from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: another Outbreak and the Dark Leopards of the Moon

June 4, 2021

View from Stoke’s Hill, Willow Springs, Flinders Ranges

Victoria is in lockdown. Again. And South Australia is being blamed for lax quarantine management. It is alleged that a Victorian man was infected as he exited his room to leave a medi-hotel in Adelaide after his required 14 day lockup.

The result of the South Australian investigation into this has not been released. The newly infected man travelled to Victoria and was very busy wandering around before he tested positive. There are now 61 cases from this current outbreak and a list of over 370 contact sites in Melbourne: bakeries, trams, gyms, supermarkets, cafes, hairdressers, cinemas, sportsclubs etc. Testing is flat out. 57,000 people were tested in a few days.

It is getting more and more political. Of course. There are points to be scored against the government. The medi-hotels are not failsafe. Seventeen outbreaks have occurred. This must be the federal government’s fault. Lobbying of the federal government continues: surely they must build and pay for custom quarantine facilities in each state. On another related issue, the government have already caved in and will organise some modest temporary financial support for Victorian workers affected by the current outbreak.

At one stage, the Victoria chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, (looking rather unkempt with a growing salt and pepper beard), went into overdrive to declare that very casual or ‘fleeting contact’ had resulted in infection and this new variant, called the Kappa variant, was an ‘an absolute beast’.

‘Because it has moved faster than any other strain we’ve dealt with, and we’re seeing transmission in settings and circumstances we’ve never seen before. … This means we’re having to re-examine exposure sites — more than 300 of them — with this more contagious strain in mind.’

This was soon refuted by calmer minds and Sutton backed away from his statement. It was a matter of test results being false positives and their state government’s need to blame something or someone else – rather than their poor QR systems and widespread non-compliance with check-in rules.

‘An infectious diseases physician at St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney, Prof Greg Dore, who is running a study looking at long-haul Covid patients, said the Kappa variant was acting “the same as we’ve seen before” with other variants in Australia. “There just isn’t any strong evidence this variant is more efficiently transmitted than previous variants,” said Dore, who is also a clinical researcher with the Kirby Institute.’ (Guardian 2 June)

We now wait to see if this outbreak spreads to NSW. We are due to travel there in 3 weeks.

arriving at Skytrek Willow Springs

While all this was going on, I was once more in the Flinders Ranges, this time with a group of aged walkers.

Once more, I am taken aback by the stark aridity of the Flinders. The beauty is there but it’s a harsh land. The hills are almost bare of vegetation and on the sheep stations, onion weed appears to be the predominant plant. In many watercourses, ancient river red gums are dying and even the tough native pines (callitris) are suffering. I don’t think I saw more than 10 kangaroos or Euros. There were a few more emus than my last visit – they are browsers and probably have more food sources.

The bird life is scarce. I was keen to try and spot the rare short-tailed grasswren. This bird is a ‘mega-tick’ for any bird-watcher. These cryptic outback birds were once seen on Willow Springs where we were staying. However, the native spinifex and perennial grassy hillsides, where I hoped to find them, have suffered from the four drought years and there was little remaining cover for any bird. Except this one: a grey butcherbird.

The predatory grey butcher-bird

However, all this gloom did not stop us enjoying the Flinders. We had driven north through a dust storm.

Approaching Port Augusta in the dust storm

The late winter rains have left the topsoil of the wheatlands exposed. Overnight a short rainfall laid the dust to rest and we had clear skies once more. This was opportune as we were looking forward to the lunar eclipse of the night of 26 May. And that delivered. We enjoyed 5 hours of a moon disappearing from a brilliant starred sky. The shadow of the earth covered the moon from the right and it emerged from the lower left. I understand that this is due to the position of the sun’s shadow during this eclipse. Apparently, we were lucky in Eastern Australia as we could see the entire eclipse at night. And it was a ‘Super Flower Blood Moon’. However, I could not see the red. You had to use a lot of imagination. Maybe if the moon had been closer to the horizon, it would have turned red. Still spectacular. And while the moon was being gobbled up, over the arid hills of the Flinders Ranges we could clearly see the Southern Cross, and other constellations and listen to boobook owls calling from the dried out riverbank. In Adelaide cloud cover hid the eclipse.

Yes, these are my own photos taken with a Nikon hybrid. Hand held!

The eclipse took place just a few hours after the Moon reached perigee, the closest point to Earth on its orbit, making it a Super Flower Blood Moon.

What is a Super Moon?

This eclipse also marks the beginning of an “almost tetrad” because it kicks off a series of four big lunar eclipses in two years. Three of these eclipses are total, while one of them, on November 18-19, 2021, is a deep partial eclipse. So deep that it is almost a total eclipse.’

https://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/lunar/2021-may-26

You can well imagine how indigenous peoples might have viewed a lunar eclipse as an omen. Perhaps it would have been frightening. I know that the San Bushmen had many stories to explain events in the skies. So I looked this up. I am sad to say: I think we might have lost imagination with the gaining of knowledge.

‘When the Earth’s shadow falls on the Moon, a lunar eclipse occurs. The Nyae Nyae !Kung Bushmen said that this was caused by the lion, putting his paw over the Moon to darken the night so he could have better hunting.’

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258805045_African_Star_Lore

This reminds me of the ‘Day of the Dead Moon’, the day in January 1879 when the Zulu army was instructed by King Cetshwayo not to attack the invading British forces under Lord Chelmsford during the day of the lunar eclipse. The eclipse was seen as a bad omen. Lord Chelmsford had marched his forces into the Zulu Kingdom confident that they would teach the Zulus a quick lesson. The Zulu army of over 20,000 sat silently on their shields in a ravine, waiting for a more auspicious day. However, a British outrider spotted them and the Battle of Isandlwana commenced. Lord Chelmsford’s camp was destroyed along with 1,300 British soldiers and probably 2,000 Zulu warriors. This defeat was a huge shock to the British. How could a bunch on untrained Zulus without Martini–Henry breechloading rifles or 7-pounder mountain guns defeat them?

I think some poetry about the moon should end this blog. WB Yeats saw great symbolism in the moon and he loved referring to the moon in his poetry. Mostly sad verses. I liked the following, Lines Written in Dejection.

When have I last looked on
The round green eyes and the long wavering bodies
Of the dark leopards of the moon?
All the wild witches, those most noble ladies,
For all their broom-sticks and their tears,
Their angry tears, are gone.
The holy centaurs of the hills are vanished
I have nothing but the embittered sun;
Banished heroic mother moon and vanished,
And now that I have come to fifty years
I must endure the timid sun.

from David Maughan Brown in York, UK: Climate Change

Were the ‘Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award’ still around to be awarded on a global basis, the jet stream that is currently playing fast and loose with our weather in the UK would, with a bit of updating of the criteria, be a prime candidate for a fickleness award.   At any rate, there seems to be a good chance that it could be a pointer to our possible fate where our climate is concerned.

A word of explication might be in order here.  Between 1968 and 1973, NBC in the USA broadcast a satirical programme titled Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In which provided, in the words of entertainment.ha.com, ‘a heady dose of comedy and biting satire during a turbulent period in history, and in the process boosted the careers of Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, and others.’  The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate award was used on the show, we are reminded, in a ‘recurring segment that “lauded” noteworthy, dubious achievements by celebrities or government officials. Recipients of this uncoveted award included then Los Angeles Chief of Police Ed Davis, who suggested that gallows be put in all airports so hijackers could be hung on the spot; the City of Cleveland for their Cuyahoga River (it caught fire due to its high pollution levels); and William F. Buckley for his philosophy “Never clarify tomorrow what you can obscure today”.’*

Television was not available to South Africans between 1968 and 1973 because, as Dr Albert Hertzog, the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs, kindly explained in 1959: ‘The effect of the wrong pictures on children, the less developed and other races can be destructive.’  But, once television had been introduced in 1976, there was an obvious need for those South Africans who had TVs to have their attention distracted from the vicious cruelties of apartheid outside their windows, and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was apparently (and often somewhat mistakenly) seen by the apartheid government as a politically inoffensive distraction.

All of which is something of a diversion from the path of the jet stream.  It is raining off-and-on again today, as it has been for most of the month.  This is because, as the weather forecasts have explained, and can be seen from the weather map above, the UK is caught in a low-pressure loop in the jet stream, and has been trapped in the same loop throughout this month.   Parts of the UK have had three times their average May rainfall already, and our average temperature has been two degrees centigrade below the May average.  This follows one of the driest, and certainly the frostiest, April on record with frosts somewhere in UK every night.     May 2020, by contrast, as I wrote in June last year, ‘was the driest May on record in England and the sunniest month ever, at least as far back as records go; this spring’s sunshine hours smashed the previous record by all of 70 hours, and have only been exceeded by summer sunshine hours in three previous years.’  So ‘fickle’ seems an appropriate word.

The extreme variations from year to year in UK suggest that something significant is going on weather-wise.  This would seem to be backed up by what appear to be increasingly extreme weather events around the globe.  Prolonged droughts leading to devastating wild fires, increasingly frequent and violent hurricanes and cyclones, and serious floods all come to mind.  In his 2003 book Inevitable Surprises Peter Schwartz doesn’t regard global climate change as being a surprise ‘because most of us (by now) have seen it coming’ (p.207).** Donald Trump hadn’t put his ornamental head above the political parapet by then.   But what will be a surprise, Schwartz suggests on the basis of analysis of the fossil record, will be the speed of its impact:  ‘The pattern is consistent: hundreds or even thousands of years of steady-state equilibrium.  Then an abrupt shift, in as short a time as a decade, can alter temperature and rainfall patterns, and ocean currents.’ (p.208)

So what could happen in the next decade that could provide us with a distraction from worrying about Covid-19?  As global temperatures rise, mainly as a result of human activity and the carbon emissions that activity produces, the polar ice caps and the glacial ice in Greenland are melting and cold freshwater is pouring into the Atlantic Ocean.  There is a serious possibility that this could result in the ocean currents being ‘forced into new patterns’, as Schwartz puts it.  Put more bluntly, it could arrest the flow of the Gulf Stream that warms North Eastern Europe.  This has apparently happened before – most recently around ten thousand years ago.  Schwartz quotes Dr Robert Gagosian’s suggestion as to what might happen next:  ‘Average winter temperatures could drop by 5 degrees Fahrenheit over much of the United States, and by 10 degrees in the North-eastern United States and in Europe.  That’s enough to send mountain glaciers advancing down from the Alps.  To freeze rivers and harbours and bind North Atlantic shipping lanes in ice…. These changes could happen within a decade, and they could persist for hundreds of years.’ (p.209)

Schwartz doesn’t claim that this particular manifestation of global climate change is ‘inevitable’, it is merely a distinct possibility.   But, given the manifest fickleness of our current weather patterns, those of us in UK who live on the front line where that particular manifestation of climate change is concerned had better not be fooled by talk of ‘global warming’ into packing our winter woollies too far away.  Speaking for myself, as I clean out the shed in preparation for its demolition, I will make sure not to throw away my good-as-new snow-shovel that hasn’t been needed even once in the past fifteen years.


* https://entertainment.ha.com/itm/movie-tv-memorabilia/props/-laugh-in-flying-fickle-finger-of-fate-award-broadcast-from-1968-to-1973-on-nbc-rowan-and-martin-s-laugh-in-provided-a/a/648-21045.s

** Peter Schwartz, Inevitable Surprises, London: Free Press, 2003.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘The shame is on us’.

Every day is a bad-hair day

May 3rd

It is difficult to assess which of two starkly contrasting political environments results in the greater sense of frustrated impotence.   Being governed by the corrupt and ruthlessly authoritarian representatives of a racial minority who maintain their power through the violent suppression of a disenfranchised majority; or being governed by the corrupt and ruthlessly self-seeking representatives of an electorate based on universal adult franchise whose every worst instinct is assiduously cultivated by an alliance between untrustworthy politicians and unprincipled popular media.

In South Africa under apartheid one was up against an adamantine regime intent on suppressing any dissent as it bulldozed its way towards its racist goal of ‘separate development.’   In trying to resist that process in whatever minor ways one could one knew that it wasn’t going to make any kind of dent in the monolithic edifice of apartheid, but one could be confident that those efforts had the implicit support of the vast majority of the population, and there was some small, somewhat perverse, satisfaction in being woken at three 3am by telephoned death threats from Security Branch operatives which indicated that someone, somewhere, was taking some kind of notice – however intimidating that tended to feel.

Here, millions can take to the streets in protest against the invasion of Iraq or the stupidity of Brexit without it making a blind bit of difference.  One can blog and write letters to newspapers and speak from platforms without having to worry about exposing oneself to the risk of a minimum five year gaol sentence for saying something the government doesn’t approve of, for example expressing support for the ANC, but it feels as if one might as well be blowing bubbles to be wafted away on the wind. 

We have a contemptible government that can behave appallingly – cutting Foreign Aid in the middle of a global pandemic; treating asylum seekers with deliberate cruelty; being nonchalantly prepared to throw the Good Friday agreement to the dogs; lavishing rich contracts on incapable companies owned by their friends; cynically cultivating xenophobia along the road to Brexit; etc., etc., etc.  – in the certain knowledge that, however shamefully they behave, our predominantly right-wing media will continue to lap it all up, and will continue to hold sway over the electorate.

In a lengthy article on Friday titled ‘Scandal upon scandal: the charge sheet that should have felled Johnson years ago’, enumerating the seemingly endless list of scandals that should be being laid at Boris Johnson’s door, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland concluded: “Or maybe the real scandal lies with us, the electorate, still seduced by a tousled-hair rebel shtick and faux bonhomie that should have palled years ago.  Americans got rid of their lying, self-serving, scandal-plagued charlatan 100 days ago.  They did it at the first possible opportunity.  Next week, polls suggest we’re poised to give ours a partial thumbs-up at the ballot box.  For allowing this shameless man to keep riding high, some of the shame is on us.”*

The shame may well be on us, but saying so in the Guardian, or on a WordPress blog, isn’t going to make any difference.  It is a shame that appears to be felt even by some Tories, to judge by the rapidity with which Sir Alan Duncan, who only left politics in 2019, has been trying to cleanse himself of the smell, and wash off the stain, left by having been Johnson’s deputy during the latter’s embarrassment of a dally as Foreign Secretary with the Foreign Office.   Duncan’s description of Johnson in his recently published memoirs, as quoted by Jordan King in the Metro on Saturday, is less than flattering:  ‘I try to be the dutiful number two, but have lost any respect for him. He is a clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon, with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgement. He is an international stain on our reputation. He is a lonely, selfish, ill-disciplined, shambolic, shameless clot.’ **   

It feels much better to live in a country where Freedland, King and Duncan can freely say it as it is, and publish articles describing the Prime Minister in terms like ‘selfish, ill-disciplined, shambolic, shameless clot’, without being subjected to death threats, or worse, from the police (as distinct from the social media);  but it would be even better to live in a country whose electorate didn’t allow itself to be so easily and willingly seduced into supporting our very own ‘lying, self-serving, scandal-plagued charlatan.’


* https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/30/scandal-charge-sheet-johnson-wallpaper-lying

** https://metro.co.uk/2021/04/03/boris-named-embarrassing-buffoon-who-knew-nothing-about-brexit-14351922/?ito=cbshare

Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Guest Post. From the Thornveld: Views on life in the continuing crisis: part two

March 29,2021.

WE’VE just passed 23 March, the day the first UK lockdown began in 2020. The charity Marie Curie named it a ‘Day of Reflection’, and encouraged a minute’s silence at noon and distanced candlelight vigils at 8 pm. Reviewing my own twelve months, I see a satisfactory adaptation to practical matters: full initiation into working from home; shopping – deliveries and in person – sorted; a more extensive exercise programme than pre-lockdown; and other activities slotted in. I’m a busy person.

But there’s a blandness about life, a bit of Groundhog Day vibe, and there’s loads missing – the variety of happenings and stimuli, both planned and unexpected, that existed in the life before have diminished hugely. Social interaction is rarely by chance and largely online. The loss of spontaneity and surprise, and the limitations to human relationships, let alone the uncertainty that comes with a pandemic inevitably have their impact psychologically and emotionally. I notice my heart becomes heavier more easily, and that it requires fewer things these days to make me anxious. I think about my mortality every day – no bad thing, but a new one.

There is a changed quality to human interaction and a big contrast in styles. On the one hand we have frontline workers (NHS, social care, domestic violence helplines … ) who have stepped up to engage big-time and in profound ways with the public they meet, and others (supermarket staff, refuse collectors, bus drivers … ) continuing their usual service to keep things going. On the other, the pandemic has forced us into smaller contexts focused on our own needs and survival in alien circumstances, with not much time for or trust in others. There is a popular opinion that emergence from our current state into whatever evolves will be a difficult process, whether encumbered by over-enthusiasm or timidity, whether approached with an expectation of ‘getting my life back’ or with the daunting prospect navigating that emergence without a loved one.

At one of Marie Curie’s recent online discussions, ‘Are we really in this together?’, speakers highlighted the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the disabled and those with learning difficulties, and how Covid-19 and the death of George Floyd have raised awareness of the many facets of racism in the UK. Some communities have suffered more change and are having to make much more adaptation than others, usually the communities already afflicted by ten years of spending cuts. There is talk of learning lessons, having independent reviews and producing reports, received with a heavy dose of scepticism that anything will actually change. We’ve been here before. There is some optimism though that neighbourhood initiatives set up to support those in need during the pandemic will endure, and may even contribute to the development of ‘compassionate cities’.

This one year anniversary gives pause to think about the 126,000+ UK citizens who have died with Covid-19, and the potential number of related bereavements. There is huge concern about possible delayed trauma both for the bereaved and for healthcare workers. The experiences – exceptional and overwhelming – that many have been exposed to will not be assimilated quickly or easily into life narratives, and people will need help. Let’s all reveal and exercise our compassionate parts, and make ourselves available.

Further reading: The Compassionate City Charter — Compassionate Communities UK (compassionate-communitiesuk.co.uk)

Screen Covid patients and NHS staff for post-traumatic stress, expert urges | Mental health | The Guardian

Penny Merrett, Sheffield

I’VE just had two weeks of something that looked oddly like a cold – congestion, tiredness, etc. It made me think, first, that I have been very well this year and that this illness has been out of the ordinary. A fact confirmed by the local hospital that has reported that influenza and gastro-intestinal illnesses have dropped drastically – a side effect of all the social distancing and hand sanitiser.

Second, though, it made me wonder how I had got an infection – given all the social distancing and hand sanitiser, how had I managed to catch an infection from someone else? And if I could catch a cold like this, how had I escaped a Covid infection or how close had I been to getting a Covid infection?

In the last blog I was bemoaning the lack of an approaching light from the end of the tunnel. The roll-out of the vaccine in Europe has been so slow that I wondered when it, the solution to all our current problems, would ever get to me. Politicians were telling us that this is a marathon, the immunisation of the whole population, not a sprint, but they seemed to be missing the point that even a marathon will never be run if it never starts. Slowly, slowly, stop – as fears were raised about the Astra Zeneca vaccine the French government joined other European countries in suspending the delivery of the vaccine. Amid reports that some batches of the vaccine were going out of date and being thrown away, the immunisation programme was halted because a few people encountered blood clotting problems. Statistically, it was within, or less than, the normal number of people who experience these problems but the anti-vax hysteria and scepticism meant that vaccinations had to halt. There was a strong suspicion that politics was being put ahead of science in this case – and cast further doubt on the EU’s ability to cope sensibly and adequately with this emergency.

The irony, for me, was that after wondering when I was going to get the vaccine, I was injected with the Astra Zeneca vaccine just days before its use was suspended, leaving me wondering if I was going to get the second dose! Now normal service has been resumed, so my second dose in June should be OK – unless there is another scare …

And how did I get the jab? We were walking the dogs at 9 am one morning when the doctor phones to ask ‘would you like to be vaccinated?’ Would we!!?? So at 11 am there we were, sleeves rolled up, receiving the vaccine. Not in the designated age group, not using up an opened bottle of vaccine – it was just that our GP was going down her list of patients and we were next to benefit from one of the two bottles of vaccine she gets each week. No orderly progression through the age groups or through the categories of at-risk patients here – this is France and this is the French way!

Cases of Covid are rising in France as I write, with the death rate steady at around 300 a day. The vaccination programme is going slowly, partly because people are reluctant but more because there is not enough vaccine to go around – we seem to be sending a lot of what we manufacture to the UK rather than using it ourselves. Paris is back in lockdown for four weeks and we continue to live with an overnight curfew. The third wave is here – though it is increasingly hard to talk about waves when the viral flood feels continuous.

Jonathan Merrett, Sallèles d’Aude

IT’S now over a year since the first Covid-19 case (5 March), and death (27 March), were recorded in South Africa. On that second date a severe lockdown was announced and a few observers suggested that ‘life would never be the same again’. I believe them to be correct in spite of optimistic pronouncements about returning ‘normality’, encouraged by vaccination.

We are now at a stage where people should know enough about the risks and their mitigation to make their own decisions. Many will have concluded that social interaction can be deadly and will change their behaviour forever with consequences both for them and society. Of course we have always been vulnerable to other people’s germs (I contracted TB in the 1980s and only found out by chance some years later from an X-ray), but not in modern times anything as virulent as this. Medicine will gradually reduce the danger, but not to the extent of eliminating much significant, recently learned cautionary behaviour.

Initially there was the idea that ‘we’re all in this together’. This lasted, possibly, for one lockdown. There are now clear signs of serious schism. Put simply – perhaps simplistically – there are those who demand that governments protect them from the virus and accuse officialdom of murdering their grannies. In the other corner are people demanding their rights, including hugging their grannies whenever they feel like it. Bridging this divide looks impossible and ultimately it will have political consequences.

Covid-19 has also encouraged authoritarianism and managerialism. Stand in a queue outside a bank and you will be ordered about mindlessly by someone in a uniform. Go to work and you will be hedged around by rules and regulations that are contradictory and applied to suit certain agendas. This is all for your own good; it always is.

And then there are the opportunistic organisations and individuals. Why, for example, can I use my local public library and provincial archives in much the same way as I go shopping? But I am not allowed into the library or even the grounds of the university. All face the same virus and challenges to manage it. I would suggest that working from home is a highly elastic and desirable concept in certain quarters.

Whichever way you turn, freedom and access are becoming more limited. This was already happening before March last year, but disasters whether of public health or finance accelerate and accentuate trends. Similarly, social media abuse and dirty political tactics (in South Africa this pops up as the doctrine of perpetual racial crisis) blossom still further.

It took nearly ten years for the political consequences of the 2008 financial meltdown – right wing populism – to take root. This disaster has been much more devastating, but more urgently managed, so maybe a similar time frame will operate. By that token, before 2030 we can expect to see serious change that at present is confined to the realm of imagination. But it’s unlikely to be encouraging.

Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: O if we but knew what we do …

Anne Chappel, author of two novels about Africa: Zanzibar Uhuru & Shadow of the Hyena

December 31.

Update. Our Australian state borders are closing once more. The fight continues as countries try to stop this virus killing more people. There are numbers I have read in the media, from the UK, from the USA, from South Africa that tell a story of more infections than ever before, of more deaths per day. Numbers.

And every one of those infected people facing possible death holds a personal story. My daughter in Seattle said her friend’s father, aged 80+, is dying of Covid-19 but won’t go to ICU because he refuses to leave his wife. How many children in South Africa cannot find a hospital place for their infected father or mother because there are no beds available? No oxygen, no remdesivir, no comfort in their final hours.

Back to Sydney, NSW. It appears that the virus has spread into greater Sydney. There is now a ‘Cronulla’ cluster and various more cases where the connections to known cases is unclear. Yet still Premier Gladys Berejiklian has not mandated masks (Victoria has) and continues to stand by her decision to allow the New Year’s cricket test (Australia vs India) to go ahead at the Sydney Cricket ground. Up to 20,000 spectators will be allowed (50% capacity). This seems reckless. You only have to look back to Europe and the February 19 soccer match in Bergamo, Italy, between Altlanta and Valancia. This is now regarded as a ‘super-spreader’ event.

True, our numbers are low. 10 more cases today in NSW and 3 in Victoria (after 2 months of no community spread). But, by now, we all know that it only takes a few infected people to explode the virus into the community.

World News. The problem with world news is that its seldom happy, seldom uplifting. We wake up for the 6.30 or 7am news. For months it has not been a good start to the day. Too efficient, our ABC find every bad event around the world. Maybe that is the nature of this pandemic year; maybe, being anxious, we home in on bad news that confirms our night-time fears.

Behind all this news of the virus, the environmental news is likewise miserable. Are the harvesters and destroyers of our wild animals and wild places getting bolder under cover of the pandemic? It is likely.

Before I was a bird-watcher in South Africa, I was interested in native orchids and trees. Durban, semi-tropical with a rich soil, had many remnant native forest reserves as well as magnificent old street trees.

I have this distinct memory from some time in the 1960s, of being driven around Durban North by an estate agent when we were looking to buy our first home. We drove into a street of flowering erythrina trees (the coral tree).

My estate agent said, ‘Erythrina crista-galli’.

‘WHAT? Say that again?’ I said, for I had never heard the scientific name of a tree said out aloud. It was beautiful, like a three-word poem.

I didn’t buy a house, I learnt the name of a tree.

I was hooked, mesmerised. At some stage, we collected the brown bean-like seeds of this tree and my young daughter planted them outside her bedroom window. Very quickly one took and grew big enough to hold a bird table, big enough to develop its own generous cascades of red blooms.

My life-long interest in trees had begun. The street trees of Durban are a year-round spectacle, a demonstration of the fecundity of immigrants: avenues of Latin America’s jacarandas, of Madagascar’s flamboyant, Delonix regia, of India’s golden shower, Cassia fistula, of the dark and solid Natal mahogany, Trichilia emetica which housed the roosting flocks of feral Indian Myna birds.

When you are a birdwatcher you appreciate trees and the rest: the wild places. Hence, when we retired in South Australia, almost 20 years ago, we bought a larger property on the city edge with lots of bush and we set about removing feral olive trees and planting native trees and bushes.

The bird life we now have is nothing short of delightful. We are an oasis on the hillside.

Superb blue wren, New Holland honeyeater

We were helped by an organisation in South Australia called Trees for Life. They supply appropriate native seeds, the wherewithal to plant them and the advice of how to care for them. In such a manner you can easily raise 60, 120 seedlings in one season for your own property. A gift for the future.

https://treesforlife.org.au/

Ancient eucalypts near Adelaide, Australia, surviving drought and fire.

Maybe as you get older you become more determined – and fierce – in your views. I get most unhappy when I hear about the clearing of old-growth forests. Australia is guilty – big time – forests are still being cleared in Queensland and in other states. Our record is not good at all. The land cleared in Queensland is for agriculture – mostly for beef production. The (cruel) live export trade remains strong.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2020-10-08/deforestation-land-clearing-australia-state-by-state/12535438

This week the news contained a non-virus story but still upsetting. Ancient, remnant trees in NE Namibia, in the semi-desert lands near the Okavango, are being cut down and exported to China. An investigation shows criminal elements in conjunction with Namibian elite are destroying in wholesale fashion these valuable ancient, African rosewood, Zambezi teak, and Kiaat trees.

https://www.occrp.org/en/investigations/chinese-companies-and-namibian-elites-make-millions-illegally-logging-the-last-rosewoods#:~:text=Namibia%20is%20a%20signatory%20to,red%2Dwood%20furniture%20in%20Asia.

Humans come and go, each of us takes from the world, from the environment. Huge trees are survivors, bearing the marks of their efforts. To harvest 700-year-old trees from marginal communities is criminal.

I wish you all a Happy New Year. I am sorry, it is hardly likely to be so.

There is always poetry. Here is a poignant one to finish the year.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44390/binsey-poplars

Binsey Poplars by G.M.Hopkins

felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, 
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun, 
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
               Not spared, not one
                That dandled a sandalled
         Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

  O if we but knew what we do
         When we delve or hew —
     Hack and rack the growing green!
          Since country is so tender
     To touch, her being só slender,
     That, like this sleek and seeing ball
     But a prick will make no eye at all,
     Where we, even where we mean
                 To mend her we end her,
            When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
  Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
     Strokes of havoc unselve
           The sweet especial scene,
     Rural scene, a rural scene,
     Sweet especial rural scene.

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 Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Let’s Dance…

December 13.

My friend, Ingrid, lives in a retirement village outside Durban, South Africa. a few months ago, she had had enough of doing do very little so she and a few friends decided to put a video together with some help from a couple of techno-capable younsters with a drone. They persuade many residents to leave their lonely units and started teaching them a dance routine.  They would meet on certain days in different locations/villages. She said it was wonderful seeing the reaction from many who had never met their neighbours before or had not left their units for months due to their strict lockdown regulations.  Hence all of the scenes were in the open air with the participants wearing masks.

So, there are little ways to change the world and make it a better place during these difficult days! Enjoy!

From David Maughan Brown in York: So much for democracy

October 31st

It will be apparent to outside observers, even if it apparently isn’t to many of our own citizens, that in UK we are currently trying to contend with two simultaneous, and in some ways related, crises.   On the one hand, we have a health crisis occasioned by the Covid pandemic, with all the economic stresses that entails; on the other hand, we have a political crisis occasioned by the election of a blindly ideological and helplessly incompetent government that cannot be effectively held to account by a terminally divided opposition that spends so much time tearing itself apart that it is barely level with the government in the polls instead of being the 20 to 30 points ahead that it should be.    Both are cause for despair, but at least there is some hope on the distant horizon that an effective vaccine might one day be developed where Covid is concerned.   I very much doubt that a vaccine will ever be developed that will inoculate politicians against ideological blindness and self-harm, or that a remedy can be found for our seemingly terminally ailing democracy.

The immediate occasion for the Labour Party’s fresh round of self-laceration has been a report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission forcefully condemning the way the party, and the leadership of the party in particular, has handled complaints of anti-Semitism in recent years.  Jeremy Corbyn, the immediately past leader of the party, who was implicitly held to be at fault for the mishandling, responded to the report by saying that even a single anti-Semite in the party was one too many, but that the incidence of anti-Semitism in the party as a whole had been very significantly overstated.  Corbyn was summarily suspended from the party for being “in denial” about anti-Semitism, and his suspension, equally instantly and all too predictably, resulted in the long-standing divisions in the party revealing themselves again in all their ugliness.

Anyone who took part in any way in the struggle against apartheid will be profoundly conscious both of the iniquity of racism in any form, and of the strong parallels between the plight of the Palestinians today and the plight of black South Africans under apartheid.   It is common knowledge that the governments of South Africa and Israel worked hand in glove during the 1970s and 1980s on such things as the development of nuclear weapons, and many of their tactics for the repression of opposition have been similar, for example the resort to the selective assassination of leading opponents, and the fomenting of internecine violence between the different factions of their opposition.   The two moral giants of South Africa’s liberation both made the parallel between South Africa and Palestine very directly, as seen from Desmond Tutu’s statement – ‘We in South Africa had a relatively peaceful transition. If our madness could end as it did, it must be possible to do the same everywhere else in the world. If peace could come to South Africa, surely it can come to the Holy Land?’ – and Mandela’s pithier 1997 comment:  ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’   

Where the parallels between apartheid South Africa and modern-day Israel diverge dramatically is that whereas criticism of the evils of apartheid became common cause globally, pro-Israeli propagandists have muddied the waters so successfully where anti-Semitism is concerned that any criticism of the government of Israel’s behavior, no matter how draconian or how internationally unlawful, is liable to be castigated as anti-Semitic.   Any and all racism directed against Jewish people on the grounds of their Jewishness is totally unacceptable; criticism of anything the government of Israel does as a government has, like criticism of any other government, to be permissible.

When the Labour party was catching up in the polls, and snapping at the heels of a callous and indifferent Tory governing party fixated on shrinking the State under the guise of ‘austerity’, it was blindingly obvious that the predominantly right-wing media would exploit any chink in Labour’s armour to the hilt.  The chink it seized on was the incidence of anti-Semitic invective directed at Jewish members of the party by a small minority of members who should unquestionably have been expelled from the party forthwith.  To say, as Corbyn did, that the incidence of anti-Semitism in the party had been overstated was merely to state the patently obvious, as Starmer, being an intelligent man, must clearly know.  But, given a context in which what Corbyn said was bound to be interpreted as downplaying the genuine hurt felt by the members of the party who had been the targets of vitriolic anti-Semitism, it was, to say the least, not a sensible or necessary point to make at the time.   But suspending Corbyn was the last thing anyone who genuinely wanted to unite the Labour Party should have done. Starmer must know that the only way he has any chance of winning power is by leading a united party into the next election.  So as we head into another nation-wide lockdown, once again leaked to the media rather than announced from the podium, let alone discussed in parliament, we find ourselves with a terminally wrong-headed and incompetent government ineffectually confronted by a terminally divided and self-lacerating opposition.  So much for democracy.

From Louis in Johannesburg: Fiddler on the Roof

Having just streamed the launch of Fiddler on the Roof from Brooklyn Theatre here in Pretoria from the comfort of my lounge what they have achieved Covid and unethical landlords notwithstanding, deserves mention on our Blog. Longer story short Brooklyn Theatre (BT) converted to digital format and successfully streamed Fiddler on the Roof: The musical. It launched this past Saturday 17th of October 2020. I had bought tickets in anticipation of the live performance of this classic. Then Covid struck and all hell broke loose with any function where people were gathered in numbers. BT had secured the rights to produce and had faithfully paid the royalty providing the rights to perform Fiddler. 

There was no going back. 

When the owners of the theatre that BT used on aregular basis refused to accommodate BT with a reduction in rental that final straw broke the camel’s back and BT decided to go digital based on nothing but Chutspa and stream the production. They had no experience with digital productions and decided to press on anyway. Rehearsals took place on a regular basis until the production flowed smoothly. Musicians provided backing and support. Here I need to declare my interests: My wife Marie plays Yente the matchmaker and daughter Rachel plays one of Tevye’s five daughters, Shprintze. Having declared my interests you will appreciate how BT and the Fiddler production is worthy of support based purely on what they have achieved during Covid19 lockdown and with extortionist landlords. It truly is an ill wind that brings no good with it.BT has taken the leap of faith and has successfully gone digital with their productions.

 If ever a production was relevant to a society it is Fiddler’s relevance to South African as well as global society in a post-modern era. The original purpose of Opera to remind society of the morals that guide it is also relevant to this wonderful musical production. The plot is well known to many. A traditional Jewish family living in the Ukraine during a Pogrom by the Russian authorities dispossess them. They have to leave for foreign shores after much protestation by Tevye with only the possessions they can carry. The family headed by Tevye and his wife Golde who lament the loss of their traditional way of life. Tevye draws traditions and teachings which inform their day to day lives from “The Good Book”, quoted frequently by him. Tevye and Golde have five daughters (Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shprintze and Beilke) who need to find suitable Jewish husbands, hence the need for a traditional matchmaker (Yente) to facilitate this. To the frustration of the matchmaker, as well as Tevye, in the end the daughters marry for love. The compassion and understanding of their mother, Golde, provides a softer touch. Tevye accepts their choice after due consideration. Humour punctuates this otherwise tragic storyline of a Ukraine Pogrom, which includes, discrimination, loss of property, the disruption of traditions and displacement of people from the land they have long occupied. A reminder of the perils of current society, the role of traditional family morals and the danger of discrimination based on religion and race. Support a worthy cause at www.brooklyntheatre.tv  

Brookly Theatre (BT) will also never be the same again in the Post-Covid world…

From David Maughan Brown in York: A second wave, a second botched response

October 12th

The second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is now assertively with us in the UK, and the government of England, having apparently learnt nothing whatever from the experience of the first wave, is busy botching its response to the second wave just as badly.  For the past five days the media have been trailing a momentous speech that Boris was due to make in parliament today in response to the rapidly increasing number of infections and hospitalisations, to be followed by the news conference I can hear droning on in the background as I write.   Boris’s unique contribution to the history of governance – government via deliberate leaks to, and covert briefing of, the media – has saved everyone who pays any attention to said media the pain of having to watch him and hear him telling us what, well before this last weekend, we already knew to be coming up the track at us.   After six months of concentrated deliberation by the great minds in Downing St., they have had the bright idea of instituting the kind of tiered lockdown system successfully implemented in South Africa six months ago.  All that today’s grand announcement amounted to, apart from the predicted three-tier system, was the equally well trailed fact that Liverpool is destined to enter Tier 3 – the severest level of restriction, with no social mixing, no pubs open, etc. – on Wednesday, the only area to do so.

The government’s dilemmas as the pandemic threatens to get out of control again, which I don’t envy them, include:  how to balance the competing demands of public health and the economy; how to communicate the extent of the crisis to an increasingly sceptical public; how to establish an appropriate balance between centralised and regionalised decision making; and how to provide the necessary resources to combat the virus in terms both of equipment, person-power and an efficient test and trace system.  

At every level the response is being botched again.  Where the Public Health/Economy dilemma is concerned, the painfully obvious question to ask is, why on a Wednesday start covertly briefing about further restriction measures that won’t be formally announced until the following Monday and only implemented on the Wednesday?  That could only serve as an invitation to anyone who felt so inclined to spend the weekend doing his or her best to contract the virus, with only one possible outcome where the infection statistics are concerned.   And what conceivable logic can there be to introducing exactly the same restrictions for pubs etc. in the Tier 3 areas as in March, but reducing the financial support offered to employers to the point of making both the retention of staff, and meeting the costs of living for any staff who are retained, unviable?  Where communication is concerned, it is probably too late to simplify and improve the desperately poor communication of the past few months with any realistic hope that everyone will listen: too many people in England, in marked contrast to Scotland and Wales, no longer trust government.  After very belatedly waking up to the idea of consulting the leaders of the supposedly devolved regions in ‘the North’ (after already having decided what he intended to do), Boris claims that he now has the agreement of those leaders to his decisions: this, like so much else he says, is untrue, as evidenced by the intention of a group of them to bring legal action against the government for implementing the measures without providing adequate support.  The test and trace system is, in spite of Boris’s boasts and promises, still wholly inadequate – and must have had a part to play in the surge of new infections.  

Associating Boris with botching brought a distant echo to mind, which, when I thought about it, I realised came from very vague memories of reading stories about Billy Bunter (Boris Botcher/Billy Bunter), the corpulent clown of the Lower Fourth Form at Greyfriars School, when I was about ten years old.  For a very quick memory refresher I resorted to Google where one can find Wikipedia listing Billy Bunter’s chief characteristics besides his corpulence. He was, we are told: ‘obtuse, lazy, racist, … deceitful, slothful, self-important and conceited’ but combined these with a ‘cheery optimism’ and ‘comically transparent untruthfulness.’   It would be very unfair to imply that Boris is corpulent, given his partly successful efforts to reduce his weight after his hospital experience.