflammatory comments from politicians revelling in the inferno of populism. When I first entered the political scene, security was not the industry it is today. Even when there was the attempt to assassinate Arthur Caldwell, then the Leader of the Opposition, in 1966 there was no knee jerk response. Security has now become an industry – a commodity – to be traded- and alongside its growth are the vested interests. It is no doubt a contributor to isolation, but how much? One can only say that if one believes it is important to combat “the politician as an isolate” it needs to be factored into any considerations.

Then there is boredom. People believe that hustle and bustle is activity. This boredom was exemplified by the criticism of Mr Albanese’s office. It sounds like a playground with or without a sandpit. The problem is that there is not enough real work for these characters to do. They then just play endless games of “gotcha” in between their sycophantic acknowledgement of their various politician employers.  As I once wrote: “Boredom and its consequences have the effect of pushing away some people who could have been important contributors. It would disastrous if, at the centre of the political world, are solely those who delight in the entrails of boredom, and who actually revel in gossip, ritual and games.”

In the intervening period I have witnessed how true most of this is. There is no reason to believe that Frydenberg ever gets bored, but it is reason for him and others in high places to be aware that boredom breeds mischief – bouncing between venial and venal. Staff members need useful work to do and if that doesn’t exist, you don’t need them.

Therefore, if a government does not have an optimistic agenda demanding substantial policy discussion, hope is rationed and eventually boredom thrives from a lack of hope, because there is nothing to do but obfuscate, let forth tirades and generally be unpleasant. Because there is that ghost of the Cheshire cat and all it conceals, to goad. Then add sleeplessness and isolation and it becomes a toxic mixture!

Paul Collier – Lest we forget

I don’t know whether his name has been mentioned in the Disability Royal Commission. I very clearly remember meeting his mother though.

At the time I was on quixotic mission handing out voting cards at the Woodcroft booth in the seat of Mawson. Dr David Senior, a rural general practitioner friend of mine, was standing on a single issue of saving the Royal Adelaide Hospital, a perfectly good building on North Terrace, rather than have it replaced with an extravaganza further up the road. The new hospital has since been built; it has had huge commissioning problems but is a legacy to that man of impeccable judgement, Mike Rann, then Premier. This judgement was attested to by his chummy relationship with Lance Armstrong.

Then, as now, Mawson has an ALP member. The electorate is a predominantly outer suburban electorate, but also includes a significant slice of the state’s wine industry and now extends to include Kangaroo Island. Woodcroft, where I was handing out cards, was very suburban – wide streets, not many trees, the signature brick veneer homes but not McMansions.

This is where I met Paul Collier’s mother. Collier was a quadriplegic, highly qualified who, at the age of 21 had the accident which rendered him with this severe disability. This had not stopped his advocacy for the disabled and he had formed the Dignity Party. He was on top of the Party ticket for a place in the Upper House, but 11 days prior to the election, he died from a cerebral haemorrhage. His name had remained at the top of the ballot. His votes were passed on to the second person on the ticket, Kelly Vincent, a young woman with cerebral palsy, who was duly elected and served one term, and tellingly was not re-elected in 2018.  The conventional stated reason for this was the change to optional proportional voting. If so, this is an indictment of how the community viewed her candidature, not important enough to either vote for or preference her, disability and all.

But then in March 2010, I shall never forget that extraordinary woman, having just farewelled her son two days before, handing out how-to-vote cards for her dead son’s Party. I did not discuss her motives with her; she was still wrestling with the grief.  She had told me enough.

When I wrote this to Mike Steketee, a journalist I knew well then, I myself was not disabled, as I am now. Once I found out the complexity of being looked after, as I have, I recognise how difficult it all is. Frankly, I don’t know why you need a Disability Royal Commission over four years. What will it tell me in its recommendations about what should be done that I do not already know.

The labour intensity of keeping people alive is huge and thankless; one problem of medical science – from the marginally viable 22-23 weeks pre-term to the centenarian with dementia – is intent on keeping them alive at all cost.  An increasingly number of people recognise, as they do elsewhere, prolongation of life of an obsolete product is about cutting losses – but tell that to the religiously superstitious! It was reported this week that almost 50 per cent of those who have died in aged care in Australia from COVID-19 had dementia.

Society is conditioned to mourn the dead, often a self-conscious piety when it just boils down to how, in personal terms, the dead are just names. We fumble in how we express ourselves when we feel nothing. Going to funerals as a matter of form is not grief. Grief is a solitary situation, and when you lose your mother as a boy, it lives with you for the rest of your life.

Disability has been raked over. Let’s assume the cost is considerable; the modelling light on “how much” flashes “a lot”.  In these times with a government in deficit, if you want to care properly – you need a tax.

Confront the country with the figure for care for a moderately disabled person if treated individually at home or in an institution; then ask each taxpayer individually would they be prepared to pay that tax, given that around every health problem is a shell of fakery and profiteering associated with the privatisation of aged care. The Disability Royal Commission should be able to answer some of the questions underlying the statement in this paragraph.  If they have, then why the need for extension?

Apart from the here and now I faced the dilemma of how to confront disability almost 50 years ago when I was a young doctor responsible for an adult rehabilitation ward. One day in 1971 a 12-year old boy was admitted, paralysed down one side, a spontaneous event without apparent cause.

He was a bright boy and I had immediate empathy with him. I saw him every day. He came from the country, but nobody came to see him. His parents seemingly had disappeared at the onset of his medical condition when the boy was transferred to the city. It is very difficult to be child in a rehabilitation ward where most were elderly. For some reason, it was difficult to discharge him, because facilities for a child soon to become an adolescent with all that meant were poorly differentiated. Adolescent medical care as a specialty was in its early stages.

Thus, for respite on a couple of weekends with the agreement of the hospital, I took him home so he could experience family life.  Our sons were seven and five at the time.

We lived very close to the hospital. My then wife and I contemplated whether we could go further and seek to take over his future care and education. We consulted a range of heath professionals, before initiating anything. We never mentioned it to anyone – we were not adopting “a pet” to be discussed over morning coffee. The question was whether we could give him a better life, not him to be regarded as a trophy.

We both agreed the question was whether we could be both appropriate “foster parents” or “adopted parents”. In the end we were dissuaded; we had to cast off any incipient emotional ties. However, for a period we wondered whether we had done the wrong thing. As it turned out, we probably did the right thing – but how would you know as we did not maintain contact. We did ensure that he would be cared for in the short term and not be forgotten. No Royal Commission could have helped us then or, I suspect, now.

In hindsight, given where we both are now, it was obviously right, but then nobody will ever know what would have happened if he had become part of the family. Dwelling on such matters at an individual level gets one nowhere, except to think that Ron Sackville must have wisdom which the rest of us do not. 

Mouse Whisper

As someone who remembers the toll of the 1980s, this piece from the New York Review of Books is sobering, so much so that if a mouse could shout from the rafters and not squeak, I would say loudly:

There is a terrible fear that the toll on health care workers from COVID will have been in vain if Trump’s failure to effectively tackle the pandemic continues, if testing is not ramped up to levels that allow for identification of carriers and contact tracing, if distribution of protective equipment is not done rationally but rather through nepotism and profiteering, if experts are removed from important positions after questioning incompetent political leadership, and if reopening the economy is done haphazardly to fulfill talking points on cable TV in hopes of gaining re-election. 

Perhaps the greatest lesson we can take from the AIDS epidemic is one that came after the movie star Rock Hudson died, effectively removing the blinders that President Reagan was wearing. Reagan, a friend of Hudson, at last ceded authority to scientists like Fauci, who knew how to speak to the public about illness and create a sense of common cause, and to mobilise both the public and private sectors to triumph over a virus that had never been seen before and many believed could not be effectively combated.  AIDS arrived as a murderer; now it can be shackled. We are nowhere near that point with COVID-19.

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 – Blood-nut Hollow

One side of my family, the Horwills, were wool combers from Devon. The industrial revolution came later to wool processing than for cotton, but by the mid 19th century, the technology had been ironed out and manual wool combing was surplus to need. Anyway, many of the family had already gone to sea, literally. There were hard times in that year; food shortages and the upheavals in Europe may have also played a part because in the mid 19th century the Horwills scattered across the New World – to America, Canada and Australia.

Another set of ancestors, the Egans, came out from Ireland about the same time. Their father had been a flour miller in Crossard, a small township in Co. Clare. They seem to have been tenant farmers. The potato famine changed their life and drove the whole family to Australia. My great-grand father went first to Kapunda on the Yorke Peninsula, where the first commercial mine to extract copper from a rich deposit happened earlier in the decade. Unsuccessful, he was attracted by the newly-found gold in Victoria and made a considerable fortune by providing timber for the mine shafts.

1848 was a time when the working classes and the nascent middle class rose up across Europe. It cannot be blamed on the industrial revolution but it was a time that the disparity between rich and poor was accentuated.

The revolution started in Sicily where the Bourbon King’s rule was challenged. There had been a savage cholera epidemic in Sicily and it seems that arbitrary arrests of a few people sparked riots in the streets of Palermo. As the rioters gained support even from the wealthy, it became a fully-fledged rebellion with the locals seizing power from the Bourbon king, who reigned from Naples.

The rebellion spread across Continental Europe and it followed a pattern of the revolutionaries seizing power and then having it taken away from them in violent conflict, with the old order in the end re-established. However revolution did not affect Great Britain, except that the Irish Question became an even greater problem with the failure of the potato crop in a country still reliant on agrarian subsistence.

The problem is that the dynasties were re-established, refurbished and restored. However, there was now an intellectual basis for the foment among the community against the ruling dynasties traditional right to power.

But after a major upheaval, whether it be famine, epidemic or war, nothing is the same. Communication and education opportunities then were improving – if unevenly. That was the nature of society: industrial progress, the urban growth, democratic advocacy, education and with improved literacy and numeracy in the working class, all were shifting unevenly.

America and the British colonies and places like Argentina had spurts of migration – no more so than America. Here in Australia it was the Celts – Irish, Scots and Welsh – looking for a better life. There were also people from the Prussian diaspora – Lutheran Germans and Wends. Jews were forced to flee Europe – universal scapegoats.

Descendents of the immigrants

The 1848 revolution was never a major source of our migration. It was the fascination with gold a few years later. The Chinese came and their immigration is entangled in these gold discoveries. It was just a coincidence that this was around 1848.

The gulf between rich and poor was growing and all 1848 had done was to seed in the enlightened of the day that industrialisation meant that workers would eventually want their share, and have a voice.

2020 is in the middle of another revolution, a communication revolution where, rather than Rothschild, Carnegie, Mellon Rockefeller, Astors of yore, it is now the Gates, Bezos, the Google Twins, Zuckerberg and the Jobs Legacy that command the riches.

Instead of workers obediently tipping their forelocks to the pageantry of the wealthy this generation is hooked into a technology that is increasingly manipulating the masses into not paying attention to this wealth and power disparity, with this communication revolution aiding and abetting this disparity.

That is until the Virus came calling.

Like the famine and the urban cesspool of exploitation, the disparity in wealth was allowed to progress until the First World War, despite some tentative gestures to improvement. That was a critical tipping point; the misnamed Spanish flu epidemic without cure, the Great Depression and then the Second World War were sequels. To trace the causal effects of each on each other is beyond the scope of one simple blog.

However, the rich now, through what their agents laughingly called government, have peddled globalisation and the free market as a means to erode the power of the people. To me that “power of the people” has always been shorthand for democracy. Rather than the information revolution devolving power to the people, the opposite has occurred and as the algorithms of control become more and more sophisticated then so will democracy become only a façade.

However, the Virus has provided an opportunity to change the system. The rage against “lockdown” confused with oppression is reflected in the race protests, people against police brutality and a superficial correction in toppling or defacing statues. But these acts are peripheral.

As post-1848 showed, the middle class eventually sided with the rich and their politician tools, frightened of the unknown and guessing they had less to lose. Outbursts were suppressed and bribes cloaked as “commitment” seduced the others. Whenever, the word “change agent” is used, it identifies the person who has made his or her life’s work to sit on committees and do nothing.

In the end, because they suffer from the same afflictions, politicians close ranks – ask them to reduce their remuneration and perks and that is the definition of the great god, Unanimity.

However, control is in the end vested in the masters of communication. Once it was the newspaper magnates, but they are being consigned to the irrelevant.

Those who want to maintain power do it through philanthropy, such as Bill Gates who is just following the game plan of the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, and in this country Ian Potter – but in a way that the means of amassment is well separated from the art of giving. Philanthropy is thus a powerful force – it is a form of tithe for ongoing respectability and to have a shelter in a metaphorical Nottingham Wood (to avoid the pun as you read on).

To quote the Guardian when discussing one Andrew Forrest: “This is not to say philanthropy has no real to play in a democracy. It does. But democracies cannot allow wealthy individuals and successful organisations to use philanthropy as a substitute for paying tax. That’s no longer democracy: it is oligarchy.”

Or plutocracy.

Thus the Virus gives society the opportunity to have a levelling influence on the elite. Given that the middle class is almost as afflicted as the poor, then the chance is a return to a democratic tradition, where government stops abrogating its role to care for the people.

This pandemic has made abundantly clear that investment in public health worldwide has been woeful. When governments start privatising water, as has been done, then this compounds the risk of food security, and a stagnant pool is then a cesspool. It is thus only a matter of time before waste disposal and sewage is privatised. All the gains which were made post-1848 when there was a modicum of enlightenment and there were enough statesmen to listen may be lost to a mass of politicians grubbing around for personal gain – the primordial rent seekers of today. In fact it is time to thin the rent seekers out – some are more cancerous than others, metastasising their cells all through the governing bodies.

Rocinante and his old boss

How do we bring more balance to a Post-viral World? Where government has shown leadership, the Virus has been suppressed, incarcerated if not eliminated. To maintain such a defence force against disease, then there must be consideration of government spending and thus it becomes a search for income. Since in the flurry of neoliberalism, governments have given away most of their assets, and decreased taxation, it is not easy. Tax reform can be portrayed as Rocinante tied to a post waiting for his new boss to appear. Governments of all sides have made those who genuinely believe in overall betterment quixotic.

Increasing taxation is an obvious solution whether by simplifying the tax and removing concessions, instituting a turnover tax, raising GST in a progressive way, abolishing the poll taxes which have resulted from privatisation, reintroduction of inheritance taxes, closing tax havens and generally establishing a means by which everybody pays their fair share, rather than sheltering behind the mumbo-jumbo of the “free market’’. There are plenty of options to achieve equity.

When the threat to wellbeing is greatest and where the politicians recognise their need for expert advice, this pandemic has provided a harsh lesson. Globalisation now has an altered definition.

Rather than revert to the failures of neo-liberalism, it is time for government intervention. Social housing is an immediate target – a worthy show of government’s role. It is hard to brush aside what government has done for the homeless during the pandemic, and as such reduced the burden on the street.

However, long term assistance for these poor does not fit in with aspirational greed – yet it is where there are poor housing and working conditions that the Virus will continue to flourish. As with all crises, the rich will flee to the country. Manhattan this summer has become more of a ghost town in the wealthy areas, but come winter it may be different – and ski resorts have been shown as one place the Virus strikes the rich.

Deserted Manhattan streets

It is a pity I will not live long enough to see what this post 2020 environment brings to a world, but at least when the world locked down this year – for oh so short a time – we could see the horizon. 

Remember Quemoy and Matsu

They are called Quemoy and Matsu. Quemoy is an island in the lee of the China mainland. Matsu is a group of islands to the north scattered across the South China Sea. They are administered from Taiwan and remain an oddity from the Chiang Kai-shek retreat to Taiwan after his defeat by the Communist forces in 1949. When they are discussed they are always mentioned in the same breath. However they are very separated but not more so than from Taiwan.

Matsu

The Nationalist forces were able to repel the Communist forces when they tried to invade Quemoy in 1949. Yet given that Quemoy is just six kilometres from the mainland and yet 280 kilometres across the Strait to Taiwan, it is remarkable that China has not just absorbed it and the Matsu archipelago. They are just the kind of islands that the Chinese want to convert into bases. China seems to prefer to annoy other countries by taking over disputed rocks in the South China Seas and building military bases.

Yet in the 1950s Quemoy and Matsu were flashpoints in the conflict between the Americans and the Chinese, where the remnant Chiang Kai-shek “China” forces lodged on the island of Formosa.

There were two critical periods, and in one of the years when the two Chinas were not fighting – bombarding the islands and having aerial dogfights over the South China Sea, I was on a ship. The United States imposed a blockade on Chinese Ports. For any shipping in the South China Sea it was a tense situation for those who ventured there, in our case in a cargo ship called the S.S. Taiping. It was a ship of about 4,000 tonnes, transporting mainly wheat and wool, but also catering for a number of passengers. My recently widowered father was the ship’s doctor (and I was lodged in the second wireless officer cabin).

Thus the ship had to thread its way across the South China Sea to Hong Kong. One morning when I had just come up on deck I heard this screaming noise, which came with a rush, and suddenly there they were two American Star fighters swooping low just above the funnel and then as quickly disappearing as specks into the clouds. Now we were ready to watch if they came again, which they did. I could imagine that these planes had positioned themselves for a strafing run. They were over the ship and then were gone – hardly enough time to disturb those taking breakfast below.

S.S. Taiping

However, the noise of the planes – an ear-blistering scream – gave me a feeling of exhilaration. To my father and the chief officer, both of whom had experienced Japanese strafing and bombing, just shrugged their shoulders. However, it brought home to me the fact that we living in perilous times in a perilous sea.

Yet despite the posturing Taiwan seems safer now than it was when China was considerably weaker as it was in 1956. Quemoy and Matsu seemed to have dropped out of the lexicon of threats. I think that the Chinese government know the Taiwanese today are not the same force it considered invading 70 years ago. Nevertheless the rhetoric remains. It always does.

The Taiwanese have a very substantial military force of 165,000 active soldiers with another 1.2 million in reserve, compared to Australia with a similar population of 30,000 active soldiers with 13,000 in reserve. When I went there I thought their approach was very much like that of the Israelis. Survival had moved to consolidation and having a big stick helps – and the nation is not in the mood to relinquish any hard-earned gains.

The other reason I believe China would be loath to invade is for fear that the fine collection of artefacts dating back to Neolithic times now housed in the National Palace Museum could be destroyed. The Chinese have never forgotten the looting that occurred in 1860 when the Anglo-French forces entered Beijing and burnt the Summer Palaces. Many of the looted treasures ended up in France and the United Kingdom, but a substantial collection remains in Taiwan. The Chinese government would not want this Taiwan collection destroyed, even though it was stolen by Chiang Kai-shek at the time he fled the Mainland.

I was told the collection was so large that those items on display could be totally replaced for seven years before there would be any need to repeat the items on display. Some of these items are said to be among the finest Chinese artefacts and heritage is a very important consideration. Can China invade without damaging the collection? It answers its own question – no.

However, why do it? To have a war over an island to expunge some hubric stain begs that very question. Nevertheless, there are no bounds to laundering one’s own hubris if the gale is blowing in the right direction, whatever that direction is considered to be.

Picnic on Quemoy

In any case, I understand now that tourists can come across from the Mainland to picnic on Quemoy among the visitors from Taiwan. But then perhaps that is bad optics – ordinary people mingling.

There is a lesson for Australia in the Taiwan approach. While I was initially sceptical of their COVID-19 numbers, when you remember the discipline into which Taiwan has had to accustom itself to assure its survival, it is unsurprising that it should early on recognise a foreign invader, even if they cannot see it except under a microscope. 

Dreamer, sleep deep | Toiler, sleep long | Fighter, be rested now | Commander, sweet goodnight 

After my father died, my stepmother with these words headed her replies to those who had sent letters to her expressing sympathy and many reflecting on my father’s legacy. I found this reference in my personal file, and remembered that the words were the final ones of Carl Sandberg’s poem on the death of President Roosevelt.

It prompted me to purchase a copy of Sandberg’s complete works, and his elegiac words from “When Death Came April Twelve 1945”:

and there will be roses and spring blossoms

flung on the moving oblong box, emblems endless

flung from nearby, from faraway earth corners,

from frontline tanks nearing Berlin

unseen flowers of regard to the Commander,

from battle stations in the South Pacific

silent tokens saluting The Commander

Such is the contrast so clearly set out in the poem with Trump to perceive how far leadership has slipped in the United States. Would the passing of the current incumbent evoke such a response?

Yet Roosevelt presided over a country where segregation of black people and denial of civil rights was the order of the day in the then Democrat voting South – a country where in 1938 the Ku Klux Klan rallied in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Yet a year later, because of the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, before 75,000 people Marion Anderson, the great American contralto sang at the Lincoln Memorial, a performance that is said to have inspired the young Martin Luther King to enter the struggle for real emancipation, a conflict still being played out on the streets of the American City.

For my part, I now have this copy of Carl Sandberg’s poems on my desk. Every morning I read a poem. His love of country is so evident that I realise how much I love my own country and how inadequate I am in expressing this love compared to Sandberg’s of America.

I am saddened by those who want to deface statues, which was the way of previous generations to honour mostly men of their time.

James Cook was not perfect; he trod the line between assertion and aggression. Discipline and loyalty yet are essential attributes when you are sailing in the unknown. Choice is not a discussion on the niceties of democracy when choice is between survival and death.

Graffiti is one vehicle of the ignorant. Cook does not deserve that. His images don’t deserve that. Before these furbo children of the millennium pick up their spray cans again, they should think: will you ever have the same level of curiosity, bravery and endeavour that that Yorkshire explorer had, rather than being the furtive snigger of the dark night coward wielding spray cans?

The Man from Blood-nut Hollow

I met Reg Hickey when I tutored his daughter in biochemistry. She was studying to be a health professional. The details are foggy, but I know it was not nursing. It was the year I had a job in Geelong at the Hospital, and I got on well with Reg. He was the closest to beatification in that city at the time, which also was known as Blood-nut Hollow because of Hickey having a propensity to recruit red-headed players.

Reg Hickey had coached Geelong at Australian Rules for three periods beginning in 1932 until he finally retired in 1959. I remembered him well because he coached Geelong the year they beat my team, Essendon in 1951 – a surprise victory. This victory was one of three premierships Hickey won with Geelong.

Reg then was very influential in the world of football. He secured two tickets for the 1965 Grand Final when Essendon played St Kilda. My then wife was an exquisite blonde, a doctor who had come to Australia as a refugee with her sister and parents. Born in what is now Slovenia, she could be a somewhat fiery individual.

We were shown to our seats. They were very good seats, given there were 104,000 other people at the Melbourne Cricket ground that day. The seats were three rows back from the fence.

On this occasion, I had not realised that her passion extended to the football field. At one point, the play came very close to us. There was a scuffle. One involved in this altercation was Carl Ditterich, a very tall burly St Kilda ruckman who had made a sensational debut two seasons before when he 18, With his shock of blond hair and youthful enthusiasm, you could not miss him in any crowd.

Well, my then wife did that day. Ditterich who was increasingly known for translating that enthusiasm in aggression was roughing up Essendon player Ted Fordham just in front of us. Enraged at this bullying of a smaller player, she stood up and flung an open can of “Palato”, a fizzy orange cordial drink, in Ditterich’s direction.

Palato went everywhere, but we were sitting among Essendon fans who, despite being splattered with the orange drink in accordance with Newton’s Third law of Motion, gave her a big cheer. She sat down regally as ever without acknowledging the applause. The can missed Ditterich. I cannot recall whether I wanted to stay or flee. But nothing happened. No retribution – we did not have men labelled Security in those days and police only appeared near the game to stop the crowds running onto the field of play.

Essendon went on to win the game. Fordham kicked seven goals and was named Man of the Match. I don’t know whether Carl had much of a match – how could you with visions of that young avenging doctor in the third row of the Southern Stand!

As for Mr Hickey, my life was better for knowing him, however briefly, as I moved back to Melbourne the next year.

Mouse whisper

Mice are used to long winding passages but there is always a nest in among the passages where I can always watch Nestflix.

However, I was enjoying one of G.K Chesterton’s short stories, a bit dry but still meaty, when I came across this quote:

What we all dread most,” said the priest in a low voice, “is a maze with no centre.

The priest was Father Brown. The story was The Head of Caesar.

I chewed on it for a moment. I thought how relevant the quote is today in the world outside my mouse hole.

Modest expectations – On viewing a Gun Carriage November 1963

A weeping blackness

But           

Refusal to enshroud

A memory

In a haze

         Of

What you were to do

                           Yet what would you be

                                             As man

                                                      Of seventy-two

                                             You when the flames of youth

                                                      Have died

                                             How promising can a man

                                                      Of seventy-two

                                                               Superannuated

                                             With a watch

                                                      A gold watch

                                             A great gold watch which ticks

                                             And tells that time is time

Who grieves

         For your greatness

         For your back

         Which now relieved

         Stands straight

For mourners lift

         Their candles high

For who knows you

         Who knows

The emptiness of the tomb

For who but you

         Can deride

The greatness that might have been

         For you – at seventy-two

 

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was 46 years old when he was assassinated. He would have been 103 this year.

It was my tribute, the tribute of 24 year old about to graduate as a doctor, still raw; still disbelieving that this man who could have inspired our generation was dead – assassinated. My first reaction was that it was some mad right-wing Southern racist.

Kennedy was a courageous thoughtful man inured to disability. However, there he was – distant but resonant to the young idealist. Staring down the Russians, learning from the ill-advised Bay of Pigs, and probably about to dump the Texan anachronism from the Vice-President position for someone who would face not only the massive change in American society but understand the nuances of post-colonial Asia.

How he would have handled the Vietnam conflict would have been instructive, because the cancerous growth of American exceptionalism – as culminating in this present Trumpian farce – may never have happened.

How different a time it was when Kennedy recommended appointments to the Supreme Court based on talent not ideology – both swiftly ratified. One was Abe Goldberg, the eminent jurist with his opposition to capital punishment that led to its long moratorium in America; the other was Byron White who, despite his strong Democratic party links, became the “swing” vote until his retirement in 1993. Funny how good sense and rational thought have flown away from Pennsylvania Avenue.

Strange when I re-read this poem after many years, that I picked the age of 72. Trump is 74 this week. Only time is ticking for him. 

The “Free-City State” of Hong Kong

Nowhere is that sense of selective self-righteousness more apparent than the extreme sensitivity in Beijing towards Australia’s criticism of China’s behaviour in the South China Sea. There is strong public support for the official view that China’s claim to historic territorial rights is totally justified, along with indignation that this could be even questioned.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s statement about the need to respect the ruling of the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague last July as binding and final is regarded as particularly egregious.

Jennifer Hewett was travelling in China this month as a guest of the Chinese government.

I note that it is the same Jennifer Hewett who wrote that piece in October 2016 who referred last Friday in the Australian Financial Review to the people’s republic of Victoria.

This sly comment in an otherwise unremarkable piece of journalism stood out, because amid reasoned argument there was no justification for the statement.

“The people’s republic of Victoria” is just the same as a label of “Junket journalism” pinned to a journalist called Jennifer when discussing her guest experience in China at their expense.

After all, the paper she writes for has been prepared to the take Chinese Government money for China Watch – a propaganda instrument of that Government. Nevertheless, some of the articles are interesting when stripped of their cocô de touro covering.

Hong Kong is due to be returned to China in 2047. The Chinese Government has accelerated the process. The Chinese government doles out the rope so that the dissidents can protest for a time. Once the government has had time to assure itself that it has identified all the ringleaders, then it will move in, and use its overwhelming force to quell the dissent. At the same time, the ringleaders will be targeted so that unlike Mao, these dissidents cannot set up a guerrilla force.

The dissidents have done a very good job up to this point in harassment, but a guerrilla movement needs strong leadership to resist the inevitable imprisonment.

The aim now of the Chinese government is to arrest all of them with or without murdering some of them. Once imprisoned, then choose the instrument of torture.

In the face of this, the options for the dissidents are: be a political penitent; melt into the background; leave Hong Kong or fight on to an irrelevant death or remembered martyrdom. After all, Tiananmen Square provides the blueprint.

First, the Chinese Government clears the streets of the dissidents. There will be little forewarning before the invasion. Big business can pull down the shades and high up in their skyscrapers the noise of rioters being killed can be drowned by Vivaldi being piped through the system.

Horse racing can still proceed so we Australians can be reassured that nothing untoward has happened. You can still see Hong Kong on the TV racing channel.

However I shall concentrate on those images of empty streets bristling with of the People’s Armed Forces on street corners – men who do not speak the local Cantonese. It is the Hong Kong oxymoron for all those foreign journalists to digest searching for a catchy 32-second “grab”; an empty street full of men with guns and tear gas and heavy metal.

It is a small step for the legislature to meet in secret, not in accord with the agreement with the British – no negative votes now.

The transition is complete. The dissidents are somewhere in China, far from our eyes. The Hong Kong legislature now reborn becomes a sheet of red with applauding figurines

With time everybody in Hong Kong is encouraged to develop a convenient amnesia to what has gone on. The dissidents never existed. Business as usual nods in agreement. Eyes are averted not to see evidence of more People’s Armed Forces on street corners – men who do not speak the local Cantonese.

All the trappings of the legislative process agreed with the British may be maintained with Carrie Lam, but she will pass and eventually the fiction will fade away – and Hong Kong will now be “One China – One System”.

The Chinese Government seems to have a tricky decision about maintaining a Hong Kong with an open trade policy, but now under a Chinese rule of law. Given the mainland experience of an increasingly intrusive government, a Hong Kong shorn of the pretence of democracy has to reassure Europeans that the remnants of colonialism do provide a safe enclave for business. If the judicial system completely loses its independence, then business only belongs to the Chinese government and its concessional treatment of us Guizi.

Anyway, as one reliable source said, China always takes a long view and there is already a visible transition of importance from Hong Kong to Shanghai.

Given how the Chinese Government is playing Australia on a break, what is our attitude to all the potential Hong Kong refugees; and do you not think that the Chinese will test Australia out further in the Government’s nascent “White Australia” policy?

This whole business is complicated by the 350,000 Hong Kongers who have British Overseas National passports. These allow for one year’s access without the need for a visa; more ominously another 2.5 million are eligible but have let their passports lapse. Given how immigration-averse Boris’ government is, one can rest assure that the Brits will start putting pressure on both us and Canada to share the “pain”.

You know old boy, the Commonwealth and all that. Watch this space.

However, clinging to Mike and Donald may not be the best solution either. Perhaps we should adopt a modified Belt and Braces policy, making sure we do not rely totally on China – but something has to hold our trousers up. At present it is a lovely rusted ferric belt.

Maybe a more self-reliant by ourselves with a little help from who?

It is time for some lateral thinking, because the name
“China” keeps popping up as the answer.

After all, due to the strength of our public health response Australia has a comparative health advantage over those countries that have not recognised that the Virus breeds and feeds on Chaos.

Turning this public health advantage into an economic advantage is not helped if Australia prioritises frippery, turning this country into a circus fuelled by a shallow media and even shallower politicians.

As for Hong Kong, remember 100 years ago there was another city-state dependent on Great Britain for control over its foreign relations. This state lasted, until its invasion by Germany in 1939, for nearly 20 years – the Free City of Danzig.

Does anybody remember Danzig now?

In the meantime, what will Jennifer say?

Muscular Judaism

Some years ago when Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) was a new modality I had been able, despite some government opposition, to facilitate its use attracting a Medicare benefit for the patient, I received a phone call from some guy who said he represented an Israeli technology firm. He was interested in selling MRI equipment, and he mentioned that his firm was interested in the low Tesla end of the MRI equipment spectrum. However, he wondered whether he could meet me when I was in Melbourne.

I agreed and was somewhat surprised by the address as it was essentially a residential suburb where I once owned a property.

Nevertheless the address where we were to meet was in North Fitzroy. As I anticipated, I arrived at a rather nondescript brick villa. One of the first things I noted was that all the windows were barred and the blinds were drawn. As I walked up to the front door, the light above the door winked at me.

I remember being ushered into a tiled floor entrance where a small flight of stairs led to an open living area, where three other men were lounging around. My hosts were all of medium height, with cropped hair, and what struck me was how supremely fit they appeared. They were all dressed in expensive casual attire but despite the seeming relaxed informality, the atmosphere in the room was far from that.

I remember being introduced, but names meant nothing and probably when I thought about it later, the names were likely manufactured. The only item in the room that sticks in my memory was a model of an El Al airliner, but the room had comfortable chairs where I was invited to sit, and offered coffee or tea. I chose coffee. It was instant. I hate instant.

The problem was that suddenly I did not know why I was here. Everybody spoke perfect yet accented English. The discussion started about the MRI technology and the fact that in this area Israel had developed a great number of interesting products. However, the discussion increasingly became general.

I felt trapped – there was an unspoken menace in the air. It was obvious that the MRI was the bait. All of them were very courteous and amiable. I really did not know what this encounter was about. I generally tend to deviate from the script and play with words in meetings. Not this morning – I have never stuck more carefully to the “script” and measured my replies than I did during that hour. I had never felt under such scrutiny – random seemingly innocuous questions kept coming in this seemingly friendly fashion from each of them. Their seating meant that I had to shift round to answer; I was not always facing in the same direction because of the way they had dispersed themselves.

I still had no idea what this was all about. They were searching me for some information, but what? At the end of our hour, they all got up and said how good it had been to meet me, and they would be touch.

When I was outside, I had this immense sense of relief.

I did not look back. I never tried to find the house again. Presumably they got what they wanted or thought that they had wasted an hour, because I never heard from them again. Laughingly, I related that I had had morning coffee with Mossad. Nobody smiled.

Some years later, I did go to Jerusalem when Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister. It was a time that one could jump into a taxi in Jerusalem and ten minutes later you were in Bethlehem in Palestine. I am glad I went there at that time, but I did not meet up with anyone who resembled the guys whom I had met in Melbourne. I ventured a question to the Conference Israeli organiser, who was a veteran of the Six Day War. He smiled, patted my arm and changed the subject.

Life with Brian 

When I left the Australian Medical Association one of the presents that I was given was a small olive tree in a pot. In honour of a surgeon with a strong link as I had with the Quality Assurance “industry”, I named the tree “Brian”.

The tree was potted and languished outside our office for a number of years making very slow progress.

Then when we moved into a new house, the olive tree followed in its wooden stave barrel. However, it still was stunted and had never produced an olive in five years.

Then one day, a delivery van took out the crepe myrtle tree in front of the house. Crepe myrtles are a favoured street tree in inner Sydney. The colour of their flowers are bright and various.

This incident left a hole in the footpath, the house brick wall exposed, and as the house is located on a poorly cambered corner of inner city asphalt which purports to be a road, the wall was vulnerable to a car running into it. At least the trees provided a barrier for the house.

Early one morning, a car ploughed into the wall, and left a Volkswagen car badge as a calling card. The car had reversed from the rubble and was disappearing around the corner by the time we had come down the stairs. Later “mummy” brought her son around to apologise and to offer to pay for the repair of the wall. We accepted the offer, and the wall was duly rebuilt.

Perhaps we reasoned if we planted the olive tree in the street it would provide some protection. It was a sturdy young tree. We planted the tree in the verge outside the front gate with no real expectations. However, released from the confines of the pot, it started to grow – and did it grow.

Over the next few years, it grew until one spring, there appeared the tiny yellow blossom foreshadowing an autumn olive harvest. The amount of olives varied but in a good years there were seven to ten kilograms. The first time we seriously picked olives, the recipe was just too tedious with the frequent changes in water and brine, and complicated by our being at home irregularly as we travelled around Australia and overseas.

So mostly we left others to come and pick them. Being away for considerable times even if we had intended to harvest them often we would come home and find the tree stripped bare. One year our regular taxi driver, John asked if he could harvest them. In return he presented us with a large bottle of olives, which tasted good and made us think again about our direct involvement.

Then there were a couple of lean years but during that time I had been to Cyprus and watched an aged nun in the courtyard of her retreat, splitting the olives and then placing them in brine. It seemed that with the additions of few sprigs of this and that and chunks of lemon that was it – so fiddling around changing the water was unnecessary.

Now in this year of the Virus, the harvest was bountiful. Locked down, she ventured out and returned with pails of green olives. Only the top most branches escaped because (a) she did not want to climb that high up a ladder and (b) for some reason the rake had gone missing.

However, there were more than enough and for those that are interested, the olive were split, stone retained and than placed in clean jars containing a ten per cent brine solution with white vinegar in a ratio of four to one. A couple of lemons were squeezed into each jar.

It is wise to use non-iodised salt, as olives are bitter enough without that bitterness being augmented by iodine. Put a slice of lemon on the top to keep the olives submerged and then a layer olive oil over the top to keep air out. Seal the bottle and wait. Six weeks later we opened the jar – and bingo. They were good, surprisingly – chewy but full of taste going well with the martini, described in an earlier blog.

Now, that we have entered the olive curing industry, and our olive tree is strong and healthy, as Brian too will be remembered, why not put a grove of olive trees down our street? Our local Council is supposed to be Green, and olive is only a shade of green. The local member of Parliament should be enthusiastic. Jamie Parker is a Green; he once was a purveyor of herbal remedies, one with the interesting title of horny goat weed.

Here is a chance to build on a life with Brian – he could initiate a Grove of Brians with our enthusiastic local member transformed into a Master Olivatore rather than just being remembered as a Faunus vendor, who accidently strayed into Macquarie street.

Mea Culpa

Let me admit to fallibility. Last week I was severely critical of the trial being proposed by the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research (WEHI) to give hydroxychloroquine to frontline health workers, I headed the piece with a quote from a recent Lancet article. It was purported to be an observational trial and its results fitted into my thesis – that the proposed WEHI COVID-19 trial would be ineffective, irrelevant and potentially dangerous.

I was influenced by one particular report of people in Manaus being treated for COVID-19 were given the drug and who died. Manaus had 2000 deaths in April from the virus and the numbers over all of Brazil have topped 30,000 despite their President advocating the use of hydroxychloroquine.

Yes – the Lancet article was neat; it played to my bias; I was blind; the Lancet! How could it be wrong? Surely the journal could not repeat the Wakefield fiasco of 1998, which launched this dangerous Wakefield on his anti-vaxing worldwide rampage.

Therefore, I am very sorry that I used the quote, but in apologizing for its use, I still believe in what I have written, rather than what I quoted. I hope the WEHI trial never takes place, and for all of my above reasons. However, I would still be curious to see the protocol and the ethics committee report of this study.

Mouse Whisper

I have always abhorred this tendency when people are are unsure of the colour to say “bluish” or “yellowish” or size “shortish”.

Therefore I applaud my relative Bmac in refusing to use the word “hamish”.

Now as BMac would know, hame is a two curved wooden padded harness, that forms a collar around the neck of a draft animal. In fact, hame is a yoke – a big yoke. This has to be taken seriously and not referred to as “hamish’’ – a bit of a yoke.

Therefore I applaud you again, BMac, for your deletion of “ish” in all your conversation; as long as you don’t advocate “f with chips” followed a “d of banana fritters.”

A hame in good use

Modest Expectations – Macquarie Island

“Australian state and federal police routinely carry firearms. While on duty, most officers’ duty belts consist of a handgun, Taser, expandable baton, pepper spray, a set of handcuffs, ammunition magazines, gloves, torch, and a two-way radio.”

When the Queensland police were bailing up people at the Queensland border checking on their status, there was not the slightest indication that they were observing any of the rules explicitly set down to minimise the spread of the virus – no gloves, no masks, leaning on car doors, no evidence of hand sanitiser as they handed the documentation and pen to the driver … and as for keeping the requisite distance from their fellow officers, what a joke.

The police are so used to walking virtually hand in hand, nobody has seemed to have told them that just because they are a member of the police force, the virus will not quail at all the ironmongery jangling from their belts. It is far more likely that the belt and the attached items will attract the virus especially as unwashed hands fiddle with them. Where, Madam Commissioner Carroll are your COVID-19 virus protocols and where did you gather your officers together to be briefed on the importance of following the guidelines before they were let loose on the motorists?

It is salutary to remind the Australian police forces that 500 members of New York police force are COVID-19 positive, and there have been a number of deaths. Thus, at the very least each police officer should have a bottle of hand sanitiser placed between the gun and the Taser – and use it.

As for the air conditioning in these lock-down hotels, it is as important for the guards to be especially conscious of the health guidelines and not congregate, as police tend to do. Most of the air conditioning in the hotels is not hospital grade, and therefore there is no guarantee that the virus will not spread.

The last thing the hapless NSW Premier wants is police officer(s) or for that matter an army staff member testing positive in the next two weeks.

Her performance and that of the even more hapless Dr Chant is shaped by their failure – even up until 28 March – to quarantine the arrivals at Sydney International Airport. The Garuda flights where it was reported to ABC radio by a passenger that there were coughing and spluttering passengers allowed to pass through the country’s borders without any checking. If true, this just adds another entry into the charge sheet.

But back to the police – the incongruity of the social distancing in relation to the police force is shown in the images of their patrolling. Presumably the police are now ordering paddy wagons, which provide each recalcitrant with 4 square metres of space.

However jokes aside, the most impressive figure this past week in NSW has been the police commissioner, Mick Fuller – firm, decisive but compassionate – and incorruptible. He was prepared to take the community into his confidence by indicating he had a 90-day supervision delegation from the government to continue to do what the police were doing.

The images are now changing of some of the police force now with gloves and masks. But viruses ride on gloves and there is no evidence that they are being changed regularly. I still could not see the bottle of sanitiser at hand, so to speak.

By the way, where has the NSW Health Minister been? He was last seen coughing a week ago but popped up again on Sunday still looking congested. I hope he has not being doing a Boris, and got impatient with isolation.

The strange case of the Premier and the Fourth Saturday in Lent

One has to give it to the Queensland Premier Palaszczuk. She has a compliant Chief Health Officer, who is not a public health physician. She has closed the borders and at the same time allowed local government elections to proceed, even though they could have been deferred. The images of the voters not “socially distanced” and effectively gathered in large groups could not be reconciled with the health warnings currently agreed by the National Cabinet, of which she is a member. It is even reported that the electoral staff walked out of one voting place stating that they felt at risk.

However, by this questionable activity, the government could cover up the two by-elections being held to replace to members. One was in Bundamba, held previously by one who had said that the Queensland Treasurer was a four-letter word as she resigned. That is true, she is Treasurer Trad, but I am not sure whether this disaffected female member meant that word.

The second case was the long-standing LNP member for Currumbin, who had the temerity to vote for the abortion bill and was hounded by the trolls that seem so part of the LNP right wing so that she resigned. She was replaced by someone who had been a member of the LNP for a month and once appeared on a show featuring ‘”Australia’s Worst Drivers” – a trait among the politician class, yearning to be the centre of attention. The electorate seemed unimpressed, but that person seems heading for a narrow win – just a normal day in the politics of the Sunshine State.

Under cover of the local council elections, it is postulated the Palaszczuk government wanted to test the waters before the State elections due later in the year. If that postulate is correct, and in the 93 member unicameral Queensland parliament the ALP would have retained power whatever the outcome, it seems reprehensible to have held these by-elections at this time. But this is Queensland, the home of progressive health policy and One Nation (which incidentally polled very well in Bundamba). As if to highlight stuff-up, the Electoral Commission stumbled badly and most of the results were still unclear on Sunday afternoon. As will be the long term consequences of this essentially political preservation action by the Palaszczuk Government.

Obviously the Premier has not given up political machinations for Lent.

Cone of silence

The Diamond Princess caused much mayhem in Japan.

The Ruby Princess has since caused much mayhem in Australia. At least ten per cent of Australians infected with COVID-19 as of this week came from that one cruise ship.

Are the media asleep? Can nobody join the dots?

Why have there being no interviews with Ann Sherry, the Executive Chair of the Carnival Shipping Lines, asking how this all occurred. Why was the Ruby Princess allowed to berth? Why were the passengers herded off without even a passport check? Look, you gullible NSW voters, no hands! Surely no political pressure – beggar the thought.

But then the media, over the years, has performed a series of gushing tributes to this former bureaucrat and adviser to the Federal Government.

After the Diamond Princess fiasco in Yokohama, the CEO of Carnival Cruises, Arnold Roberts, was quoted as saying

We have hundreds of cruise ships, very few had cases on them. The one that had the most cases was very early on when no one understood hardly anything. With 20/20 hindsight, could everyone had done something sooner? Perhaps. But it was an evolving, learning situation.”

Not soon enough for the Ruby Princess obviously.

Now Mr Roberts made his first fortune playing blackjack on cruise ships by counting the cards it would seem and used this astuteness to run both weedkiller and sweetener enterprises. He was brought to the Arison owned shipping lines in 2014 because as was quoted:

It’s been a rough two years for the company. First, its Costa Concordia sank off the coast of Italy, killing 32 passengers. Then an engine-room fire on its Carnival Triumph left the ship without power. For five days, passengers lacked air conditioning, hot food and use of most toilets. Cable news was fixated, dubbing it the “poop cruise.” 

Training for a pandemic?

Now, Ann Sherry, what have you got to say about all this and especially in regard to the Ruby Princess and it berthing in Sydney with infection on board?

As for Dr Chant, Chief Medical Officer of NSW, you read this about the Carnival ships and especially look at the dates and tell us “mug NSW punters” why you should still be in your job:

Shared swimming pools, compact and enclosed spaces and quarters, frequently touched surfaces from handrails to slot machines, and meals shared with hundreds create an “increased risk of infection of COVID-19 in a cruise ship environment,” according to a warning issued by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on 8 March.

(At time of publication)There have been at least eight cruise ships with confirmed coronavirus cases across the entire industry, including the Diamond Princess, Grand Princess, A Sara, MSC Meraviglia, Costa Luminosa, MS Braemar, Silver Shadow, and the Silver Explorer.

Carnival and other major cruise companies, halted all travel only after the State Department advised Americans not to travel on cruise ships and the CDC published a no-sail order of March 13.”  

The Ruby Princess berthed in Sydney on March 19 – without any quarantine intervention from you Dr Chant. Turn off the light as you leave.

A message from Princess Cruises

The Danger of the Hospital

I was asked whether I wanted to help out in Queensland. There were no immediate problems, which arose at the time of the first request. Then came the escalating restrictions and the changing job description.

Having to negotiate the border and being accosted by a police force, which were exhibiting doubtful levels of hygiene, especially in the transfer of documentation was the first problem.

The second was that the first job indicated it would be restricted to providing COVID-19 and public health telephone advice only, and then as I have been used to in any jobs relating to Queensland, the job description changed to one of face-to-face contact. As I am of the age where the government have suggested strongly I be confined at home, which I take to be a domestic situation, telephone advice was feasible and something that, as a public health physician, felt I should undertake.

The one particularly important thing that Australia has done, undoubtedly having Paul Kelly and Nic Coatsworth with their extensive knowledge of public health to back up Brendan Murphy, has helped establish the testing regime. The messaging has come a long way since the time early in March when a member of my family resisted the determined attempt to turn him away from Box Hill Hospital and insisted on being tested despite then having to wait one and half hours, despite there being no-one else there.

Coupled with closing the borders with China the testing regime has probably saved Australia. Early testing means that fewer people have had to go into hospitals. Testing has improved with a faster turnaround time for results. I for one, if tested positive, would have stayed at home as long as possible as opposed to hospital admission.

If you read the list of health workers dying in Italy it is reminiscent of reciting war casualties. The headline in the Italian newspaper early this week read “Coronavirus, morti altri dieci medici. Dall’inizio dell’epidemia sono 51.” You do not have to be fluent in Italian to know that 10 doctors died on one day earlier this week, bringing the total to 51. This number has continued to rise.

Despite the shroud waving led by the ubiquitous Professor Talley in the MJA and the intensivist petitioner Dr Greg Kelly and his collection of medical jeremiahs, Australia is not tracking Italy. I have already expressed my disgust at the NSW Department of Health in regard to the cruise liners, and there should be appropriate retribution at an appropriate time.

If you read the Johns Hopkins Centre for Systems Science & Engineering (JHCSSE) modeling this week, according to JHCSSE’s modeling when there were 3640 cases (about right) in Australia, we had 460 deaths; the modeling is based on Italy given this prediction of 460 deaths would be close if the case and death rate was similar to what has happened in Italy,

So much for modeling; and I wish that everybody would stop printing these hypothetical figures, which may as well have been got by reading the tea leaves. The problem with the media is that, over the years except for a very few people like Norman Swan, it is totally gullible in relation to health, reporting every bit of public relations fluff that is put out about so-called medical “breakthroughs”. That is particularly dangerous when there is a pandemic and the hucksters are abroad.

However, this does not mean even at my vulnerable age, that I would want to be admitted to hospital if I developed a fever and a tell-tale cough. I would hope to tough it out; but then again I hope I won’t have to make that decision.

Now that is an ordeal

We have been seeing a flood of returning passengers from ill-fated travels, many of whom commenced these travels at the wrong time when the portents were there of gathering clouds – 16,000 left Australia after 18 March when the Government’s Level 3 travel advisory was issued (Reconsider your need to travel because there are serious and potentially life threatening risks).

Those who have been able to return should count themselves lucky. Complaining about their situation in five star hotels reminds me of a time, of my father’s generation and of a place called Singapore. Here were a number of involuntary travellers called soldiers who were deserted by their leaders, with their braid and red banded caps called generals and brigadiers. The soldiers were confined, not for two weeks but for three years – if they survived – as guests of the Japanese. Their first place of confinement was known as Changi.

Therefore the younger members of the currently 5,000 in confinement in Sydney hotels, would never have been contact with some of those soldiers, who eventually returned. I was taught by some of these men – they never had a sense of entitlement; they had not been locked up in a hotel room for two weeks with three meals a day, phones, internet, television and new towels every day. They had a slightly different experience over three years.

They never moaned; very few wrote about it. Very few ever talked about it. Some of my generation – people I knew – never knew their fathers – today a word lost in the slush of that term “loved one”.

There was no TV series called “Survivor” with inane presenters and faux battles. Maybe after you are released there will a scramble for a media contract to tell all.

In contrast, in my youth I remember there was the man who always dined alone on Christmas Day away from his family because that was the day his mate left his quarters for the last time, not to the streets of Sydney but to an unmarked destination.

So take a powder, you lot, turn off your Skype; stop making yourselves look totally selfish on Facebook, and just deal with it.

As for the media giving these people oxygen, what about the Biloela Four locked up on Christmas Island – a sort of Changi without the cherry blossom. Forgotten them?

Skiing in a time of coronavirus

Janine Sargeant – Guest Blogger

The media have been reporting on the now infamous Aspen 9 who are reported to have brought more than a ski tan back from their recent trip to Aspen in Colorado.

Burnished with schadenfreude the reports have followed members of this group through birthday parties in Melbourne and Noosa and a visit by one couple to their beach shack at Portsea; the reports have included tallies of the number of confirmed cases among the ski party and those apparently directly attributable to the two birthday parties. The Noosa party resulted in many positives among guests, but also among the restaurant staff. There is talk of legal action. The 14-day mandatory self-isolation for overseas arrivals was introduced the day after the ski party returned.

More broadly the Aspen 9 saga raises the question of what plans there are for the Australian ski season, which normally opens on the long weekend in June. The skiing might be out in the fresh air two ski poles apart, but the ski lift transport, aprés ski scene and accommodation is not.

Having spent quite a bit of time on the skifields, skiing, running a ski shop and working a bar at a lodge – my version of a well-spent youth – I still remember a case of tonsillitis that sent everyone into a spin because the close-living environment of ski lodges was so conducive to the spread of illness. However, if even the well-heeled in their plush accommodation are catching COVID-19 in record numbers, then there’s really a problem. Without knowing the denominator (how many there were in the Aspen group) there’s no way of knowing what the incidence of infection was, but there are enough cases to raise alarm.

One of the highest COVID-19 infection rates per capita in the USA has been reported by “The Washington Post” as being in Idaho’s Wood River Valley – 192 cases in a county of only 22,000 residents; there have been two deaths so far. Why is this? Idaho has some of the best skiing in the US and is a well known conference destination. Skiers fly in from around the country and around the world and no doubt have brought in COVID-19.

The source of the infection in Blaine Co, home of Wood River Valley and Sun Valley, was almost certainly skiers from Seattle, from which there are direct flights. Washington State had the first confirmed positive case in the US and up to mid-March, had the highest absolute number of confirmed cases and the highest number per capita of any state in the country. That has now changed with the epicentre shifting to New York.

However the counties surrounding Vail and Crested Butte in Colorado and Park City in Utah – all skiing hotspots – are now also COVID-19 positive hotspots.

Wood River Valley’s small hospital has been partially shut down because four of its seven emergency doctors were quarantined. The fire department that also operates the ambulance is relying on volunteers. One of the doctors who has tested positive said he thought he had caught the virus because of close contact on ski lifts.

All State Governments in Australia have effectively banned recreational travel within the State, and absolutely banned travel between states except where a permit is in place or a resident is returning home – but 14 days of self-isolation are required. Everyone is supposed to stay home, but for how long? The June long weekend is eight weeks away.

Faced with the experience of the US, which has spilled over into Australia with the Aspen group and around 50 positive cases, presumably NSW and Victoria should be putting skiing on hold for 2020 – and without any intervention from Master Barilaro, the local member, especially after the Ruby Princess fiasco.

Mouse Whisper

Paul Barry brought this to my attention as I was gnawing my way through my late night supper 

What is this constant mention of Petri Dish in relation to coronavirus?

Viruses need living cells to propagate, not Petri Dishes containing blood agar, upon which bacteria and fungi party.

Fortunately, my relatives are less exploited now as a medium in which to grow viruses, but embryonated eggs have always been a favourite culture medium. However, now most viruses are grown in cell culture.

Nothing to do with Petri Dishes. Today’s tip for the journalists, if you want to sound knowledgeable at least check the details; a Petri Dish isn’t something from “My Kitchen Rules”. So drop the Petri Dish metaphor. Even a simple mouse like me knows it has nothing to do with viruses.