From David Maughan Brown in York: A tale of two delusions

3rd June

I’m beginning to think that I am destined to live much of my life under the shadow of irredeemably deluded governments.  

The first half of my life was ruled over by South Africa’s apartheid government, which deluded itself on the basis of an assumption of racial superiority that it could, in perpetuity, brutally ‘dominate’ – to use a Trumpism – the vastly more numerous black population of the country.  They were happy to go it alone in this inevitably futile endeavour in the face of almost universal hostility from the rest of the world, partly because they had managed to develop a Theology that helped them to believe that their God was entirely supportive of their project.   Even when they managed to decipher the writing on the wall, they embarked on the negotiations to end apartheid under the delusion that their racial superiority would ensure that they could run rings around the African National Congress representatives during those negotiations and would end up still effectively in charge.  Wrong again.

Our current ‘UK’ government, exclusively populated as it is by English nationalist Brexiteers, is equally deluded, and many of the signs of that delusion are not at all unlike the symptoms presented by the apartheid government.  Instead of straight racial superiority, this lot appear to be informed by an overweening sense of national superiority.  Any multilateral or bilateral trade agreement for which they are not exclusively responsible, and over which they do not have exclusive jurisdiction, is seen as a potential threat to a mythical ‘sovereignty’, elevated so high that it appears to have become the equivalent of the Afrikaners’ deity.  Our English cabinet’s sense of superiority over the Scots the Welsh and the Irish makes a mockery of a ‘United’ Kingdom as they go it alone with their lethally inept response to the present pandemic.

Much of that response demonstrates all too clearly just how badly a sense of national superiority gets in the way of rational government.  The UK had weeks in which to watch other countries responding to the spread of Covid-19, to learn the lessons and to make suitable preparations.   But when you are the best in the world at everything there isn’t anything anyone can teach you, and following the good example set by any other country might be seen to undermine the sacred ‘sovereignty’ of your independence.  So why bother to notice that New Zealand, which has handled the pandemic better than almost anyone, imposed its entry restrictions and quarantine as soon as the pandemic struck, not three months later once tens of thousands of people had already been allowed to die?  

Boris claiming to be proud of his government’s handling of Covid-19, and boasting that his risible testing and tracking system is ‘world beating’, is on a par with a six-year old child, who hasn’t even learnt how to brush his hair yet, jumping up and down on a tub in the playground chanting “I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal!” at the rest of the world.  Part of Boris’s problem is, of course, that much of the rest of the world is not as impressed by kings as it once was, and is no longer prepared to accept being relegated to inferior status.  

From David Maughan Brown in York: Back to school?

1st June

How on earth could it have come to this? Today is the day, much-heralded by the tabloids, for the return to school after the ten long weeks of lockdown and home-schooling.  But only for some classes and only in England, and it is being left entirely up to parents, living through the worst health emergency this country has experienced for a hundred years, to take the potential life-or-death decision whether or not to risk sending their children back to school if they happen to be in the eligible classes.

On what possible basis are they supposed to make that choice?  Because the government of England, which we used to think was the government of the United Kingdom, says it is now time (and safe) to do so?  But the June 1stdate was decided weeks ago on the basis of no evidence whatsoever that it would be safe by today and, given that 8,000 people are still being infected by the virus every day, it is still, all too clearly, not without risk.  And not just risk to the children.  Although the evidence shows that children are the age group least badly affected by Covid-19, the extent to which asymptomatic children can carry the virus back into their homes to infect the rest of their families is still a lot less certain.

So are parents supposed to base their decision on our government’s track-record where the virus is concerned?  That is something of an ask considering that the UK is widely considered to have been one of the four worst countries in the world when it comes to its handling of the pandemic, unfair as that is to the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and North Ireland.   Thanks to a decade of austerity, and a linked determination to be deaf to all warnings, we were hopelessly illprepared and under-equipped for the outbreak of a widely predicted global pandemic.   We stopped testing and tracking just when we should have been ‘ramping’ it up.  We allowed two major sporting events to go ahead, bringing thousands of spectators into this country from the epicentre of the disease in Europe, at a time when the rest of Europe was busy locking everything down.   We didn’t close our airports when we should have, and our government now bizarrely thinks that it is a good idea to do so three months too late.   So our government’s track-record isn’t going to inspire in parents a lot of confidence that it knows what it is talking about when it says it is safe for schools to reopen.

To complicate their decision even further, parents are having conflicting advice and concerns dinned into them from all sides.  The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) thinks it is OK for schools to reopen, but at least four members of that group have come out independently to say it is too soon.  And in any case that group lost credibility to such an extent when it became clear that Dominic Cummings was sitting in on SAGE meetings, and might be influencing its decisions, that an independent group scientific advisory group felt obliged to set itself up.  Teachers unions think it is too soon.  The vastly more credible devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and North Ireland, which don’t consist of English Nationalists, think it is too soon.   But educational experts and children’s mental health experts are consistently pointing to the need to get children back to school as soon as it is safe to do so.  And almost all parents who aren’t teachers are likely to be only too ready to acknowledge that the home schooling they are trying to supervise won’t be as educationally sound as the lessons their children enjoy (or otherwise) in their classrooms.

What more basic reason could there ever be for having any government at all than to have a competent and authoritative body that can ensure that children will be safe in its schools?  One only has to look to New Zealand to know that, even in a global pandemic such as the one we are trying to live through now, that is not an unrealizable ambition.  But pity the unfortunate parents in England who have been left high and dry by our parody of a government to make the choice themselves as to whether to expose their children and their families today to the unquestionable, if one hopes relatively minor, risk of being infected by Covid-19.  It is a huge relief for me personally that none of my grandchildren is in one of the guinea-pig classes.  Not that I imagine for one moment that my children would think it a good idea to send their children back to school in present circumstances, even if they were eligible.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: it’s the environment, stupid …

Adelaide: from the hills to the sea

May 18. What has been noticeable in our community over the last 2 months is the emphasis people place on our environment – on the pleasure of walking and the freedom to get outside without restriction. In South Australia we have been allowed to walk: walk with a partner, walk the dog, throughout our severest lockdown, even when, at first, no one quite knew what was in store for us. On social media these activities featured prominently. People commented on the things they noticed and photographed: the sunsets; the animals and plants; the teddy bears they found perched in trees, hanging on front gates or looking out of windows.

People went to the beach, maintained social distancing, and spoke about how special it was to go there. Suddenly, the normal became appreciated. Did we miss going shopping? Not really. Did we miss travelling? Maybe – but what we missed was family more than the act of seeing new places.

Walking, or getting out of our houses, the freedom to move around became the number one thing we wanted to do – we took pictures, posted on Instagram and told others about it. Walking is therapeutic, no question. At 3 in the morning you can feel anxious about the way forward … but once you walk out into the forest, the bush, the park, those thoughts are blunted. This effect is not rocket science.

What we should now realise is that we must preserve our parks and wilder places in our cities and our urban fringe. Whenever I flew into Los Angeles, our Air New Zealand flight circling to land, I was amazed by how little green space there was visible in the city. Where were the great parks? The city appeared to be a crosshatching of buildings under a mist of pollution. Contrast Los Angeles with my Adelaide. (Not fair really: 18 million residents in greater LA compared to 1 million in Adelaide.)

downtown Los Angeles from Griffiths Observatory
Harbor12 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Adelaide is a small city, a young city in European terms. It was planned with great foresight by Colonel William Light in 1837. The main city grid is based on a Roman ‘castrum’ with a central public open space, 4 smaller ones in each quarter sector and the whole square surrounded by a 500-metre wide band of parkland. Town Planners love it, study it. This city works and the plan has stood the test of time. The encircling public parkland is a joy to residents and fiercely defended when various state governments have tried to invade it with what they regard as essential, ‘progressive’ development.

1839. Plan of the City of Adelaide, Australia by Colonel William Light

Add to our environment a slow meandering river, the River Torrens, which runs west out of our Hills, right through the city to the sea. It is flanked by a 30 km ribbon of parks and bike ways. The Torrens is a thin, seasonal river lined with ancient River Red Gums. And when you reach the sea, there is a 70km coastal park path along the seafront from North Haven to Sellicks Beach. Indeed, this is a city that is a happy place for bike riders.

People are wondering how Covid-19 will change our societies. Could we perhaps build a better world? Or is that pie in the sky? It is apparent that, for some time, there won’t be funds in our government’s budget to be generous with such plans. But on a small scale we could start thinking of things to do.

Could there be a change of emphasis driven by the community, a community now more aware of the precious nature of our public spaces?

New Zealand, led by their PM, Jacinda Ardern, plans to do things differently with a ‘Well Being Budget’. This is like a breath of fresh air.

“Finance Minister Grant Robertson outlined the plan to the country’s parliament – with billions released for mental health services, child poverty and measures to tackle family violence.

“Success is about making New Zealand both a great place to make a living, and a great place to make a life,” he said.

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/new-zealand-is-publishing-its-first-well-being-budget/

Could we not lobby our councils to: offer maps for walking and bike riding; provide a listing of street trees; grant conservation protection for older stands of trees; proactively advise residents on trees to plant; halt building plans that cover the full block? Our council already offers cheap sessions of yoga and exercise for older people. They could also offer supervised walks by environmentalists to educate about the bushland that we have within the council area. Get inventive.

Schoolkids could get involved in planting trees along waterways and cleaning them regularly – perhaps to ‘own’ a section of the river. We could lobby to reduce the speed levels on urban roads and add more dedicated bike path ways. More people will be working from home. Make the home area more community friendly.

We don’t have enough community gardens. In Seattle people seldom have front fences and use their sidewalks as planting space for herbs and vegetables. We don’t do that in Adelaide and our tree filled urban back yards are disappearing under the onslaught of huge double homes on old single blocks.

What other ideas are out there?