Fred Hollows


Fred Hollows

Fred Hollows' death last week was felt by everyone who knew of his remarkable efforts and achievements in improving the health of Third World peoples in Africa, Asia and the Australian outback.

Official society did its best to appropriate Hollows to itself: his state funeral follows on the Australian of the Year award for 1990 and other honours. But Hollows didn't really belong to that sort of "respectability", and Keating, like Hawke earlier, looked distinctly uncomfortable in announcing it.

Fred Hollows was a humanitarian in the fullest sense of the term: someone who acknowledged the limits imposed on us by nature but refused to accept the limits we impose on ourselves. The same optimism was reflected in his membership of the Communist Party during the '50s and '60s (a membership not mentioned in the film biography shown on the ABC last week).

Hollows had left the Communist Party before he became well known for his medical work, but he still had the attitude which says that the existing system deserves no special respect.

For example, he understood the term "aid" in the only way it makes any sense: as helping people overcome the obstacles that now stop them from standing on their own feet. So, when he wanted to aid overseas cataract victims, he didn't organise a one-off charity contribution; he set about helping the Eritreans and the Nepalese and the Vietnamese to produce their own lenses, without concern for the profit rates of Western companies. That is an approach that few Marxists — and few real humanitarians of any persuasion — will disagree with.

Fred Hollows' optimism, even when he knew he had terminal cancer, clearly derived from the view that the individual, unfortunately mortal, still has the potential to change the society into which she or he is born. His stubborn acting on that belief has already contributed to changing Australia and the world.