Thursday, 19 March 2020

Australia’s grave failure

With the whole of life in Australia likely to be altered for up to eighteen months by the COVID-19 – originally known as “novel coronavirus” – pandemic and being extremely angry at the risks of travelling on public transport as I like to do, it stands remarkable that some of the resource-poorest nations in the world have been the few able to properly respond, as Time demonstrated four days ago.

As resource-impoverished Taiwan demonstrated, Australia could have dealt with this pandemic by:
  1. pre-emptively ensuring complete isolation from known sources by immediately grounding passenger planes and ships, preferably without costly mitigation to airlines
  2. ensuring as many people as possible are tested and isolated if positive
  3. immediately sanitising and sterilising all large indoor meeting places and public transit vehicles
  4. aiming to raise as much money as possible for these purposes
    • A temporary $1 or even $2 per litre levy on all motor fuels would I feel be highly suitable for this purpose
    • even an $2 levy at the maximum price in the weekly cycle would leave petrol at $3.60 per litre
    • given Australia’s lamentable greenhouse emissions record such a price in no way stands unjust
The problem was the power of vested interest lobby groups, a worse problem in Australia than just about anywhere in the world. Air transport, for instance, would have vehemently opposed an immediate shutdown of operations without mitigation. Given the power these corporations hold globally – as seen in debates over greenhouse gas emissions, where corporations who should be paying the full costs of climate change globally can increase their emissions – they possess great responsibility in times of crisis.
1946 Wisden similar to one of mine held at a bookbinder
These have not been fulfilled at all: the Liberal Party government is clearly more concerned to protect the mining magnates’ wealth than to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at minimal cost to ordinary Australians.

In recent discussions with my mother, she has noticed how Australia has not even been spraying its public transport to reduce the risk of transmission in the most ecologically necessary of all social services. In contrast, East Asian nations are spraying even external areas of their cities, as I watched on a video yesterday. Australia with its immense natural resources ought certainly to have enough money to do this so that public transport and other businesses can have their risk minimised.

As things stand, there exists a risk of a complete shutdown of public transport in Melbourne, and even of important services that hold some of my own property including a 1946 Wisden – although I have accepted my mother driving me there if the shop be still open. There is also the risk that there could be permanent changes to Australia’s economy and the shutdown of many small businesses. All of this would have been averted if Australia had responded promptly. So would (Australian rules) football and rugby games behind closed doors – a not improbably permanent move even beyond when and if the pandemic does subside.

The WHO’s blind spot

In recent days with the threat of a complete lockdown in Australia, and already being extremely angry at the potential loss of public transport which I so love, as well as not being able to go to public libraries, there is one thing I have realised.

That is that the World Health Organization – who declared COVID-19 a pandemic eight days ago – has a major blind spot about the quarantine of international travellers.

Have a look at the final question on this extremely familiar (to me) Australian incoming passenger card:
Australian incoming passenger card. Note that there is no question about visiting South or East Asia, although that region’s ecology is more suitable to microbe growth than Africa or eastern South America
The question reads:
“Were you in Africa, South/Central America or the Caribbean in the last 6 days?”
The reason for this requirement is to exclude dangerous infectious diseases – mainly yellow fever – from Australia. Tropical Asia has never had yellow fever, which originated in prehistoric times from African monkeys and spread with slavery to tropical Latin America. Yellow fever was the first virus to be isolated – even before the invention of the electron microscope – and for this reason tropical Asia, even at much lower levels of development than today, successfully quarantined it.

Nonetheless, as Anthony Mills and Antoni Milewski showed in their ‘Does Life Consistently Maximise Energy Intensity’ – which celebrates its tenth anniversary this month – the most favourable environment for microbes is one with an abundance of catabolic nutrients. Catabolic nutrients are almost always chalcophile elements, which form covalent bonds with less electronegative nonmetals like carbon, phosphorus and sulfur. Because they are highly volatile and form dense sulfide minerals, chalcophile elements are, on Earth, bidirectionally depleted from the crust. They are depleted both by:
  1. core formation which is estimated to take up 99 percent of the dense chalcophile minerals
  2. evaporation into and from the atmosphere which loses the volatile chalcophiles to space
Within the crust chalcophile elements are intensely concentrated at plate boundaries where they can be uplifted from greater depths. Consequently, they are highly enriched in areas of high mountains, excluding mountains built from acidic igneous rocks, and further depleted on old tropical cratons.

If we follow Mills and Milewski’s criteria and add the requirement of hot or warm temperatures for microbial growth, tropical Asia, alongside Mesoamerica and Andean South America, becomes more favourable for microbial growth than less eutrophic Africa or non-Hispanophone South America. The humid subtropics of Asia and especially the hypereutrophic Pampas of South America also stand out as highly favourable for microbes.

Thus, even if yellow fever and other endemic infectious diseases are absent from tropical Asia, what COVID-19, and even SARS, does demonstrate is the need for quarantine of travellers exiting tropical and East Asia equal to that for those exiting Africa and Latin America. If travellers had been so quarantined when COVID-19 broke out, it would not have spread into communities outside China.

Friday, 6 March 2020

Not a second “amazing blunder by a plumber”

Around six years ago I discovered a remarkable case in Norway in 2006 of beer instead of waster being connected to a water pipe! It seems utterly incredible to me that a plumber could make the mistake described here.

However, tonight my brother said that recently in Italy there was a second “amazing blunder by a plumber” whereby last Wednesday (4 March 2020), in Castelvetro di Modena about 200 kilometres from Milan, domestic taps started spewing local red Lambrusco wine instead of drinking water.

In reality, however, this was utterly different from the case in Kristiandsund, where beer hoses were hooked by a careless plumber to Miss Haldis Gundersen’s water pipes. Miss Gundersen, a fifty-year-old pub owner, said that the beer was not tempting to her patrons.

In Castelvetro di Modena, however, rather than have pipes wrongly connected, wine due for bottling was accidentally introduced into the local water supply by the ‘Cantina Settevetro’ winery. Unlike in Haldis Gundersen’s bar, plumbers were entirely uninvolved in what was described as a “miracle” of water turning into wine.