On the eve of Rosh Hashana

A year has passed – what have we learned?

We had more than we needed

We could get by with less

We need things less than we believed; we need people more than we realised

Compassion

The reality of mental ill health, its ubiquity

A year has passed – what have we lost?

Money mainly;

time with loved ones;

the pleasures of socialising; leisurely time in coffee shops

Many  – too many – have lost jobs

Too many have lost loved ones

Almost all of us have had to borrow from our future

For boomers of my generation it’s the end of the free ride, it’s a long farewell to our plans for retirement

A year has passed – what have we gained?

A guilty sense of responsibility for a planet despoiled

Humility as we saw so many so much worse off

Appreciation of the good we had

Understanding without judgement

Neighbours – they were there all the time and we never knew them 

We know our loved ones better.

Desiderata – we have learned we can go slowly amid noise and haste 

Can we be better?

Fellow Australian Citizens

My Fellow Australian Citizen dismounts from his bicycle at the intersection. Here, where the bike lane ends, trams, cars and pedestrians converge. Some turn at this intersection, others race through at speed. It’s a tricky crossing, the roadway here unsafe for a cyclist.

My fellow Australian Citizen wheels his bike carefully along the footpath. He finds himself following close behind a Fellow Australian Citizen (FAC) who. oblivious of man and bicycle, is engrossed in her phone conversation. FAC, male, decides to alert her to his presence: Pardon me, he says. FAC, female, looks up, sees her fellow citizen, looks angry.FAC, male, feels he’s interrupted the other’s conversation. He apologises: Excuse me, he says, I am sorry. FAC, female, speaks. He thinks he hears, You don’t belong here.

Does she mean, you and your cycle don’t belong on the footpath? Pardon me? – he asks.

YOU. DON’T. BELONG. HERE.
FAC, male, is no longer in doubt.
I ask FAC, male, How did you feel, once you understood her meaning?Water off a duck’s back. I tell FAC, male, I feel sick. Sick and sad. Like I did when they decided Adam Goodes didn’t belong. FAC, male, explains: Sticks and stones. Back in Rwanda one half of our population decided the other half didn’t belong. They equipped themselves with machetes. I survived and I ran. My family went into hiding. To this day they hide in a safe house. They’re still after me. I ran to Australia and Australia gave me asylum. I stayed, I worked, I studied. I graduated and I became a citizen.
A hopeful thought: I ask, What did she look like, your Fellow Australian Citizen? Ordinary. Nothing remarkable. I persist: Describe her for me.FAC, male, is puzzled: She looked like anyone else: mid-forties, perhaps. Light brown hair, slim, medium height. (What I want to know, what I’m hoping to hear, is she’s Aboriginal. If she were indigenous she’d be within her rights. Rude perhaps, but within her rights, certainly.) I mean what was her race?Oh. She was caucasian.


Fellow Australian Citizens have rallied in their thousands, in their tens of thousands, in a time of danger, risking greatly, searching, trying to find a way of showing how black lives matter in this country too.In this country citizens are feeling conscious that we might not belong here, not by ancient right. We arrived here in the last century, or two or three. We are new here.We lack the legitimacy of antiquity.
The First Australians might reasonably challenge us. They might say, you don’t belong here. But they don’t say that. Instead they say, let’s share country.
I’ve heard them, I’ve heard it everywhere that I’ve travelled to work – in the Pilbara, in the Kimberley, in the Ngaaanyatjarrah lands, in the Adnymathanha lands, in my home country of the Wiradjuri, in Bigambul country, in the country of the Darug, the Yamaji, the Arrernte, the Warlpiri, the Bininj, the Nangiomeri, Marimandinji, Marithiel, Maringar, Mulluk Mulluk.
These dark times are also times of hope. Times of searching of a nation’s soul.But at that crossing, at that intersection where Fellow Australian Citizens meet, hope slackens. Fear, feeding on a deep ignorance of the nature of an immigrant nation, flickers into hate. Elsewhere in this country, fear flickers into hate against Chinese Australians. And there’s always the Jews to hate too.

Every Morning a Politician


Every morning a politician jumps out of bed, scheming, dreaming, thinking, what harm can I do today? Whom can I betray, traduce, diminish, promote? How to hide that lobbyist’s bribe? What principle or promise can I break, whose arse might I lick today? Perhaps I’ll knight a duke, maybe I’ll munch an onion.

Alternatively, every morning a politician wakes up, gets up, does the morning’s physiology, washes, dresses, buckles on the day’s armour, takes on fuel, paints her face to face the world – to face herself – lights his cigar, drops the kids off at school, her mind abstracted with the birthday CD she’ll buy her husband, with the vote in the House, with the speech he’s preparing for the School Fundraiser.

We get the politicians we deserve.

At those times when our leaders disappoint us, people make this assertion.

They do so with a grim satisfaction, almost with relish. It bespeaks a rush to judge, a refusal to wonder why. Over many years I’ve known politicians enough to judge them – that is, I’ve known them superficially and like electors everywhere, I’ve made my superficial judgements. I’ve found politicians to be pretty unextraordinary. Generally bright enough, usually public-spirited, not scared of hard work, usually more ambitious than enough.  My mind wrestles with the contradictions we see between a politician’s avowed belief and actions. In particular, we’ve seen ostensibly active Christian people actively demonising asylum seekers. Where, I’ve been wondering, is the love?

The first person of power I knew was Oscar Washington, Mayor of Leeton in my early childhood. He lived a bit down Jarrah Street from my best friend Johnny Wanklyn. Oscar had a large belly and he smoked a large cigar. Oscar would smoke his cigar as he walked from his front door to the car. We’d smell the aroma lingering in Jarrah Street. I liked the music of his names, I liked the cigar smell so I liked our Mayor.

A good stretch of time passed before my next brush with one of the great, those who are at once our masters and our servants. This one was a Cabinet Minister, mother of young children. She first came to see me suffering a florid attack of hay fever. I treated her, saved her life, and she stuck. In the course of subsequent visits the politician and I have spoken of many things. She introduced me to the music and verse of Nick Cave. Newspaper editorials blamed her for failures in her department. I read and I wondered and I judged her to be conscientious and diligent.

Great Ones from all sectors passed through our waiting room. We’d bump into the Premier, into potentates of the Australian football League and its champion players. One of the leaders of the Opposition visited. I liked her. She drank too much, she carried a bit of weight, she worked too hard. Earlier, while in power, she’d been a member of Cabinet with a sensitive portfolio.  Exercising ministerial discretion she made numerous decisions that favoured cronies. I judged those decisions corrupt.

When an economist friend married off his daughter he seated me at the reception next to a parliamentarian who held an Economics portfolio. Through the evening I watched and I listened. I watched him empty wine bottles and I heard how Economics was his ideology, his theology and his sociology. He welded his faith to his practice of politics. I was enlightened and impressed by the seamless content of mind and work. No splits.

One night I delivered a keynote address at an Awards ceremony for volunteers who worked in human rights. I spoke in passionate protest against my country’s treatment of asylum seekers. The standing ovation that followed amazed me. First on their feet in the audience were two Federal parliamentarians, one a backbencher, the other a very senior frontbencher. The two approached me, independently, requesting a copy of my text for their websites. The junior parliamentarian confided: You’ve said what we all want to say, but we can’t. There it was, the split, the active paring away of principle from action. I didn’t know the politician personally, but I knew his of family’s refugee origins. 

I recalled one desolate day on Christmas Island where I worked in the Detention Centre. When off duty I’d run the tracks on the island’s hills and forests and beaches. At one lonely cove I sighted a small street sign that read, Tampa Bay. My legs stopped. I was back in the day of ‘Tampa Election’ when the arch-politician of the era saved his government by turning away those refugees. We will decide who comes to our country he said, a credo parroted by the Opposition leader. That was the day I first felt shame in my country. Many elections later that credo governs our policies still.

That same leader astonished me some years later when he promulgated a law of this land that ruled Australian Law, Australian human rights, would not apply in certain Australian places. The detention camps were to be Australian islands free of Australian rights.

How? Why? What force separates a human’s deeds from his core beliefs?  In the case of a politician I think it’s fear. While a few succumb to the offerings – fame, celebrity, power, little bribes, big bribes – most stumble upon the fear of sacking by their bosses. An election can happen at any time. The electors are fickle, voters don’t want more Muslim terrorists, do they? And all those people, they’re all queue jumpers, illegals, aren’t they?  

It’s not easy to function in your job while in fear of losing it. Those people we vote in to serve and to rule us, those ordinary, fearful individuals with their cigars and their families and their ambitions and ideals and drives, organise themselves into gangs. The gangs are called political parties. Parties appoint managers. Managers put their ears to the ground and listen for tremors from the electorate. They conduct focus groups. They survey voters to discover what they’ll punish. They learn we’ll punish congestion on our roads, we’ll punish job losses in mining.

Managers veto any policy softening on refugees and on climate change. The politician, having joined her gang, having outsourced morality and left her conscience at home, never learns that we voters regret these harsh policies. The politician, elected to lead us, follows instead, abiding byourlower instincts. That much is our own fault; we choose our politicians, we reward them for timidity, we don’t ask them to dream, to wonder how good this country can be. We too live lives of moral laxity. We split belief from policy. And as election follows election, the refugee languishes in our prisons.

A Story for Children

Most evenings I read a chapter from ‘A Threefold Cord’ to my grandchildren in Sydney. I have to wait until they’ve brushed their teeth, then, like apparitions in pyjamas, Ruby and Joel materialise, chattering and excited, on my screen. The book from which we’re reading is the novel I wrote for children in 2013. In the late chapters of the story, three Aussie fourth-graders meet a much younger child named Samara, an orphan, and take her under their wing. Samara has an extraordinary story to tell: she is a boat person, sole survivor of her family who all drowned when their “irregular” vessel foundered off Christmas Island. 

The painful tale that Samara tells of seeing her loved ones slip beneath the waves is taken from events that were life-true facts in 2013. After those drownings the real-life child who lost his entire nuclear family was denied the right to attend the family funeral on the mainland. The Minister for On-Water Matters ruled it out. At the time I felt shame. I decided to exclude that shameful pettiness from my novel. I did not want children readers to think badly of Australia.
After reading of “Samara” to the children this evening, I came across the following: Prime Minister Morrison has issued enforceable physical distancing directives to protect everyone in Australia from infection, transmission and loss of life in the COVID-19 crisis in Australia.1440 people seeking asylum and refugees remain held inside the national immigration places of detention in crowded, communal living conditions, under constant guard and without personal protective equipment or medical oversight into their care.Medical professionals have warned a lethal outbreak is imminent which will endanger the public and place greater strain on health care systems…The former Minister for On-Water matters is now Father of the Nation. I’ve been impressed by his leadership during our present emergency, (I’ve written as much in this medium). He’s been firm, calm, calming. In my simplicity I have difficulty reconciling his religious posture with his previous management of ‘illegal’ asylum seekers. His iron-minded predecessor was likewise a man of conspicuous religiosity. Doesn’t their religion preach love, especially love to the least among us? Their political ministry was bare of love, seemingly at odds with any religious ministry.
A friend of this blog is a Minister in the Anglican Church in this country. He wrote to me today, asking me reflect in these pages on the place of the Almighty in COVID-19. I smiled and I dismissed the idea. Theodicy is a steep slope; on those steeps, I’d just write idiocy. But now Samara calls to me. She calls to all of us, calling in the name of her God, whom she calls God, “Allah.” She calls to us on behalf of the fourteen hundred and forty, ‘the least of us’; she calls for the Father of the Nation to protect the fourteen hundred and forty.
I don’t doubt the Fathers of the Nation have their better angels. In office the Fathers bind their angels’ wings. In private conversation with politicians of the backbench and the frontbench,I’ve heard them sigh and regret not feeling free to act differently. I see these people not as diabolical but as captive. They are captive to their fear of us, the electors, who would punish them for acting not on platform but prompted by love.
It is for the nation as a whole to give the fathers courage, to free their angels, to free the captives, to bring them into their love.

The Hero

My father was a doctor. In his small town where we lived he was adored. As a boy I saw Dad as a hero, standing against illness, repairing broken bodies, relieving suffering. One morning a grownup came to the front door, his hand wrapped in a bloody towel. His horse had bit his hand. I looked up and I saw the blood dripping. I called Dad, who took the man into the Surgery and closed the door. After a while the man walked out, his hand in a spotless white bandage. Dad had repaired him. Dad, the hero.
Fourteen years later I entered the Oratory Competition at my city school. I spoke about doctors and I called them ‘society’s noblest sons.’ My father read my speech and said, ‘Darling, I’m afraid that’s not true. Doctors aren’t so noble.’
I had been reading ‘The Story of San Michele’, the memoir of a Swedish doctor who worked in fin de siecle France. A cholera outbreak in Naples saw the young doctor leave the safety of Paris to work among the Naples poor. In the plague hospital the doctor worked alongside a nurse. The nurse was young, beautiful, a nun. With death all about them, the two young people felt the call of their vital flesh. I read the old doctor’s account, modest, intense and arousing. I saw the two walking with eyes open, day after day, into the valley of death. How could I not see them as heroes? I did not alter those words. My speech convinced the judges and I won the contest.
Today the plague rages about us. At the outset, before contagion struck down the many, the principal of my clinic offered to release from duty any clinician who feared catching the virus. I felt shocked. We had worked through AIDS, when any pinprick might mean death. (I did in fact suffer a needlestick injury at the hands of one of my infected patients.) We had worked though the Swine Flu and through SARS. That was our job, our calling. How could I leave and sit it out at home?
Today I sit at home. I have closed the door, closed myself and my wife in, closed the world out. I feel like Noah might have, as, closed in his Ark, he saw the waters rise upon those locked out.
Meanwhile my younger colleagues work on. They all have spouses, aged parents, small children, whom they might infect. With eyes open they work on.
Friends and relatives send me emails, congratulating me, thanking me, for taking good care of myself. My children thank me. Each letter, every approbation for my prudent (read, ‘cowardly’) retreat heaps burning coals upon my head. Praise appals when you know it to be false. No hero, I know heroes when I see them. If in these days of plague, you consult a doctor, if you are treated by a nurse, you will know them too.

Letter to an Old Friend

Friend,

I write to you from quarantine. My wife and I have been ordered to isolate ourselves. 

Old friend, you and I are old. We have passed the threescore and ten years of the Psalmist. A short time ago we were heading confidently full steam ahead for one hundred. So we proposed. So life seemed to promise. But now, this virus.  

Man proposes, Virus disposes. The virus has disposed of thousands. In Spain overnight, three hundred. Overnight in Italy, 800. I’ll write that more plainly. Three hundred persons. Eight hundred persons.At the start of the year all eleven hundred would have been steaming ahead. I imagine them looking confidently to the future as recently as the start of the month of March. By the close of the equinox all were dead. Few will be those who follow their caskets to their burial.

While going about my work in the past weeks I’ve found the most worried people have been those with the least to fear. Young parents have been terrified for their young children. Truly that suffering has been unnecessary. For most people younger than forty, COVID-19 is a milder illness than the ‘flu. I have heard of no deaths of children anywhere in the world. That should bring blessed relief, but although those facts are widely known, the fear for their young extinguishes parents’ peace of mind.

Curiously, we old ones need fear not so much for our young, as from them. The theory runs that children are unhygienic creatures that act as vectors for this novel virus (they certainly do that service for the influenza viruses), and they endanger and infect us older, more vulnerable subjects. That is why I am writing.

If you are over seventy, go inside now, close the door. Shun your children, ban the grandchildren. Ours is the age group in which most of those hundred of persons died. Ours is the sector at greatest risk of the pneumonia that fulminates and kills. Ours is the group who will not receive respirator treatment and Intensive Care when those services are rationed.

This is cautious advice that might later be seen to be over-cautious. As the W.H.O. Chief of the Ebola response advises, ‘Go early, go hard’ when it comes to responding to pandemic. There will be no second chances for us once we catch this catchiest of germs.

My wife and I passed a weekend of grotesque denial of the love between us and our grandchildren. Encounters were fleeting, spatial remoteness was enforced, no-one kissed, no-one cuddled. Time and again, puzzled children approached instinctively, loud voices repulsed them. Astonished, the children felt every instinct of love denied; and the deniers were precisely those wrinkled figures who ever doted and dandled. Suddenly loving behaviour was wrong.

My resolve wavered. My wife, the softest being in our family constellation, commanded austerity. One of my children has a newborn; we cannot visit, cannot cuddle, cannot relieve exhausted parents at 2.00 in any morning. Our daughters, both recovering from surgery, wait on us, rather than the reverse. The fibres of parenthood are warped and strained by fear of a new virus. And it is precisely those deprived adult children who direct us: go inside, stay inside, keep the world away. ‘‘We’d sooner miss out on you both for weeks or months than miss you forever.”

Old friend, I won’t be with you this Friday for lunch. We won’t see each other at the coffee shop in the mornings. Our house of worship is forbidden to us. Seeing each other as faces on a screen is a cold change after years, after decades of warm touch. I don’t know when we’ll be together in those old ways again. I reckon our best chance of those old pleasures again, some day on the far side of this fear and horror, is cold resolve today.

Until then, old friend, until then,

Yours at a distance,  

Howard

Moments of Reprieve

In times far, far darker than ours, Primo Levi called these, ‘moments of reprieve’. The Nazis set up the death camps as places where morality would be inverted. It was dangerous to be good. Every man for herself. We saw that here in the all-in toilet-paper wrestling.

But there’s a softening abroad, a gentling of human intercourse. We wash our hands today, not of each other, but for each other. Commerce has slowed, people have time, give each other time. Working here in the central business district of a great city, I find us breathing our minutes and our days as folk do in a country town.

In the foyer of a giant apartment building, in a far distant town, this notice appeared:

Its author is seven-year old Dash Unglik, of New York City.

Something Old, Something New

Two epidemics: Covid-19 and Community Panic Disorder.

We are feeling our way. This is new territory for all. The last time was in 1919, when the epidemic of Spanish Flu came, burned itself out and left scarsin memory. It’s those same scars, and earlier ones, back to the Black Death and beyond, that we are feeling now. In 1919 we needed someone to blame: that time it was the Spanish, this time the Chinese.


New experiences every day, new government edicts, new behaviours. Our governments are leading, not following public opinion. This blog has never before found anything kind to say about our governments. (I missed an opportunity to praise our leaders for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.) I offer praise now. According to the experts in public health, those appointed to advise government, no-one in power is playing politics with their advice. Government offices send daily bulletins to doctors, bringing us up to date. We are segregating corona suspects from non-contagious patients.We’re doing this methodically and with sensitivity. Contingency planning for various crisis scenarios is advanced. The planning has been rapid, decisive, bold. The War on Drugs has not made us safe; the War on Terror has made us less free; but the War against COVID-19 makes sense to me.

What have we learned? The Coronavirus numbers suggest the following: Infectivity is high, mortality is low. COVID-19 is easily caught and generally safely survived. If you are old your risks are higher.If you are a child or a baby your chances seem better. This is unexpected and so far unexplained.We can expect the numbers of infected persons in our community to mount and to mount further. So far Australians are far, far likelier to encounter a person with influenza than coronavirus infection.

What follows?

I think it’s a numbers game.

Think before you travel.

Don’t go to Iran (corona) or to Syria (bombs).

If your immune system is poor or if you are old, avoid peak hour public transport, avoid mass gatherings, including at your house of worship.

Work from home if you can.

If you develop a fever or flu symptoms, CALL UP YOUR LOCAL DOCTOR before arriving. Don’t just lob.

Don’t read the newspapers. Yesterday the national broadsheet called it the Killer Virus. That is unhelpful and misleading. And of course, irresponsible.

Trust the advice of the Chief Medical Officer.


Be thoughtful about contact with your touching professionals.These are your barber, your manicurist, your physiotherapist, myotherapist, osteopath, chiropractor and sex worker. And your doctor.We professional of touch take the greatest risks and are potentially the most dangerous to you.


Finally, kissing is a high-risk act. Do it only in emergency. Handshaking is forbidden in NSW. Various alternatives have been suggested. One is the mutual forearm grip, where your palm rests on the inside of your shakee’s elbow. Now that we are urging everyone to cough into the elbow recess, this grip offers you the best chance of a handful of fresh snot.

Which Epidemic?

Here are some facts about Australia’s epidemic.
In 2019, Australia had 300,00 proven cases of influenza. The true number of cases was probably in excess of 900,000. (The numbers of cases exceeds the number of tests, because most doctors recognised the flu without sending off swabs for laboratory confirmation. Further, not all flu sufferers saw a doctor.)
Since the start of 2020, there have been 12,713 PROVEN cases of influenza in Australia.

8000 Australians died of influenza in 2019.

In the course of the Vietnam War we lost 521 soldiers killed.
Those are the facts of our true epidemic. In 2019 despite the epidemic, despite the death toll, you could buy toilet paper, you could buy pasta and rice.In 2019 no-one panicked.In 2019 no-one thought of boycotting Chinese restaurants.
In 2019 we had no panic and we had no recession.This year we have a limited outbreak of a viral infection which is less contagious than influenza. Xenophobia comes into full flower.In our formerly happy country we now have an outbreak of racism. Chinese restaurants stand empty.
The swastika flies in Wagga.

Coronapanic

Ever since 9/11, we in the West have lived in a climate of anxiety. I am one who sees much of the anxiety as confected. Leaders have responded to serious events with alarming rhetoric. Our media have obliged with headlines that enhance the ambient anxiety. And unofficial media respond with ungoverned hype. And so we tremble.

The news of the climate ought to alarm our governments more than it does. I think our kids get this right.

The economy has gone to the bathroom and hasn’t returned.

And now this. By this I mean THIS. I mean the Coronavirus outbreak.

No-one but a fool would say there’s no cause for concern. We know that; we’ve heard that from the fool in the White House.

In Anatomy, the corona is the rim around the glans penis (aka the nob). We know who the nob is.

Is there reason to panic? Many have decided they should panic. Supermarkets are crowded, while the shoppers in Collins Street have thinned.

No-one knows how serious the coronavirus epidemic will become. This blog will report on what it sees. In my clinic some patients are seeking advance prescriptions in case medications become unavailable. If/when this becomes common, medications will certainly become scarce

I close with two modest predictions: firstly that panic will feed on panic; secondly, that this blog will pop up on your screens more frequently.