Modest Expectations – Rhapsody in Blue

It was just another evening when I was doing the medical examinations for blokes called up in the lottery for Vietnam in the 1960s.

“Next!”

The lottery

He was Chinese born and he spoke little English. Even now I do not remember what he said his occupation was. However, he was about six foot tall (183 cms) and weighed just under eight stone (50 kgs). I thought at the time this stick of celery would make a good flyweight if he could box. On examination, he seemed healthy enough, but his extraordinary height to weight ratio made him ineligible to be called up for Vietnam, so I failed him. Normally when the conscripts were examined there was a young doctor and an older doctor jointly doing the examination. But for some reason, I had been left on my own this particular night. So, it was solely my recommendation. I thought nothing much more about it until one of the guys in the laboratory, who had a Chinese girlfriend, told me about this fantastic Chinese restaurant off Little Bourke Street in Melbourne.

Off we trooped and at the end of a cobblestone lane, there was a door without any identification. Open the door and we were ushered into a crowded space, where all sorts of Chinese delicacies were being consumed by a predominantly Chinese clientele. We had barely sat down in this smoky den where you could hear the click of mahjong pieces, when poking his head around one of the screens was the young bloke whom I had failed.

Now did that change the dynamics! Suddenly I was the centre of attention, and the many food dishes with which we were presented were some of the best I have tasted, then and up to the present time. I remember the perfection of the lobster, how it was cooked is only a distant olfactory memory. They insisted on the meal being free – on the house for all four of us. My occidental friend was amazed with the attention that was being poured on me. After all, I had been the accidental guest. “Bloody hell, Jack, is there anybody in Melbourne who doesn’t know you?” he said.

Heady times. I went there a few more times. The food was some of the best Cantonese cooking I had ever tasted. They insisted I never pay. It was embarrassing.  I stopped going. I have no idea what happened to him and his parents. But memories are also important, even if I never remember names. However, there are only so many free meals without being embarrassed enough and I never wanted those memories of such a spontaneous gesture to go stale. After all, he and his family really owed me nothing; I was just doing my job and the young conscript was a fortuitous coincidence with fantastic food.

The single child policy

The Chinese leader Xi Jinping was born in 1953, and because he had an important father in the Communist Party hierarchy at the time, he experienced the full force of the “Cultural Revolution” at an early age. He survived working in the fields but in his young mind was embedded an antipathy towards fomented chaos – divide and rule – and the black flag of anarchy.

His is the ordered mind of the chess player, as can be seen for instance, by the progressive blockade of Taiwan. More and more rocky outcrops in the South China Sea are being converted from pawns to more powerful pieces as he moves to the end game. In the end, once the blockade is tightened then it becomes more and more difficult for the US to protect Taiwan. Given his sense of history, Xi knows that Taiwan has a huge hostage – the unrivalled collection of Chinese antiquities looted by Chiang Kai-Shek before he transferred his Nationalist army remnant to the Island of Formosa. However, some with more intimate knowledge of China than me dispute this observation, bluntly: “he would not care a brass razoo”.

Table screen, mid to late Qing dynasty, 1736–1911, National Palace Museum, Taipei

By all means open a second front, by him encouraging the Russians to mobilise along the Ukrainian border. Russia has little to lose by being an irritant. The one thing Putin has done in the past twenty years is to modernise his armed forces, and if you look at the history of Russia, irrespective of their leaders they have generally had first class generals. Nobody is going to invade Russia. The West missed several opportunities. The media have been fixated for a time on Belarus yet Kaliningrad, a major strategic target, was allowed to remain in Russian hands – after all it was the eye of Prussia. When the Berlin Wall came down so should have Kaliningrad been separated from Russia. Russia was left off the hook by Clinton and Bush who thought they could befriend Putin – something about understanding him by looking deep into his eyes.

People want to blame Trump for letting this mess grow, but others would say Obama was the real culprit with his almost messianic belief that the world would be swayed by his rhetoric. It was unfortunate that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for essentially nothing but being elected President.

It can be said that what Obama did was progressively unpicked by Trump, especially his internal policies, but in foreign policy Obama theatrically gestured his way into a quagmire from which The Great Drainer Trump had no idea what to do to extricate America.

The 12 years of Obama and Trump enabled China to consolidate its influence to its current position and Putin not only to survive but to flourish far beyond what, in the long term, is unsustainable, that is without allies that can bolster that position. Russia or particularly Putin should never have been allowed “to escape from the bottle”.

However, that is done, but it is high time to test the sustainability of Putin, who is no mug; for even he is not immortal. His threat about his mythical red line shows more than a hint of desperation – and exasperation – now he is being regularly called out by President Biden.

Biden is so right in wanting to get out of Afghanistan, unless America is prepared to systematically sow the whole land with salt and thus deprive the Taliban of its opium income, that’s it.  Afghanistan will remain a primitive enclave inhibited as a medieval fortress by its adherence to a fundamental form of Islam, plus its geography. Given the non-recognition of women’s rights, Afghanistan will remain a festering social sore made worse by the return of the Taliban. However, globally it is a distraction. It has been a root cause of weakening America, just it has been with every Occidental power who has tried to tame it.

Putin aside, China is his main adversary, and Biden knows intimately where Obama went wrong, but he knows his operatives who were shackled by Obama and who are “the hard men and women” among them. It is fair to say that by the end of eight years of Bush and his “hawks” Obama seemed to be the change that was needed. But during his time Afghanistan festered; ISIS arose in Iraq with their vision of an Islamic caliphate and its adherents now are spread across Muslim Africa. The atrocious facility at Guantanamo Bay was not closed down.

China meanwhile has flourished economically. China has shown an increasing world-wide truculence. It is the greatest enemy of climate change because it dissembles constantly.  It selects a minority within its borders to bully. First it was the Tibetans but now, since 9/11, the Uyghers. They are Sunni Muslim, and after the Hui, also Islam adherents, the second largest ethnic minority in China.

Therefore, what has this to do with the single child policy, which was relaxed in 2015 after 35 years?

Let’s start with findings from China, where the one-child policy dictated family planning for nearly four decades. Researchers led by a Chinese-based psychologist in Chongqing, showed “only children” achieved lower scores in terms of how tolerant they were. According to a model of personality dimensions, tolerant people are altruistic, helpful, compassionate and cooperative. Intolerant individuals are often characterised as quarrelsome, distrustful, egocentric and more competitive.

Promoting the one child policy

At the same time, the one child policy distorted the number of male births, so that for every 120 males there were only 100 females. A comment could be made that into the Chinese population there was an excess injection (or should I say jab) of intolerant male children lacking the peaceful qualities of women. There is no mention of any sex difference between the personalities of male versus female children, although in references to the effect of the old one child policy, there was a realisation that a Chinese female can be better assimilated into the wider family, even with the cultural challenge that Chinese have made with their male child preference.

Only children apparently because of the amount of time they spend on their own, often with imaginary games, have a tendency to think laterally and devise ways in which dominate their imaginary universe. It has been well told how only children are attached to the parents, with boys tending towards the mother as the central figure of their life, although with everybody working in the community, only children while no longer sent to the Satanic mills, it may be expected in the case of the male child to either be the “princeling” or expected to muck in.

Thus, my solution for every meeting with Chinese diplomats, given so much of their population over the past 40 years has grown up as single children, should have an expert in “the only child”, and develop strategy around an essentially monochromatic culture. Once it was Mao jackets, but now the world is faced with the foibles of an “only child” Chinese generation or two.

The Chinese after all have traditionally believed themselves to be the centre of the universe. The single child policy can only have reinforced that notion. I do not think that we should be worried by the Chinese government losing face with that degree of overt or latent hubris. As somebody said, time to confront not to pander to any confected loss of face.

There are those in the Biden administration who were frustrated during the Obama years but have now been unleashed to attack Chinese policy. Perhaps there were a few others besides myself who were blindsided by the Biden bumbling campaigning persona. However, you cannot blame Obama for everything. He did pick Biden as his running mate.

As someone far smarter than me has said “It is always a question of nuance.” I think he thought I needed a bit more of it.

Did someone say Urumqi?

I went to China in 1973 with Bill Snedden and Geoff Allen.

Let me say it was a trip which Phineas Fogg may have found challenging.

It all started uneventfully. We were passengers on a BOAC V10 – the so-called “whispering giant” – flying to Hong Kong. The plan was for us to travel from Hong Kong to Guangzhou by train, and then by local airline to Beijing.  I think we still called those cities Canton and Peking even then. However, on the way over southern France, the plane developed problems with its gyroscopic equipment, which resulted in the plane being diverted back to Heathrow.

This meant an overnight stay in London while there was feverish activity to determine another way of getting there to fulfil our obligations. There was a scheduled Air France flight which, unlike BOAC, flew directly into China to Shanghai. The port of entry required a separate visa, but the Chinese Embassy in Paris responded promptly and our passports were duly stamped with another impressive entry permit. However, the next day when we reached Paris, bad news awaited us. The Chinese had or were about to detonate a hydrogen bomb at Urumqi and had closed the border for the duration of the test.

Undaunted, Snedden looked for other possibilities, and there emerged one feasible way of getting there, and that was to fly directly into Beijing. The solution was complicated because we had to fly to Frankfurt and link up with a Lufthansa flight bound for Australia. One of the immediate stops where we would alight was Karachi, where there would be enough time for us to catch the PIA flight to Beijing. There was another complication when we reached Frankfurt – the air traffic controllers were on strike. For some reason I still have this vision of three figures in this long underground tunnel under the runways, as if caught in some science fiction movie, with overhead lighting assisting all shiny aluminium cladding fighting the shadows from enveloping the tunnel before the aliens would appear at each end of this long tunnel. Why we were in the tunnel was the way to move between two terminals. Shoe leather was the only way given the time of night. Incidentally, the aliens stayed away.

In the end, the air traffic controllers called off their strike, and off we went, and the intervening eight hours allowed some sleep. We were told we had a 16-hour stopover in Karachi, and we were greeted by guys from our Trade Office there. They treated us royally with a dinner at the Trade mission where Australian red wine flowed generously and left a few of us finding ourselves sleeping on the floor.

Before dinner we had had the opportunity of walking freely around the streets, including the then Elphingstone Road. I do not think I have ever seen such abject poverty as I saw that afternoon. Given what has happened since, our wanderings through the bazaars and alleyways made me realise that we were outsiders, but even now I never think of Karachi as a dangerous place for us on that day. The other memory was the number of children, who had obviously been disabled by polio, begging, being wheeled around in makeshift carts by their brothers.

We were roused very early the next day and thus a bleary unkempt group of Australians lined up for the PIA flight to Beijing. We now had a further visa granting us permission to come to Beijing even though we had had a turbulent experience, but the Chinese were very prompt in granting the third round of visas to these Travelling Aussies. Here we were next to a hangar where, in this cold morning under the arc lights the Boeing 707 was being filled with cargo. The few passengers were to be confined to the front section. Cargo made up the bulk.  Up front, there was a sort of hierarchy in the economy seating. The Swedish princess and her partner and small entourage were first. Then came two Ugandan ministers and then us. We noted there were empty seats, and once we reached Islamabad we were invaded by Chinese guest workers going home, and Bill, who had wanted the luxury of an empty seat to sleep, found he was next to a Chinese worker.

So far so good, and off we flew across the Himalayas. I remember having Everest pointed out to me. Bill and I were standing by a porthole window, when he turned to me and said: “We are turning round.” Indeed, we were and several hours later as we landed in Islamabad, the Chinese workers all erupted into clapping and cheering. They thought they were home.

We were disembarked and now it was the middle of a very hot day, and there was nowhere cool into which to retreat in the airport. From what I could glean it appeared that when our airliner approached Chinese air space, it was denied entry. It turned out the refusal was directly related to the Urumqi blast and the possibility that we may pass through remnants of the radio-active cloud.

We had a few more uncomfortable hours where refreshments were non-alcoholic and the food meagre as our return had been totally unexpected. The Australian embassy was well nigh useless. The Ambassador was away in some cool highland retreat, and the nearest we got to having somebody “providing assistance”, I remembered, was a young nervous third secretary who did not have any information but came anyway. He endeavoured to engage in small talk and given we had been travelling for over a day he received a frosty welcome; he was so different from the trade guys in Karachi. Bill ignored him after his first venture in conversation. Geoff and I alternatively did all the requisite work in attempting to find out whether we would be leaving at all.

Not the easiest time I have ever experienced, but we told the young man he could go, and he bounded off into his embassy car, a rabbit with his eyes still firmly in spotlight. Geoff was always more tolerant than me, but even his ever-ready smile became strained. Then we waited and waited – suddenly it was all systems go. This time there were no hitches but we arrived very late in the evening. Smiling Chinese staffers, Snedden’s wife, Joy who had come to Beijing independently, and Stephan Fitzgerald, Whitlam’s choice as our first Ambassador, greeted us. He could have not been more helpful during our visit.

That is how we all reached Beijing – Bill, Geoff and Jack – and of course the Chinese workers. There is a photo on this final leg of this eventful journey, of Bill asleep with his head on the shoulder of one of these workers. The caption to the photo “Fellow Traveller.”

A Burnt Offering

Anonymouse

Anonymouse has always asked: cremated bacon – why? Not that hard you would have thought, overcooked, over-rated and, thank heavens, over there.  Yet it has to be a love affair that only an American can understand. Cremated bacon – as American as Mom’s apple pie.

Burnt offering

More amazing is that just a little research reveals detailed articles on this process – very little research but still, 880 words on how to cremate your bacon – 880 when three will do:  just burn it.

However, sticking to the task and the recipe, there is much said about skillets, laying out of the strips and rendering the fat “to achieve bacon’s character-defining crispness” (read, burnt to a cinder). Apparently, a non-stick skillet is better than cast iron, all the better to ensure even incineration.

So, on your stove top, here is the tried and true method. Lie the strips in a cold skillet, place over medium-low to medium heat, flip and fry until you reach your desired “incineration” and then transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. The key is to slowly render the fat to achieve bacon’s character-defining crispness. This method is said to produce superior results every time, however defined.

Apparently there is also a water method. Add enough water to cover the bacon in the skillet which is said to result in a slightly less shatteringly crisp end result compared with “cookin’ it naked”.

For those planning to serve this delicacy to a crowd, you need only turn to your oven and then experiment with parchment paper, foil or none, depending on who is washing up. The choice 350, 375, 425 degrees or blast off. The options are endless in the pursuit of baseball-capped bacon (the equivalent of a Michelin star).

The final rule – no matter the method of cooking – is to save the fat which apparently is not only full of flavour, but also great for cooking vegetables, making vinaigrettes, frying chicken and even baking bread and desserts. Just pour that grease into a metal or glass jar, pop it in the fridge (it should last for at least three months) or freezer (where it keeps indefinitely) and grab it whenever you want to add “bacon crisp” flavour and more than a dash of cholesterol.

The Foetus is a Boy

As reported in the Boston Globe, police in Kingston, N.H., say a mysterious explosion that shook and rattled nearby homes Tuesday night was linked to a gender-reveal party.

The party was held in a quarry where officers discovered the source of the explosion was 80 pounds of Tannerite, an over-the-counter explosive target used for firearms practice and sold as a kit, police said in a statement.

The explosion included blue chalk, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader, indicating a baby boy was on the way. Nobody was injured, police said.

These celebrations can be quite dangerous since they were popularised in 2008, by a woman who now regrets starting what if it were not a privileged white heterosexual activity would have been proscribed long ago. The use of pyrotechnics to announce the genitals of your pre-newborn, as one writer suggested was symptomatic of a patriarchal society. I am not sure of that generalisation but starting forest fires, crashing planes and killing grandparents during such festivities is not a particularly good look. It is only a matter of time for either the fad burning out or legal sanctions enacted. 

Mouse Whisper

I am indebted to the bicyclist who went on a country road trip outside the Canadian city of Toronto. He cycled through the hog and dairying country and came upon a hamlet named Punkeydoodle’s Corners located where the Oxford and Perth Counties meet. The origin for this name is lost in the brew that flowed down the lanes, but one theory is that when the local innkeeper sang “Yankee Doodle” it sounded more like “Punkey Doodle”. Needless to say, the hamlet signs are often stolen, but there is one more claim to fame: the world highest street address number “986039 Oxford-Perth Road”.

Punkeydoodle’s Corners

Modest Expectations – Box Hill to Port Melbourne

You know if a line was drawn from the Perth GPO to the Sydney GPO to represent the history of the Earth, reptiles would appear in Canberra and intelligent human life would evolve in Balmain Author Craig Cormick then calculating in the Federal Department of Science Set Square.

More than just a Nuance 

Below is a lightly edited extract from The Boston Globe last week. Maybe it is the foretaste of more irritating daleks on benches and mantelpieces with stupid names ostensibly doing my bidding, but who knows.

There’s nothing subtle about Microsoft’s US $19.7 billion, all-cash acquisition of Burlington-based Nuance Communications. It’s a bold statement that Microsoft intends to be the dominant provider of speech-based artificial intelligence systems to the world’s biggest enterprises, particularly in health care.

This acquisition is Microsoft’s biggest since the company paid $26 billion in 2016 to acquire the business-oriented social network LinkedIn. Microsoft bought Skype in 2011 for $8.5 billion

Nuance, which employs around 7,100 people worldwide, is famous for its artificial-intelligence software that enables computers to recognize human speech. These days, plenty of companies make similar software for consumers. In fact, Apple’s Siri voice system was based on Nuance technology.

Amazon, Google, and even Microsoft have all built their own speech software and virtual assistants for mainstream users. Nuance also used to dabble in consumer markets. But in recent years, the company has specialized in enterprise-grade AI software that understands the meanings behind words, with a particular focus on medical applications.

Today, Nuance makes software smart enough to automatically generate medical records, assist doctors in their diagnoses, and refill patients’ prescriptions. And demand for such software is likely to surge, as millions worldwide replace face-to-face doctor visits with online and remote health care — a process accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The acquisition will enable Microsoft to tap a global health care market worth $500 billion per year, it has been predicted.

And that could be just the beginning. Nuance also makes an array of intelligent programs for customer service and security applications. It makes software that can accurately figure out what a caller wants, even if they don’t use exactly the right words. It even makes a product for financial services companies that can identify fraudulent callers pretending to be someone else. The software can spot crooks not only by analysing their tone of voice, but by tracking which words they use.

And now Microsoft will be able to market all of these capabilities worldwide.

Nuance had net income of $28 million on revenue of $1.48 billion for its fiscal year ended Sept. 30, compared to a net loss of $12.2 million for the previous year.

It has been pointed out that Microsoft’s success with Nuance is by no means assured. IBM’s Watson Health initiative has also tried to apply AI technologies to health care but earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that IBM is considering a sale of the business, which generates annual revenue of $1 billion, but no profits.

Nuance’s artificial-intelligence products are more advanced than IBM’s. Still, doctors and hospitals are often slow to embrace new technology, no matter how good it is because the health care industry itself is a very conservative industry.

The Nuance acquisition is expected to close later this year.

I can’t wait!

Digger’s Rest is now in Oxfordshire

It is interesting that Murdoch’s star is setting in every country apart from his old Digger’s Rest in “my beloved Australia” but, as Google will show, it’s in Oxfordshire.

The migration of News Corporation from Australia to Delaware in 2004 for reincorporation was seen at the time to be ambiguous. While News Corp asserted that the re-incorporation would enhance shareholder value, critics of the proposal claimed that its real purpose was to strengthen managerial power vis-à-vis shareholder power. Now assuming that the move has been the cornerstone of Murdoch family control, presumably it would not have escaped the President’s notice that Murdoch has nestled in his state where the Democrats have massive majorities in both Houses. Far be it from somebody in far off Australia to suggest that the Delaware legislature would be contemplating their version of a “poison pill” to make this old Oxfordshire squire’s life a little harder, but the White House does not seem to have a welcome mat out for Murdoch and Son.

I doubt if Boris Johnson owes the same Squire any favours. either, but Rupert has had this serpentine way of intruding into the political boudoirs of the rich and famous. Boris realises that if you watch the eye movements of a snake, you can very much know when it is about to strike. Pandering to a snake is not the best way to run a government, nevertheless as one source has written:

It may seem extraordinary that the worship of the serpent should ever have been introduced into the world, and it must appear still more remarkable that it should almost universally have prevailed. As mankind are said to have been ruined through the influence of this being, we could little expect that it would, of all other objects, have been adopted as the most sacred and salutary symbol, and rendered the chief object of adoration. Yet so we find it to have been, for in most of the ancient rites there is some allusion to it.

Some of the more uncharitable among us might believe that above is a perfect description of “Dear Rupert” at work. It is worthy to note that ophiolatreia, the worship of snakes, apparently burns out in the colder climes, when the snake is no longer seen an influential symbol.

Doing the rhumba

Yet there is a band of contrarians. I can categorically deny that Hillsong has invited any of them, their many fraternal Pentecostal mates in the Appalachian Mountains, to come to Australia with their rhumba of rattlesnakes. They follow the dictum as expressed in Mark 16:18 which says, “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them”.

Unfortunately, like many a tabloid newspaper, one verse can always be taken out of context.  Being bitten by a snake, according to these believers in the literal translation of the verse, has resulted in many a pastoral death among these Hill people, with the pastors being particular sacrifices. As He may have said “Mark my words!”

But then again Rupert’s version of the rhumba may have caused enough political demise for us not to need any spiritual injection from the Pentecostalist hills of Kentucky and Tennessee.

We Australians are all that is left of the “downsized” Rupert global injection room retreat.  Poor us. Son Lachlan has moved back to Australia. Really, do we deserve that?  Remember how his brilliance has shone previously in the Australian business world. 

Andrew Peacock – Not a Bad Bloke

I saw Andrew Peacock at close quarters when we were both active and ambitious young men. Most people go through life without the privilege that he had and indeed cultivated. He went to a private school, where he coveted being Captain of the School and where he sustained a rivalry for the post with Tony Staley, later to be a less successful politician in same Party. In the end neither of them attained Captain of the School. The captain was a quiet studious chap who played the piano well.

Peacock and Hawke

Peacock avoided student politics, while Staley was my successor as President of the Student Representative Council. However, Peacock was along a different trail. After a preliminary tilt at Federal politics unsuccessfully challenging Jim Cairns then inherited the retiring Prime Minister Menzies’ seat of Kooyong, with the appropriate blessing of the incumbent.

Peacock was well suited to the then Liberal Party, especially in Victoria where noblesse oblige played a large part, and he himself was mildly centrist in his views. Nevertheless, there were limits. I well remember the debate in Parliament on abortion, where the Liberal Party then in Opposition were universally supportive, to a man and the few women, of the anti-abortionists. When the matter came to a vote in the House of Representatives Peacock theatrically stood up as though to vote for its legalisation against the wishes of the Party, looked around at the back bench and realised that nobody was following – and promptly sat down.

Peacock performed one particularly lasting service during his relatively short stint as Minister for External Territories in 1972. He befriended the charismatic Michael Somare. Peacock was refreshingly modern, as had followed a series of Ministers who still looked on that emerging nation of Papua New Guinea as a place for the continuation of patrol officer paternalism. Together he and Somare cemented the foundations which led to Papua-New Guinea. The relationship since has not been easy, but Peacock ensured with Somare that it would be ordered and peaceful. That is his legacy, and all the stuff about him being a “ Treasure” will dissolve with the attendant crocodile tears.

Peacock and I fell out, after a savage speech I made directed at what I perceived, rightly or wrongly, as some of his actions. Like many things I have done, I probably regret it, but what does it matter when one old man reflects on the legacy of another old man now gone and who lived most of his last 20 years in Texas. Perhaps his $2.5bn mishap in the Gold Coast hedge fund accelerated that exit.

I believe if he had been given the opportunity Peacock would have made a good Prime Minister, but as he was never one for detail, he would have needed very good staff work. However, he knew how to handle his colleagues, except for Howard. In the end I believe he also got tired of having to deal with Howard, who was assiduous whereas he was not. In effect he was outlasted, even though there were a few interim Party leaders between him hanging up his political boots and Howard eventually gaining complete control of the Liberal Party.

After he left Parliament having never made Prime Minister, the zeal of public life with which he had pursued this Grail probably deserted him as he drifted into the cocktail circuit of diplomacy and mixing with other world “treasures”.  Howard was shrewd enough to offer him an official sinecure for such a pursuit. I hope Peacock was happy, because he wasn’t a bad bloke.

Nevertheless, as a wise associate of mine with a dry sense of humour said: “Only children, especially boys, should have ‘only child’ stamped on their foreheads to warn people.”  Maybe that would have been a better epitaph for Andrew.

The Shambles is not only a street in York

I have always been a great supporter of the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory. However, I understand that at present there are insufficient people with the appropriate qualifications to keep the facility open. Why? Because so many of the regulars are committed to trying to staunch the COVID-19 outbreak in PNG.

Not enough resources. Is it time for that Morrisonian war footing?

Should this war footing the Prime Minister is trumpeting concentrate the attention of Australians – mobilising the country – get rid of all frippery – world surf carnivals and the like, and then truly putting the whole country into vaccination khaki.  Does he really mean to emulate John Curtin?

Or Prime Minister, are you just trying to run this country as though we are in the middle of a Mortein ad?

No social distancing at this ritual

The increasingly erratic Prime Minister has been essentially advocating tossing away the hard-earned gains of lock down and border closure by advocating home quarantine and people being able to in effect freely travel into the pandemic areas, because allegedly some Liberal Party donor has a villa in Tuscany and/or his Hillsong mates want to import singing and clapping in viral bags from all over the world for some Convention. Somebody may have seen the success of such religious festivals in India in spreading the Virus and want to emulate these by mass baptisms in the Hawkesbury River or some such spectacular event where social distancing is perceived as a heathen ritual.

It is slowly becoming clearer about the efficacy of vaccinations, and unfortunately it seems that the Australian Government has plumped for the inferior, if cheaper vaccine. When I see only poor old John Skerrett wearing the pelt of scapegoat, assuring the Australian public about how well the Australian vaccination world is, you know the politicians have lengthened their bargepoles.

Australia has done a remarkable job in suppressing the virus, in preventing variants from gaining a hold and allowing us to live a normal life.

Therefore, for Australians, the words “war footing” either jar or are ignored. What is needed is for the Federal Government to assume its constitutional responsibility and not “tar baby” the States. It should prepare mass vaccination facilities and train enough vaccinators so that when supplies of vaccine become available, they can be manned immediately so the program can start. Part-time vaccinators, trained and ready, should have similar entitlements as if they were a uniformed force reserve, ready to present to their particular vaccine centre when called up. The vaccinations will require military precision.

The question of which vaccine needs to be resolved. Transparency is essential. Thus, as a start, it is important to know how many politicians hold shares in AstraZeneca or CSL or, for that matter, in any suppliers of essential goods. That should be done immediately. Let us get some real transparency into the decision making. Then repeat the justification for such vaccines, slowly identifying also all the consultants, their role and achievements, if any.

Then, continue with the AstraZeneca vaccine for all those over 65 – first and second injection.  As with America, weekly totals are placed on public view. If the AstraZeneca can be modified to one injection, that option should be pursued. You are dealing with many elderly people and one injection is easier to remember than two.

It seems that Pfizer and Moderna technology is far superior, and now that they can be stored in a conventional refrigerator without fear of interruption of the cold chain integrity, supplies must be obtained, and a definite timetable set. The new public relations scenario is roping poor old John Shine in for speculation on whether Australia will get into the business of manufacturing the effective mRNA vaccines somewhere sometime in the future. I don’t say it cannot be done, but a timetable for completion and distribution needs to be calculated. In the interim, McKinsey continues to be financially enhanced.

The Prime Minister should be gagged unless his utterances can be confirmed to be true by an independent panel headed by Norman Swan or his equivalent in order to regain lost political credibility.

The unknowns are gradually becoming clear. There will be a need for booster injections to counter the viral variants beyond the first one; there will be a real necessity for Australia to improve its home-based technology. The advances that Pfizer have apparently achieved in reducing the age at which children can be injected should be monitored closely. Increasingly, being unvaccinated at all ages will be a risk when our world opens up to that villa in Tuscany.

That villa in Tuscany …

Razors – how the land scrape has changed

In my whole life the longest time I have ever gone without a shave after I reached the “age of the bristle” has been three days. That occurred at Easter 1958 which fell in the first week of April that year.  I was induced by two fellow medical students to go on a camping trip in the high plains area of Victoria.

I had never been camping before, and instead of a sleeping bag I had an old eiderdown, which proved to be a very comfortable substitute – we were lucky it didn’t rain.  The nights were very cold in the high country – the Porepunkah caravan park and the Bruthen tip. I am sure the eiderdown did not conform to the kit of a conventional camper. I forgot to take a razor.

Since that time razor technology has changed to such an extent that the ritual of yesterday with badger brush, to mix the shaving soap in a custom made Wedgewood porcelain bowl for a lather prior to the application of the razor was not a two minute exercise. That was a morning ritual, and many of the professionals in my father’s and grandfather’s generation paid a visit to the barber in the morning before work for a shave, complete with hot towels and all the fragrances that substituted for our modern deodorants – underarm and elsewhere. Presumably a presiding judge never wanted to appear as a Norman Gunston figure – but it would have done wonders for court humour.

When I started to shave, I used to have to screw the razor into the so-called safety razor which took no account of a wrinkly face; you need to tighten the skin to avoid the inevitable cuts as the razor encountered adolescent pimples underneath the softened lathered face. This whole process was interrupted by constantly having to run the shaver under water to remove the facial hair. Often this was not a pretty sight.

The electric razor followed. This was an apparent advance, but it came with a pre-shave conditioner and an aftershave lotion, most of which smelt like a French bordello – well, an imagined French bordello.  Brut was the champion odour. Old Spice was equally repugnant.  Aramis too was another turnoff among the few young women who ventured near. The problem with the electric razor is that despite the hype, it never gave a close shave; to such an extent that I was accused of presenting for a final year obstetric oral examination as an unshaven and untidy “colt from Carlton”. I well remember I was wearing a very expensive pale grey suit, and these days such a facial presentation would have been considered fashionable. Apparently, I lost marks for neatness, which was the way the senior medical profession operated in those days, especially when they thought one had the mien of a rebel and needed to be sent to an eastern suburban Siberia as an intern.

Facial salvation eventually came with the modern disposable razor, which has been constantly tweaked so that one can shave without any of the former ritual, although it does help to wet your face. And the time taken? Well, if you can’t do it in under two minutes, you must have latent narcissist tendencies trapped by your vision in the mirror of your post-shaven purity.

Seriously, we forget the time saved by the modern razors, and as long as one does not use the same one more than 24 times, then it gives the facies a very close approximation to a member of human race, unlike those who bury their jaws in home grown hedges.

Mouse Whisper

The Minister for Cultural Correctness, Admiral of the Swift, Pedro Dutônão has a issued a twerking ban on the Dill Squadron. Twiggy and his sidetwiglet ScãoMão have been severely reprimanded for their inappropriate antics before the start of the Collingwood clash with the West Coast Eagles. The Admiral was reported as saying that the crowd reaction of booing one of these perpetrators was completely justifiable in view of that earlier disgraceful mass action. The Admiral went on to regret any hurt that may have been caused to any Australian viewing the original performance but failed to mention the level of reparations due to the Australian community.

Modest Expectations – Tunisia

Carnarvon WA

Some years ago I wrote a short story about a serial killer who is killed by a woman who has cause for vengeance, but lulls the killer into a false state of security. Set against a background of Carnarvon and Gascoyne Junction, the killer is a very good looking man, who carefully grooms himself – and the woman, his killer, the impossibly beautiful woman. Prey becomes the stalker. It was part of a series of short stories that I wrote after a trip to the Kimberley, before it became a tourist destination. Whether allegorical or not, it has given me the thought that the woman was a journalist who acted as bait to trap the predator into revealing himself. But maybe that is another story – the journalist who endures contumely as the girlfriend so that her probings cause the sociopath to betray himself in front of his peers.

Rape is an act of violence and control. The violence is given a context -sexual assault. However, if the police were informed that a serial killer was loose, there would not be any hesitation. But violent rape, a close relative of murder, seems to invoke legal hesitation. The Federal Parliament situation needs a change in behaviour to complement attitudinal change to stop the disgusting spectacle.

The refuge for this situation about “Pick the Minister”; the betting firms would have been running a book, except there were too many in the know for any realistic odds on who it was. The accused cabinet minister was known to a large number of people, but the name was withheld until Wednesday. “After all, why should I acknowledge something which did not allegedly occur in 1988, and anyway I was different person then. I am now a Cabinet minister!” Not quite the actual words finally uttered but consistent with the eventual lachrymose performance.

Twitter has been alive about the non-allegations in relation to this Cabinet Minister. Disgusting is a mild way to put some of them, but if they are true, the highest level of disgust should be accorded to the now Cabinet Minister.

However, truth in this case is an elusive beast, especially when waiting in the wings of your staged performance is one of the best defamation lawyers in the country.

Given the seriousness of the case, before I knew his name, I would have thought it timely for the Prime Minister to consult with the Attorney-General. He is, after all, the senior judicial officer in Australia, and the Prime Minister was faced with a systemic problem of law enforcement penetrating even his Cabinet. I reflected in an earlier draft that the Attorney-General hopefully will have a solution to the problem. How ironic!

The problem is that the government is in denial, the more the cover up, the more people exposed with inside knowledge; it is just the sort of scenario that any sociopath would delight in. Sociopaths lie. Along the primrose pathway that such men have trodden to get to where they are now, there may well be a number of dark areas from which somebody could emerge, or not. At present, many of such dark areas seem to be coming to light.

It was inevitable as the uproar increased, that this person would be named under Parliamentary privilege. As I wrote early in the week, my hope was that it would be a male who outed him, preferably being the accused himself. Christian Porter has done that. He recognised to his credit that the problem is that if this non-naming had gone on much longer, with increasingly everybody knowing he was the accused, then the Parliament itself becomes a protector of this man and hence compromised. Therefore, someone would have named him in Parliament.

My view has always been to tackle the negative quickly; fallout is inevitable. So what better action than to excise the poison by now setting up an independent inquiry. In particular, for the Prime Minister, if unresolved, the situation becomes a form of political hemlock.

The one matter that troubles me is that a female senator who should know better has resurfaced a claim against a senior Labor member. Unless she knows something others don’t know, why has she surfaced with an old allegation which actually was reviewed by the police and refuted. Just now! Why?  Surely this woman would not indulge in an infantile diversionary tactic?  Porter in his appearance before the Press then sympathised with Shorten’s plight. So much for Senator Henderson.

There is something in the culture among the Liberal Party women which seems to be toxic to the furtherance of gender equality. I have known many, and some, like former Senator Judith Troeth, were exemplary, but they were closed down; the pressure of being cooped up in Parliament House is not that much different from boarding school bullying.

Christian Porter – no matter how the imbroglio is sliced and however innocent ,while in public life he will be a target, especially in the year of Grace Tame.

Blue Book

Just in case you have not seen the blue book Growing a Strong and Resilient Regional Australia which was published with the Budget papers, it starts optimistically.  “Australia’s regions – despite all that’s been thrown at them, are not only still standing but are on the cusp of a great future.”

I am not going to parse the whole report, but even this first sentence, with its recourse to a metaphorical flourish, begs a number of questions.

Even one sentence. It seems “regions” mean any place outside the capital cities, as though the capital cities are apparently a separate entity; in fact they are a diversity held together by being the seat of a government.

The next sentence provides a crude definition of what Australia is beyond the capital cities, and I have always disputed the integrity of a “Capital” as if it is a walled city with a peasantry milling around outside.

I recognised when reporting to Government on rural health that there was “inner rural” and “outer rural”. I had never thought of subdividing coastal settlements in that way. On reflection, coastal settlement has been shown after the bush fires last year as having specific characteristics, particularly in relation to accessibility. When I made this classification, I did it on the basis of an urban development which sprawls and engulfs what were autonomous mostly rural settlements.

I once identified a ring of what broadly could be identified as similar settlements about 100 kilometres from Melbourne in which there was a substantial number of procedural general practitioners who lived in or near the township. As urbanisation approached, the general practitioners became progressively deskilled; the practices became “lock-up” since the doctors no longer lived in the community; after hours care was the locum wasteland and the community ill, a referred burden to the nearest big hospital with an emergency department.

The other comment I would make was that during the time of my investigation, I set myself an exercise to drive from Colac to Warragul. All of the towns along the way were about the same distance from Melbourne, along highways which radiated from Melbourne. If you followed these radial roads, accessibility to the cities was manageable. When I drove the circumferential routes between the towns to assess the accessibility of each to the other, it was more tortuous, but the roads were asphalted until I drove into the Great Dividing Range. Here the road became gravel and the accessibility factor showed how isolated this area was, even to Melbourne, remembering my approximate route at all times was equidistant from the Centre of Melbourne. This inaccessibility was later so clearly shown up in the 2009 bushfires which spread across outer Melbourne, and where the problem of accessibility proved to be catastrophic.

Tackling infrastructure challenges is being able to differentiate communities of interest and then attend to them appropriately. I have always believed that in Australia local governments are the best surrogate, unless otherwise demonstrated, for consultation. I once instructed the bureaucrats under my aegis to visit every municipality in Victoria to get their views on an initiative with which I had been entrusted. There then were 210 municipalities and only one refused to meet with us to discuss the initiative. My bureaucrats were put in a position where they could explain to people who did not know much about the proposed investment, who were then mostly male and who had no idea about the importance of early childhood education.

I have been involved in working closely with communities for most of my career. I enjoy it because I enjoy the diversity of Australia. It has meant that there are very few areas of settlement in Australia that I have not been to in my long public service.

However, it is an attitude which has set me against Bureaucracy.

This limitation of Bureaucracy is shown clearly in this Blue book of Government largesse apportioned essentially by Ministerial portfolio. There are thus multiple pots of government money without any reference to one another or any indication what the expected end product will be.

This addendum to the budget papers requires close reading, because the document is drafted as if the Federal Government is the Cornucopia and Minister McCormack the Goddess, Abundantia.

To me, this is the McCormack pork barrel. Reading the Ministerial statement, you can almost smell the crackling.  However, it can be argued that aroma is less pronounced than that of the Sports Rorts.  Special interest groups want something; one of the specialties of any portfolio that the National Party holds is the titration of funding against the electoral advantage.

Moreover, Berejiklian has given the practice her benediction last November. “All governments and all oppositions make commitments to the community in order to curry favour. The term pork barrelling is common parlance. It is not something that I know the community is comfortable with. If that’s the accusation made on this occasion …. then I’m happy to accept that commentary. It’s not an illegal practice. Unfortunately, it does happen from time to time by every government.”

God knows, why she contaminated her defiance with “unfortunately”? Joke!

I looked at the proposed Blue Book largesse in regard to “post- bushfires.” A couple of line items attracted my interest. The first among all the grants was $31million allocated specifically to apple growers to “help re-establish” apple orchards, with an individual maximum of $120,000 per hectare to be allocated over one financial year. This is very generous, even if the tree planting is concentrated. It should be recognised that apples and pears are grown together, so there is a definitional problem as only apple growers are mentioned as eligible. There were three apple growing areas affected – Adelaide Hills, Bilpin and Batlow – the last of which lies within the Wagga Wagga State electorate.

From reports there was some damage to the orchards, but that damage seemed to be minor; one producer with 200,000 trees at Batlow lost less than 5,000.

Then about six months after the bushfire in 2020, an industry source reported” … some are choosing to let crops rot on their trees rather than accept farmgate prices set by the big supermarkets at as little as 90 cents per kilogram for a fruit that costs at least $2 a kilogram to produce.

At the same time, Australians are eating 12 per cent fewer apples since 2015; apple exports have fallen 19 per cent since 2016, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Then there’s the drought and its impact on the size and number of apples produced. Australian farmers grew 14 per cent fewer tonnes last year compared to 2017”.

There was no mention of bushfires. So, I’m only on P17 of this 189 page Blue Book, but I wonder what the hell is going on. Turn the page and there is the second line item of interest – Pratt received $10m for his Tumut paper mill.

The problem is that nobody tries to develop a picture where government financing will produce any lasting benefit for Australia. There are pots of money to tap into if one knows one’s way around Canberra.

This is a form of central planning perverted to become a gigantic slush fund; Australia has been blessed indeed as the Land of the Cornucopia – but then I have never watched the Hunger Games. 

Over there; Just not yet.

This country has been spectacularly successful at suppressing the Virus, but the problem with success is complacency, when all about have succumbed to the Virus through political pigheadedness in the main plus a basic lack of discipline when confronted with a universal enemy. Given the number of disaster and alien films, excluding “Contagion”, it is ironic in this case that the invader is unseen. The whole axiom-out of sight; out of mind – should be remembered.

Australia has dealt with this change of circumstances after an uncertain start, by locking the country away from the rest of the world. To get into Castle Australis is difficult, but there are still normative judgements about who can enter the country or cannot, although it seems to be common practice to insist on 14 days quarantine. The fact, like so many other things in this public-relations’ obsessed country, we were faced with border closures ostensibly due to health concerns but clearly political considerations. At the outset, it was understandable that restriction in movement should be uniformly applied, but it was not. This stemmed from a basic mistrust in the Commonwealth Government. Here there was pressure from the Prime Minister’s business circle not to impose restrictions, which would have led to a US-style situation. If sources are to be believed, it was a very close thing. After all, Morrison found an unsanitary affinity with Trump.

However, once they were imposed and the longer they went, border closures became a political weapon more than a health reason. When border closures clearly became a complete nonsense, at least Berekjlian, who, from many of her actions has often showed herself to be a rolled-gold guaranteed “dropkick”, was so right. Once it was clear from the NSW public health response that the COVID-19 cases could be gathered into clusters, then as she reasoned rightly, why indulge in group punishment by closing borders indiscriminately.

However, it has bred in the populace more than a risk adverse sentiment –fear – especially as the spectre of lockdown is constantly held over it.

For many years Australians have been used to being able to holiday both at home and overseas. As someone old enough to have grown up when overseas travel was a luxury and generally linked to overseas employment, it is a return to the old days of my youth.

I was one of those who went overseas in 1971, admittedly for the second time, 14 years after my first. Then, apart from a couple of years, I went overseas at least once each year until last year. In 2020, the Virus intervened. Now there is an uncertain future for overseas travel; the success Australia has had in ridding itself from the Virus has made most Australians value a COVID-19-free environment at the expense of overseas tourism.

Vaccination has introduced a new variable, but the vaccines development has been accelerated in a way that the mid-term to long term effect is yet unknown. The community knows that hygiene, masks and isolation (social distancing), works. However, community compliance is a factor which has been one of the reasons for the Australian success.

Within the borders the sense in confidence of moving about is growing, but the country has endured a harrowing time to see what works. Therefore, tourism will only return on the back of a confident people – confident that it can occur within a world where the virus is controlled.

The only way that this border issue can be addressed in the short term is for Australia and New Zealand to open up their orders to strictly Trans-Tasman Travel, and work from there. After all, there is confidence building so that the States do not instinctively close their borders. The Governments are increasingly confident that they can control clusters into hot spots.

Look at the situation in New Zealand – one case in Auckland and the city goes into lockdown. Therefore the “outbreak fear” level approximates that here in Australia, unlike the USA where any fall in the prevalence of the Virus is almost invariably followed by a premature relaxation of restrictions.  As was reported this week in the Washington Post the downward trend in new coronavirus infections had plateaued, perhaps because officials relaxed public health restrictions too soon and more contagious virus variants were becoming more widespread. Experts say a vigorous vaccination effort is key to stamping them out.”

Australia and New Zealand should bite the bullet and enter into an arrangement whereby people can travel between the two countries, leaving details of their destination on arrival. Thus, mutual trust needs to exist, otherwise both countries will be caught in a Western Australian bind of unreasoned defiance, which fortunately is abating as the Premier sees electoral victory this month.

Then we can move into the Pacific to help our neighbours who need our tourism but need to attain the same public health level as Australia and New Zealand. It is a wondrous thing to think that a Virus can assure a common effective response beginning in the Pacific. But then I am always the romantic, believing that advances come the quality of the response to adversity. Australia needs a different government I’m afraid.

In the Pink

Anonymouse

What does it take to get Sydneysiders to flock to the Blue Mountains? Well, me at least. I was thinking as I drove around the rim of the Blue Mountains what an impossible terrain it is, but without its escarpments and jagged pinnacles there would not be the unparalled views. I could be excused for thinking that when William Wentworth, one of three adventurers who first crossed the Blue Mountains to stand on one of pinnacles, the landscape below revealing what Thomas Mitchell later called Australia Felix, confessed that “his love of Australia was the ‘master passion’ of his life.” I could only agree. Yet here was plain the devastating effect of the bushfires which spread though the area early last year and left in their wake a bare blackened landscape.

Yet Australia Felix is never far away. I had gone looking for nature’s compensation for the terrible destruction, a special tapestry of tiny pink and white flowers. For a few short weeks, a year after devastating bushfires in the Blue Mountains and other areas of eastern Australia, the bush has regenerated and a profusion of pink flannel flowers has appeared.

These tiny flowers appear only rarely. Known as bushfire ephemerals, they are regenerated by fire, followed by good rain. It requires specific climatic conditions for seed stored in the soil to germinate. It is thought the plants germinate in response to bushfire smoke, rather than heat. The smoke-derived chemical karrikinolide is the active ingredient that triggers the plants’ emergence. Other plants with a similar activation after bushfires include grasstrees, or Xanthorrhoea, that send up flowering spears, and Gymea lilies. I saw the rebirthed grass trees, but alas no Gymea lilies.

The current bloom is spectacular, with pink flowers woven among the blackened banksias over these large tracts of shallow, skeletal mountain soils.

With their complicated rosy centre of tiny florets and hairy white bracts, rather than petals, they resemble a daisy, but are actually in the same family as carrots, parsley and celery. They are similar to the common flannel flower but are considerably smaller and have a distinct pink hue.

Pink flannel flowers are a mixed blessing – without fire, they remain dormant. See them while you can, hopefully it is many years before they can appear again. I wonder whether Wentworth ever saw them. I doubt it.

Mouse Whisper

Neera Tanden, a professional Democrat and President Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, fought her way to the threshold of the White House, only to be swatted at by senators who claimed that her appetite for partisan conflict — on Twitter, specifically — disqualifies her from holding that much power. The same fighting that got her here, in other words, now threatens to sink her. 

“Just to mention a few of the thousands of negative public statements,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), speaking with the steady monotone of a not-mad-but-disappointed dad, “you wrote that Susan Collins is ‘the worst,’ that Tom Cotton is a ‘fraud,’ that vampires have more heart than Ted Cruz.”

It is an interesting commentary on a feisty intelligent woman, who has raised a swag of money for her Center for American Progress (CAP). She has been a Hilary Clinton sidekick, but it is not only the above Republicans who have been the target of her venom. That honour resides with Bernie Sanders, and at one stage it is alleged that Tanen assaulted the person who later became Sanders’ Campaign Manager. The reason was that Ms Tanen did not like his question directed at Hilary at a CAP forum.

By the way, among her considerable set of donors for the CAP is Mark Zuckerberg who is recorded as giving about US$700,000 in 2018. She certainly is thus a lady not for turning, but her fate will be interesting because she will almost certainly fail to get the nomination for the Cabinet job.

Needless to say the President has withdrawn her nomination later this week.

Neera Tanden

Modest Expectations – Luther

Just before we left Manaus, I told the driver to stop so that I could purchase an Amazonas flag. It was full sized. Flags interest me because they have meaning and the Amazonas flag is no exception. The flag has a central red band enclosed by white bands, representing hope. In the corner is a blue quadrant representing the sky; stars represent the Amazonas municipalities with Manaus as the central big star. The red band represents what Manaus must do – overcome difficulties.

Manaus – poor Manaus – a place neglected – a country defiled. Virus ridden, unable to cope.

So different from the cheery countenance when we visited Manaus. It was winter 2019. We had arrived early in the morning on a flight from Rio de Janeiro via São Paulo; the flight had taken us the best part of five hours. When you are in a cramped space, time becomes either something to be ignored or to drive one mad by looking at one’s watch, constantly nagged by “are we there yet?” But the bed, once reached, compensated.

Yet although we spent most of the time on the Amazon, the bookend times were in Manaus, the port where we boarded the cruise ship. We arrived after one in the morning in this old hotel which was in a narrow street littered with graffiti. There were signs of it being left to its own devices, with a few mango and banana trees thrown in to give it tropical colour.

It was a late breakfast highlighted by the best ceviche I have tasted. White fish, normally an enemy of my gut, was succulent, with the various additions centring around the lime juice marinade it was perfect.

The only problem was that I thought I had lost my wallet, and the room was turned upside down by long suffering staff, until I found it nestling in my documentation. My companion just looked at the ceiling.

The new bridge across the Rio Negro

The transfer to the boat soon after midday and then on return only a day before we were scheduled for a late afternoon flight meant we saw very little of Manaus. The opera house and many of the old buildings reflected the heyday wealth of Manaus from its then rubber monopoly; the wharf side markets, and the exotic nature of the produce reflected the present day source of wealth. Manaus was alive and the day was full, going all over the city and even crossing to the new bridge across Rio Negro to the city of Iranduba. By way of explanation, Manaus is technically on the Rio Negro, which lives up to its name – as we witnessed when this river joined up with the upper Amazon (Solimōes) River very near Manaus.

Açaí berries

Given how much açaí fruit has penetrated our health food industry, there was a certain luxury of actually eating the fruit from this palm in Manaus, with its agradável flavour to best to describe it. However, the grapelike fruit provided a brief novel pleasure.

That was the problem, the pleasure of being in Manaus was so brief. We would have liked to have stayed a week longer; as with many of these exotic places, they seep into the cracks of one’s personality – and one is left with a feeling of nostalgia compounded by a strange sense of grief reflecting on what the city is going through now.

With all the tragedy being enacted in Amazonas, I only hope the red band in its flag burns bright with its white companions providing the hope. What else can one say, because among other matters far away in urban Brazil, the people there have bet on an unintelligent narcissist to lead them to a better life. I do pray for Manaus – and indeed for the whole of the Amazon basin.

The problem with Age

When Biden was a young man of 20, a 43 year old war veteran and Senator from Massachusetts was inaugurated President.

The Senator’s 71 year old father looked on proudly.

Now Biden is an old man; as a 78 year old he has been inaugurated as President of the United States. His 50 year old son and 40 year old daughter looked on proudly.

By the end of John Kennedy’s first year of Presidency, his father had had a profound stroke, which left him severely disabled, unable to talk. He lingered, dying, at the current age of President Biden.

John Kennedy’s election could be seen as a reaction to the ageing heroes of World War II – the fifties had seen a demented Churchill pushed into retirement, but not until he was 81, to be replaced by an ageing, ill, long term protégé-in-waiting, who miscalculated badly over Suez and in turn was replaced by another World War warrior.

Eisenhower, later in Presidency when he was nearing 70, was wracked with health problems, including a heart attack, while in Europe De Gaulle was nearing 70 and German Chancellor Adenauer was well over 80.  Australia contributed the ageing Menzies who was nearing 70.

Before Kennedy arrived, it was an old man’s world.

Recently in America there has been a tendency for an old President to be replaced by a younger one. If this succession holds true, then Trump has no hope, even before his trial, even if his diet does not kill him before.

There are a couple of factors which are different now from 1961. One is that there are many more avenues for treatment of the ageing body. One area in particular has been treatment of cardiac disease. Then at Kennedy’s inauguration there were few if any coronary care units, no cardiac surgery on a regular basis, no stenting, and over all treatment of high blood pressure was far from today’s standards. Smoking was still rife. When I was an intern in the early 1960s, the treatment of a heart attack was symptomatic, namely bed rest and analgesics with digoxin and heparin if needed. However, every time I see Biden break into that arthritic jog I shudder and think of his succession.

This then other unknown is the presence of a female Vice-President. Good God, replacement by a younger woman!

I can see Vice-President Harris developing a close relationship with Prime Minister Ardern, but whom from Australia? The most obvious is Penny Wong.

Nevertheless, I would like to be there when Marise Payne rocks up to Washington. But then the Vice-President has been exposed to some of those delightful Republican women in the past, and no doubt in her own courteous way would politely call forth “A chi tocca” when she meets these Australian Republican simulacra, represented by the fruity Marise.

Australia Day

Once in 62 upon a pastured lawn 

The Pom called Robin Day did ask 

To serried ranks we stood

Respectful 

Should we seek republic

And the answer unexpected

From knees once genuflected

To Day we all said aye.

 

January 26

A day of Independence 

When India

Grew up and threw away its swaddling clothes

A cope with mace and orb and sceptred scrap

Lie shattered ‘pon brown flattened earth

For people confused by Battenburg

But now Republic Day they all say aye

 

January 26

A day 

For we still caught in cream bassinet 

A good man stood on Botany shores

Sent from porphyric hungovered king

Possession gained with jack of Andrew, Patrick, and of George

But no place for David, no daffodils nor leek

Yet this Southern harsh and sunburnt land a dump for human waste

He christened his green and pleasant New South Wales

In homage we whitefellas celebrate this day

 

January 26

Summer invasion to those not tanned

To frolic in illusory freedom

The Jack still flutters

A cornered eye

The Southern Cross is overseen.

By stiffened queen

To celebrate a day of smoke and sand and foaming ale 

 

Robin Day is long since dead

That rank of 62 is thin and worn

Who once called aye for change

Yet Her of steely Albion eyes

Or He of fumbling foreign voice survive

Shall we now spent and grey

Not live to have a true Australia day

Which we can call our own

 

A lone voice rings out

Make September First Republic Day

Is it not the first day of Spring

Is it not when wattle bloom 

A sprig for all

Is it but a symbol of youth and vigour

This day which is

The First of September

The back story of this poem was the Australian visit of Robin Day who, for many years, was the face of the BBC program “Panorama”. It was either 61 or 62. “62” in the poem is poetic licence.

Robin Day

Day had approached Zelman Cowan, then the Dean of Law at the University of Melbourne, to round up the usual suspects of Bright Young Australian Youth to be interviewed. It was a time when Great Britain was showing an interest in joining the European Common Market.  Menzies’ Australia was opposed to this course of action. Robin Day wanted a bit of colour for a piece to show on Panorama to highlight the squabble.

Zelman asked Phil Cummins, then a prominent law student and student politician, to collect his then mates. I was part of the crowd invited, and there we were, arranged outdoors “in serried ranks” as if we had won some trophy. Day was among a caste of interviewers whose unctuous style enabled him to cleverly manipulate his interviewees in the way he wanted. He was thus working his way down the student line until his flinty eyes alit on this impeccably designer dressed tramp. He asked this young bespectacled scarecrow for his opinion on the stoush, who in response brushed aside whatever had been asked and said: “I am a republican, and you Brits can do what you like.”

Then a bloke in the front row chimed in: “I don’t like the Poms either.”

This then unleashed a number of insurrectionary comments.

Zelman Cowan

From then on Mr Day found himself one out, such that in the end he was led away from the group by Dean Zelman with the words “Totally unrepresentative opinion”.

When the program was ultimately released in Australia, I saw it by chance. I had just delivered a baby as part of my student rotation at the Royal Women’s Hospital and happened to come into the student common room and there he was – Zelman Cowan wandering down one of the paths leading from the Melbourne Shrine, burbling about “the indissoluble links between Australia and the Mother Country” or some such words. Our student interview was on the cutting room floor.

Anyway, a good training run for a Governor General aspirant. After Kerr, Cowan restored a great deal of dignity to the position and ironically later in life became a republican. Pity the intervening 30 years.

As for Great Britain going into the European Union then, Menzies was just as irrelevant then as he had been during the Suez crisis in 1956; and for Great Britain then, as always, De Gaulle was la mouche dans la pommade. 

The Pardoner Prologue

With this trick, I’ve earned myself a salary of about a hundred gold coins a year. I stand up there in front of the people like I’m a priest or something and preach and tell just like the kind I just mentioned. All the stupid people sit in front of me and soak up every word I say. I make a good show of it, straining my neck to look at all the people to the right and left of me, just like a bird in a barn. I gesticulate with my hands and speak quickly, which makes my speeches dramatic and fun to watch. I always preach about greed and the other deadly sins, which makes them happy to give away their money—namely, to me. I’m only in this for the money you know, not for cleansing immortal souls. Why, I don’t give a damn if their souls are as rotten as garbage when they die! Of course, I’m not the first person who’s preached with an ulterior motive either. Some priests give sermons to make people feel good about themselves so that they’ll get promoted to bishop. Others preach for love of fame or to fan the fires of hate. I only preach to make money and sometimes to get back at people who’ve said nasty things about me or my fellow pardoners. I can rail against a person in the audience to ruin his reputation, for example, and, even if I don’t mention his name, everyone will know whom I’m talking about. That’s how I get back at my enemies, by spitting out my venom under the guise of being holy and virtuous.

This is an excerpt from the Prologue from the Pardoner’s tale.  One of the Canterbury pilgrims Geoffrey Chaucer recorded, each providing his fellow pilgrims with a tale to while away time as they rode towards Canterbury. The Prologue and the Pardoner’s tale itself have so much of Trump in them that if there were to be a further film made then Donald would fit the role of Pardoner.

The Canterbury Pilgrims

The tale told revealed three men from Flanders, the worst sort of “jocks” in their unbridled roistering decided to confront and kill Death. They were on their way to the village where they had heard Death had killed everybody when they encountered an old man who said that Death lurked behind a certain oak tree. When they reached the tree, instead of Death they found a substantial cache of gold. Now in the time-honoured way groups of three behave, two of them plotted to kill the youngest one, thereby reducing the division of spoils to two.

In the meantime, they sent the potential victim into the village to buy provisions. However, this young man had similar views, but he wanted to reduce the three-way split to one – himself. He thus went to the apothecary bought some rat poison and put it into the wine that he had also purchased.

He then went back, and his two companions killed him, but then drank the poisoned wine.  Therefore, they all ended up dead. For us, the future generation, the lesson of the tree hoard is the basis of the aphorism that greed is the root of all evil.

After the story, the Pardoner increases his sales pitch and starts flogging relics. This angers the Host who in part replies with the following:

But by the croys which that seint Eleyne fond,

I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond

In stede of relikes or of seintuarie;

Lat cutte hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie;

Thay shul be shryned in an hogges tord.

In modern terms something equivalent to having intestines for garters, but somewhat lower in the male body. Before the two descend into any rough stuff, the Knight intervenes.

Which leaves but one question, how much did Donald the Pardoner rake in from his 143 pardons.  Say an average of US$10, 000 – more you say. Probably impossible to find out, anyway I wouldn’t bother looking behind any of the trees on any of his golf courses. But you never know, given that Donald is probably out to kill Death.

Hib-brawl-tar

I was reminded of a photograph which was pulled from my father’s collection when he was touring around Europe in the late 1960s. The slide was of the Rock of Gibraltar.

The Rock had always been on my “bucket list”, and I was not alone. When I used to mention that I wanted to go there, it seemed to have a romantic connotation and it was the surest way of attracting interest.

When my father saw the Rock, it was then off limits after Franco closed the border in 1969. Spain did not re-open the border until 1985, and in the meantime Great Britain built a fence on neutral ground within which it built a modern airport. Therefore, it is an interesting experience driving across the border and the runways in order to arrive in Gibraltar proper.

Gibraltar and its airport

One thing Gibraltar knows is how to disappoint. Even though there is a polyglot population boasting an impressive heritage, Gibraltar just felt like a Butlin’s holiday camp.

The Gibraltarians have their own dialect, but most of the voices in the hotel sounded as if they were born within the sound of Bow Bells.

However, the Rock was something else.  The view across the Straits of Gibraltar is spectacular, as Africa looms through the haze and the harbour is dotted with myriad shipping.

The resident monkeys on the Rock like most of their kind are more annoying than dangerous. These Barbary apes, as they are misnamed because they have no tails, are the last wild monkey population in Europe.

The other distinct aspect is the tunnels in the Rock. The tunnel network is far larger than the roads, but not unsurprising given the Rock has been a target since its acquisition by Great Britain in 1703 as a spoil during the War of Spanish Succession, legitimised by the Treaty of Utrecht eight years later.

Spain has always tried to reclaim it, by complaint or force. In response Great Britain has reinforced the defences on the Rock, most recently during World War II. We were afforded a glimpse of these tunnels, but as far back as the late 18th century, their existence reflected this animosity with Spain. The five-year siege late in that century saw the successful experimentation by the British in being able to fire on the siege ships, and a certain Lieutenant Shrapnel lent his name to an invention, which the Spanish found disconcerting. Eventually after five years the siege was lifted.

Gibraltar has picturesque reminders of its Britishness – telephone boxes and policemen in bobby hats. However, nobody mentioned the fact that our Spanish-registered rental car had been illegally if inadvertently taken into Gibraltar. But then Gibraltar for all its professed loyalty to the British flags has a dark side, the scourge of all these overseas territories still controlled by Great Britain. In a report by the European Union released in December 2019 entitled Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorist Financing Measures, the following gives a flavour to the lackadaisical way the regulations are administered by the Gibraltarians.

Gibraltar has a sound legal framework to exchange information and cooperate with its foreign counterparts in relation to money laundering (ML), associated predicate offences and financing of terrorism (FT). Nevertheless, the timeliness of the information exchange is hindered by the shortage in human resources and the lack of clear guidelines in relation to incoming Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) requests. Legal assistance has been sought, primarily from the UK and Spain…The indicated delays in receiving replies to requests for assistance and the limited resources that law enforcement agencies have at their disposal to pursue evidence abroad impede their capacity to investigate and disrupt transnational criminal networks involved in ML, drugs trafficking and tobacco smuggling. There have been no outgoing requests related to confiscation during the review period.

Gibraltar’s economy is primarily based on tourism, financial services, online gambling and shipping. Trade is concentrated on refined petroleum, passenger and cargo ships, cars, and recreational boats. The UK, Spain, Mauritania, Italy and the Netherlands are Gibraltar’s main trading partners.

Reading between the lines, a major activity is smuggling and generally living on the dark side of the law. Admission that Mauretania is one of the major trading partners is interesting, given that Mauretania retains the pre-eminent world position in slavery.

Gibraltar is part of that stain on the World – the United Kingdom Overseas Territories, the home of all the shenanigans which are the dark side of capitalism – tax havens being the centrepiece. However, this dark soiled hidden hand is allowed to persist since it allows Capitalism to show the other philanthropic clean hand, immaculately manicured. The current situation suits those in power, having one hidden dirty hand.

As for Gibraltar, it may as well be part of Spain if it were not for it being virtually this open slather for criminal activity, which seems to be tolerated here but wouldn’t be in either Spain or Great Britain.

Gibraltar nevertheless provides employment for 10,000 Spanish citizens who use only their ID cards to cross daily from the depressed area of Spain adjacent to the Rock in which they live.

The current situation allows Gibraltarians to live in a far cheaper place and the last minute deal between Spain and Great Britain will continue to allow Gibraltar to have closer ties with the EU as a party to the Schengen Agreement. It means that Gibraltarians can move without passport through those 28 European countries which are part of the Agreement and vice versa. This closeness to the EU is what 96 per cent of Gibraltarians wanted.

Paradoxically the British, who claim sovereignty over Gibraltar, now must present passports when they want to enter because Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland are outside the Schengen Area, but the Spanish are not.

Let’s see how long before the Gibexit. But why? Criminality thrives on chaos. Look, no passport needed.

Curiae Amici Inusiti

Mouse and I have got together and present this verbal diorama. Below are the evergreen Fauci’s comments made to NYT.  Since liberation from Trump’s circus, let us say, the old boy is a wily coyote in being able to survive for 40 years in the headlights without being accused of compromising his integrity, unlike the unfortunate Deborah Birx.

The NYT interview has been published widely, but the reason for this quote is to highlight political interference for another reason. Whereas the bottom-feeders were hanging around Trump bleating that everything bad for business was the fault of these wacky (unspoken) scientists, who wilfully disregarded their suggestions to the Trump.  There is an image of scientists deep in the American psyche which associates “mad” with “scientist”. When the President is uneducated and has a prejudice against education and probably Jews, especially little rational Jews who refuse to be baited but are also very nimble in the face of bullying, there is a strong chance that the President would be infuriated.  Thus there was no chance of the man called Fauci being listened to, but becoming a figure to hate targeted by the Trump followers. He was lucky to emerge unscathed.

And the other thing that made me really concerned was, it was clear that he was getting input from people who were calling him up — I don’t know who, people he knew from business — saying, “Hey, I heard about this drug; isn’t it great?” or, “Boy, this convalescent plasma is really phenomenal.”…….He would take just as seriously their opinion — based on no data, just anecdote — that something might really be important. It wasn’t just hydroxychloroquine; it was a variety of alternative medicine-type approaches. It was always, “A guy called me up, a friend of mine from blah, blah, blah.” That’s when my anxiety started to escalate.

My own current anxiety has begun to escalate in proportion to the impatience which comes when the solution is onerous compliance.  Vaccine then becomes that Magic Potion. Clamouring for the vaccine is partially driven by such cases so eloquently outlined by the quote in the Whisper below. The fact that the guy was 92 is immaterial; it is the way he met his death. Vaccine provides the shortcut, the panacea.

Thus, the vaccine will save the world. The cry goes out if only there had been a vaccine for Mr Chapski…

Yes, if only there was a vaccine that worked. The politicians, even here in Australia where there should be no rush, want us all to be inoculated. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has given provisional approval to a vaccine which needs to be stored at very low temperatures, has been associated with a number of deaths in Norway (although there has been no adequate explanation as to why the vaccine was administered to terminally ill patients) and where there are apparent production problems, which means that the timing of the second injection, which seems essential, must be under some scrutiny. In other words, there are still a large number of unanswered questions. I note that the TGA have given provisional approval only for two years. That is the first vaccine; what about the others?

Now I would hate to suggest that whereas the fleas in the government ear in March last year would be moaning about business being ruined if you shut the country down, there are now the same fleas, different irritation. These fleas are the ones who want to resume international jaunting, chafing at being confined to barracks as it were. Vaccinate and we can go anywhere, and the Virus will buckle. Wrong; so wrong.

However, those fleas with their billion-dollar lifestyle require winter in the Northern Hemisphere. They do not want any quarantine. You just have to view the antics of some of the tennis players to get a flavour of this sense of entitlement, which the Virus does not observe. Therefore, attention is directed at Government. Vaccines must work – and if we say that often enough, it will become truth, no matter the level of evidence. This level of evidence is compromised by the cacophony of academic experts wrestling for the megaphone.

As I have written before, Viruses love Chaos.

The Prime Minister and his Ministerial congregation want to run around the World, trying to collect up the pieces of our coal-tarred reputation. Fine. That is what the vaccine rollout is all about, well not all perhaps but let’s keep it in mind, gentlemen … and oh there is a lady in the room.

Mouse whisper

Just the other day…

On the other side of 2-North, Al Chapski’s door was closed and his eyes were shut. There was no more happy talk of childhood. Before being stricken with coronavirus, Chapski’s wife said, he “never had so much as a headache.” Now, his chest rose slowly in shallow breaths. The television that once ran CNN on loop had gone black. By nightfall, the virus had overcome the 92-year-old and he died.

The nurses gathered his belongings. A sprawling life of more than nine decades textured by second-chance romance, cruise trips, Market Basket doughnuts and a love of World War II aircraft was reduced, in that moment, to a plastic bag filled with a picture frame, a pair of hearing aids, a plant in a disposable cup, a pile of clothes, and a $100 Starbucks gift card.

Then they rang his wife, who had not seen him since December.

Not quite Gray’s elegy, but a very clear one from the Boston Globe writer who had been “embedded” in the Hospital and had watched Mr Chapski die. Nobody should die like that was his thesis, but at least the nursing staff shed a tear.

And even me, Mouse who will never see 92 months let alone 92 years, shed one too.

 

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 – Spitzbergen

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

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

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

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

Oliver Cromwell on getting rid of the Rump Parliament

Cromwell

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

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

Hawks Nest

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

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

What could we do about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eureka may at last have a long term meaning.

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

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

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

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

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

The Spectre of Parkinsonism

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

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

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

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

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

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

We shall see.

There is always a solution

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

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

Mundi Mundi Plains

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

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

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

All systems go.

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

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

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

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

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

Andrews – a Career going North?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penitents in Holy Week

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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

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

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

Modest Expectations – Round & Round

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thick as a Plantain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Young is unyielding – to a point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The little sparrow 

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

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

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

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

Scabies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letter from Victoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federally-Operated Quarantine Facilities

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

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

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

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

Howard Springs quarantine facility

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

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

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

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

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

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

The model exists in the successful evacuation from Wuhan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, let’s see!

O Panda Alaranjado

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

So has been written to me by an American lawmaker.

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

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

Burning the White House, 1814

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

Mouse whisper

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

Is Julian the Lesser suggesting that:

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

All in all, a rum statement.

Out of breath

 

Modest expectations – Route Marcus John

I was born on the west coast of Ireland many year ago & up to now I thought I had a hard life as a young boy picking potatoes for farmers, plucking turkeys for meat exporters, caddying for rich golfers wishing for a bag of clubs on each shoulder. But after seeing (how the Blasket people lived) I now I know I lived the life of a prince. The Blasket people were made of granite. I now live the life of a softie in England compared to what they endured …

Blasket Island

This stray Twitter comment from some guy who had watched a video on the Blasket islands off the coast of Kerry typifies many of us with West coast Irish heritage. There is something about really returning to one’s Celtic roots if you travel to one of the islands.

The Blasket islands have not been inhabited since 1953 when the then Taioseach Eamon De Valera moved the last 22 inhabitants off the island and onto the mainland. Nevertheless, this group of islands has much Gaelic literature written about them.

Sometimes, especially as you grow older, you like to relax in your heritage. Mine is partially rooted in Co Clare and off the coast are the Aran Islands; an intrinsic part of the Gaeltacht.

I remember the day I went to Inishmore, the largest of the three islands. I took the ferry from Doolin. The ferry was delayed until the tide came in, and if you get impatient, remember the Irish nostrum: “A watched kettle never boils”. So we all waited and waited. However, the day was one of those days when you thought you were going to a Greek Island rather than to an island in the Atlantic Ocean.

Rowing your curragh

The 1934 documentary called Man of Aran that I watched recently, made and remade the point that the seas around the island were very rough and perilous, and not a good place to be out rowing your curragh. It is a dark film.

The island seems to be enveloped in gloom – dragging the curragh from the surf, gathering seaweed to provide nutrition for the soil, breaking stones to uncover that precious soil in which to plant potatoes, cliff fishing – a hazardous exercise of throwing a long line down the cliff wall into the sea. Conversing in Gaelic – hard to hear with words drifting the waves and wind.

Overall, men, woman, boy – these are the toilers of the seas, to borrow from Victor Hugo. Light is provided when the figures are set against the backdrop of grey skies hacking at rocks or looking out to sea. Or else light is the white spume of the dark tempestuous sea crashing against the rocks and cliff face.

The film uses black and white imagery, which has been so over-used, to define an Ireland deprived of its emerald hue – sunless and poor.

Contrast it against the unexpected experience of being on the Aran Islands when the sun shone and you could be in the Mediterranean. Here was an optimistic panorama and not a cloud in the sky; the ocean a millpond. An island where you could take off your heavy fisherman’s jacket and sweater and go bare-sleeved.

I trekked across the limestone and grass and over stone walls to the ancient Neolithic fort which sits on the edge of cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It has the appearance of half being there, and the other half having broken away and fallen in the water. The Legend of Atlantis often gets a run when you see the ruin, especially from above. But it is an illusion; it was just built that way, as if to defy the elements.

In the progress of the trudge across the island, I was sunburnt – for God’s sake in Ireland. Twice that has happened. And that was before I could blame it on climate change.

The Man of Aran, however authentic it may have been when it was a pathfinding documentary of a vanishing Ireland, now can be portrayed as a caricature of an impoverished land.

But that day on the island aroused in the emotion of an ancestral intrusion. The landscape is a limestone continuation of the Burren, an extraordinary pavement that appears to have the hand of my ancestors in its creation. Yet it is where Nature has brought together Arctic and Mediterranean flora in the nooks and crannies of this pavement. It is a place where I have had the sensation, walking across it, of having been there before – was that chance or was it predetermined that I had placed feet on where one of my ancestors had trodden.

I have always been fascinated by the concept of the Celtic twilight.

Therefore, one of the privileges of an Irish heritage is that it has provided me with a sense of that past, which has shaped who I am – both my insignificance and my significance. That day on Inishmore I was tempted to buy a stone cottage and live surrounded by dry stonewalls and green fields. The life of an ascetic lingered for a moment.

That urge passed because in the end you are one person no matter where your heritage may lie, and I am Australian not Irish, not someone who repeatedly says that my mob have been here for 40,000 years but nevertheless proud of my mob who have been in Australia for 170 years.

I hope I have added value to the nation of many nations brought together under the Southern Cross even as the twilight gathers. In the end, it is what you do with the privilege of being here, be it one year or 40,000.

I disagree with the Twitter who escaped from the West Coast to become a softie in England.   Migration does mean being, as he terms, “a softie”. It was not a soft option for my ancestors to leave, after all it is a long way from Tipperary, let alone County Clare.

The Cylcon

I first saw them in a roadhouse at Little Topar, lying alongside the emu eggs in a dusty display case. I asked whether I could buy one of them. The guy behind the counter said no. He was only minding them for the owner. Same reply each time, I asked. The owner was elusive. Stone walls are stone walling and I did not stop at Little Topar often enough to nag.

So there it rested, until I saw one advertised on e-Bay. I am not one of those people who regularly trawls e-Bay, but I was attracted to a couple of Aboriginal artefacts, which looked ridiculously cheap. However, they became part of a bidding war – and I have never bought anything at auction. In any case, I am a tyro when bidding against skilled operators, who have so much better timing of their bids (to say nothing of the automated bidding programs).

Anyway, once on the e-Bay site, I had a further look for anything else that that might be interesting. Then there it was – one of those items that had been displayed at the Little Topar roadhouse.

It was a cylcon and it was for sale.

To put Little Topar into context, it is a roadhouse about 100 kilometres from Broken Hill. Nothing else. Cylcons, as the name implies, are conicocylindrical stones. They are said to be found across Australia, but were often picked up by those working on properties in Western NSW and South-West Queensland. Markings are not uniform and it is said that the local Aboriginal Barkinji knew nothing of them.

However, then you read elsewhere about a mob around Lake Eyre who were still using stones that resemble cylcons at least 50 years ago.

Tchuringas are often mentioned alongside cylcons as having magical powers. I know what authentic tchuringas look like as I was shown several when I was travelling around the Kimberley in the late 1970s. An elder of the local mob, who thought I was important enough to unwrap this valuable legacy showed them to me as we sat alone. As I worked out later, this was one of the most sacred possessions. That’s all I will say recognising that anything I could say about it would be strictly men’s business and remains so.

So now I have a hard sandstone cylcon. I can talk about it, still not knowing what its significance is – it remains unfinished business.

The messages are getting mixed again

A couple of recalcitrant families have tested positive for the Virus in Victoria and the postal address of these families suggests they are not “white anglo-saxon protestants”. Anyway there is no mention of heritage, and there was only passing reference to the fact that last month it was Cedar Meat abattoir at Brooklyn in one of the targeted local government areas (LGA), which was associated with an outbreak resulting in 111 workers testing positive. Do we really want to punish the whole of Victoria because of one group? Let us not be coy about where the problem lies.

The fact is Victoria has used the first lockdown in March to refine contact tracing to a very comprehensive level. However, there is need to develop a strategy to selectively isolate those groups who persist in flouting the rules, without disrupting everybody’s lives.

An Essendon football player has tested positive for COVID-19 virus. He has been found guilty of flouting the very tough guidelines, which have tried to isolate these gladiators in some sort of safe house environment. Then they show the image of this player on the field with his teammates. First, he spits on the ground and then he blows his nose so the droplets spray everywhere.

So the AFL says that they take every precaution to ensure that the behaviour of players is hygienic; so is this player as pictured the only one spitting and blowing his nose without a tissue? No evidence of hand sanitiser here. No evidence that he was disciplined for those disgusting pieces of behaviour. The game must go on, the tills must keep jingling – metaphorically.

There is confusion about whether he has tested positively or not; and anyway Essendon say he only had contact with a marginal player who would not have been selected.

That seems to be the first mixed message; just like the scurry before the Grand Prix in March. Essendon player contact vs a large Keilor Downs family contact – different approach?

Then there is the matter of quarantine facilities.

One topic that has not received much attention is the need for permanent quarantine facilities.

Sydney quarantine station

Australia has been quick to lock up asylum seekers. They are clearly different from those who flout – accidently or intentionally – the rules laid down in one major respect, the latter group vote. The way the Biloela Four have been treated is nothing short of disgraceful.

This situation is more than regrettable if an ignorant populist tries to bend public health discipline for short-term electoral gain. One of the problems with the Victorian outbreak is that it is within Labour-voting electorates. However, the Premier seems imperturbable.

That is no reason for the current Government adopting a different reaction to one where the outbreak is in Liberal- voting electorates

In the past, where there was a need to quarantine people, quarantine facilities were located close to the shipping. However, while cruise ships have been shown to be a very real source of infection, it is air travel where the major problem of ongoing infection will arise. Therefore, as quarantine is now becoming an ongoing issue, it is now important to rapidly develop facilities close to airports, where those to be quarantined can go.

Using hotels in the centre of the city with obviously unskilled staff is not an ideal long-term solution. Hotels are not constructed to quarantine people – quarantine facilities must be secure.

As has been shown in Sweden, believing people will take seriously a foe that they cannot see, hear or touch has not worked. This Virus may show its presence through smell and debatably taste, but they are not the primary senses to stimulate a “viral defence policy”.

The second mixed message is thus that politicians think quarantining the asylum seekers is OK; but not those fleeing the Virus.

The Prime Minister is keen to have a building /renovation program. Constructing appropriate quarantine facilities would be an important way to consolidate in more ways than one on the governments’ achievements; rather than fritter the sense of unity away on acrimony over the borders or fritter away money on some renovation scheme accessible to a few well-heeled homeowners. Some would say a return to the primitivism of politics rather than a rational way of devising a sustainable quarantine program.

In doing so, the government must realise that this situation is not a three month wonder since it seems that some countries, notably the USA have given up, irrespective of what they say, and just wish for a vaccine or that the Virus will go away.

Therefore, such construction recognises that this situation is not going away any time soon. One of the dozens of facilities currently seeking a vaccine might be lucky, but inescapably the most recent vaccines for HPV and chicken pox took 15 and 20 years respectively to develop.

When government wants to, it can use its own land to construct anything.

Those that are sick go to hospital. There used to be infectious disease hospitals – the last one being Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne, which was closed in 1996. I once had a week in Fairfield as a teenager when I had a severe respiratory infection for which there was no obvious reason. In another time, I could have been the first in a line of pandemic victims with an unusual set of symptoms.

COVID-19 has shown that it is preferable to have the capacity to treat an infectious disease for which there is no cure and but importantly to have the skills to treat patients without the disease being let loose in the general hospital environment.   After all, warnings of recent epidemics have been largely ignored; but now the pandemic has come upon a World which has been shown as hopelessly unprepared.

The third mixed message follows on and involves border closures. With the Victorian outbreak, the hysteria is rising again. “Victoria is the Lazaret State”. Australia has suppressed the Virus to such an extent that it can be isolated to specific areas. So you can lock down particular areas; not the whole State. You prohibit movement outside that area until the virus is suppressed; those who don’t obey go to the quarantine facilities and join the overseas arrivals.

The bluntness of this message may act as a deterrent. We have not worried about the niceties of language for the asylum seekers; so why not those that flout the COVID-19 regulations. No exceptions, not even for the rich and infamous. However, there must be designated quarantine facilities that are run as such. Once you have defined quarantine facilities and the staff requirements you bring certainty into the process.

My son came back from the United States in early March and was case 13 in Victoria. It was uncertain times as knowledge of the behaviour of the Virus was not as well known as it is now. His spread was contained. That meant inter alia that the whole family stayed at home without any direct contact with anybody until all were virus-negative. However he and his wife have defined antibody titres, as presumably have all those who have recovered in Australia.

Before we have more mixed messages – of having some recognition of their status, what does it mean? Can such people travel freely around the country or internationally? Around the world there are a growing number of such people. Do they get the equivalent of a diplomatic passport to travel? What is the ideal threshold titre for immunity required? And the questions mount up because there is still so much unknown. To avoid a fourth mixed message, does Australia just subscribe to the WHO conservative dictum on this subject – especially the immunity passport as suggested by Chilean sources have superficial appeal to some?

George V Salle à Manger

After all, there will be a graduated requirement for return to travel. Some places will be safer than others. This one area where a fifth mixed message is liable to arise as the “politician itch” to go overseas becomes unbearable. This pandemic has questioned the need to have all the junket paraphernalia – sister-cities, inter-parliamentary delegations, most conferences and even business travel – let alone ministers and their staff spending vast sums of money for nothing much more than say, having lobster bisque at the George V in Paris.

Been there; done that. Time to suppress the virus of Self Indulgence, which also selectively affects tastebuds. However, for others it has been a fascination – the overseas all-expenses paid junket. What is the government’s advice in relation to this? What twisting and turning will Australia see to make sure the lobster bisque does not go to waste?

And of course there is the sixth mixed message to end all mixed messages, Ann Sherry. She has, as recently as February this year, been applauded for all the good works she did for the Carnival organisation. She has now bobbed up co-chairing some Australia-New Zealand outfit to promote, among other things, tourism. Given her propensity to flog ships can we expect Carnival, her old ahoy, to be plying between their ships between Australia and New Zealand?

I understand there is no foundation to the rumour that Carnival is renaming its ships: the Rabies Princess, the Diarrhoea Princess, the Plague Princess and the Leprosy Princess. 

Five Characters in Search of a Disease

We were having lunch in the neighbourhood restaurant that serves freshly shucked rock oysters mostly from the south Coast.

Nearby, in retrospect far too close to us, a table was set for five.

They straggled in and sat down at the table with their bottles of wine. They were five men, well into their sixties and beyond, and typical of men when they gather together, loud talking, joking, passing the booze – as they have probably done whenever they’ve gathered.

The problem is that these are not normal times. Were they social distancing themselves? Well, no. Their bodies were touching. Was there any evidence of hand sanitiser? Well, no

In fact in retrospect, given that the courtyard was virtually empty, they could have located there.

However, suddenly one of them sneezed and coughed extravagantly. No tissue – he at least belatedly put his hand in front of his mouth. I told him off – told him to cough into his sleeve. I said a few more words. The table shut up for a short time.

Who was this other old codger telling off one of their number? They were stunned, as though being pulled up for a transgression outside the confessional box was itself a venal sin. Then they said no more and went back to their crowded space – except nobody coughed.

It emphasises how tenuous this whole community regulation as been on any long-term change of behaviour, even attitudes. Here was a group of men in the target age for serious trouble if they were unfortunate enough to catch the Virus.

However that is not the imagery that is projected on the screens; rather it is of old people being the victims. In some cases this is true, but there is a problem. It is being able to tell old people what to do – especially when they are not culturally attuned to change, except by extreme coercion.

In this case, I remember these guys as young men – not this particular quintet. They nevertheless represent that chap who limped into the surgery 50 years before with a severely infected leg following a seemingly minor injury a week before. If they have come earlier they would not have had such drastic treatment. Now these men have aged but their attitudes have not changed. In their minds they are disease-proof – that is until the Virus comes calling. They are the most vulnerable age group.

When we left, one of them muttered something that was obviously in the same literate genius sense of “What are ya?”, given the others guffawed. Sometimes the larrikin in the Australian persona is seductive; at other times, not so much.

My dining companion who is a well-known public health physician said to me afterwards that we should have told the proprietor to ask them to comply. We did not. That is our fault. It poses the dilemma of calling people out, especially the elderly who always know best (you know the guy who smokes heavily and boasts that he has never had a day off work in is life), when you only have the authority of your voice to make them comply.

Premier, you who presided over a government that gave us the Ruby Princess, should recognise that the situation occurring in Melbourne is only a cigarette paper thin barrier away from occurring in Sydney suburbs in NSW that have similar ethnic demographics where large family gatherings are the regular occurrences – let alone among the men who lunched next to us last Friday.

So may I respectfully suggest that you get your competent Health people to look at the potentially vulnerable local government areas and the level of compliance within each with the COVID-19 guidelines?

Mouse Whisper

Sometimes I come out of my mousehole, and there is this sleek lizard skink sunning himself in the morning rays. He cavorts around my mausmeister’s kitchen, and has done so for a long time.

My mausmeister decided then that he would call my industrious friend Dyson, because of his ability to vacuum – clean the floor of pesky insects.

However with the revelations in this week’s papers, it asked me why would any self-respecting lizard (and it emphasised the self-respecting) call himself Dyson?

He is petitioning to change his name to Hoover.

Dyson

Modest Expectations – Pike’s Peak or Bust

The Cook / Covid-19 comparison highlights a problem with a cohort of young doctors who go into public health medicine. Generally they are very intelligent, but some, unlike Sue Morey or Nick Coatsworth for example, have lived a professional life in cotton wool. Among them, you get a few smartarses, where the ready availability of Twitter and one more glass of red than should be imbibed leads to a misstep. The higher up the career ladder, the more the misstep becomes obvious. If the misstepper ends up on the ground, the question arises whether the person is mortally injured or will just bear a stigma on his or her professional life.

There are no real excuses for such a puerile tweet, where superficially it may be seen as a clever expression of a belief. However, despite the predictable blustering from the Liberal political cognoscenti pazzi, they should rest assured that the good doctor would have been given a verbal flogging by the Premier.

Yet he would recognise that she is a hard worker in a stressful position, and one who would definitely be against premature opening up Victoria and having to combat the “joy boys”, jocks and the Murdoch publications braying for sport to be reintroduced for solely financial benefits with a slight simpering regard for the community health.

Andrews learnt a lesson at the last minute, pulling back from the Grand Prix. With the potential of a cohort of infected Europeans mingling with the crowd, Australia may well have been plunged into a crisis. It has been bad enough with the antics of the NSW government in regard to the Ruby Princess. I do not underestimate the involvement of this good doctor given the reckless behaviour in the neighbouring State with Victoria not locking its borders against NSW.

Just a word of advice to you Dr Van Diemen, if you want to say what you like publicly, wait until you get to my age, and then it does not matter. You will recover from this glitch and hopefully have a successful career. But ditch Twitter and leave your wisecracks to spaces where the walls are not listening. Everybody in stressful positions needs to sound off occasionally, but go find a few like-minded galahs to share your frustrations. I mean the fluffy grey and pink ones.

A little known encounter of Jimmy Cook

Since everybody is getting into Cook, I thought reviving a relevant part of my novel “Sheep of Erromanga” would enliven the discussion about of the impact of this Yorkshireman on one small island in the South Seas. The story centres around a young Australian called Philip Morey who spent two years on the then New Hebrides island of Erromanga in the1930s, and this describes the end of a trek across the island.

At last, Philip had emerged from the dark jungle through the line of giant tamanu trees. Through the foliage he was met with a vista of huts along the water’s edge. To his left, the dancing silvery shards of the river Ounpontdi made him stop. 

So this was Potnarvin, lying under the lee of a mountain called Traitor’s Head. He shaded his eyes as he looked upwards. The mountain appeared to rise to what he estimated to be about 3000 feet. Its height was hard to gauge as clouds obscured the peak. As Philip was to find out over the three days of his stay, Traitor’s Head was almost perpetually covered in cloud. The clouds concealed the fact that Traitor’s Head was a volcano. It had not erupted for nearly two hundred years, but had done so twenty-five years after Captain Cook had been there on an exploratory voyage. 

The mountain had received its name from Cook who, on landing on the beach, wondered why such apparently friendly people were armed to the teeth. One of Cook’s muskets had misfired and the friendliness had vanished in an instant. A battle had followed and, before Cook was able to get back to the ship, one of his sailors had been mortally wounded and at least two of the Erromangans lay dead. Philip thought the “Traitor” was an odd choice by Cook, given that he had a meticulous way of naming his discoveries. The Captain was probably just annoyed. “Traitor” did not seem to be the right word, although the incident was certainly prescient of Cook’s future.

The villagers, unlike their ancestors, had welcomed Philip. They seemed to appreciate the quiet tall young white man, who came out onto the beach stopping to look around and unbuckle his rucksack.

Cook’s response was predictable – confrontation with bloodshed. At the time of Cook’s visit, the Erromangans were cannibals, with a strict etiquette concerning where the white man could move around on the beaches where they landed. These rules were transgressed as they were later with the arrival of Presbyterian missionaries. When they crossed this line they were killed. In addition the natives developed quite a taste for Scottish missionaries – haggis?

Purchase a copy of The Sheep of Erromanga! Email enquiry to: SheepofErromanga@gmail.com

The recidivist Carnival

On February 27 this year, a cheery ABC reporter noted:

… the effects of swine flu in the grip of the 2009 pandemic was confronting. This disease affected people who don’t often get the flu, afflicting young adults whose previously healthy lungs became white and cloudy with pneumonia. While most recovered, many did not. By the end of 2009, more than 37,000 Australians had been diagnosed with swine flu. 

More than 190 people were dead. 

Worldwide, the US Centres for Disease Control estimate swine flu killed as many as 575,000 people. Eighty per cent of them were under 65. 

Let’s contrast the swine flu epidemic with the spread of the novel coronavirus — or COVID-19 as it is now known.

The new virus is sweeping through parts of China and infecting small numbers all over the world…

I will not detail some of the learned academic predictions that were criticising our draconian measures e.g. close our borders to China. Their expert advice was just wrong.

Now just what was being reported in the media in the autumn of 2009?

As suspected swine flu cases in the Hunter New England health area jumped to 72 yesterday, a Hunter family quarantined at home after a cruise on virus ship Pacific Dawn slammed the handling of the outbreak. 

The Exxxxxxo family of Thornton was ordered into quarantine on Tuesday, a day after they arrived home from a 10-day cruise on the Pacific Dawn, and only after Mrs Chris Exxxxxxo contacted health authorities.

“There were 2000 or so passengers wandering around who had no idea that they should be avoiding contact with other people.” Mrs Exxxxxxo contacted NSW Health who confirmed the family should be quarantined and was later contacted by P&O Cruises.

As the flu emergency escalates, the Federal Government has ordered enough doses of swine flu vaccine for 10 million Australians. The Exxxxxxo family has spent the past week in lockdown in their home and will not be allowed out until they receive the all-clear on Sunday… 

…When the Pacific Dawn cruise ship docks in Brisbane today, after cutting short its cruise because of the flu threat, the Queensland Government will invoke tough quarantine powers to stop interstate passengers disembarking. Three crew members have tested positive to the virus, but have recovered with treatment. Five passengers await test results. Health officials will screen the ship’s 2000 passengers and 700 crew. Only Queensland residents will be allowed to disembark and will be asked to quarantine themselves for seven days.    

“We are being extremely cautious in our testing arrangements for anybody who presents themselves with flu-like symptoms” Carnival Australia chief executive Ann Sherry said.

Of course, that is what you would say, Ms Sherry, with your winning smile. It is however understood that people with swine flu contracted on Carnival ships may not have agreed.

And then about the same time there was another media release…

Minister for Health, John Della Bosca, today announced NSW would upgrade its Swine Flu protocols for cruise liners who arrived in NSW waters. 

The NSW approach to arriving cruise ships has been developed in consultation with the Commonwealth. 

“When the Pacific Dawn arrived this week, its passengers had not been to any jurisdiction where Swine Flu was present and it was considered unlikely the virus was on the ship,” Mr Della Bosca said. 

“The two children from the Pacific Dawn who have since tested positive for Swine Flu had not travelled overseas before boarding the ship, had no contact with affected countries, and were not considered to be at risk. 

“An additional 16 people from the ship have since been confirmed to have Swine Flu. Six of these people are currently in Queensland. 

“These people have been assessed by public health staff and placed into isolation. 

“Further public health assessment of contacts of these passengers is now underway.”

Similar pattern. Let them all off the boat – she’ll be “jake”. The NSW Chief Health Officer then – the incomparable Kerry Chant.

Unlike COVID-19, a vaccine was rapidly developed for swine flu, (the existing influenza vaccine was partially effective) which then helped contain the viral spread. Nevertheless, on a population basis Australia had the third highest number of cases worldwide. The virus affected the elderly, young children and pregnant women particularly, and spread so rapidly that contact tracing was well nigh impossible. Fortunately, it was not as deadly as initially believed, unlike COVID-19.

In the case of Victoria, it was bought there by a well-to-do Australian family returning from the USA by air. Their children spread it in the two well-known private schools they attended and the spread was accelerated by a “social” dance. Later, its spread was tracked along certain tramlines passing through Bolli-wood a.k.a. Toorak.

It is interesting that although it was first berthed in Victoria, the cruise ship made sure it spread the virus to NSW where the normal laissez-faire attitude (see Chant) predominated. However, in Queensland the Pacific Dawn was refused permission to berth, and the following may be apocryphal but nevertheless it is a good story. A highly-placed Queensland official threatened to order gunboats, a.k.a. whatever Dutton inherited, into the Brisbane River to make sure it did not happen – bit of a wimp the current Premier – only closing the borders.

The Office – viruses thrive on randomness

Some time ago, as I reported previously, well before the COVID-19 outbreak, I was sitting in the foyer of the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne where there was a hand sanitiser predominantly displayed. Virtually everybody entering and leaving the hospital ignored the instructions to clean their hands.

Last week I was waiting in the foyer of Cabrini Hospital in Malvern and next to where I was sitting, near the hospital exit, there was a hand sanitiser. Despite the hospital foyer having all the trappings of virus prevention, this sanitiser was mostly ignored. Yet on the other side of the foyer not five metres away all the preventative measures were in place – maintaining a safe distance in defined queues, temperature and verbal screening, hand sanitiser use being required.

The difference – one side of the foyer was supervised; on the other, no supervision.

The problem with any loosening of the COVID-19 chains is that the new concepts of hygiene are yet to be embedded in the nation. As I have said, the standard of public toilets gives a clue as to how seriously hygiene has been embraced by this country. Driving between the two capital cities this past week for medical appointments, I observed that the toilets along the Hume Highway are just as bad or as average as they have always been. There has been no change except toilet paper has disappeared for various reasons from some of the dispensers.

Having issued this caveat, there is no doubt the underlying strength of the Australian health system has been shown even given some of the dills, often influential, who have tried to disrupt the public health protocols, because that is what they are – dills with a deep-seated sense of entitlement and self-importance – the essence of “Do you know who I am?”

As I wrote last week, there is a good case for the re-opening of schools, and paradoxically Premier Andrews being so hardline means that the other politicians have to be more measured.

Viruses love disorder

The more that you contain the natural community Brownian movement into more laminar flow then the more order you bring to contain the enemy. However, at the same time it must be recognised that open plan and activity-based work spaces designed 20 years ago to maximise the number of occupants were also designed to maximise “random” contact between staff members who were moving around in the workspace. The post-COVID-19 office has to contend with minimising disorder while dealing with now-outdated office planning that maximised apparent randomness.

While the concept of working from home has seemed to solve the problem of halting the viral spread, the evidence of long term efficacy of working from home is mixed. Some may praise its “flexibility” and claim that efficiency has improved, while others use the word “chaos”.

In my mind’s eye I have a hospital operating theatre. Here people are gathered together for hours on end to perform operations and in so doing assuring the patient does not acquire an infection attributable to the operation. The air conditioning must be maintained at such a standard that the air circulating is pure enough for the most complex operation – such as a joint replacement – to be undertaken with the least risk.

In the end, the assumption must be that the post-virus office must be big enough to provide sufficient space for people to congregate while maintaining a certain distance from one another without shouting. Street clothing does not seem to be a major factor in viral spread, but the operating theatre staff do not go into an operating theatre in their street clothes as the nineteenth century surgeons did. They change into their green or blue scrubs, their head covered and mask at hand. And at the operation a further gowning with all the appropriate obedience to the rules takes place, and this ritual is repeated for each patient.

Professor Lindsay Grayson

Professor Lindsay Grayson, the Australian doyen of hand hygiene succinctly summarised the national hand hygiene study after eight years observation in 2017 – The National Hand Hygiene Initiative (NHH) has been associated with significant sustained improvement in hand hygiene compliance and a decline in the incidence of staphylococcus aureus bacteremia (HA-SAB). Key features include sustained central coordination of a standardised approach and incorporation into hospital accreditation standards. The NHHI could be emulated in other national culture-change programmes.”

The challenge to community cleanliness is to accept the challenge for its offices as set down by Professor Grayson.

The new office order

The elements of the new order now are being tested everywhere, have they penetrated into every individual’s brain … at least not yet.

The elements include:

  • Social distancing and limiting the time spent in face-to-fact contact or in a closed space with others
  • Lift etiquette and disinfecting
  • Masks (understanding how and when they should be worn and by whom)
  • Air conditioning
  • Hand hygiene and not touching the face
  • Temperature checks
  • Responsibility for the regular cleaning of one’s designated work area, including equipment such as computer keyboards and phones
  • Regular cleaning of the office, reception, kitchen areas and the toilets
  • Quarantining anybody who shows the slightest sign of a respiratory infection
  • Viral testing
  • Being able to plug into a internal form of contact tracing to identify if employees are not generally within their designated areas (that is, for the purposes of maximum numbers to ensure social distancing)
  • Food outlets
  • Making provision for workers who are at a higher risk

This is part of the equation – the other major element is how to get employees to and from work safely when public transport is designed around maximising the number of passengers and when work hours are not staggered, but that is a future blog.

One of the theoretical advantages has been the advance in communication over the past decade. This has meant that isolated people can see one another – good reliable images of the people. How far that improvement in this distant communication can supplant actual face-to-face contact will give researchers a great deal of time to seek answers. Online meeting platforms will be an essential part of the response to this pandemic.

It is up to those who head the large firms to enforce social distancing – not sitting huge distances away, although appropriate spacing of work areas will be important, but being careful of exchanges – the hand shake, the hug, the kiss on the cheek, borrowing somebody’s pen. It is these social gestures, essentially random, upon which the virus thrives.

There must be an etiquette in the use of lifts, as is occurring in hospitals already, with the maximum number of people prominently displayed. Again this demands discipline.

The meeting room should contain a round table of appropriate size, and the air conditioning should be such that a joint replacement could be performed on the table with little chance of airborne infection. Time spent in closed meeting rooms should be minimised.

This leads to the discussion about planning an office to be open plan or not. As the NYT reported this week: “Some companies have begun mentioning a return to one of history’s more derided office-design concepts: the cubicle. There is talk also of the cubicle’s see-through cousin, known as the sneeze guard.

“Cough and Sneeze Protection Screens,” is how they are being marketed…

Earlier in the article “Soon, there may be a new must-have perk: the sneeze guard. This plexiglass barrier that can be mounted on a desk is one of many ideas being mulled by employers as they contemplate a return to the workplace after coronavirus lockdowns. Their post-pandemic makeovers may include hand sanitizers built into desks that are positioned at 90-degree angles or that are enclosed by translucent plastic partitions; air filters that push air down and not up; outdoor gathering space to allow collaboration without viral transmission; and windows that actually open, for freer air flow. 

All very good, and some of these changes are evident in our hospitals and retail outlets, but it is imperative that offices have a structure to ensure that all the changes are effected. In other words there is a team of enforcers, from the time the person enters the office area initially to use the hand sanitiser to the odd time he or she may use the toilet. You see that sign in the aeroplane toilets to respect the next user by cleaning up after yourself. One can believe that some who use the toilet are blind. After a few hours in the air the said toilet can become unclean because of lax enforcement. The new office will ensure that cleanliness is maintained

Then there is consideration of the material that you use to outfit the office anew. In a NEJM article and combined with another source, it was shown that the virus persisted up to four hours on copper, eight hours on aluminum, 24 hours on cardboard and two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. Elsewhere it has been shown that on glass or wood surfaces, the virus will remain present for up to 4 days.

Reassuringly it has been shown that Covid-19 can be eradicated within one minute by disinfecting surfaces with alcohol, 0.5% hydrogen peroxide, or bleach containing 0.1% sodium hypochlorite.

Watching the thermographic camera in operation while I waited at Cabrini Hospital was an impressive demonstration of its capability, and the question is the number needed and their positioning. Having temperature taken manually is probably more consuming of staff time. Nevertheless the receptionist or however he or she is described must be someone who understands the basic requirements of public health, and it should not be too difficult to arrange an instruction in this. After all, the responsibility extends to ensuring clean toilets, that there is form of “contact tracing” of anybody in the building, with the current chunky badges of identification need to be reviewed.

One of the other matters which follows is how food and drink is dispensed. Bringing your own coffee cup and lunch is an obvious solution. Trialing take-away has been happening in the community, and therefore how the workers obtain their coffee and lunch needs to be mapped. When food and drink is raised, then the spectre of alcohol is also raised. I have some doubt that those affected by drink respect social distance. Then what does the office do with those who smoke, coffee in hand outside the building. As I walked around the outskirts of the Royal Melbourne Hospital last week, even there were numerous staff members in their scrubs outside smoking in corners away from the elements.

Thus in the end someone in the office must be the arbiter deciding who needs to be tested or sent home. There is a certain unrealistic optimism about a vaccine, and clearly the anti-viral drugs do not work on coronavirus. If they did, the cure for the common cold would have been had long ago. As for hydroxychloroquine … be careful Palmer, what is your pitch when the first person dies using that drug rather than killing the virus – go green rather yellow?

Those in business must take a pessimistic view and not believe the vaccine is just around the corner. However, in equal measure they must take an optimist view that careful planning and implementation of a rearranged COVID-19 office space will support both the reopening of business in 2020, but also recognise this will be the “new norm” for the foreseeable future.

As for masks, they may be obligatory in the operating theatres where the operating team are kitted up with sterile gowns and gloves, however in the community I have this image of the Italian smoking, his mask limp around his chin. Masks are ideal to irritate, to touch – as are gloves when the gloved hands are moving from one potentially infected surface to another. Masks thus can be a definition of false security as are latex gloves – only as clean as the last touch.

In the end, the broader community has to come to an understanding of what is needed to provide a safe working environment because the changes that are needed cannot be achieved without everyone giving up some personal “freedoms”. At the same time reliance on pre-COVID-19 legislation to direct the ways things were done won’t cut it any more. Governments have to review all their relevant legislation to make sure they don’t allow sloppy hygiene to continue.

This is whither I have arrived – a personal exercise calling on what seems to be a reasonable allotment of information in turn to provide a reasonable allotment of advice.

Mouse Whisper

I was self-isolating outside my mousehole when I looked up at my mausmeister’s television and saw a man called Nev who turned up on the screen. He seems to reflect this economic imperative, which is taking over from the lingering pandemic, as his mates are getting restless. Doctors should stick to the hospitals was the secondary unvoiced agenda.

Pardon my meek mousiness by addressing you as Nev. I thought I heard it correctly that you said there will not be another pandemic – you will make sure it does not happen again? (see above). Hope the viruses are listening.

You know Nev, you, the bloke who maybe can’t see the trees for the Forrest.

Danse Macabre

Modest expectations – Tom Waits

From the Carnival playbook as reported by The Washington Post:

More than 20 passengers were still too ill to leave the ship (Coral Princess), along with 38 crew.

Of the 1,020 passengers on board, about 993 were expected to be declared fit to fly, he said. They will be taken by bus straight to Miami International Airport, where most will avoid terminals and take charter flights. A minority of the passengers, he said, would take commercial flights; those passengers would be brought to a terminal that is not being used until they board.

As with the above Washington Post report, it is now 4 April and the number of COVID-19 cases has just reached 5,548 in Australia. If it had not been for the cruise ships, it would be considerably less than 5,000, and fortunately not the 10,000 Dr Greg Kelly and his fellow petitioners prophesised for 4 April.

Fortunately, at the centre of this activity federally we have a cohort of knowledgeable, calm public health specialists that you need in a crisis and obviously they are not going to release the models if the assumptions are wrong. The world is not a TV reality show. It is a planet at war. Therefore getting the strategy right is everything.

The Carnival is over?

As the Ruby Princess saga grows, my recommendation to sack Dr Chant appears mild now that all of the NSW Government seems to be in a state of self-preservation or that of hazard reduction. It was so obvious from the start that people being hurried off the boat meant something was afoot. Only too true – 10 per cent of the positive cases in Australia and 11 deaths as of 6 April.

However, the media were dozing – but not now. The Australian Financial Review at last discovered the media demure Ann Sherry. The Australian is calling for governmental scalps.

Now three weeks later, it is the NSW Government trying to weasel out of its responsibility. Carnival is the culprit shipping line that has the dubious honour of having two firms in Miami that specialise in launching legal actions against it – that includes all the shipping lines owned by the Miami-based Arison family. Mr Sture Myrnell is their local head and has sparingly fronted the media. Mr Myrnell, born in Bergen, was once the sommelier on the QE2 and although he has been promoted to dizzying heights, he has probably not lost his taste for a good sherry.

Which reminds me.

Now Ann Sherry was replaced by Mr Myrnell as CEO in 2018, but is still the Executive Chair and it was pointed out that she was responsible for external relations – aka lobbying.

Once Ms Sherry was not afraid to front the media. In an interview, she made the point that thinking big was crucial. She was quoted as saying in this 2018 interview:

I think it’s important not to lose touch with what’s happening in your organisation. One of the great challenges of leadership is that you’re busy and there’s a million things people demand from your time. So, it’s easy not to know what’s happening on the frontline of your business, and just let people tell you. My view, though, is that it’s better to find things out yourself rather than rely on layers of organisational filtering to tell you what’s going on. I think this is especially important in a customer-centric business. It’s crucial to be visible and to communicate to people on the frontline that you understand how important their jobs are.”

After all the above interview started with the following “Coming off a high-profile, extremely successful tenure as CEO of Westpac New Zealand…”

The report in the NZ Herald 5 December 2008 begged to differ somewhat:

Sherry was chief executive for four-and-a-half years and resigned from Westpac after she was moved sideways to head up the group’s Pacific banking division on the back of poor performance from the New Zealand division.

She earned more than $3 million per year in the position.

Maybe the word was not “profile” but “profitable” – and an interesting definition of “extremely successful”.

The situation is serious – very serious – not just because of the number of additional COVID-19 cases and deaths directly attributable to the Ruby Princess, but because the NSW Government somehow lost control of its public health measures during a worldwide pandemic when cruise ships had been identified as one of the most effective vectors for the virus. That is unforgivable.  

Therefore every link in the communication chain needs to be examined. I believe that Ms Sherry’s role as Executive Chair, irrespective of her belated attempt to escape the title, in influencing the decision-making process now and over the time of her stewardship should be critically examined as part of this review.

Now that there is a full police enquiry underway, in the end there may be the prospect of criminal charges. This review must be comprehensive and nobody should be shielded; equally, innuendo should be confirmed as fact or any particular person exonerated.

And finally Prime Minister this cruise ship behaviour has not been an isolated example to flick away. It has been happening for years.

Hibernation

I have been chipped for not looking forward to predict what we might look like after the virus has passed.

My predictions on the future are based on the proposition that there will no vaccine against this virus in the near future. The second is that immunity to COVID-19 is not life long. In other words, one infection will not guarantee that the individual will not be susceptible to other attacks. The same applies to a vaccine; some common colds are due to coronavirus and come back in a different form year after year. There is no vaccine that works.

The problem with the hibernation analogy is that the animal sleeps through its time of food deprivation. Its life is about foraging for food to be converted, and here the brown fat accumulation is an important factor up over many generations – not an immediate fix, but one essential to sustain the slumbering animal.

However, when the bear emerges from hibernation, the external factors have been at work providing the bear with sustenance from the very time it comes out of its den. The hibernation cycle does not factor in a continuing winter because spring always comes.

When the government uses hibernation as a metaphor it should realise hibernation it is not a one-off aberration of nature. It is not for everyone. However for some creatures, it occurs year in year out – the word itself is derived from the Latin word for wintry – hiemalis. Thus Prime Minister, you are not the head bear, although many of your sloth of bears may be somewhat grizzly.

Australia must emerge into a new world, which prizes personal and public hygiene. It is a world where everyone including the police force carries hand sanitisers. It is a world where coughing without shielding your mouth becomes as unacceptable as spitting. Every restaurant has pepper, salt and sanitiser on the table, and before food is served the patrons are politely asked whether they have used sanitiser.

At home as I was in the days before antibiotics lulled the community into a false sense of security, children always washed their hands before a meal – but then we said grace. As we grew up, with the advent of the fast food industry with the disposable society, washing hands before meals then lapsed.

Meanwhile, hygiene in hospital has improved immensely, and that is largely because it has been recognised that washing one’s hands between examining each patient is essential. It was a simple manoeuvre as was the abandoning of wearing ties and the improvement of the attire of staff – particularly those archaic nursing outfits. It is now as different a world as the time when surgeons operated in their frock coats in the nineteenth century and more recently when I was a junior doctor, when the anaesthetist’s monocle fell into the sterile neurosurgical site. Why, because this particular gentleman was peering over the neurosurgeon’s shoulder. Bad form old boy.

It is time to transfer these hospital lessons to the community. One measure of this is the standard of public toilets. As I have written before about how these are diminished in number in the major city centres. However, the technology is evident to establish a clean safe environment in those facilities.

Thus, when the virus passes for the moment Australia needs investment in hygiene – in public health – so that it is the aim to generally reach hospital grade level. In so doing this should evoke a cultural change in this country where nobody is exempt – and that means settlements like Utopia or Soapy Bore, Toorak or Byron Bay – yes you! Not singling you out, just reminding everybody that we are a nation with mutual obligation – it applies equally to you as it does to the smallest outstation.

One Labor Minister in Whitlam’s government once made the astounding observation “Australia is an island surrounded by water.”

The Terra Australis face that was turned towards the original adventurers and buccaneers was very unappealing and they left and those who were shipwrecked died in the harsh climate or were absorbed into the local aboriginal people.

Then our border control need be mindful of the unseen, not spend time hounding the vulnerable and looking in the mirror of this nation and seeing Pauline Hanson.

However the underlying premise is that the Federal government should take the original power allotted in the original Australian constitution – that of quarantine and thus assume national control of public health.

Australia has emphasised biosecurity in relation to fauna and flora, which has been moderately successful, but in terms of spread of human disease less well.

After this last episode it is not the poor unfortunates awash in the Timor Sea, but cruise ships with their crowded cabins and archaic air conditioning. Huge floating cesspools no longer should be allowed to berth in Australian ports. It is an industry that needs urgent review. As one correspondent has written:

Long ignored by cruise lines seeking to sell older tonnage are air conditioning and plumbing issues.

Ships built after 2000 are suspected of having air conditioning and plumbing and sewerage problems, some of which problems are major. 

The older ships will not survive nor are resaleable as they’ll be seen as potential health problems. Why? Breathing the same recycled air in every cabin or room will no longer be acceptable to paying passengers.  

The cruise industry must be re-evaluated, and Carnival and all its affiliates banned indefinitely – or should it be said that any ship owned by the Arison family. In other words, nobody begrudges a well-run shipping line, one that does not evade taxes, does not fly flags of convenience, does not use underpaid staff – and if the arcane Maritime Law needs to be repurposed for Australian conditions let the government assure that is so.

The other major area of potential infection and violation of the borders are the airlines. However, biosecurity in relation to plane passengers has always been lax – handing out pieces of paper is no substitute for targeted testing.

The question must arise as to the level of hygiene on planes where people are packed together and the air conditioning is dodgy at best. Should the passengers be handed sanitiser along with bottles of water; should passengers be handed out masks at the same time as headsets.

Once the country had quarantine stations; once Australians going overseas carried yellow books to assure that we had been inoculated (or vaccinated in the case of small pox) against typhoid and cholera and, if we were going to endemic areas, yellow fever. Until this pandemic, only the latter has survived as mandatory. However, given there is no vaccine for COVID-19 then having a yellow booklet does not apply except for yellow fever.

However, there are past measures that worked, but reminding the passengers of basic hygiene becomes as important in the training of cabin staff as being able to serve meals. Toilets on planes are a potential source of infection given how poorly the hygiene is policed and on long flights used to change into sleep wear.

However, it is also air conditioning that needs to be assured at “hospital grade”, not continually recycling stale air but providing clean air at all times. As one source with more knowledge in the air ambulance sector where there is liable to be more exposure to infection has written … It has not yet been disproven that exhaled droplets are not aerosolised by the cabin conditioned air flow, and some planes may not recycle enough air to effectively dilute aerosol pathogens, or they don’t pass recycled air through HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters.

Therefore, the future Australia as it emerges must have a different approach to hygiene. Once this is assured then it must have a continuing impact on the economy, and not be forgotten by government with a strangled budget.

The Long White Shroud

In this time of COVID-19 crisis, a farce is being played out within the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. Once a prestigious body responsible for overseeing the qualifications and hence the quality of consultant physicians and paediatricians it is rapidly becoming the Ruby Princess of the medical profession.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) was founded in 1936 as the Australian College aping its British counterpart, because our medical traditions have always been linked to the Old Country, fob watch and chain. Two years later, the New Zealanders accepted the invitation to join. Between that time and 2010 there had been only three Presidents from New Zealand.

Then Dr John Kolbe emerged. A respiratory specialist at Auckland Hospital, his wife a prominent surgeon who had been President of the counterpart surgical Australasian College and one who has publicly listed herself as a consultant for Siggins and Miller, a consultant firm based in Brisbane which is entangled in the current college mess. This is a slightly complicated situation since one of the principals of which, Ian Siggins died two years ago, but Mel Miller is still lurking around. Her role and ongoing involvement, if any, is for others to investigate further.

And indirectly, another Queensland connection lingers around as the Commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission (ACNC) which is the middle of this imbroglio has as its Commissioner, Garry Johns, a former Labor member for the Brisbane seat of Petrie but now a darling of the right. He has been, as reported, experiencing his own internal problems within the Commission. His original appointment in 2017 was described as bizarre by certain of those familiar with the charities field, especially in regard to statements ascribed to him about indigenous people.

Following Kolbe there has been another New Zealander, currently the incumbent, Mark Lane. Two of three aspirants in the current election for President-elect are New Zealanders. There is thus this select pack of All Blacks. There were three New Zealand Presidents over 72 years; now the prospect of three within 15 years. It suggests that there is now enough confidence among the New Zealand physicians to form their own College; never tell a New Zealander that they should be a State of Australia. Let us guarantee a fond farewell.

The next problem is that with time, the active elements of the consultant physician workforce have formed their own specific societies based on subspecialist skills and technology.

Some of them drifted completely away and formed their own collegiate enclaves, such as the psychiatrists and dermatologists. At the same time, the paediatricians, whose governing body had been separate although existing under the same certification, rejoined the College.  Faculties were created in public health, occupational and rehabilitation medicine, and the consultant physician element in the college was further diluted by the creation of College Chapters.

While this dilution effect was progressing, the College undertook a review of the “collegiate relationship” with the then “specialty societies of the RACP”; the upshot has been that the relationship was effectively severed. The societies were relegated to distant cousin status, while at the same time the College took all their existing curricula as part of upgrading its own responses to AMC requirements. The specialty societies were left delivering training within an increasingly bureaucratic and unresponsive college structure that, in the view of the societies, was unwilling to provide resources to those societies for their contribution.

If it were not for the fact that the letters FRACP certify their members a meal ticket, many sub-specialties would have broken away, but government unwittingly, through regulation and connivance, have allowed this monopoly to continue. Therefore the College, irrespective of its current intrinsic hollowness, has been allowed to continue in its current unchallenged form.

Over the past 20 years since the time that the ill-starred late Craig Paterson was appointed the CEO the internal troubles have grown. However concurrently the level of farce has grown, fuelled by the presence of another New Zealander and would be physician rangatira, Dr John O’Donnell.

I was once on the Council of the College in a saner time when its impact on the community, apart from being a certification mill, was evident. However, what has stirred me to write this was a ridiculous set of propositions put to an extraordinary general meeting (EGM) held fittingly in New Zealand in 2019. The intent of the propositions was to create a select group to be known as “respected Fellows” whose role was to create a quasi-theocratic model superseding the current College democratic elections.  One young female college Fellow asked whether passage of these motions meant that all other Fellows would not be respected. Enough said. This takeover attempt by a small cabal was soundly defeated.

But now they are at it again. Presumably the same crowd with the same would-be rangatira is leading this pack of All Blacks. They want to convene an EGM at a time when this country and New Zealand are locked down in crisis. There is no valid reason given for this action, but apparently they have the numbers to pursue this self-serving, totally unnecessary course of action.

Perhaps it is linked to a document produced by a Brisbane-based firm Effective Governance. Their review purported to describe what is wrong with the College, but the endless list of recommendations revive some of the very problems identified in 2019 – e.g. a nominations committee to select Board candidates to ensure they have the “right set of skills” for the Board and essentially to remove the concept of popular election by Fellows of candidates who don’t necessarily have such skills. At the same time the proposed number of Board members is 6-8; that, combined with the “required skill sets” will make it increasingly difficult for a College Fellow to be elected to this Board. Is this what the College Fellows really want? On reading the document I raise the question of whether the report should have been consigned to the garbage can long ago, and incidentally what did this Review cost?

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would be asking how much of this advice on governance over the years has emanated from a limited number of sources in Queensland. What of the direct Kolbe connection to Siggins Miller?

And why are certain people so seemingly keen to cover up about those who have requisitioned the EGM? And as for this EGM, especially at such a perilous time with COVID-19 and both countries effectively isolated, why are the usual suspects pushing such a destructive line?

However, I am not such a theorist, but I do like Kolbe to Bolitho to Talley to Yelland to Lane – what a sparkling daisy chain of “respected fellows. Once they were Presidents, and now…?

Last year I wrote to the RACP President, the New Zealander Dr Lane, asking for the release of the list of signatories to the 2019 EGM request. His dismissive reply relies more on legal smartness rather than common sense. Why was the list of signatories withheld? What did Dr Lane, as the President of the College, want to hide – a preponderance of NZ signatories?

The problem presented by this year’s EGM is that it ultimately will become an exercise in unexpected consequences, which may lead to a totally new organisation to guide the training and ongoing guidance of consultant physicians and paediatricians.

Maybe it is about time for consultant physicians to dispense with the current structure altogether with its over-regulation and expensive payments to a band of rent-seekers.

Maybe it is the right time to let the New Zealanders go and we revert to a purely Australian college. Our health systems are so different, our training is different; we may speak the same language but our cultures separate. Yes it is a good time to flag – once we are on the other side of the current health crisis – that we need a debate about this College of ours being purely Australian; after all, such a proposition is based on a purely utilitarian approach. It is totally ridiculous that this College could be run by a NZ rump.

And further, what about a breakaway College prepared to look after the interests of Australian consultant physicians and paediatricians, and not be burdened by the vestments of yesterday?

And as a footnote, almost as an afterthought, does having New Zealand Fellows compromise the charity status of the College in Australia. I cannot see the College’s New Zealand element being ascribed charity status in its own country. Just asking for clarification. Nothing more.

But first, in the interests of decency, those behind the resolution should withdraw their request for an EGM immediately. Otherwise every politician in Australia will know about this unnecessary distraction in this time of coronavirus. 

Mouse Whisper 

From a riverine relative, I am indebted for the following

Hydroxychloroquine costs around USD90 per 50x200mg tablets in the US for those who have insurance, or USD650 for those who don’t.

By contrast 100x200mg tablets cost AUD16.50 on a private script in Australia – a 40-fold difference before taking account of currency differences.

Make America Rich Again!!!