World on Fire

Today is Tuesday June 2nd. Kia ora katoa.

Yesterday it was cold and rained in the afternoon, after drizzling in the morning. Today it is fine and much warmer.

I was rather shocked to read a couple of days ago that a film crew had arrived in Wellington, direct from Los Angeles, in a Boeing 787, to work on a sequel to the James Cameron blockbuster “Avatar”. Furthermore, these folk are being quarantined at the taxpayer’s expense, in a Wellington Hotel. Now at least it’s not Rio Tinto (more on that later), and James Cameron is a rich American, vegan, and lives in the Wairarapa where he has a vegan restaurant in Carterton. All this is well and good, and surely it’s good to stimulate the economy in this way. But even so, I (and I think some others) feel a sense of violation. We have just been through a severe lockdown, where you couldn’t even buy takeaway food, and so dodged a bullet, and proved we could survive quite well during this special time, and it seems like sacrilege to bring these folk in, when many family members are effectively stranded, separated by the pandemic, and having to stay put wherever they find themselves. Furthermore, many of us have sons, daughters and grandchildren overseas, stuck wherever they are; the places where they live may have made good sense when those decisions were made, but they are now hotspots for the pandemic. The fact that a Los Angeles – Wellington direct flight is not an option for us – you can’t fly there from Wellington, just adds to the sense of pique. I guess money talks, loudly. You can’t say this government isn’t doing things to get industries going again, and New Zealand is now an attractive safe haven, away from a Covid 19 hotspot in Los Angeles. But given that a Boeing 797 could apparently land without incident at Wellington Airport, I see no need for another runway extension. We live on shaky ground, as we have been reminded several times during the last few days, with earthquakes centred north-east of Levin and in Taranaki.

Meanwhile, I discovered, from listening to a podcast (it’s amazing what you learn!), that Rio Tinto have blasted an Aboriginal site (Pilbara) where there is evidence of human life 46,000 years ago. I also read this story in a small column in the Dom Post. An Aboriginal group were about to hold celebrations there, when they discovered that Rio Tinto had obtained government permission, without consulting or even informing them, to blast the site for a mining development.

I would have to record that I think the Australian government’s treatment of the Aboriginal people has been appalling. There was little news of them during the extensive bush fires from November through to January; I haven’t heard one word about how they are faring during the current pandemic.  I hope that, unlike black and coloured people in most places, they are not badly affected, but I fear that this illness will add to their general sense of desperation. It’s as though the Australian white people, having been themselves victims of a cruel British justice system, are determined to wreak that on the indigenous people of Australia.  Aboriginal people have a rich heritage of art and survival and of making beautiful and intricate things. In a pandemic, as in any emergency, we are surely reduced to basic survival needs. There may not be much room for gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, keto, or other dietary persuasions – you may have to eat whatever is to hand and be thankful.

Meanwhile, unrest/peaceful and not-so peaceful protests aroused by the death of George Floyd in police custody continue in many large American cities, and across the world: London, Berlin, Auckland, and even in Perth, Australia. I doubt if there were several thousand demonstrators in New Zealand, as reported in the Guardian, but there were significant numbers. These are large and meaningful movements of people, most wearing masks; there has been some burning and looting, but to my knowledge those protesting have not threatened human life. Americans’ shocked reaction prompts again the question: Just how is it acceptable for black people to protest?  Now we have incident after incident of police violence brought up again; some, we had probably forgotten about, but while the US police are scary, they remain terrifying to black and coloured people. Their “warrior” cult enforces the thought that might is right; that black lives are somehow less worthy than white lives, and that black people don’t really count for anything or do anything useful: a CNN reporter, who happened to be black, was arrested.

So just how should black folk protest, what would be acceptable? What will it take for things to change? Many have tried to change police culture over the years, as many have tried to reduce gun violence and mass shootings. The rest of the world looks on amazed, terrified, and astonished, that these things are still such major issues.  There is argument, as there was in Martin Luther King’s time, about how to protest, successfully, and acceptably. Some police are in sympathy with those protesting: some, like Colin Kaepernick, took a knee. The Houston Police Chief spoke very movingly to Christiane Amanpour on CNN. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke yesterday saying that violence doesn’t solve anything; he spoke in a much more moving manner today, having empathy with some of the systemic wrongs and injustices that black people face on a daily basis. The President, meanwhile, just seemed to make things worse, as is his wont. Talk about pouring gasoline on the fire (a comment heard frequently); he demonstrates time and again that he does not intend to address the issues causing concern; rather, he talks about “thugs”, “terrorists”, “shooting” (as a response to looting) and calls democratic governors “jerks” for not getting things in their states under control. This came after he took cover in a bunker when Washington protests became personally threatening. The epitome of courage and leadership he is not.

Meanwhile, the spread of Covid 19 is now no longer the matter of prime concern, if it ever was. Trump is so over it, as I suspect Boris Johnson is too. But you can’t say No to the virus, or nuke it, or even know its battle plans. Perhaps it’s just as whimsical as these so-called leaders, or heads of government: perhaps it likes chaos, too. One feature of all this, as leaders have abandoned leadership, is the lack of good scientific advice. This demonstrates time and time again that there is so much we still don’t know about this virus: we do know that it’s very infectious, it loves crowded gatherings, it can make you really ill; we still don’t have a vaccine, or an effective treatment.

While scientific and medical knowledge has been decried, some formerly respected institutions have seriously undermined their own credibility, such as the CDC, and Stanford University. At a time when we would look to scientists for knowledge and advice, this seems to be sadly lacking. Test results have been shown to be flawed, in many cases; test results have been mixed up (the CDC); testing has been seriously hard to get in many areas; contact tracing has been largely ineffective; and then there are asymptomatic carriers: perhaps there are so many, they would make the numbers look better? Nonetheless, the numbers, probably largely understated, tell their inexorable toll – that this virus is very infectious, and that some people get very ill indeed, and that up to 10% of infected people die of it. And now we’re all afraid of a second wave. We dread opening up our New Zealand borders  for fear of what my happen.

During any kind of protest, or demonstration, it’s difficult to maintain so-called “social distancing”. One hopes, more than ever, that people will be safe, from illness or any kind of violence, and that their sometimes desperate struggles will not be for nothing.

That’s it for now. Nga mihi nui.

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