Author Archives: Jacqui Greig

Tightrope Walking 2020, Jacqui Greig

Photo by Elisabeth Wales on Unsplash

Michelle’s grandson has told her he’s too old to need band-aids. So now, leaping from stone to stone of the dragonfly shimmering creek, Samuel knows a fall means he will have to grit his teeth and wish away the hurt. It’s their favourite walk; eucalypt scented, dotted with yellow boronia and the jewel-red of mountain devil calyxes. They keep constant watch for the elusive lyre bird singing near his nest in the fern bed.

Samuel is six and for a third of his memory life has lived in a Covid world. He invites his grandmother into his cubby-house shop, with sharp reminders to wear her mask and stand on the X taped to the wooden floor. The lounge room has been taken over by his Lego Covid rescue centre with ambulance, fire-engine, and police car at the ready.

‘Granny! Granny! Come immediately to the rescue centre. You are needed urgently!’

Sunlight falling through the window washes them in its glow as she awaits instructions.
‘These are the Covid dead. You must take them to the cemetery,’he explains, pointing to a pile of Lego figurines heaped in a pick-up truck.

‘I am busy fixing up the Covid sick,’ he adds, busying himself with laying the afflicted on their hospital beds.

On completion of her gruesome task, Granny makes lunch and seats the Covid doctor at the dining table.

‘Granny, how long does it take to get to heaven?’

‘I think it happens pretty quick,’ she reassures.

He nods and, between mouthfuls of cheese and tomato sandwich adds, ‘I’m going to live here, with you, until I’m as old as you are.’

With the meter ticking toward a million dead, and epidemiologists suggesting the number is ten times that, children will live with the effects of the 2020 pandemic year for the rest of their lives. On a global scale this means increased poverty and less health care, the latter already evident with the downturn in vaccination rates in developing nations. Children face decreased access to education and possible loss of family, particularly loss of family elders who are often primary carers for the young. While children seldom become severely unwell with Covid19 the pandemic’s broader ramifications magnify with passing time. The World Health Organisation warns that the improvements in maternal and child mortality made over the past few years could be wiped out as a result of the pandemic.

The effect of stress on pregnant women and young children is already known, as far back as the Dutch potato famine and the 1920 Spanish Flu long term negative consequences of stress have been recorded. In recent years studies have increased our understanding of how these effects occur. Stressors as disparate as a Chilean earthquake, the September 11 attacks, or the sinking of a Swedish ferry, show an association with low-birth weight babies. This likely results from the placenta going into overdrive and producing lots of stress hormones which may slow down foetal growth and increase the risk of early labour. Possible consequences of low birth weight include obesity and childhood diabetes. In the field of epigenetics, a relatively new science which studies small changes in DNA due to environmental factors, the effects of stress on generations to come is also being monitored. These DNA changes potentially pass from mother to baby and further. This new science has blurred our long-term dichotomy of nature vs nurture with respect to children’s physical and psychological health and warns that stressors such as the pandemic should be taken seriously. Government investment to decrease financial burdens on families and to prevent families being rent asunder by pandemic deaths will reap benefits in the long term.

On the penultimate day of September the clock radio wakes me with the catch phrase of this year’s news. At the million mark we have reached another “grim milestone,” as if this death and disease is purposefully leading to a destination. While the Reaper scythes down the elderly, the 2020 New York Film Festival awards its gold medal for ‘best social documentary’ to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s series, ‘Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds’. This unlikely success story won the hearts of Australians and left many tears at its completion. Remarkable for a program about preschool children visiting some, not infrequently grumpy, retirement village residents. The enthusiasm of geriatrician Prof Sue Kurrle, of the Intergenerational Care Project, was infectious, but it was the endearing relationships between the elderly and the children that stole the show.

Intergenerational care is relatively new in Australia whereas other countries have already successfully incorporated it into their care models. There are several studies underway to assess the benefits of these models which vary from frequents visits, as portrayed in the TV series, to shared campus arrangements. The benefits for the elderly were clear to any viewer of the series, as weekly the muscle strengths, personal interactions, and depressions scores of the participants improved. More difficult to measure was the benefit to the children but many parents commented on the youngsters’ improved sociability and empathy. Psycho-geriatrician Nancy Wadsworth writes that programs of this nature decrease harmful intergenerational conflicts and problems of social equity. Covid19 has laid bare just such a social equity conflict.

Nine months into the pandemic my social media feeds, with regular monotony, still posit the brilliant idea of simply isolating the elderly and the vulnerable. Then everyone else can get on with their lives and the economy won’t be trashed. Covid19 has brought to light swathes of armchair experts who have stumbled on blindingly simple insights that epidemiologists, medical experts, statisticians, and modellers have unfortunately missed. US Fox channel’s Tucker Carlson trumpeted the ‘isolate the elderly’ notion just shy of April 1st but he wasn’t playing a prank. The elderly are scattered throughout the community and often live within family groups. The latter is particularly the case in multicultural and disadvantaged communities. How, in Australia, would we isolate all these vulnerable people? Do we reopen Sydney Harbour National Park’s Q station? The views of Manly and The Heads are undoubtedly spectacular, but Victoria’s recent and bitter lesson has emphasised that Covid kills the elderly most efficiently if they are housed together.

Aired on the same US TV show a few weeks later was Texas republican governor Dan Patrick who believed that the elderly were entirely willing to die for the cause of keeping the economy running. This brave, if oblivious of his personal privilege, 79-year-old governor complained that no one had reached out to him as a senior citizen and said, ‘Are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’

‘If that’s the exchange, I’m all in,’ he enthused, adding, ‘There are lots of grandparents out there like me.’

Senator Patrick may have been a trifle short of the mark as it didn’t take long for #NotDying4WallStreet to become the top Twitter trend. Grandparents were apparently not quite ready to stand in line waiting at the Soylent Green factory. Their generation knows that the year 2022 hasn’t yet arrived. When actually asked their opinion many elderly said they would die for their grandchildren but not for the economy.

In 2017 former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott vehemently opposed the euthanasia bill stating, ‘I think we’ll regard this [bill] a sad milestone in our decline as a decent society.’

Covid has apparently adjusted his opinion which now seems to be that nature, presumably in the form of the virus, should be allowed to take its course and families should elect to keep their elderly relatives comfortable. This is a clever, if transparent, conflation of two different issues. One allows passive euthanasia, which in blocking the bill Abbott effectively vetoed, and the other sacrifices healthy and productive elderly for the mirage of economic stability. Abbott has apparently not looked to the consequences of unchecked viral outbreaks in countries like Brazil, India and, the ever-controversial Swedish model. His notions seem neither epidemiologically sound nor humanitarian.

I was Samuel’s age when I spent half a year living with my flamboyant, tousle-haired grandmother. A teacher, artist, writer, and feminist who carried her opinions like a standard before her. Those six months, the clearest memories of my childhood, remain wonder infused. The dawn excursions that saw us set off across the veld to the river while mist still hugged the hollows. She sketched and I discovered brilliant Agama lizards, more rainbow than creature, and watched the yellow-black weaver birds construct their intricate nests. Nests that clung precarious to the thinnest of willow twigs and danced above the water. At night, drowsy under the crazy-block quilt she’d sewn, she wove tales to drift me to sleep. The spy she’d met during the war. How fossils were discovered at Sterkfontein. Why her Pekingese was called Xiao-xiao. She wrote a book about elves and owls, mice and carrots, and dedicated it to her grand-daughter. The hard cover edition retains pride of place on my bookshelf.

South Australia – Flinders ranges – Ikara. Photo by Jacqui Greig

In the year before this nightmare one of fire and pestilence, I visited Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre within the Flinders ranges, known as Ikara, the meeting place, to Adnyamathanha people. They have been inhabitants of this rugged red-rock landscape of mountains and sheltering gums for tens of thousands of years. The fossils at nearby Brachina Gorge speak of further life forms so ancient they are mere swirls inscribed in stones.

At night, with stars burning holes in the darkness, there is a welcome to country in Yura Ngawarla, Adnyamathanha language. Children from the city and local kids, who must have heard the tales a hundred times, sit with knees clasped before the fire and listen, intent faces lit by dancing shadows. Not one stirs as elders pass on culture and life advice the way humanity always has. Next day in Bunyeroo Valley, a red-capped robin, Awi Irta, alights on a reed and I know his brilliant feathered head is a consequence of ignoring his wife. Stories stay with us.

Western society, increasingly obsessed with the young and the beautiful, is quick to discount and discard the elderly. It isn’t surprising that in, Three Uneasy Pieces, Patrick White laments, ‘The callous see us as dispensable objects, like broken furniture or dead flowers’. In contrast, Australian aboriginal communities nurture the importance of elders and their contribution to family life. In aboriginal lore age is less important than wisdom. The Australian Institute of Family Studies tells that, “[elders] hold stories of dreaming, culture, and injustices suffered in the past and keep them safe for youth to understand their place in the world.” In some communities the elders are the only remaining people who speak the local language. Sole survivors to pass on a legacy of words.

The city of Leganes, located on the outskirts of Madrid, is prosaically named after the slime the town was built on and is where suspects of the 2004 Madrid train bombing blew themselves up to evade capture. It is also the only place outside of Melbourne with a street named after Australian rock band AC/DC. In Leganes a group of researchers from Montréal collaborated with doctors from the Autonomous University of Madrid in a human longevity study. They found that elderly who were connected with strong family and social networks had longer ten-year survival. However, merely being part of the family isn’t enough, those people who were respected and who felt they played an important role in family life benefitted most. Blue zones are areas of the world, such as Okinawa in Japan and Icaria in Greece, that boast the highest number of centenarians. These super-elderly have many dietary and exercise habits in common but they are also respected and socially active members of their families and community. Mutual dependence within families increases longevity and decreases depression in the elderly while the young benefit with culture and wisdom.

These days the waiting room chairs stand spaced and the friendly baskets of tattered magazines have disappeared. Patients wait behind masks, absorbed in their phone screens. The silent glide of the door admits a young boy and his grandfather. Hands cup at the sanitation station, clear solution pumped and dutifully spread. The old man sits with the slow deliberation of age and his grandson leans against him, his small hand resting on the man’s arm. The tan of youth as brown as the liver spots of age. Who is looking after who?

I comment to my GP, we’ve known each other since hospital resident days, on the boy and grandfather. He frowns, concerned that the pandemic will leave a generation of anxious, germophobe children in its wake. Psychologists reassure us that if we talk openly and honestly with children, and are not afraid to sometimes say, ‘I don’t know’, they will keep trusting the adults around them and feel safe. Learning to regularly wash our hands, and cough and sneeze into our elbows, are likely long term positive public health measures. Children should not be shielded from the truth, rather they need honest answers and simple, concrete explanations with positive messages. ‘Let’s wash our hands so we can stay safe,’ being better than threatening with the risk of infection. Australia’s 2020 children’s laureate Ursula Dubosarsky captures the essence with her Covid kitten poem:

‘What can we do?’ ‘Well wash your paws,’
Her mother said, ‘And all your claws.’

‘We’ll stay inside a shut the door.
You’ll laugh and hide and read and draw’

And wait until the morning when
Our big old world is right again.

Michelle rings to discuss the latest news, President Trump’s admission to hospital with Covid. Despite deriding and ignoring all scientific advice this elderly man will receive the latest antibody and anti-viral treatments.

Michelle tells me Samuel has created a ‘torch thermometer’ to temperature check each customer entering his Covid-safe shop. Samuel, whose home life is a chaotic mix of itinerates, dogs, cats, processed food and late nights, needs his grandmother more than ever during this pandemic. Not only to decently bury deceased Lego figurines, but for stability, and reassurance, and simple joy. When our grandchildren ask us how we lived now, will we with confidence reply that we walked the pandemic tightrope fairly?

When my son was six months old I bundled him onto the long Sydney to Johannesburg flight to visit his great-grandmother. Each day of our time together she held him in her arms. Weeks later, as the smoke-hazed veld dipped below the wing of the plane circling away from Tambo International airport, I knew I would never see her again. My son grew up with stories of the woman who wrote the “carrot- elf” book and we have a photo of four generations together. At ninety-three my grandmother’s hair was still not grey.


References:

“Aboriginal Cultural Tours: Proudly sharing Adnyamathanha culture with you.” Wilpena Pound Resort, www.wilpenapound.com.au/do/cultural-tours/.

“Australian Birds.” Red capped Robin – Aboriginal information, mdahlem.net, 3 Sept. 2019, mdahlem.net/birds/19/redcrobn_abo.php.

“Strengths of Australian Aboriginal cultural practices in family life and child rearing.” Australian Government: Australian institute of Family Studies, Child Family Community Australia, Sept. 2014, aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/strengths-australian-aboriginal-cultural-practices-fam/theme-3-elderly-family-members.

“Tony Abbott joins Paul Keating in opposing Victoria’s euthanasia bill.” The Guardian, 21 Oct. 2017, www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/21/tony-abbott-joins-paul-keating-in-opposing-victorias-euthanasia-bill.

Armitage, Richard, and Laura Nellums. “COVID-19 and the consequences of isolating the elderly.” The Lancet, vol. 5, no. 5, 19 Mar. 2020, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30061-X.

Baker-Jordan, Skylar. “Thanks, Mr President, but I asked my grandparents and they don’t want to die for your economy.” The Independent, 24 Mar. 2020.

Dubosarsky, Ursula. Ursula Dubosarsky: Australian writer – Children’s laureate 2020-2021, ursuladubosarsky.squarespace.com/.

Fitzgerald, Anneke, et al. “A new project shows combining childcare and aged care has social and economic benefits.” The Conversation, 3 Sept. 2018.

McArdle, Megan. “Here’s why it won’t work to just isolate the elderly and vulnerable.” The Washington Post, 4 Apr. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/03/heres-why-it-wont-work-just-isolate-elderly-vulnerable/.

Schiele, M., Gottschalk, M., & Domschke, K. (2020). The applied implications of epigenetics in anxiety, affective and stress-related disorders – A review and synthesis on psychosocial stress, psychotherapy and prevention. Clinical Psychology Review, 77, 101830.

Torche, F. (2011). The Effect of Maternal Stress on Birth Outcomes: Exploiting a Natural Experiment. Demography, 48(4), 1473-1491.

Wadsworth, Nancy S., and Peter J. Whitehouse. “Future of Intergenerational Programs.” The Encyclopaedia of Elder Care, edited by Eugenia L. Siegler, Elizabeth Capuzeti, and Mathy Mezey, Fourth ed., Prometheus Books, 2004, p. 188.

White, Patrick. Three Uneasy Pieces. First ed., Jonathan Cape, 1988, p. 41.

Wintour, Patrick. “Tony Abbott: some elderly Covid patients could be left to die naturally.” The Guardian, 2 Sept. 2020, www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/sep/01/tony-abbott-some-elderly-covid-patients-could-be-left-to-die-naturally.

Yoshikawa H, Wuermli AJ, Britto PR, et al. Effects of the Global Coronavirus Disease-2019 Pandemic on Early Childhood Development: Short- and Long-Term Risks and Mitigating Program and Policy Actions. J Pediatrics. 2020;223:188-193. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.05.020

Zunzunegui, M., Béland, F., Sanchez, M. et al. Longevity and relationships with children: the importance of the parental role. BMC Public Health 9, 351 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-9-351

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Jacqui Greig

Jacqui is completing a Master in Creative Writing at Macquarie University. While trying her hand at many forms of writing, her joy lies in creative non-fiction, particularly stories with medical content that speak to the broader community. In a previous life Jacqui worked as a medical practitioner and she still enjoys teaching medical ethics. Jacqui has lived and worked in several countries but grew up in Africa which deepened her love for nature and her concern for wildlife and the sustainability of our planet, passions which further inform her writing. Jacqui lives on the outskirts of Sydney with her family and several wild wallabies.

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Deadly Traffic, Jacqui Greig

Photo credit: gmacfadyen

The email blipped onto my phone as I boarded a flight from Diqing to Kunming in China’s south western Yunnan province. I tapped the little aeroplane icon and walked down the jet bridge. Later, as the Himalayas passed below, stereoscopic and horizon-wide, I read, ‘A mystery virus is sickening people in Wuhan. Stay away from markets.’ It was 14 Jan 2020 and I was on my way home to an Australia still smoke-dazed from its worst bushfire season ever. Given the many discussions I’d had with my brother, a biomedical engineer researching HIV at Massachusetts General Hospital, the email should have alarmed me. Perhaps it was getting up at an ungodly hour to reach the airport, or the brief but disconcerting concern that my visa wasn’t valid, that left me exhausted and unconcerned. I, like the rest of the soporific world, pushed the message out of my mind. The truth is that for all of us this story started long before now.

On the morning of my eleventh birthday, I had met an African Spitting Cobra and a dinosaur. To my brothers and me, the scaly creature rustling from the veldt on its hind legs with its giant claws tucked against its chest was a velociraptor. The snake, also scaly but slimmer and agile, didn’t stay; it swam off, a gold flash in the grass. The dinosaur turned its inquisitive snout in our direction and sniffed our scent on the dawn air. We three crouched, entranced as we watched the creature continue its purposeful progress. That was the first and last time I saw a pangolin. The beauty of other animals over the years: a cheetah downing its prey in a swirl of dust, the iridescent joy of a hovering sunbird, or the silver gleam of a diving otter, never dimmed the privilege I felt at glimpsing the elusive scaly anteater.

Pangolins, native to Asia and Africa, subsist on ants and termites, a preference sufficient to make them lovable. Pangolins are ant devourers extraordinaire. They possess the elongated sticky tongues of other myrmecophages and their tough, keratin-lined stomachs must, for ants, be comparable to the voracious maw of the sarlacc in The Return of the Jedi. Ant venom has the questionable distinction of being the only acid named after an animal. Formic acid packs a punch but the scaly exterior of the pangolin is ideally suited to its diet. Pangolins are the only mammals that boast of such armour which they put to good use defending themselves by curling into a tight ball and swinging their sharp tail to ward off predators. This defensive tactic accounts for their name, which derived from Malay, pengguling, means ‘one who rolls up,’ but it also leaves them vulnerable to poaching. Humans, unlike leopards, overcome it with ease and our appetite for the keratin scales which protected pangolins for millennia, now renders them the most trafficked animal in the world.

Keratin is a remarkable protein, as lustrous as hair and as tough as hooves; it constitutes rhino horn as well as pangolin scales. Despite being ubiquitous, the protein has resulted in these two animals being listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) list. This means that they may not be hunted or traded for any reason other than scientific purposes. No study has ever found keratin to have therapeutic properties.

Chinese friends explain that pangolins’ mythical appearance makes them prized. What my child-eyes believed was a dinosaur is perceived in China as a small dragon. When rolled up, pangolins resemble fabled dragon eggs.

The rarer pangolins become, the more they cost, paradoxically increasing the demand for pangolin meat. For a host to provide expensive pangolin, or other rare wild animal meat, for guests or employees shows generosity and improves face. Along with the perceived healing properties of the scales, this has skyrocketed the [1]  price of pangolins. As recently as 2018, the Chinese government, in  Implementation of the Rural Revitalization Strategy, encouraged farming of wild animals for sale in wet markets as a path out of poverty for millions of rural poor. The practice was further encouraged on Chinese television and by internet celebrities. According to Beijing University’s Professor Lü Zhi, wild animal farming is largely unregulated and many animals for sale are wild-caught ‘laundered’ animals. Particularly vulnerable are species near impossible [2]  to breed in captivity like pangolins.

It’s autumn in Hangzhou city with hawkers shouting their wares: framed red jianzhi[1], jade and silver bangles, and wood carved croak-frogs. With leaves already tinged yellow, the ancient gingko trees lining the street shade the afternoon warmth. A brisk walk uphill is required to reach my destination, the local Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) centre. Along the way, aromas of frying oil, meat and spice assail my nostrils,  smells that become an assault as I pass the local ‘stinky tofu’ dealer. Wooden benches cluster about the entrance where the TCM patients wait. Inside it is cool, cavernous, and quiet, the air is redolent of spices and dried plants: the reassuring scents of ancient knowledge. White-coated doctors staff the heavy counters where meticulous drawers, brass-labelled with artistic hanzi[2], stretch into the gloom. Atop the cabinets reside china-blue medicine jars guarding secret balms interspersed with glass jars of animal feti, snakes and pickled roots. Time is spent unravelling each person’s concern. Despite many years of absorbing western medicine, the gravitas of history and the spell of mythology overwhelm me and remind that the Western scientific approach can neglect with patients.

I ask whether pangolin scales are available. The prompt denial seems more to deflect this waiguo ren[3] than to communicate the truth. The Chinese name for pangolin scaleschuan shan ji, means ‘piercing through a mountain’, which epitomises their perceived strength and explains why they remain listed in hundreds of TCM formulations. These formulations are used to improve lactation, menstrual disturbances and arthritic pains deemed due to cold, or damp. As unscientific prescriptions go, the notion that pangolin scales act as galactagogues is no more unlikely than the advice that fenugreek, nettle, blessed thistle and ginger improve breast-milk flow than we would like to admit. The latter remedies remain touted in Australia without any corroborating trial evidence.

Zootherapy, the use of animals for healing, was a world-wide phenomenon prior to the ascent of scientific medicine. As recently as 2011, World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics reveal that 80% of people in developing nations still rely on traditional medicines for their primary healthcare. Many modern medications derive from natural remedies, humble aspirin being one of the more notable. In Latin America, 584 animal species, ranging from the slimy — slugs, snails, and worms, to the magnificent — pumas, manatees and tapirs, are listed as having medicinal properties. The most renowned TCM practitioner of the Tang Dynasty (608-907), Sun Simiao, in his ethical treatise, Da Yi Jing Cheng- The Sincerity of Great Physicians, wrote of animal usage, ‘if you kill an animal or take a life to save another life, it moves away from the original meaning…the lives of animals and humans are equal.’ Today, TCM has drifted from this principle and, though practitioners may be reluctant to prescribe endangered animal parts, the raw ingredients remain readily available in shops. It may be easier to buy a whole pangolin shell than to obtain prepared medicine containing pangolin scales. Purchasers can then simply prepare the scales for personal use. The meteoric rise of an enormous, cashed up Chinese middle class, coupled with the Communist Party’s ambition to elevate TCM to the status of Western medicine, has left vulnerable species on the edge of extinction; a precipice they were already pushed toward by climate change and habitat destruction.

On my January flight home, I was unaware the plane was tracking north-east of the main pangolin smuggling route from Myanmar into China. The poor of Myanmar, a strife-torn country with one of the largest income gaps in the world, are easily exploited by wildlife smuggling chains. The smuggling routes stretch from Mandalay northwards through the border town of Muse and the poorly policed, casino hub of Mongla, before crossing into China near Ruili. Investigators from the environmental group Sustainable Asia report that smugglers take pangolins only as far as Ruili due to stringent police road checks in China. From Ruili, transportation becomes the buyer’s responsibility. To circumvent this, many Chinese keen to sample Pangolin and other wild meat travel to Yangon in Southern Myanmar. There, a restaurant opposite the international airport openly serves these delicacies. It is possible that one of these trafficking routes, fanning out across the vastness below my plane, facilitated the transmission of Covid-19 into our world.

I hadn’t been home long before I started receiving panicked emails and messages from friends in China. People, many people, were dying, and my friends were terrified and angry. News of doctors and academics being silenced abounded. The world’s slumber was disturbed by a new, deadly, crown virus that had started in a wildlife market in Wuhan.

Neither zoonoses nor plagues are a novelty, despite the virus initially being called ‘novel’. Zoonoses and coronaviruses are devastatingly familiar to doctors and epidemiologists. In medieval times, the plague was deemed miasmic, caused by ‘bad air’. Now, the commonly accepted theory is that the plague was a zoonosis, an infection that crosses the species barrier from animal to human. The plague bacterium, aptly named Yersinia pestis, was ably assisted by fleas in its transitional leap from rats to humans. Tuberculosis came to us from cows, psittacosis from parrots, and rabies from any animal that bites. We risk disease if we live too close to animals either by domesticating them, encouraging their overpopulation or by driving them from their homes by natural habitat destruction. In the last decade, 75% of new diseases have been zoonotic; the barrier between human and animal has always been gossamer thin.

The route Covid-19 [3]  took to reach our lungs may never be fully elucidated. The market where it is believed to have started has been disinfected before reopening. However, scientists rapidly identified and sequenced the genome of the causative coronavirus, a member of the virus group that caused recent deadly epidemics like SARS (2003) and MERS (2012), and which has long annoyed us with the common cold. Bats have evolved to co-exist with coronaviruses for millennia, but humans virtually never catch the virus from bats. For this leap, an intermediate host is needed to facilitate the gene mutations that help the virus attach to human cells, which it does using its corona, or crown, of surface ‘bubbles’. For SARS, the intermediate host was the civet; for MERS, it was camels. As urbanisation destroys their habitat, bats come into closer contact with intermediate animal hosts. The market atmosphere of stressed wild animals in crowded cages further increases the likelihood of the gene leap occurring. Covid-19 shares 77% of its RNA with a bat coronavirus, while its receptors share 99% of their RNA with a pangolin coronavirus.

The road to the Covid-19 pandemic is pathed with ironies. China had, as recently as 2019, planned an outright ban on pangolin trade. Since 1989, pangolins have been on China’s level II protection list, which bans eating pangolin meat but allows scientific research and medicinal use. The elevation to stage I protection, banning all use, would come into effect in Jan 2020. After the SARS epidemic in 2003, China placed a ban on the sale of wild animal meat, but it was only temporary. China is not alone in selling wild animals in wet markets; the phenomenon is common in South East Asian and many African countries.

In the United States, repeated warnings concerning the likelihood of a pandemic were met with the shuttering of the Pandemic Preparedness Unit in 2018. The same year Luciana Borio, then director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council, told a symposium that “the threat of pandemic flu is our number-one health security concern”. When President Trump said on March 6, 2020 that the pandemic was an “unforeseen problem…that came out of nowhere”[4], he had never been further from the truth.

The tragic tale of pangolins encapsulates the perfect storm of the Covid-19 pandemic: the environmental destruction and climate change leave bats and pangolins vulnerable; the poverty and inequity encourage poaching to help people to survive; and the greed strips every resource from our environment at the lowest cost and sells it to the highest bidder[4] . Over [5] the years, my heart has wrenched each time I read of another border-police haul of illegal pangolin scales. I have felt grief that my children would never see this elusive and gentle creature wending its way through a honeyed African dawn. How much more I should have worried.

Bibliography

Alves, Romulo R., and Humberto N. Alves. “The faunal drugstore: Animal-based remedies used in traditional medicines in Latin America.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, vol. 7, no. 9, 7 Mar. 2011, doi:10.1186/1746-4269-7-9.  

“CITES Appendices.” CITES Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITES, www.cites.org/eng/app/index.php.  

“Pangolin.” South Africa’s showcase of our collective heritage, southafrica.co.za, www.southafrica.co.za/pangolin.html.  

Devonshire-Ellis, Chris. “Covid-19 Carriers: What Do China’s Wildlife Protection Laws Say about Pangolins?” China Briefing, Denzan-Shira, 1 Apr. 2020, www.china-briefing.com/news/covid-19-carriers-chinas-wildlife-protection-laws-pangolins/.  

Friedman, Uri. “We Were Warned.” The Atlantic, 18 Mar. 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/03/pandemic-coronavirus-united-states-trump-cdc/608215/.  

Greenfield, Patrick. “Ban wildlife markets to avert pandemics, says UN biodiversity chief.” The Guardian, 6 Apr. 2020.  

Long, Marcy T., and Bonnie Au. “Pangolins Poverty and Porous borders.” Chinadialogue, edited by Jessica Aldred, Ned Pennant-Rea, Lizi Hesling, and Jiang Yifan, Chinadialogue, 27 Feb. 2020, www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/11878-Podcast-Pangolins-poverty-and-porous-borders.  

Long, Marcy T., and Bonnie Au. “Why are pangolins so prized in China?” Chinadialogue, edited by Jessica Aldred, Ned Pennant-Rea, Lizi Hesling, and Jiang Yifan, Chinadialogue, 14 Feb. 2020, www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/11855-Podcast-Why-are-pangolins-so-prized-in-China-.  

Lyons, Suzannah, and Natasha Mitchell. “How did coronavirus start? Where did bats get the virus from and how did it spread to humans?” ABC News: ABC Science, ABC News, 9 Apr. 2020.  

Qiu, Jane. “How China’s ‘Bat Woman’ Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New Coronavirus.” Scientific American, 27 Apr. 2020.  

Ranasinghe, Kashmi. “Going viral: how a virus mutates between animals.” CSIRO Scope, CSIRO, 7 Apr. 2020, blog.csiro.au/virus-mutation/.  


Endnotes

[1] Papercuts – a Chinese traditional art form that dates back to the 6th century ACE

[2] Chinese characters

[3] Foreigner

[4] Quotes from ‘We were warned’ The Atlantic March 18, 2020.


Jacqui Greig

Jacqui is completing a Master in Creative Writing at Macquarie University. While trying her hand at many forms of writing, her joy lies in creative non-fiction, particularly stories with medical content that speak to the broader community. In a previous life Jacqui worked as a medical practitioner and she still enjoys teaching medical ethics. Jacqui has lived and worked in several countries but grew up in Africa which deepened her love for nature and her concern for wildlife and the sustainability of our planet, passions which further inform her writing. Jacqui lives on the outskirts of Sydney with her family and several wild wallabies.

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Along Enemy Lines, Jacqueline Greig

The sullen heat woke Emile, pressing against him as he became aware of the birds squawking outside.  He sat up, pulled the heavy window shades back, and the morning light streamed into his room. Walking through swirling motes of dust, he felt the tiles, cool and reassuring against his feet as he padded down the corridor. Then he remembered that yesterday, everything had changed.

At the end of the darkened hallway he thrust open the door and stepped into the humidity. The two tall palms still reached skywards from the front garden and Rama, the street-sweeper, was pushing his cart and brushing away leaves with his twig broom. His familiar smile crinkled his eyes as paused to wave at Emile.

Where were they? The soldiers Emile had expected to be marching down the street with guns and bayonets. Was too it early? Hadn’t they finished eating breakfast yet?

Down the road, a desultory, horse-drawn wagon progressed passed Toko Okumura, the shop where he and Wim had bought ice creams yesterday. Now, tacked to the wall was a poster, its corners lifting in the lazy breeze.

Were Mr and Mrs Okumura his enemies now?

He scampered across the road, its surface already hot enough to bite his feet, and stood before the poster.

CITIZENS OF BATAVIA

Strategic necessity has led to the surrender of Batavia. The Japanese occupation army will arrive shortly.

Please avoid walking and travelling about unnecessarily.  Abstain from any hostility, or demonstrations of anger, against the occupiers. Fighting the enemy is the role of the army not of civilians.

Maintain peace and order, and trust that the local authorities will do their utmost to protect your civilian rights.

Food and water are readily available at present.

God give you strength.

 

‘There’s a notice on Mr Okumura’s shop,’ Emile announced as he slid into his seat at the breakfast table. Through a mouthful of porridge, he continued, ‘It says we’re not to fight the Japanese.’

His mother looked up from the breakfast she and Alya were preparing.

‘You are not to walk down the street on your own!’ Mama admonished, her voice sterner than he’d ever heard before.

‘Where’s Wim?’ Emile demanded. There was no bowl at his older brother’s seat.

‘He’s gone to Tjimahi to find Papa. He’s bringing important things from us, clothes and letters. Remember, you wrote a letter too?’

‘Why? Why didn’t he take me with?’ Emile protested, blinking furious tears from his eyes.

Ag, Mieltje…you know it’s dangerous. I can’t risk you going,’ Mama replied.

‘Where’s Tjimahi?’

‘Very far Emile. Too far for you. And I need you here to help me. You and Cahya have to do all the men’s jobs now.’

He spooned brown sugar onto the porridge and watched a sweet, aromatic pool form before he stirred it into the depths. Many years later he would recall how quotidian each mouthful had been, but now he said nothing, ate slowly, and waited until Mama and Alya had left. Then, heart pounding, he grabbed a bamboo steamer from the cupboard and carefully placed two slices of bread with jam and several left-over dumplings in it. He checked the lid was tightly sealed.

He recalled his aunt, Tante Snet, had talked about a Japanese prisoner camp at the harbour, Tanjong Priok. Yes, he thought, they had taken Papa there!

‘What’ye doing?’ Cahya asked, materialising as quietly as a cat. He leaned against the doorframe, scratching his bare foot along his shin.

‘I’m going to Tanjong Priok to look for Tjimahi camp. I’m going to find Papa.’

Cahya’s eyes, shiny brown as lychee pips, widened. ‘How d’ye know the camp’s there?’

‘I just know.’

‘Tjimahi means ‘lots of water’ – maybe that’s because it’s at the harbour?’ said Cahya.

‘P’rhaps,’ Emile replied

‘Can I come too?’

‘No. They’ll notice if we both go.’

‘I could help.’

Emile considered this for a moment, wishing Cahya could come along, but he shook his head.

‘Stay here and don’t tell anyone where I’ve gone. Promise!’

‘Okay,’ Cahya said, slumping against the doorframe.

Emile called out to his mother, ‘Cahya and I are going out to the garden.’

‘Be sure to come back in if it gets too hot, and stay under the trees,’ she replied, her voice drifting from the sewing room where the women had already gathered for the day’s work.

Emile slipped out the gate feeling Cahya’s wistful gaze follow him as he started down the road. A few soldiers lounged in the shade of the roadside palms; he avoided their eyes and hurried across the bridge. The women below waved at him as they spread their washing on the river rocks and slapped it in rhythmic waves against the canal wall.  Wim had once told him if you followed the canal, Kali Sunter, it would take you to the harbour. He set off along the edge of the deep, green waters.

The heat rose around Emile, making his clothes cling to his body and his feet clumsy in their boots. Mama never let him walk barefoot like Cahya. He imagined himself a desert adventurer arriving at a river oasis. Such a hero would drink from the water and cool his tired body in its freshness. Emile perched at the edge of the swiftly flowing canal and took off his shoes. His feet swung into the current and the water swirled and eddied in turquoise rills around them. How deliciously cool it felt. He knotted his laces and slung the shoes around his neck before continuing on, now walking in the shade and avoiding the stones. Already he could not avoid the hunger gnawing at him, and the thoughts of the dumplings he carried.

‘No, they are for Papa!’ he said fiercely.

The path stretched, an endless white before him, and he counted his progress in groups of ten steps. The waters of the canal were becoming sluggish and brown, above which sunlight glanced from a viridescent haze of midges and mosquitos.

 What would Wim and Papa say when he arrived? Papa and Wim would be happy to see him.

In the distance a dirty, faded dog appeared, trotting towards him with her tail and rump swinging and her ears laid back.

It can smell dumplings, Emile thought.  I must not touch the dog. Mama said that dogs could be dol, mad, and they bit you for no reason. Then you become dol too.

Emile stared ahead, ignoring the dog. Nose to the ground, she followed him hopefully and soon he got used to her small, brown presence. Cahya had told him that dead people could come back to earth as animals. The dog must be a friend, come back to protect him. He clutched the thought, holding it tight.

Without warning, the dog whined and flattened her body, thin and quivering, on the path. Before them stretched a grey wall, high intimidating with its spiked wire slung along the top.

There it is, thought Emile, excitement filling him. The prison where I’ll find Papa. I’ve walked so long. It’s here!

Three soldiers leaned against a gate set in the concrete; their cigarettes glowing as they talked in low accents. The boy and his ragged dog were merely the landscape of this strange place where they found themselves.

Emile walked up to them while the dog slunk back in the shadows.

Sayonara,’ he said, using the word Mama had taught him. ‘Papa?’ he added, pointing at the walled enclosure.

The youngest of the soldiers waved him away, turning an impatient back on this intrusion and lighting another cigarette.

Perhaps they understand English, Emile thought.

‘Sayonara…. Daddy?’

The young soldier lunged at him and Emile saw his disdainful eyes before ducking the blow that whooshed past his ear. Another of the men bent over Emile and pointed to the camp. ‘Daddy?’ he asked, his tone rough and strange to Emile’s ears.

Emile nodded, his heart galloping in his chest.

The soldier extended his white-gloved hand and Emile felt his tight grip. He looked up at the man’s dark eyes, the stern hair combed from his forehead, and the blemished cheek that glared at Emile. Unsmiling and silent, the man led him along a scrub path which lay shadowed by the wall and up an embankment of loose stones and scree that slipped and crunched beneath their feet. The man bent down, and Emile smelled cigarettes and sweat. Firm hands gripped his body and he swung wildly through the air, his breath snatched from him.

Then he stood on a ledge overlooking the wall. Below stretched a parade ground where Dutch men, some in KNIL uniforms, marched under the shouting scrutiny of Japanese soldiers. He strained to identify his father. His fingers tightened, gripping the wall as he scanned the distant men. There was a man marching in an officer’s uniform. His back was straight and tall. His hair short and dark.

Papa?

No… no it wasn’t him. He wasn’t there. Emile recognised no one and, feeling his throat tighten, he blinked away the burning in his eyes.

The black-eyed man looked up at Emile in expectation.  The small boy shook his head and let the strong arms lift him down. They walked back along the path, separate and still.

The steamer! He had forgotten the steamer. Mama would be angry. Emile raced back up the path. The soldier, arms hanging limp, watched the child’s run and return. His mouth hinted a smile when Emile offered him a dumpling, but he shook his head and joined his companions at the gate.

The younger soldier picked up a stone and aimed it at the dog. He was rewarded with a dull thud as it hit her side and she ran off yelping.

Emile watched the dog disappear. She had not been his friend for long, but he was alone without her. He didn’t look back as he walked along the canal through the cicada-buzzing heat. The monotonous, insistent koo-eel of a cuckoo mocked him from trees that threw long shadows across the path.

Evening dark was flowing up from the river when he finally crossed the bridge and turned into his street. In the distance he saw Mama. He broke into a run.

 

My recollection may no longer be precise; it’s been so long since I was told this story. I believe my father’s eyes held mine and, given to rumination as he was, he concluded, ‘I have no idea why the soldier tried to help me that day. Perhaps because I was only six years old or maybe we stood together at the edge of a world in which neither of us knew the rules.’

 

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Jacqui Greig

Jacqui is completing a Master in Creative Writing at Macquarie University. While trying her hand at many forms of writing, her joy lies in creative non-fiction, particularly stories with medical content that speak to the broader community. In a previous life Jacqui worked as a medical practitioner and she still enjoys teaching medical ethics. Jacqui has lived and worked in several countries but grew up in Africa which deepened her love for nature and her concern for wildlife and the sustainability of our planet, passions which further inform her writing. Jacqui lives on the outskirts of Sydney with her family and several wild wallabies.

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