from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Waiting for the Second Wave – and a journey North.

The Australian. August 14.

August 14. More and more it feels as if South Australia is on the edge of the second wave of Covid-19. All states in Australia are trying to protect themselves from one another. The virus has well and truly escaped into the communities of our neighbouring state of Victoria. Each day, we anxiously watch an update from an increasingly harassed Premier Daniel Andrews as he announces the numbers of people newly infected and the numbers dead. The breakout started in late May and reached a daily maximum of well over 700 new infections.  On 3 August, Andrews announced ‘a state of disaster’. A Stage 4 lockdown applies to greater Melbourne, Stage 3 throughout the state. There is a curfew from 8 pm to 6 am in Melbourne and people are limited to essential travel. Police monitor intersections day and night.

The streets are empty. Yet it is taking time for the numbers to reflect the severe shut down – the latest news is 372 new cases. And of course, the death toll will increase before it drops. Daily we watch the NUMBERS: Victoria has 7,877 active cases; 289 have died; 1.9 million tested. The population of Melbourne is 4.936 million and Victoria 6.359 million. NSW authorities are frantically trying to control isolated outbreaks in Sydney.

Our South Australian / Victorian border is shut and it is being carefully monitored. Fewer and fewer exemptions are being allowed – only essential and specialist workers; students in year 11 and 12 whose properties are bisected by the border, will be allowed to cross. Within South Australia, our state government is reversing previous relaxations. For example, licensed cafes, gyms and places of worship will have to have a ‘Covid Marshall’ in place to enforce social distancing and hygiene practices.

From the South Australian point of view, our borders to the Northern Territory, Queensland, Tasmania and West Australia (WA) are open but not the ACT (Canberra). BUT Tasmania requires us to quarantine for 14 days and WA will not let South Australians in. Effectively, we can travel to the NT (by road or air) and Queensland (by air only). I hope I have this right! It’s complicated and can change overnight.

Victorian aged care facilities have experienced distressing outbreaks (1 in 4 homes infected) and most of the state’s deaths relate to these facilities. As a result, South Australia authorities now require all staff in our residential homes to wear personal protective equipment when within 1.5 m of patients. And most important, their staff will not be allowed to work across multiple facilities. This appears to have been a factor in the outbreaks in Victoria.

Overnight a 20-year-old died in Melbourne. I listened on the radio to a specialist in the UK who recounted his concern about the side-effects of COVID-19. He said that we are underestimating the virus’s long-term effects. He called it the ‘long’ COVID. More and more reports are being documented. It is a mistake to consider COVID-19 a disease that only threatens those of us deemed ‘aged’.

In South Australia, we have had very few cases in the last weeks. Overnight, one case was recorded: an Australian citizen returning from India. He or she was in quarantine. Each day I wonder if we will still manage to keep to these low numbers. Across the Tasman Sea, in New Zealand, they have developed a serious cluster in Auckland. (Just when they were feeling rather pleased with their achievements with 100 virus free days.) They are now struggling to find the source and we hear that it is a ‘new’ strain. Prime Minister Jacinta Arden has put in place a Level 3 shut down. She has said they must ‘go in early and go in hard’ (once more) to stop the spread.

Whereas a few weeks ago, there was a discussion about the possibility of having a travel ‘bubble’ with New Zealand, now that is a remote possibility. Our Australian tourist sector remains severely impacted.

Some good news! Travel within South Australia is picking up. Our friends are making short trips across to the Eyre and Yorke Peninsulas or down to the Southeast. We are also able to travel to the Northern Territory. From August 30, South Australians can take a trip on the famous Ghan railway up to Darwin.

Western side of the ancient Flinders Ranges

We ourselves are preparing for a trip to the Flinders Ranges. A great deal of organisation has gone into this trip and a lot of excitement is evident. Beyond normal. There will be about 20 in this group from our local field geology club. The idea is to visit some remote stations in the Flinders Ranges. Before we go, we have to complete a health statement.

I anticipate cold, dry weather. One of the stations we are visiting, 625 kms north of us, is Witchelina. They have received 11 mils of rain recently – not even half an inch. A virtual flood! It is the most they have received in the last year. The station is 4,200 square kms in size (one fifth the size of Wales) and is managed by the Nature Foundation.

https://www.environment.gov.au/land/nrs/case-studies/sa/witchelina#:~:text=At%20just%20over%204%2C200%20square,by%20the%20Nature%20Foundation%20SA%20.

We will pass through a deserted town called Farina. Farina was established in 1878 during a period of greater rainfall, when a railway expansion took place. Some colonialists had a belief that “the rain followed the plough”. Instead, what followed was seven years of drought and all the farmers and residents gave up. It is now a ghost town and a tourist attraction for the few that travel this far into the Outback. And it’s a warning for all those who are over optimistic about South Australia’s rainfall.

from SA State Library: a camel train near Farina, South Australia

https://www.southaustralianhistory.com.au/farina.htm

Farina is being partly restored as a tourist attraction. There is an ANZAC memorial in the town to the 33 men, born in Farina, who volunteered in the First World War. (Most Aussie towns have an ANZAC memorial).

I fear that we will be seeing Farina in the kind of state it was when the first residents gave up hope of their continued survival. But … we are still excited, drought or no drought, virus or no virus.

Susan D in Ottawa, Canada: Isolation

17 July 2020

The solitude of my initial isolation was quite pleasant as I prepared the rental house for our granddaughters, and ranged through a too large selection of books culled from the many not-read options in my library.  In the end, I read When We Were Orphans by Kasuro Ishiguro (acquired from the sale of books at our local library), The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (bought because I wanted to know whether I agreed with the award of a Pulitzer prize) and Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think, by the wonderful Swede, Hans Rosling.  The first I found a beautifully written story.  The second I found a gripping page turner, much to my surprise.  And the last I loved; I had truly saved the best for last.  I bought the book when it was released after Rosling died, but being quite familiar with his work I had never read it.  Our current worldwide situation, made it rather attractive: the title promised a more optimistic reading and thinking than current events, and it more than fulfilled the promise.

I came upon the work of Hans Rosling while working at the Paris based UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (better known as IIEP).  He used software called Gapminder to graphically convey his messages about the state of the world over time.  In those days when graphics were not so well used as now, I found it very powerful and potentially interesting for the educational planners studying at IIEP.  Rosling himself was a very powerful and entertaining communicator.  As a youngster he had wanted to become a circus artist – his parents preferred that he get an education and so he became a medical doctor and eventually professor of international health at the Svenska Institute in Sweden.  There he set himself the task of sharing and explaining a worldview gained from analysis of large data sets – that things are getting better in the world – even though we tend to think they are getting worse.  Through his many presentations and TED Talks he energetically shared this vision, and occasionally gave a sword swallowing performance at the end.  Before he died, he worked along with his son and daughter-in-law to put his messages in a book.  His heartfelt address to the reader is on the fly leaf, and concludes thus:

This book is my last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating ignorance …Previously I armed myself with huge data sets, eye-opening software and energetic lecturing style, and a Swedish bayonet for sword swallowing.  It wasn’t enough.  But I hope this book will be. *

Then two weeks ago, our granddaughters finally arrived in Ottawa from Florida.  Heart could be removed from mouth and put back where it belonged.  As pre-arranged, they phoned when they had crossed the US/Canada border that is currently closed to all non-essential travel and there was relief for everyone watching the progress of their three-day journey north.  They were very well prepared for the border crossing with a folder of documentation, including negative test results.  The official just stuck to a series of questions, and satisfied with their answers he sent them on their way with the specifics of the required fourteen-day self-isolation.  They were directed to stay in the house or in the garden.  No one could come on the property except for deliveries.  And they were contacted by telephone to ensure they were complying with the rules. They have worked, gardened, cooked and today their period of self-isolation ended. We are celebrating with dinner together in our garden.

And to conclude, I would not be a Canadian if there was no mention of our foe, the weather.  We have been having extremely long heat spells, even the mornings and evenings, that keep us indoors most of the time.  Even with a spacious home, this additional restriction weighs on one, and is yet another unpleasant indicator of advancing years.  Heat that was once bearable, now saps all energy and turns me into a limp, lethargic lump.  Nonetheless, I am continually heartened to see the smiling faces of our granddaughters across the street, safe from the rising numbers of COVID cases in Florida.

* Hans Rosling. February 2017

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: A down-under political story of our time…

July 15. Let me tell you a story. It’s a story of our time: of quarantine, of pride coming before a fall, of stupidity and of obfuscation. It’s a story also of political intrigue. This is all alleged, of course. Hopefully, in time, all will be revealed (but not if some politicians can stop it). Here it is.

All overseas passengers have to go into quarantine for 14 days upon entry into Australia. This is done at the port of their arrival and they are allocated accommodation in certain designated hotels.

Recently, Australia started accepting more international travellers. They were arriving into Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. In most cases, there has not been a problem. In most states, the police have been involved in making sure that the rules are observed by patrolling the hotels. In Victoria, the government initially requested assistance from the police but within a few hours changed their minds and cancelled the request.

Instead, it is alledged, a Victorian minister decided to give contracts, without tender, to 3 security firms using private contractors. It is alleged that the minister in charge had some sort of ‘relationship’ or knowledge of the industry. Very soon it became apparent that the security guards were not doing their jobs. They were not trained. Some said they had had 3 minutes training. Taxpayers were often charged for ‘ghost’ shifts.

A review of the security guard industry revealed: ‘lowly paid (workers), regularly lacked English-language skills, and are often so poorly trained they do not perform the basic functions of their job’.

https://www.theage.com.au/politics/victoria/security-industry-review-exposes-little-training-sham-contracting-20200704-p5590f.html

What we do know is that within a very short time a cluster of COVID-19 cases popped up related to those supposedly quarantine individuals. The guards got infected and took the virus home to their multi-generational households.

Journalists started investigating and found out that the security guards were ineffective. An understatement. It is alleged that they let the passengers go shopping, go out for meals (using Ubers) and go into one another’s rooms. Most salacious of all there is the allegation that some of the guards had intimate relations with those quarantined. I am not sure where lack of training overlaps with lack of common sense. Anyway, by the time action was taken, it was too late. The cat was out of the bag, so to speak. Community infection was rife. From having almost no active cases, Victoria jumped to 70 and then almost 300 per day.

Then on July 13, the Age newspaper released the information from leaked emails showing that the government was aware of the problem within 24 hours of the launch of the quarantine program: ‘Top bureaucrats warned senior health officials at the beginning of the Andrews government’s botched hotel quarantine scheme that security guards were ill-equipped for the work and demanded police be called in to take control. Needless to say, nothing was done.

Oh, another thing. The Victorian State government used the numbers of these private contractors (1,300) to bolster their ‘Working for Victoria’ program of getting people (in theory unemployed) back into jobs …EXCEPT these contactors already had jobs – “The office of the responsible minister, Martin Pakula, confirmed on Wednesday that any worker employed in a government-funded job as a result of the pandemic could be classified as being placed under the Working for Victoria scheme.”

https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/working-for-victoria-quarantine-hotel-guards-pumped-up-job-scheme-numbers-20200708-p55aa3.html

Now, Victoria has gone into crisis mode: total lockdown in many suburbs around Melbourne. In particular, some high-rises have positive cases. Tonight’s news is that there are 108 cases in 32 residential care homes. The defence force has been called in to help.

Not long ago, Daniel Andrews, Premier of Victoria, had made a fly-away comment that he wondered why Victorians would want to visit South Australia when they could stay in Victoria. Well, Victorians began to leave as fast as they could: to escape Victoria before the borders were closed. Yesterday, four young stowaways were discovered on a Victorian freight train trying to escape into South Australia.

On July 2nd, Daniel Andrews announced a judicial inquiry into this mess up, which he called a “public health bushfire”. (We are very aware of the dangers of bushfires this year…). Those who are sceptical will say this is a perfect way to refuse to discuss the failures until the report is tabled in September – maybe it will be forgotten by then – perhaps overwhelmed by further acts of stupidity. Meanwhile, no one will take responsibility, except the Premier, who is looking very rattled.

What we all know is that this virus does not observe closed borders and it’s extremely virulent. Now it is making its way into New South Wales. So far, we in South Australia, have not had any new cases, but watch this space.

Last comment: Daniel Andrews is the bright-spark Premier who has decided to sign a Belt and Road agreement with China against all advice from the Federal Government and against all common sense!

https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/andrew-flags-fresh-bri-deal-vows-to-stay-the-course-on-china-ties-20200609-p550y2.html

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: the borders are opening …

Greece’s border queue

18 June. Greece’s borders opened on Monday mostly to neighbouring Balkan countries. The lineup at the border of Greece and Bulgaria is ten kilometres long and growing. That’s just for cars. The lineup for trucks is fifteen kilometres long. Our case count today was 55. On Monday it was 4.

I bought pastries from the zaharoplasteio today. All the staff were wearing masks which made me feel more comfortable. They said there are inspectors prowling around checking on businesses to follow the health department guidelines or be fined. Good. I’m all for it.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: the daily count

Katerini, Greece

Our daily case count is rising. Greece was doing so well, we even had one day where we had no new cases and we mostly had very low single digit figure days of two, three, four. We are having spikes now, we had 52 last week and we’ve had 20 the last three days. They mostly come from overseas, either Greek Nationals returning home or visitors, plus we’ve had some outbreaks in two cities, Xanthi and Larissa.

Xanthi’s was in its sizeable Greek speaking Muslim population present since the Ottoman occupation. In Larissa the outbreak was in the Roma gypsy encampment. The Greek government has announced it won’t induce another nation wide lockdown but it will induce mini lockdowns in affected areas. Plus they are relying on the testing of all incoming visitors and a quarantine period before they can commence mixing with the population. I just hope it works.

easing of restrictions ….

Just before the nationwide lockdown was introduced I’d ordered a new bed. I remember my bed arriving much later than the promised arrival time because the furniture maker, Dionysus, had been inundated with new orders for the tourist season. I could not stop thinking about him during quarantine. When those orders were placed he would have ordered materials, booked staff etc to create the inventory. I popped in to see him to say hello and tell him I’m very pleased with my new bed and to ask how he went during quarantine. Indeed it was as I feared. Those hotels still haven’t opened and the few that have so far are showing minimal bookings and many have cancelled those orders which he has piled up to his ceiling in his warehouse. Just one example of the economic impact of Covid 19. His mother came out to say hello to me as well and she said, “don’t tell me you believe all this virus stuff, it’s all a conspiracy by the government to close down our churches and force us to become atheists.”
I did not laugh or roll my eyes but remained calm as I said, “I do believe this virus stuff in fact my own son got it and suffered quite a lot.” She snapped back at me, “your son is young, he probably didn’t have it at all, he probably just had a cold.” and with that she turned on her heels and waddled back to her big leather desk chair at the back of the showroom where a gaggle of her friends were sitting all clucking their agreement.
Dionysus shrugged as he said to me, “I know the virus is real but what do you do. People believe what they want to believe

On Monday, 15 June, our borders officially open to many countries. Let’s see how we go.

In the meantime I went out for a stroll last night.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Borders

March 14. Every morning, I draw back the curtains in my bedroom and look across the Severn into Wales.  About six miles away, as the crow flies, there is a volcanic outcrop called The Breiddens in what was once Montgomeryshire and is now Powys.  On the summit of the hill sits Rodney’s Column, a forerunner of Nelson’s monument in Trafalgar Square.   It was erected in 1781-82 by the “Gentlemen of Montgomeryshire” to commemorate the victorious battles of Admiral Rodney.  The Admiral and I greet each other, and go about our day’s business.

The Welsh Border weaves through the Marches, the outcome not of rational planning but the bloody skirmishes fought in the Middle Ages.  If we drive north from our English home, we pass into Wales around Wrexham and then back into England as we approach Chester, once a Roman defensive outpost.  Shrewsbury is not only an English county town, but much the largest commercial centre between England and the Mid-Wales coast.  In the streets you hear Welsh accents, and from time to time a different language spoken by those who have travelled in for a day’s shopping.  The town’s railway station is the main hub for the otherwise fractured Welsh system.

People and cultures are irretrievably mixed.  I was therefore astonished to hear in last Wednesday’s government briefing a journalist ask the Minister whether the four nations of the United Kingdom would adopt different policies of social isolation when it came to relaxing the Coronavirus lockdown.  This would mean adjacent and interleaved communities pursuing different contact regimes.  The prospect seemed so insane that I expected an immediate denial.  None came.  This was presumably because earlier in the day the First Minister of Wales had been widely reported speculating on the policy he might adopt on this critical question, without any reference to what other devolved administrations might do.  He has the power to go his own way, and at present does not seem to be consulting with the English Government.  Today the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has announced that she may introduce her own scheme.   There is evidence that staff in the nations are now fighting each other for essential kit.  Welsh and Scottish care home managers have complained that their usual suppliers have told them that all their PPE stock was now earmarked for England.  Each administration has its own Chief Medical Officer (or did so until the Scottish official was forced to resign because she had twice visited her holiday home in defiance of the lock-down policy she herself had promulgated), and is running its own systems.  The NHS scheme for identifying the especially vulnerable that I discussed on April 6 I now discover applies only to England.  Were I living a few miles to the west, I would not be affected by it. 

Within England, the coronavirus has further exposed the incoherence of devolved power.  To the south of my home the newly created Mayor of the West Midlands has authority over regional transport but little else.  To the north the Mayor of Manchester actually has power over health provision, though it is too soon to know how well that is working.  The adjacent Mayor of Liverpool, on the other hand, is responsible merely for ‘leading the city, building investor confidence, and directing new resources to economic priorities.’  The new Mayor of Leeds, like the West Midlands, just does trains and buses. There is little sense of local ownership of medical services. The Strategic Health Authorities might have pulled an integrated regional policy together, but they were abolished in 2013.  It is now recognised that a reason why Germany has been so much better than Britain at developing coronavirus testing systems is that the Länder, whose identities in some cases pre-date Germany itself, had long built up effective networks linking public and private provision in their regions, which they were able to mobilise in ways in which Public Health England has conspicuously failed to do.  The ritual that has now been established of daily, London-based briefings merely accentuates the sense that everything that matters in terms of decision-making and public spending is based in the capital.

This crisis is placing all our systems under an unforgiving spotlight, not least the incoherent mix of centralisation and regional initiative that has built up in Britain.   This sense of impoverished local ownership and dislocated national devolution had much to do with Brexit, and is now being further exposed by the pandemic.