from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: We forgot to be Afraid.

2019-2020 Australian ‘Black Summer’

26 March, 2021.

The disasters keep coming. We keep telling ourselves in Australia that we are the lucky country. Covid-19 has not devastated our country; the numbers of dead are low – 909 with under 30,000 confirmed cases. Our lives have been little affected when compared with others. And vaccinations are now underway.

Yet Australia remains a country of extremes. At the beginning of 2020 we suffered the worst bushfire season in living memory. That summer is now called the ‘Black Summer’. Over 18 million hectares were burnt, almost 10,000 homes lost, and 479 died (including smoke inhalation). The toll on our wildlife is hard to comprehend. Billions of creatures died. In terms of cost the fires are estimated to have cost Australia 103 billion AUD. This is our ‘costliest natural disaster to date’ (Wikipedia). No one can count the cost of the CO2 emissions.

No sooner had the fires abated than Covid-19 arrived.

And now we have another disaster: floods. This is the result of the La Niña (little girl) weather pattern. Until recently this was OK – cooler summers and more rainfall, nothing extraordinary. And then a week ago, a weather system came down the east coast, settled and intensified – from Sydney up to Queensland.

A severe weather warning was put out for the entire NSW coast. Dams could not contain the inflows and rivers overflowed onto floodplains that for over 100 years had been thought to be flood-free. (Some 134,000 people had settled on these flood plains over the decades.) The rain came with high winds and high tides along the coast. The Defence Force were called out to help evacuate thousands of people. Animals were swept into the swollen rivers. Some farmers lost their entire dairy herds to the flood. Facebook was used to post images of rescued horses and cattle as well as dead animals washed up on beaches. One iconic video showed an intact house floating down the Manning river near Taree: the owners were due to get married that day.

The quantity of rain is hard to comprehend. Rivers rose up to 16 metres.

Rainfall totals in excess of 400 mm were reported along the coastal areas and Central Tablelands in New South Wales, and a number of locations in Queensland’s central and south-east coast districts. Locations in the Hunter and Mid North Coast districts in New South Wales received over 600 mm of rainfall, including the highest weekly total of 991 mm at Bellwood in the Mid North Coast, which has exceeded the long-term autumn rainfall average less than one month into the season.’

Our annual rainfall for Adelaide is an average of 520mm and Sydney is 920mm a year.

The Australian insurance council has declared a ‘catastrophe’ for NSW as over 11,00 claims have been filed. However, I heard that many people could not afford the expensive flood insurance.

And now for the mouse plague. The generous La Niña rains allowed grain farmers to have a bumper year. And with this came an explosion in mice numbers in inland NSW and Queensland and the plague is moving south. Female mice can breed every 6 weeks and can give birth to 50 pups a year. The images are confronting: mice streaming across the fields at night in their tens of thousands. People are trapping 500 mice a night. Hay reserves held in barns are being destroyed. Locals describe the swarming mice as being in ‘biblical proportions’.

ABC image

Images from our ABC are confronting. The ABC reports that hospital patients have been bitten by the rodents. Those of us who dislike the idea of ONE mouse in the house would freak out!–affecting-crops/13255486

Apparently, mouse control is an expensive business and winter crops are threatened.

Meanwhile, I have been reading a couple of books that have darkened my view of the world. The first is the Booker prize winner, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. (Why has McCarthy not been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?)  I first read The Road soon after it was published in 2006 and I remember I spent a month affected by its story. His vision of the post-apocalyptical world is devastating to say the least. I re-read it this month to give a presentation to my reading group. And the re-read is worth doing as I was prepared for the horror and could appreciate the beauty of the relationship between the man and his son. And what poetry is in his language! But still, it is a depiction of the end of times and the loss of civilisation. How thin a veneer is our behaviour in this society?

2006 wake-up call

The other book is Plague by Wendy Orent (2004 Free Press). Orent covers the 1,500 years of plagues across our world and wrote of the dangers that lay in wait for us (prescient!). Her presentation of historical accounts of plagues is mind-blowing. This is history that was not taught to us. How slow it was for humans to realise that the fleas on rats were the vectors of the plague. Alexandre Yersin in 1894 and Jean-Paul Simon in 1898 made the breakthroughs. It was not until 1947 and streptomycin that a cure was available. For centuries people believed miasmas (bad or night air) caused the plague. All this is not long ago and we might have made medical advances but it seems that we quickly became complacent.

We forgot to be afraid.

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Justinian’s Flea and the Spanish Flu…

December 27. UPDATE. So Christmas is over and we are still (holiday-less) in Adelaide while the virus bubbles away in Sydney, NSW. The numbers testing positive are low – yesterday 7, today 5 more positive cases have been diagnosed in the ‘Avalon’ Cluster that now stands at 130. NSW Health have conducted over 4 million tests. The Northern Beaches area of Sydney has gone back into lockdown. Our famous New Year’s Eve Sydney fireworks will go ahead in a shortened 7-minute form, but no public will be allowed on the foreshore lining the harbour. (Often a million people gather). Chief Health Officer, Kerry Chant, said that people are testing positive 11-12 days after infection so she justified the requirement stipulating 14 days of isolation after contact with an infected person. Serological testing is showing that the majority of cases are connected to the Avalon outbreak.

Obviously, we remain vulnerable to infection outbreaks with any international arrivals. All arrivals into Australia are significantly down but still enough people are arriving for it to be a challenge for quarantine management at ports of entry. In November 2020, just under 30,000 people arrived from overseas, divided almost equally between Australian citizens and others. (Compare with a year ago: November 2019, 746,080 Australian citizens arrived and 978,440 non-Australians arrived).

One year of Australian citizen arrivals
One year of non-citizen arrivals

Tonight, it was announced that the new strain of the virus, B117, from the UK, which is shutting international borders has been detected in six travellers arriving into Australia from the UK: two are in South Australia. These individuals are all in hotel quarantine. Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, says Australia will not be banning flights from the UK.

I note that our neighbour, Indonesia, is requiring all international arrivals to have a negative Covid-19 (PCR) test done within two days before arrival. Hotel quarantine is also required. But no international tourists are allowed into Indonesia. Australian immigration do not require arrivals to show recent test results but there is media discussion asking, why not?

All the recent news and discussions about the virus shows how we are all learning more and more: how it is highly infectious; how better to treat people; how poorer countries are suffering and their death rates are under-reported, how we need to worry about the rise of mutations. We are all learning the language of epidemiologists and vaccine research. Experts abound!

Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen

I am reading Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen, (Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe) a history more about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire under Emperor Justinian (527-565CE) than the pandemic. While only part of the book is about this bubonic plague there are many parallels to reflect on.

‘During these times, there was a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.’ (Quoted by William Rosen in Justinian’s Flea by historian, Procopius of Caesarea.)

The medical treatment of the 6th Century was ‘weighted towards spells, folk remedies and charms’ including saint’s relics and magic amulets‘ (page 212). Application of cold and hot water was suggested. The only possible respite seemed to have been in the use of the opium poppy juice!  Procopius of Caesarea blamed the plague on Emperor Justinian. Other Christian leaders blamed the plague on peoples’ wickedness. Millions died: between 20 and 50% of the population over the 200 years as the waves of infection criss-crossed Europe and Middle-eastern empires.

Nowadays, we too have magic treatments and strange advice: Trump’s internal UV light treatment, alternative medications (Chloroquine), garlic, drinking water every 15 minutes to wash the virus into the stomach; saline nasal washes and avoiding 5G networks.

The Plague of Justinian arrived in 542 CE with the ubiquitious rats on the grain shipments from Egypt and thence through the Mediterranean shipping lanes to ports and onward along the Roman roads (in carts bearing grain with the hidden black rats carrying the fleas) into the interior. The main plague was zoonotic so depended on the movement of Rattus rattus.

At first, our Covid-19 pandemic spread through air travellers – so much faster than Justinian’s plague.

William Rosen argues that Justinian’s plague changed history: it weakened the waring empires of the Romans and the Persians (the Sassanid Empire). Justinian was unable to extend his initial reconquest successes in Italy. The way was open for the rise of the Islamic people led at first by the righteous caliphs.

And so with us. It is arguable that both the USA, UK and hence the EU have been weakened by recent events coupled with popularist leaders in the UK and USA. It has hastened the rise of China to world economic significance and power. But on the other hand, without Covid-19, Trump might have been re-elected. His and his administration’s mishandling of the pandemic was enough in the forefront of citizens’ concerns to persuade those vacillating voters to cast a vote for Biden.

The Spanish flu of 1918-1920 was an H1N1 virus originating in birds, probably in North America. My father, Mervyn Smithyman, (1911-2008) loved to tell stories of his childhood in Nyasaland (Malawi) where the family moved after the First World War. But before that, my grandfather was with the South African Army in German East Africa fighting General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces and he did not return until late 2019. My grandmother stayed in Wepener in the Orange Free State with her 7 young children.

My father was 8 years old when the Spanish Flu swept through Southern Africa. He and Harold, his elder brother, had vivid memories of those days.

Harold. ‘At the end of the war, before Dad got back, the Spanish Influenza arrived. I was a Wolf Cub and we had to go round to the Market Square where they had clothes boiling in a huge cauldron. These charity workers had a big billycan to take from door from door and people went in and cleaned out and I waited outside. I wore a little packet of garlic round my neck and then Mum said, ‘No! I had to stop!’ I was then sent away to get away from the infection.’

My Father. ‘One by one the rest of the family got sick except Mum and me. Then she got sick and I can remember she was telling me how to go the kitchen to get soup. People came to the door to help but she said that she would not accept charity. Mum told me from her sick bed how to get to the kitchen to get the soup.’

‘That was all fine for a little while and then I said, “Mum I have a headache!”’

‘Now she had to get up, otherwise there was no way we were going to survive. But she got up. She could not stand so she crawled to the kitchen. I remember she gave us some soup to bring back. Every one of us survived the influenza. The carts were passing the door with the corpses of hundreds of people.’

We are not at the end of the Covid-19 story. 2021 will be a long year as we wait for vaccination and desperately hope that a nastier strain of the virus does not develop and catch us before it is dampened down into the furthest little corners of the world. But I fear that we will all harbour a new anxiety about our world.

From David Vincent, in Shrewsbury, UK: The sea, the sea

Aldeburgh beach

October 13.  There is much to be said for Shropshire, but it is as far from the sea as it is possible to get on this narrow island.  When the grandchildren are staying with us, we travel over the Welsh hills, by Lake Bala, to Harlech.  A lovely drive to an unspoilt beach, but a two hour journey.  Not a trip to be taken on a whim before breakfast.

So we seize the offer to house sit for a week on the Suffolk coast.  Old friends, an Anglo-Finnish couple, have returned to the wife’s country to spend the autumn in their cottage by a lake deep in the forests near the Russian border. 

Well into October, Aldeburgh and the nearby Snape Maltings are packed with Londoners escaping to their second homes.  There is nothing new under the sun.  I have just read A Collection of Very Valuable and Scarce Pieces Relating to the Last Plague in the Year 1665 (1771), a source book for Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year.  It includes ‘ORDERS Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, concerning the Infection of the Plague, 1665’, one of which specifically relates ‘to any Person that hath two Houses’.  Anyone with their own carriage left the Capital for their country estates.  The Court retreated to Oxford.

It is not difficult, however, to escape the Range Rovers and take long walks along the straight beaches.  The sea has changed its meaning in this pandemic.  In the great plagues of the middle ages it was the primary source of danger.  The further inland, the safer you were.  The concept and the machinery of quarantine were developed to protect the populations of port towns from infections arriving by ship.  The last major outbreak in western Europe was in Marseilles in 1771.  In Britain there was a small, fatal, occurrence of bubonic plague between 1906 and 1918 just south of where we are now, in settlements around the River Orwell, thought to have been caused by rats escaping from grain ships. 

In the early days of this pandemic, the hapless cruise ships  were a problem, but since then, infection has arrived by air.  The East Anglian coast, together with Cornwall and the Isle of Wight, have the lowest rates of infection in England.  We look out to the breaking waves, conscious that disease and lockdown lie behind us.   The sea advancing and retreating over the shingle calms the spirit. 

The only company on the beach is easily avoidable.  Many of the walkers are accompanied by dogs.  As I noted in my last entry, the hunger for touch in the lockdown has cause a large increase the purchase of pets.  The price of pedigree animals has doubled, with attendant tales of smuggling and kidnapping.  According to Direct Line pet insurance, 2.2 million dogs have been bought since the crisis began in March. 

When the tide finally goes out on this pandemic, what will be left as a visible reminder of the crisis will be hundreds and thousands of dog-walkers, trailing after their pets along pavements and paths, where once they would have been sedentary in their homes. 

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Public Good and Private Mischief

September 8. I have been reading Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, a biography of the outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665.

Defoe addressed his subject much as Netflix might treat the current event.  Carefully accumulated factual evidence was translated into a moving human document by means of a lightly fictionalised narrative structure.   He wrote in 1722 about an event that took place when he was about five years old.  His direct memory of the plague must have been slight, but as the son of a London tallow-chandler he grew up amidst a community for whom this was an epochal experience.  He was one of the first modern journalists and accumulated as much factual evidence as he could find, making particular use of the contemporary Bills of Mortality which provided a weekly map of the spread of the plague across the city.  Defoe wrote to entertain, to make money, but above all to warn.  The plague had broken out again in Marseille in 1720, and all Europe was on the alert in case it spread across the Continent once more.  The Journal was history written to prevent its repetition. 

In every major plague outbreak from the fifteenth century to the coronavirus, the central response of authorities has been to keep victims apart from those yet to be infected.  Whether it was the forty-day quarantine invented by the Venetians in the fifteenth century, or our own mis-firing track and trace system, the task is to identify the sick and remove them from the company of the healthy.  Until the late nineteenth century there was no accurate understanding of the biology of pandemics, but the coming of DNA analysis has made little difference to the essential common-sense reaction.

Neither has there been any alteration to the basic relocation of power from the individual to the collective at such a time of crisis.  In 1665, the Lord Mayor of London imposed the drastic remedy of locking families in their houses when one of their members fell ill.  Defoe was impressed by the ferocity of the policy:

“It is true, that the locking up the Doors of Peoples Houses, and setting a Watchman there Night and Day, to prevent their stirring out, or any coming to them; when perhaps the sound People, in the Family, might have escaped, if they had been remov’d from the Sick, looked very hard and cruel; and many People perished in these miserable Confinements, which ‘tis reasonable to believe, would not have been distemper’d if they had had Liberty, tho’ the Plague was in the House … But it was a publick Good that justified the private Mischief; and there was no obtaining the least Mitigation, by any Application to Magistrates, or Government, at that Time, at least, not that I heard of.” (Penguin Classics Edition, 2003, p. 48).

So it comes to pass that the plague has arrived in my own small village.  A twenty-year-old decided that he was owed a continental holiday.  On his return he transmitted Covid-19 to his parents.  Defoe’s principle still applies.  ‘Publick Good’ justifies ‘private Mischief’, that is to say the harm caused to the felt interests of individual citizens.  Parties, large-scale social gatherings, foreign vacations, are personal luxuries we cannot afford.  In Defoe’s plague year the Magistrates stuck to their rule, despite the many attempts to evade it.  As we must. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: “Unprecedented”?

May 16th

How often have we heard government Ministers bleating that the global Covid-19 pandemic is “unprecedented” by way of an excuse for their incompetence?  I can only conclude that they either rely on different dictionaries from the ones I use, or that they prefer not to go near a dictionary because they like words to mean what they want them to mean rather than what they do actually mean.  The Oxford Concise defines ‘unprecedented’, entirely unsurprisingly, as meaning ‘having no precedent’ or ‘unparalleled’; and my Chambers, which often allows itself to be more idiosyncratic than the Oxford, defines it, no less unsurprisingly, as meaning ‘of which there has been no previous instance.’  

One doesn’t need to go back as far as the Black Death, which killed an estimated 50 million people, including roughly 60% of the entire population of Europe, in the 14th century to know that it is wholly untrue to claim that Covid-19 is ‘unparallelled’ as a pandemic.  Three centuries later, in 1665, the plague is estimated to have killed more than 20% of the population of London.  Even with a sequence of potential further ‘spikes’, Covid-19 seems unlikely to devastate London as badly as that, in spite of its being, thus far, our worst hit city.  But there is no need to delve too far back in history to find precedents and parallels:  the 20th century provided at least three comparable pandemics.

The 1918 H1N1 ‘Spanish’ influenza pandemic killed at least 30 million people world-wide.  Estimates of the death toll range from 30 to 100 million and the disease often manifested itself far more rapidly and dramatically than Covid-19, with some people waking up feeling well in the morning but dying before the end of the day.  The H2N2 ‘Asian’ influenza pandemic in 1957-8 resulted in well over a million deaths, with 40-50 percent of the world’s population being infected.  By early 1958 as many as 9 million people in UK are estimated to have been victims, with over 600 deaths in one week being recorded in October 1957.  And in 1968 the H3N2 ‘Hong Kong’ flu pandemic was responsible for around 3 million deaths, with some 30,000 deaths in UK.  That virus spread so rapidly that an estimated 500,000 people had been infected within two weeks of the disease being identified.  This century, the Ebola epidemic killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa in 2014-15, and the rest of the world was only spared because Ebola, unlike the other three viruses mentioned above, doesn’t spread through the air.   So precisely what is supposed to be ‘unprecedented’ about Covid-19?

It is, of course, possible that those among our English Nationalist Cabinet Ministers who aren’t deliberately lying when they tell us that Covid-19 is ‘unprecedented’ are simply too dim to know what the word means, and think it means “unpredictable”.  It would be interesting to know precisely what the average IQ is of a Cabinet that still apparently thinks that a hard Brexit is a good idea, even in present circumstances.  But even if they do think Covid-19 couldn’t have been predicted, they are wrong.  In a TED talk in April 2015 Bill Gates described the situation very starkly: ‘We are not ready…. We need to get going because time is not on our side.  If we start now we can be ready for the next epidemic.’   

But our ideologically-driven UK government was far too busy being obsessed with its ‘austerity’ shibboleth and its suspicion of foreigners to ‘get going’ on anything else.  The State had to be shrunk; the cost of public services, including the NHS, had to be cut; the funding available to the local councils responsible for social care needed to be driven down (too bad about the consequential increase in childhood poverty and reliance on food-banks); and so on.   Making life as difficult as possible for immigrants, including asylum seekers, also kept government busy.  Not being ready for the next epidemic has inevitably resulted in a peace time ballooning of the National Debt with few, if any precedents.

Talking about the Covid-19 pandemic as ‘unprecedented’ is, whether deliberately duplicitous or simply ignorant, a denial of history:  a convenient forgetting both of the other pandemics that have ravaged the world in the past, including the relatively recent past, and of the many warnings of the likelihood of equally devastating pandemics in the future.  As George Santayana said: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’  

From David Maughan Brown in York: Reflections on Eyam

April 9th

My nine-year-old granddaughter, Hannah, devoted 15 minutes yesterday evening to reading to me on Face Time – and it wasn’t even my bedtime.  Her reading matter of choice was a page or two of short articles from Whizz Pop Bang, ‘the awesome science magazine for children.’   The articles were short but highly informative and didn’t shy away from using fully-fledged scientific terminology.  I was very impressed by the fluency with which Hannah read some quite technical material, only stumbling a little over ‘palaeontology’ – for which she could very easily be forgiven as I suspect it would floor the majority of our adult population – and I learned a good deal about gargantuan prehistoric turtles 100 times the size of our largest present-day turtles, and a massive explosion in the far reaches of outer space that generated an outsized black hole.

I had no urgent need to learn about prehistoric turtles or black holes, and Hannah clearly didn’t have any need to practice her already advanced reading skills, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was some kind of contact in a world in which the kind of contact we usually have with our much-loved children and grandchildren is impossible.  And that contact was very much the highlight of another day of social isolation.  Thank you, Hannah.  

As we learn to come to terms with the loss of physical contact, the loss of closeness, with many of the people we love, I find my thoughts often turning to Eyam.  The parallels are, fortunately, not all that close (at least we hope they aren’t), but in present circumstances it is salutary to think of the nobility and self-sacrifice of the entire population of a 17th century village who voluntarily quarantined themselves and waited to die so that the surrounding villages and cities would not be contaminated by the bubonic plague they had accidentally brought into the region.  They had no ICUs, no respirators, no personal protective equipment, no antidote; they just waited to die themselves, and in the meantime buried their dead.  Over a period of 14 months of lockdown, those dead numbered over 75% of their families and fellow-villagers.

Most of us are so much more fortunate than the villagers of Eyam in that we know why people are dying, we know how to keep ourselves safe (even if some of us, unlike them, don’t have the good sense to do it), and we know that a vaccine will, once it can be developed, put an end to this plague.   None of which will be of any comfort whatever to those who are currently losing people they love and are, in some instances, even worse off than the villagers of Eyam in that they can’t even bury their dead.  But, when it comes to the daily experience of living in a kind of collective quarantine, where we are perhaps luckiest in comparison with our 17th century forebears is in our often taken-for-granted communication technology.  There weren’t many telephones, tablets or televisions in Eyam.   Nobody in Eyam could have been read to by a granddaughter living in the next village.