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 – Blue Balloons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brisbane West – A Quirk of Nature

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

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

Wellcamp Airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And from The Boston Globe at the weekend…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Trojan Horse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Churches of Romney Marsh

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

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

John Piper tapestry, Chichester Cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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

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

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

Taxicab 1729