Bad government 1

I have decided to comment every week or so on politics, mostly re the political play here in Australia. That I’ve decided to title the pieces bad government makes obvious my view of Australian government (at all three levels, but my primary concern will be federal). The fact that I have decided to number them speaks to my view of how entrenched the problems are and to just how soon we are likely to see a less dirty country. Of course the rest of world will no doubt intrude but it’s mainly Oz I’m looking at.

King Jie of Xia holding a Ji polearm, representing oppression, and sitting on two ladies, symbolizing his abuse of power.
User:Shibo77, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Crikey news service has been publishing a series called The Dirty Country. It’s well worth reading the whole series but what prompted this post was their latest article, entitled ‘We must learn to see the corruption that pervades Australian public life, and restructure it‘.

The opening sentence is interesting: ‘Australians, and especially our governing class, have normalised soft corruption…’. If all Australians are complicit (though not the principal normalisers of corruption) in this corruption it makes you wonder how to deal with a problem that is both normalised and generally accepted – or is that merely tolerated. Three key questions arise:

  1. Is the corruption part of the national character?
  2. If it is – what can one do to change that national character?
  3. If we are not intrinsically corrupt but just tolerant of systemic corruption then how do we fix our complacency vis a vis systemic corruption

If of course corruption and/or acceptance of corruption is part of the makeup of ‘ordinary Australians’ – and thus our politicians simply replicate our nature – then the problem is indeed deep seated. And much more difficult to resolve (if fixing it is even contemplated). If, however, the corruption is not part of our Australian human nature, and is more a case of a tolerance for or apathy regarding corruption (tolerated so long as it doesn’t affect you personally) then we need to do something about this national apathy. This is the position I hold to; that most people are not directly corrupt; the issue is that we are complicit in corruption because we do not speak up or do anything significant about it.

This is Crikey’s journalist’s take on the matter; bold italicised highlighting mine:

Australians, and especially our governing class, have normalised soft corruption. They literally no longer see a great deal of it because it has been accepted as a standard part of Australian political life.

If voters dislike pork-barrelling and understand the danger of property developers buying favourable planning decisions, they look past political donations and readily tolerate former politicians and public servants working for the industries they once regulated and funded.

Politicians are much worse: they collaborate to preserve secrecy and embrace in government the soft corruption they decried in opposition. Only last September, the Coalition and Labor combined to pass laws that would prevent state political donation requirements — which provide for greater transparency and prevent property developer donations — from affecting federal donation rules, ensuring state laws can be circumvented.

BERNARD KEANE
 MAR 26, 2021




Keane argues that we need to retrain ourselves to see and do something about corruption. Training politicians is difficult because any attempt to fix the problems with independent corruption watchdogs or greater transparency threatens their positions and power. So using anti-corruption bodies and agitating for greater transparency won’t work, Keane argues. We need to ‘address the structural incentives for corruption‘. And Keane goes on to outline a number of those structural changes required; it’s a good list and series of explanations that I won’t cover here.

Do I agree? I think so but need to give it much more time and thought than sitting a& typing a post will give me.

I obviously need to read another of Keane’s articles on this DIRTY COUNTRY: ‘How to end corruption? First break down the code of silence allowing it to thrive‘.

The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel. For some reason this image continually recurs to me when I write about our current times. Perhaps it is that I see so many echoes of he European 14th century in our now.

Malleable published by moi…

Made a quick promo film for the book:

Sixteen year old Nick Seche is a gamer, a nerd.  It’s 2024 and Seche wins a beta trial of a new tech, sensory immersive gaming unit and program from innovative gaming guru, Daichi Arata, head of Phantom Gaming. It’s a game apparently locked in the mundanity of small-town USA but Arata’s game  promises so much more. It goes way beyond the virtual and plunges Nick into a world that becomes scarily not at all everyday. Via the game’s sensors and lightspeed technology Seche lives and breathes his character, Norman Mene. And things in his own world (Sydney Australia) begin to resonate with the world of Burris (the small mid-west town where the game is set); the game spirals out of control, Pleasantville meets Gremlins – hackers made substantial, gamers intruding on game space and politics out of control in downtown main street. In the meantime, back in Sydney, Seche is contacted via a strange entity he dubs the voice. Via the voice he is led to believe that the game is a simulation environment which allows sinister background entities to data mine players. It may be gaming but the stakes are real world – and Nick Seche is a guinea pig.

Malleable is an older YA crossover adult novella, with some elements of a bizarre magic realism (think Marquez merged with blue screen) but firmly anchored in our reality. It should chime a number of topical bells (think data mining, fake news, Facebook scandals and alternative realities) for readers. I am not certain that there are too many recently released books which come to mind for comparison but it belongs in part to that generic group of dystopian books such as Daz 4 Zoe by Robert Swindells, Feed by M.T. Anderson and also some of Scott Westerfeld’s earlier work. There may also be some resonances with Suzanne Collins Hunger Games trilogy. Donald J Trump wouldn’t like this book.

EXTRACT

“Two days later, 5 grand worth of high-tech candy was trotted in our front door and up to my bedroom by FedEx dudes. Once they’d gone, I had it unboxed and scattered around and on my desk in about one minute.

A whole pile of what looked like I’d won a prize in some futuristic gaming show (which I guessed was pretty much true) sat on the desk in front of me. And on the floor, my desk not being enough real estate for all this hardware. I looked at it, grinning like some crazed cat. I caught my expression reflected in my window. If Dad or Rick had walked in on me then (I’d told them of my big win) I would have been sitting there looking like some idiot. It was one of the best moments of my life.

The biggest thing was a cube, a dark grey metallic thing. It looked not only impressive (made of some space age material I did not recognise) and kind of dangerous. I could see Han Solo using it to fire photon cannons at imperial threats. I connected the gaming cube first, not an act of gaming genius as it had a sticker on it: Plug me in first, then hit the power button.

Which I did. Princess Leia of Star Wars fame appeared as a flickering hologram, a wonderful imitation of the famous scene from the old 70s first film. Yes, I sighed. She waited. “Go on,” I said. Voice activation was pretty much standard these days.

“No need for help, anyone at home’ee,” the Princess said. I snorted at the feeble reference to the line Leia says in the beginning of that sequence; this was great… “

Welcome to our mediaeval times

How now reminds me of the 14th Century

Voltaire said that history may not repeat itself but that people always do and thus I might make merry with comparisons of our NOW with Mediaeval Europe, most notably the 14th century version. Reading historian Barbara Tuchman’s excellent A distant mirror has prompted me to the realisation that our contexts may be different but our vexatious nature is not (unoriginal, I know, but still). So I’ll argue that in this early 21st century venality and appalling inequity is again (still) on general display, that institutions are both revered and detested, that pandemics dominate and fundamentally change our world, and that reason seems lost amid a sea of conspiracy theories, despite the best efforts of some authorities. As Julia Hurst and Zoe Laidlaw observed recently, ‘…identity is rooted in history, and so history cannot be escaped.’

          I used to assume that the worst excesses of a monetised humanity have really been a sort-of-recent invention of neoliberalism (maybe it’s my human nature to think we live in the worst of times) but it seems 14th C. Europe also let homo economicus have full rein. Tuchman notes that ‘money could buy any kind of dispensation: to legitimize children, of which the majority were those of priests and prelates; to divide a corpse for the favorite custom of burial in two or more places; to permit nuns to keep two maids; to permit a converted Jew to visit his unconverted parents [favourable conversion rates on display]; to marry within the prohibited degree of consanguinity (with a sliding scale of fees for the second, third, and fourth degrees); to trade with the infidel Moslem (with a fee required for each ship on a scale according to cargo); to receive stolen goods up to a specific value.’

And now?

            ‘Writing of “incapable and ignorant men” who could buy any office they wanted from the Curia, [Tuchman notes that the 14th century] chronicler Henry of Hereford went to the heart of the dismay when he wrote, “Look … at the dangerous situation of those in their charge, and tremble!” Donald J Trump appointed Scott Pruitt, well to do climate sceptic and Republican, to head the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s akin to appointing a pimp to head a church. Well did we look on and tremble. As he left office, Trump outraged many (sorry, continued to outrage many) with his appointments. LGBTQ Nation (2021) notes that ‘on his way out the door, Trump is packing presidential commissions and boards with anti-LGBTQ politicians and conspiracy theorists, sanctifying their bad behavior.’ Among them are right wing advocates Marcus Bachmann, David Beattie, Charlie Kirk, Larry Arnn and many more (almost all of them white males of considerable means).

            Conspicuous wealth and an increasing gap between rich and poor characterised the 14th century as it does our current plutocratic societies.  Petrarch (1304 – 1374) notes that ‘the popes were descendants of “the poor fishermen of Galilee”—but were now “loaded with gold and clad in purple.” John XXII, a Pope with the touch of Midas who ruled from 1316 to 1334, bought for his own use forty pieces of gold cloth from Damascus for 1,276 gold florins and spent even more on furs, including an ermine-trimmed pillow. The clothing of his retinue cost 7,000 to 8,000 florins a year’ (Tuchman). Who knows how much the great mass of the poor had? Chrystia Freeland notes in  Plutocrats, The rise of the new global super rich that the average 1980 CEO in the US had a wage 42 times the average income in the country; by 2012, the multiple was 380. No doubt recent events and presidents have increased this gap (though Biden may change things). According to the UK’s Guardian, there has been a 117% increase in wages for the wealthiest 1% of Brits (in real terms) since 1986, compared with an average wage increase of 47% for the rest of the population. The Poverty program [http://www.povertyprogram.com/statistics.php] estimated that, in 2011, 1 in 7 people in the European Union lived in poverty, while the ratio was 1 in 6 in the US.

            Corruption is systemic. It must be, otherwise it could not exist (& thrive). Tuchman writes that ‘when [14th century] bishops purchased benefices at the price of a year’s income, they passed the cost down, so that corruption spread through the hierarchy from canons and priors to priesthood and cloistered clergy, down to mendicant friars and pardoners…’ This century asks how many of the great financiers of our global financial crisis were found guilty of crimes?  The Financial Times states that (opposed to the myth that no-one was held accountable for the GFC) 47 bankers did jail time, the greatest number (25) in Iceland, 11 in Spain, 7 in Ireland but only one in the USA, where the most invidious were perhaps at play.  Investopedia states:

‘As the last CEO of Lehman Brothers, Richard “Dick” Fuld’s name was synonymous with the financial crisis. He steered Lehman into subprime mortgages and made the investment bank one of the leaders in packaging the debt into bonds that were then sold to investors.

While other banks were bailed out, Lehman was allowed to fail, in spite of Fuld’s pleas to policymakers. Fuld claims he never received a golden parachute at his exit from Lehman, but he did make more than $466 million during his tenure. Today, Fuld maintains a low-key public profile, but he is the head of Matrix Private Capital Group, a high-end wealth management firm he helped found in 2016.’

The church, as the primary institution of mediaeval Europe, did good as well. We cannot forget this (in the interests of balance). ‘The Church, not the government, sponsored the care of society’s helpless—the indigent and sick, orphan and cripple, the leper, the blind, the idiot—by indoctrinating the laity in the belief that alms bought them merit and a foothold in Heaven. Based on this principle, the impulse of Christian charity was self-serving but effective. Nobles gave alms daily at the castle gate to all comers, in coin and in leftover food from the hall. Donations from all sources poured into the hospitals, favorite recipients of Christian charity. Merchants bought themselves peace of mind for the non-Christian business of making profit by allocating a regular percentage to charity. This was entered in the ledger under the name of God as the poor’s representative. A Christian duty of particular merit was the donation of dowries to enable poor girls to marry, as in the case of a Gascon seigneur of the 14th century who left 100 livres to “those whom I deflowered, if they can be found”’ (Tuchman). In that seigneur’s words one perhaps finds the chief reason for much of the good that was done back then: a guilty conscience. In our times, we can point at our contemporary institutions like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (whose website is headed ‘ALL LIVES HAVE EQUAL VALUE: we are impatient optimists working to reduce inequity’) and see that the comparison holds true, perhaps even so far as in many of our current philanthropists doing good for much the same reason as our Gascon seigneur.

            The European 14th century did not have national governments and states as we do. It’s prime institution was, as mentioned, the Roman Catholic Church. 14th century satire and complaints about the church are numerous (think of Chaucer’s character, the Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales,  or Boccaccio’s Decameron). Priests are greedy, lecherous and punitive, bishops uncaring, and the church as a whole presented as venal and hypocritical, but we know about these complaints because they were written down and have survived. We also know the church was near universal in its influence. The church’s culture was part of the society’s fabric, its culture – to reject the church’s teachings and hopes abandoned you to limbo.  Tuchman writes that ‘Christianity was the matrix of medieval life.’

            So, what is our matrix? Is it Economics?

Perhaps.

            Capitalism is the economics model which expresses how most of us live in the 21st century. A neoliberal view of that says that we may indeed be homo economicus. That is a notion both detested and glorified. Many of us fear our governments have become government of the people by the corporation and for the corporation. Consider (again) that global financial crisis of 2007-09. Did it move us away from the practise of neoliberal capitalism with its enormous inequities and indifference to communal well-being? No; our current pandemic woes show us such.

Many commentators (among them George Monbiot, Naomi Klein, and Dr. Omer Javed [Pakistan’s leading economist]) have pointed to how government actions in and after the GFC simply reinforced the very practices that had produced the crisis, with support for banks, fossil fuel companies and other institutions owned and controlled by neoliberal capitalists. Many fear we may be making the same grave errors with the current pandemic. Our Covid crisis indicates that a debate about lives versus the economy (such a one as they apparently had even in mediaeval times) shows both some faith in government (business could not solve national problems that were beyond the scope of any one business, no matter how large) and much condemnation. It is a case of both contempt for government (that apparently owes its primary allegiance to neoliberal business as usual) and a fundamental belief that governments can be good and do the right thing. ‘Democracy [which our governments allegedly are] aint dead,’ so to speak, just waiting to reassure most of the people; like our mediaeval populace, people now still have faith that democratic governance is our matrix. Thus the apparent parallel paradoxes of knowing the church is greedy and corrupt and yet offers us the DNA of our belief structure in the 14th century, and our contemporary distrust of government while holding out with knowledge that it is all we’ve got and hope that it may remember its democratic ideals.

            Pandemics afflict our world more often than most people realise; usually zoonotic diseases that jump some barrier between wilderness and human society.  We know, we detest, we wish gone the SARS-CoV-2 derived one of now. Most of us will also know of what was subsequently called the 14th century’s Black Death but which those of the time labelled the ‘Pestilence’ or ‘Great Mortality’. It killed about one third of much of the mediaeval old world’s population. Yersina pestis was the bacteria that caused the plague, spread primarily via rats and fleas but with an air borne variant that enhanced contagion. The ‘Pestilence’ fundamentally re-ordered mediaeval society, helping to end feudalism, ushering in an accelerated Renaissance and ultimately the alleged rise of reason and distrust of faith and superstition.

            I say alleged because, just as with papal edicts insisting that people not blame the Jews,  and despite other authorities attempting to have people act responsibly, conspiracy theories and the irrational often held sway in the 14th century. As it does now. Tuchman states that 14th century ‘medical thinking, trapped in the theory of astral influences, stressed air as the communicator of disease, ignoring sanitation or visible carriers…’ While we can applaud our modern medicine for its grasp of bacteria and the immune system and vaccines (or their absence) we can say that, despite the difference in context and the states of medical knowledge, there isn’t that much to distinguish us from the less desirable acts (and thinking) of mediaeval times. We have ex (thank God for the EX) presidents advocating the injection of bleach, and people who assign blame to Sino experimentation, or G5 technologies or UN inspired agendas. Or all of them.

            Mediaeval doctors operated (usually) to the best of their abilities and within the extent of conventional wisdom. Tuchman notes that ‘notwithstanding all their charts and stars, and medicaments barely short of witches’ brews, doctors gave great attention to diet, bodily health, and mental attitude. Nor were they lacking in practical skills. They could set broken bones, extract teeth, remove bladder stones, remove cataracts of the eye with a silver needle, and restore a mutilated face by skin graft from the arm. They understood epilepsy and apoplexy as spasms of the brain. They used urinalysis and pulse beat for diagnosis, knew what substances served as laxatives and diuretics, applied a truss for hernia, a mixture of oil, vinegar, and sulphur for toothache, and ground peony root with oil of roses for headache.’ 21st century doctors operate (usually) to the best of their abilities and within the extent of our conventional wisdom, and they save innumerable lives, despite fools and conspiracists.

            Like our mediaeval brethren, some of us even see the hand of modern Jewry (or some other bigoted substitute) in our current malaise. The media – even Josh Frydenberg – has noted a rise in anti-Semitism, but nothing (hopefully) quite so bad as what happened to Jews all over Europe in the 14th century.  Pope Clement VI issued a papal bull in 1348 ‘in which he said that Christians who imputed the pestilence to the Jews had been “seduced by that liar, the Devil,” and that the charge of well-poisoning and ensuing massacres were a “horrible thing.” He pointed out that “by a mysterious decree of God” the plague was afflicting all peoples, including Jews; that it raged in places where no Jews lived, and that elsewhere they were victims like everyone else; therefore the charge that they caused it was “without plausibility.” He urged the clergy to take Jews under their protection as he himself offered to do in Avignon, but his voice was hardly heard against local animus’ (Tuchman). Sounds familiar, doesn’t it.  For some of our deplorable contemporaries, it’s still down to Judaism, but others blame the Chinese or the UN or simply insist that the sciences of virology and epidemiology  don’t exist. Reason is reviled.

            So it’s true that we may not repeat history but people now are making much the same mistakes as were made about 600 years ago. I wonder if its true that first world peoples value history more than most. Most first nations peoples seem to lack a history of vicissitudes related to pandemics, other than those brought in by Europeans. The notion of ‘knowing that which has come before helping us to understand ways forward’ is a wise one. And thus this essay makes yet another attempt at having us learn from history. Learn of better ways forward. Let us come out of this pandemic better than we were going in.

Just what is overpopulation?

Another extract from another book for all those intelligent 10 to 12 year olds out there, and that’s all of them.

Overpopulation is a word that gets all its meaning from the over bit. Population is good, so the story goes (unless it’s nits in your hair), overpopulation isn’t. Overpopulation means you’ve gone over the limits.

Too many people means you could run out of things like:

  • Food (including pizza)
  • Water
  • Land and space to move
  • Air (if it’s really bad)

<Art of a girl squeezed by dozens more into a lift. “I can’t breathe,” she’s saying. Caption – You can definitely overpopulate a lift.>

A famous old dude named Thomas Malthus said that increasing our food supply was good for people. For a while, he added. He thought growing more and more food meant that populations would eventually grow too big (well fed people have more babies) and a lot of people would eventually starve. We’d have a population crash because we’d overpopulated and outgrown our food supply.

Malthus thought it was mostly poor people who’d suffer from overpopulation (which I guess was good news for wealthy people). He said there was a best or optimal population that we should not get bigger than but humans couldn’t help themselves. God (Malthus was a churchman) had imposed limits on population. Humans weren’t good at listening to God.

<Art of a female goddess sitting in the clouds proclaiming: “Thou should not have too many children or I’ll take away the food.”>

Malthus got it wrong; sort of. He certainly would never have thought the earth could grow enough food to feed its current near 8 billion people. That’s 8,000,000,000 bodies. We do in fact grow more than enough food to feed all those 8 billion. We are not so good at getting the food to everyone though, which is one reason why we have starving people.

Malthus was – despite getting how many was too many incorrect – very clever, and we can’t blame him for getting it wrong. He was basing his ideas on everything his world knew at that time. And they didn’t have engineered seeds and tractors and advanced agricultural techniques.

Malthus knew what had happened in the past. Good times meant people grew more food. The population increased. It got too big for conditions and the food supply. Then things went ‘not so good’. Famines happened. People died.

The most famous case of this ‘too many people, bad things happening’ was something called THE PLAGUE, aka The Black Death.

<Art of death riding a rat.>

The most famous plague of all (there had been earlier ones) happened in the 14th Century. It started in China and then spread through the Middle East and Europe. It even reached Russia. Malthus knew that before the plague came along there had been years and years of warmer than average temperatures in Europe. People grew more and more food and the population also grew. Too large, he’d argue.

Then it suddenly got colder. Food supplies fell and people started to sicken. We were already not in a good way when along came Yersinia pestis, or the bug that causes the plague. The population crashed. There had been perhaps 750 million people in Europe before the plague. One in three or even as many as half of them died (not all of them from the plague), which means the population fell in the space of a few years (1347 to 1349) to somewhere between 375 to 500 million.

If you’re keen to learn more, any encyclopaedia [1]will have information on the 14th Century plague.  

<Art to mimic the picture below>

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.png

And if you want to see how some famous comedians deal [1] with The Plague and this horrible period in history, watch this.

How long can we keep on growing the population?

The big question remains – how many people is the right number? Sure, better agriculture and SCIENCE (I’m a big fan of science) means we can have a lot more people than Malthus ever thought possible, but how many is the right number?


[1] This famous scene about bringing out the dead features a rather rude word right at the end: https://youtu.be/QcbR1J_4ICg


[1] Like this one: https://www.britannica.com/event/Black-Death/Effects-and-significance

Good government

I’m writing a series of books called The big fat NO debates for a young audience (aged 10 – 12). Here is an extract from a debate about what makes a good government [without included art brief details]:

Eskify lists 10 great rulers (who governed) in ancient times. If you’re interested go to my WordPress post on GOOD GOVERNMENT and check it out. Ask yourself what all these great rulers/governments had in common. What they provided was:

  • Stable government. People felt safe and secure. THAT’s important, because:
    • People prospered, being safe and secure means they had enough food and so on.
    • The government established rules and laws
The funny thing about almost all these great rulers of the past is that they had to fight wars. Sometimes they fought to conquer somewhere and sometimes to put down enemies of their state. The same thing is true of more recent ‘great rulers’ like:
  • Umar ibn al-Khatab
  • Genghis Khan
  • Catherine the Great
  • Elizabeth the first of England
  • Akbar – The Great
  • Napoleon Bonaparte

If you want to know who these people are, look at this site[2]. Again, look at the WordPress blog if you want to check out the ‘facts’ about them.

What’s it all mean?

I guess we have to admit (oh debaters) that you can’t guarantee a good government just by having a good leader. Or even two. (In general, though, you can guarantee bad government if you have a bad leader.)

If you remember (or have read – if not, go out and buy it immediately; that’s me being a bad governor) Book 1, you might remember this:

All… people want pretty much the same things as you and me.

•           Love

•           To feel safe

•           A bit (or more) of fun

•           Somewhere comfy to sleep

•           Friends

•           Food and water

It’s not fair but a lot of people do NOT get these things…

Good government is about helping people achieve these things. The fancy debating term is ACCESS. Everybody should have access to education and shelter and health services and good food and healthy water and so on and so forth (phew). It’s government’s job to govern for this outcome (more fancy debating language).

Good governments have rules about how they govern. This is called a constitution. Many constitutions say that people have rights and freedoms and should be free and not go hungry, et cetera.

Good governments often provide things for people to help them live better lives, like education, health services, affordable houses, roads and public transport, stuff called infrastructure (which includes those roads and also electricity and such). The government does not charge a lot for people to have these things. Sometimes (and for some people) these services are free.

Good governments do not punish people for being poor. And it doesn’t blame them.

How does the government pay for these things?

Taxes.

Yep, good governments tax people to pay for services that help ALL the people have better lives. It’s that simple really.

If you live in a society where some people earn more money than others (and that is almost every society) the government should make people who earn more money pay more tax. They’ll still be well off, but so will everyone else be a little better off. Everyone will be happier.


[1] Eskify lists these 10 great rulers: http://eskify.com/10-most-amazing-ancient-rulers-from-history/

[2] See https://www.stepbystep.com/top-10-greatest-historical-rulers-of-all-time-91198/

An alternative truth

The opening of a novella about this pandemic; just set somewhere else entirely.

In a world with alternative truths what we would perhaps prefer is an alternative world on which to trial them.

Black Death Danse Macabre
An image from the Black Death era. Until now, maybe the most infamous of pandemics.

Part 1 – Beginnings

December 13

Nahuw, Anihc

Moon is about to place an Uggo piece into what he hopes will be a Star Conflict alliance fighter when a man staggers into the alley. He is coughing violently and has tottered over to a wall, which he uses to prop himself up. Cough, cough, hack, bent over as if he is dying. Moon recalls his dead grandfather who worked in the mills but smoked too much, Mama said, though papa says it was the pollution killed him. Moon reminds himself of where he is and what he was watching. So he sees the man push himself up and come stumbling down the alley, silhouetted by the light of the street behind him. Though he is entering shadow now and Moon cannot see if he is even young or old. But still he’s coughing hard, and staggering.

The man wobbles further down the alley, growing unsteadier with each step and then, under the fire escape landing outside Moon and his parents’ flat where Moon is playing with his Uggo, coughing very violently, suddenly, again, he goes down among the bins and barrels.

Moon wonders if the man has been poisoned. It happens, he knows. Part of Moon, who is watching this unfold as if it’s his favourite tele show with Inspector Tooler, is wondering just what he will tell Hee at school when they go back from the New Moon Festival Holydays.

The man coughs again, a great rattling thing, as if he’s breathing his last. A barrel rolls out and no one else has heard; not a light or voice is raised. They are all watching the tele, Moon thinks. And the whole earth is quiet, suddenly. Moon shakes his head and recalls that he is not in some game or fantasy world and goes in to tell his parents about the man.  

Nahuw Central Hospital

Doctor Tsu Wenliang sees them rush the gurney in. Through the window of the room where he is writing a report on another death and what he wants to call an outbreak, he sees Nao, the nurse in charge; he cocks his eyebrows; she nods yes. Another one, he thinks. Crosses out the number 30. Writes 31. He hopes he will not be crossing out the number 4 in the deaths column.

He picks up his phone and says ‘23.’ The connection made, Doctor Miang, the registrar, barks, ‘Yes, Tsu, what is it?’

‘Another one,’ says Tsu. ‘We need to call this in.’

‘Are you sure?’

Public domain computer derived image of SARS-CoV-2.

‘No but he’s just come in and it will be. It’s the same pneumonia-like thing. But this isn’t right, not for pneumonia.’

‘No,’ says Miang. ‘No. Nothing to GHA. Not yet. Let me contact Gnikep.’

‘Why. They’ll stall. Party conference’s coming up.’

‘Tsu, you say foolish things. And I said no. Let’s wait on more results. We need data.’

‘We need to get this out.’

‘No. We wait. I’ll come down.’

‘How long?’ Tsu asks.

‘Until we know for certain. I want pathology data.’

‘If you say so. But they’re understaffed and I’m not sure they know how urgent this is. You told them.’

The phone clicks dead and Tsu hangs up. He knows Miang hasn’t put an urgent on it. It’s the weekend and a long one with the public holydays added. Doesn’t want to pay overtime.

Nao taps on the window. Yes, she mouths.

He smiles at the tablet on which he is electrostylusing his report. Puts the stylus down. ‘Convert,’ he says and he watches his Anglish notes (all doctors must speak Anglish, the language of medicine) assemble digitally. The crossed out 30 vanishes, becomes 31.

That’s just here, Tsu thinks. I wonder how Ho is going at South and Jiang at West too. He shakes his head; he’s already argued with Jiang, who always toes the party line. But will Ho send, he wonders. He said he would, if I did. I’ll call him.

Send? the screen flashes at him. He has the comp muted. To hell with it, he thinks.

‘Send,’ he says, and the report goes. He knows where it will end up, the very room. He’d had leave to go there five years back, his wife, Sun Nah, here teaching, surety of his good behaviour. She is dead now and he knew that he wishes he could go with his message to the room marked EAST AISA in Aveneg where his email will lodge and stir up some grave concerns, more than one of them political in nature.

‘This is new,’ he tells the tablet.

‘Dictation?’ it flashes.

Yes, he thinks. And though he prefers the slow unwinding of notation from his electrostylus maybe for this he needs the rush of words by mouth. He is tired of the Miangs and Jiangs of this world.

‘Dictation now,’ he says.

‘Supplementary Report, Nahuw Central Hospital.’

‘Mystery Pneumonia-like, possible SARS virus; Dr. Tsu Wenliang diagnostician.

I have grave concerns…’

December 27

Nahuw, Anihc

An Li is sick, lungs filled with fluid and something heavier and she is sure she is drowning. A nurse is looking at her and An Li cannot quite tell what the look means. Her head is hammering at her sensibilities and she is very afraid, suddenly.

‘Am I dying,’ she asks? The nurse looks at her and doesn’t answer.

Maybe she didn’t hear me, An Li thinks. Her voice is just a whisper, even with more effort; she feels she almost has to shout. ‘Am I dying?’

‘Oh no,’ the nurse says, smiles. Maybe An Li does not look convinced because the nurse goes on. ‘No, no, but you are very sick. Like these others.’ The nurse ushers with her eyes for An Li to look. And An Li lifts her heavy head and sees the corridor full of gurneys and beds and the nurses and doctors rushing, or still and fiddling with some piece of equipment and most of them wearing masks and she thinks, I am dying. I am dying. Here.

… To be continued

 

Matters knot

A both aye’ve scene on downy wings,

boughed beneath moonlit knight.

And ate black cats in Alis

rooms, two fat to eke a mouse.

Eye’ve Romed, I’ve clowned,

aye’ve neighsayed big gots

Playered colour on a feeled,

without the u. vs. me.

Meet in the sandwich, meat in the language.

We wander lonely as a cloud,

we wonder weather it’s aloud

to let these words, black, brown, or brindle,

be themselves.

Bee them salves.

However they wish to spell their whethery id.