Insights from Quadrant

The lie of the land

Asked for her opinion of female intellectuals, novelist Mary McCarthy had kind words for Hannah Arendt, who she  “greatly admired”. Lillian Hellman, however, was another matter. “Every word she writes is false, including ‘and’ and ‘but,'” she replied. The barbed quip went over so well, McCarthy repeated it with relish and minor variations in several subsequent encounters with interviewers and, most notably, US TV host Dick Cavett, whose broadcast inspired Hellman to launch a long-running libel action that, after 15 years, died with the plaintiff in 1984. By that stage considerable evidence had been tendered to support the charge that Hellman did indeed play fast and loose with the truth, not least the whole cloth of her purported role in the anti-Nazi resistance.

McCarthy’s acid is generally reckoned to be amongst the pithiest and most pungent literary-set put-downs of all time, but in terms of nailing the greatest fabulists with a few sharp words it comes nowhere near being an adequate description of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ disdain for the truth. Not only are his conjunctions, adverbs, nouns, verbs and gerunds most often at far remove from the facts, so is at least one of the COVID-19 “public service” TV ads his government is beaming into Victorians’ homes.

You might have seen it — thirtysomething “Sam and Sarah” relating how the China virus has laid them low for weeks, obliged Sarah to have no contact with their two children, and inflicted Lord-knows-what long-term damage on Sam. The ad is below and worth watching before reading on, when we’ll get to the nasty business of lying by omission.

One can’t help feel sorry for the couple or doubt, even for a moment, that they have been through the wars and face further battles to regain their health. One also can’t help wondering why this couple, whose youth makes them entirely unrepresentative of those the China virus is sending to meet their Maker. Another 24 Victorians were today (Aug 26) recorded as having succumbed to the virus, lifting the state’s overall death toll so far to 462. Like the many  deaths before them, the latest involve the elderly, with 21 linked to aged care: a woman in her 60s, three men in their 70s, three women and seven men in their 80s, and six women and four men in their 90s — an age range entirely in keeping with every previous days’ death lists.

So what of Sam and Sarah — full names Sam Martin and Sarah Robson — who are presented in Daniel Andrews’ ad with the benefit of no background information whatsoever?

Well, it turns out the unfortunate couple are members, like the elderly and infirm, of a specific group particularly susceptible to contracting the virus: nurses. Both are midwives at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital, she attached to the African Women’s Clinic which helps counter the effects and complications of female genital mutilation.

How vulnerable are health care workers? Very, very vulnerable.

Of the 4176 ‘active’ cases in Victoria as of August 25, some 434 are health care workers. In terms of incidence and population, nurses and doctors are far more likely to contract the disease than even old folks. And, according to Lancet report, their symptoms are apt to be more severe, possibly because they are constantly exposed to repeated sources of infection and much greater viral loads. As another Lancet paper puts it

The prevalence of COVID-19 was 2747 cases per 100 000 front-line health-care workers compared with 242 cases per 100 000 people in the general community.

In other words, Sam and Sarah were more than ten times more likely to catch the China virus than the average sofa spud watching their TV ad in a Victorian livingroom.

Given the debacle Andrews & Co have made of the hotel-quarantine system, the ruinous stage four lockdown that has made Melbourne a ghost town, the state’s wrecked economy and the grave impositions on personal and traditional freedoms — the now-rescinded right to leave the house  after 8pm, for example — the ad’s appearance in high rotation should come as no surprise.

Mr Andrews, who personally launched the ad campaign, is keen to see extended for a further 12 months the emergency powers he has wielded with such merciless absolutism. So what could be a handier fit with that ambition than tapping the taxpayers’ purse to propagate the furphy that, as Sam put it during an appearance on the ABC, the “young, fit, healthy” are equally at risk.

They aren’t, not half as much as are honesty and Victoria itself from Daniel Andrews. Where is Mary McCarthy when you need her?

– roger franklin

1 comment
  • Geoff Sherrington

    What reason does the mother have to isolate herself for weeks after her infectious stage? I share the proposition that this ad is misleading. But then, so many ads are.
    A need for modern ordinary living is a personally-evolved falsity filter. Watch an ad once, if you must, then junk it and move on to the realm of truth. Geoff S

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