Saturday 29 February 2020

China may send ducks to battle Pakistan's locust swarms

China could deploy 100,000 ducks to neighbouring Pakistan to help tackle swarms of crop-eating locusts, according to reports.

Pakistan declared an emergency earlier this month saying locust numbers were the worst in more than two decades.

An agricultural expert behind the scheme says a single duck can eat more than 200 locusts a day and can be more effective than pesticides.

However, another researcher questioned whether the ducks would be effective.
Ducks have a voracious appetite for locusts

Millions of the insects have also been devastating crops in parts of East Africa.

The Chinese government announced this week it was sending a team of experts to Pakistan to develop "targeted programmes" against the locusts.

Lu Lizhi, a senior researcher with the Zhejiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences, told Bloomberg that the ducks are "biological weapons". He said that while chickens could eat about 70 locusts in one day a duck could devour more than three times that number.

"Ducks like to stay in a group so they are easier to manage than chickens," he told Chinese media.

A trial involving the ducks will take place in China's western Xinjiang province in the coming months, Mr Lu said.

After that they will be sent to Pakistan's worst-affected areas of Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab provinces.

The scheme quickly took hold on Chinese social media.

"Go, ducks! I hope you come back alive," wrote one user of China's Twitter-like Weibo platform.

"Heroic ducks in harm's way!" said another, in a parody of the description commonly used for medical staff tackling the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
Swarms of locusts are threatening to devastate crops in Pakistan

However, a professor from the China Agriculture University, who is part of the delegation to Pakistan, questioned whether the ducks would be suited to the mainly arid conditions where the locusts are a problem.

"Ducks rely on water, but in Pakistan's desert areas, the temperature is very high," Zhang Long told reporters in Pakistan.

He said that although ducks have been used against locusts since ancient times, their deployment "hasn't yet entered the government assistance programme" and was an "exploratory" method.

In 2000, China shipped 30,000 ducks from Zhejiang province to Xinjiang to tackle an infestation of locusts.

According to the UN, the current heavy infestations can be traced back to the cyclone season of 2018-19 that brought heavy rains to the Arabian Peninsula and allowed at least three generations of "unprecedented breeding" that went undetected. Swarms have since spread out into South Asia and East Africa.

In January, the UN called for international help to fight swarms of desert locusts sweeping through East Africa.

Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are all struggling with "unprecedented" and "devastating" swarms of the food-devouring insects, the UN said.

(Source: BBC)

Qatar cofirms first case of Coronavirus in the country

Qatar has recorded its first confirmed case of Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) on 29 February 2020, said the Minister of Public Health on Saturday.

The Ministry said in a statement today that the patient is a 36-year-old Qatari male who returned recently from the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was evacuated out of the country on a government-chartered plane and along with all other passengers has been under full quarantine, and has been admitted to Communicable Disease Center and isolated under strict infection control measures, the statement said adding that he is in a stable condition.

The statement explained that given the nature of the coronavirus and the extent of the global spread, finding a case in Qatar was expected, stressing that the ministry began examining all persons closely related to the patient and implementing appropriate quarantine measures, adding that there is currently no evidence of the spread of the virus in the country. Efforts are currently focused on examining incoming travelers in all the country's entry points, the statement has stressed.

The Ministry of Public Health is taking all measures to limit the further spread of the virus and asks the public to take caution and implement the simple protective measures by frequent washing of hands or using hand sanitizer, avoiding sick people, keeping social distancing and coughing or sneezing into the sleeve of a flexed elbow or use a tissue which then should be discarded into a closed bin.

The Ministry also advises all those who have been in any of the countries where the virus has been reported in the last 14 days and suffer from cough and fever to come forward for testing or to call the hotline of the Ministry of Public Health at 16000.

The Ministry of Public Health is working closely with all partners and with the World Health Organisation to ensure the implementation of latest guidelines and the appropriate public health measures and asks the public to regularly check the ministry's website for the latest advisories and information.

The Ministry of Public Health urges the public to extend their help and cooperation with the health authorities in the implementation of the public heath measures and cautions against listening to unreliable sources of information and rumors. 

(Source: Qatar Tribune)

Influencers in Islamabad

Javeria Ali, a twenty-six-year-old photographer, was on a walk in an Islamabad market when she spotted a man ladling out cups of milky tea. He was wearing a turquoise shalwar kameez with a white scalloped trim. His hair was slightly tousled, with a few stray locks falling above his dark eyebrows, and his cheeks were peppered with stubble. He wore a black thread looped around his wrist to protect him from the evil eye.

She took three or four pictures of the chaiwala, or tea seller, while his head was bowed, then he looked up for a split second and stared right at her. She got the shot. Ali uploaded the photograph (captioned “Hot-Tea”) to her Instagram and Facebook pages on October 14, 2016. It was soon shared on various blogs and social media pages, with users commenting on the tea boy’s looks.

By 2016, there were more than forty-four million social media users in Pakistan. Facebook had the biggest slice of the pie, with thirty-three million users, followed by Twitter with five million and Instagram with nearly four million. Arshad Khan, the blue-eyed chaiwala, had joined the ranks of a handful of viral stars in Pakistan: men and women who become household names, their images or videos spilling over from social media sites into millions of conversations on apps like WhatsApp, shared and forwarded on a loop until mainstream media outlets take notice and feature them on the news or on talk shows.

At the time his photograph was first taken, Arshad did know about these viral stars. He had never had a Facebook account. He could not read or write. His family and neighbors lived without electricity and did not watch TV.
In just five days, the photograph raked in more than fifty thousand likes and thousands of comments. His fame spread not just in Pakistan but around the world. His “good looks” were featured on CNN, the BBC noted that his “piercing eyes” have “thousands” of Twitter users “lovestruck,” and BuzzFeed described him as “damn HOT” with “effortless high-fashion model looks.”

Arshad had not seen his photograph on the news, and he didn’t think of the girl with the camera until she came back to the market, this time with reporters and camera crews. He found out they were looking for him. His memories of the day are hazy. He remembers Ali telling him she had uploaded his photograph to social media and it had gone viral. He panicked. His first instinct was to bolt.

The next day, Arshad went to work in the market as usual, but the area around the café was crammed with people who had flocked there to meet him. He was whisked away to a television station for an interview and made to wear a suit. Before he went on air, he heard a member of the crew speaking Pashto, the language Arshad and his parents spoke at home. He pulled the man to one side and pleaded: “Can you tell me what is going on? How is everyone in the world looking at my picture?”

On a cold evening four months after that day, I met Arshad in an apartment—a makeshift office, said his manager Fahim, a place to “do deals and whatnot”—in a residential area in Islamabad. Fahim wore a tight black T-shirt, purple velour tracksuit bottoms, and slippers that squelched with each step on the tiled floor. Everything in the apartment was brand new. Someone had thrown the box for a thirty-inch LCD TV onto the small balcony outside one of the bedrooms.

Arshad was skinny, and his black suit and shirt looked a little too big for him. The trousers were baggy, and a pair of pointed black shoes with silver buckles peeked out from under them. He was tired and not feeling well that day. His whole body ached. His doctor said he was “mentally weak.” His only task that day was to record a video: a congratulatory message for Kismat Connection, a TV show that had just aired its hundredth episode. Arshad was a celebrity now, and the producers of the show had requested a short video that they could air during the episode.

We went into the bedroom with the best natural light. The room was empty save for a folding table in the corner stacked with rolls of bedding and blankets. Arshad’s social media adviser, Rizwan, works in real estate and rents out apartments just like this one. He darted in and out of our meeting while he tended to a group of prospective clients in the apartment’s second bedroom. Arshad relies on Fahim and Rizwan to read his contracts. When a TV anchor had asked him how he would give fans his autograph, he gave her what he thought was a perfectly logical answer for an illiterate person—“I’ll use my thumbprint”—but the audience hooted with laughter and clapped, and Rizwan had to spend hours teaching Arshad how to scribble out a signature. Arshad’s team now included a personal groomer, a photographer, a speech therapist, and a psychologist who, Fahim explained, taught Arshad “daily life things” and “does therapy on how to live your life.”

Fahim fed Arshad the lines for the video. “Hi, friends!” he said. “No, wait—say, ‘Hi, doston!’ ”

“Hi, doston,” Arshad repeated.

“It’s me, Arshad Khan,” Fahim said.

“This is my Arshad Khan.”

The more emotionless Arshad sounded, the peppier Fahim tried to make his lines.

Fahim gushed, “I want to congratulate Taher Ali Shah and the whole team of Kismat Connection that they have completed a hundred episodes!”

“I congratulate Taher Ali Shah sahib and the whole Kismat Connection team for completing one hundreh episondh,” Arshad said.

“The whole team!” Fahim exclaimed. “You need to sound excited. And say ‘hundred.’ Hund-rid. And epi-sote.” When Fahim enunciated “sote,” it sounded like someone had popped open a can of some fizzy drink. “Sote. Not ‘sondh.’ Sote.”

“Hund-reh,” Arshad said. “Epee-sondh.”

They did one take and then another. Sometimes Arshad forgot the name of the man he was congratulating. Other times he forgot to sound happy. He repeatedly stumbled over the words “hundred” and “episode.” He sounded morose.

“You need to sound happy,” Fahim explained. “Imagine if you bought a new car. I would congratulate you, right? Now imagine that I’m not near you. 

Maybe I would send you a video, right? That’s what we are doing here for Taher Ali Shah. He’s done something really big. Something we are happy about.”

“It’s not like he’s done some umrah [pilgrimage to Mecca],” Arshad quipped.
Ten minutes later, Fahim got a phone call.

“Ep-pee-sone,” Arshad mumbled to himself. “Ep-ee-sone.”

Fahim left the room, asking me to try my luck. The door closed, and Arshad turned to me. “What is this ‘episondh?’ ” he asked. “Is it the fashion shows? Or those programs that people do?”

Without a camera pointed at him, Arshad was a fast learner. Between takes, he whispered the words in English to himself over and over again. When Fahim praised him for almost getting it right, he asked, “But what were the bits I got wrong?” After twenty-five takes, Fahim decided that he could splice together sentences from the recordings and create one seamless video. Arshad clapped his hands with relief. “We’re done? What a nuisance.”

Once the video had been wrapped up, Arshad slumped on a couch in the living room and stared at the new TV. A show on animals in the wild was on. “When Fahim has to teach me what to say and how to say it, I wonder how I’ll ever do all of this,” he explained, never turning his gaze away from a lion prowling on the screen. “I feel bad that he has to spend so much time trying to get me to do it right.”

“Okay, I’ll explain to you what he means,” Fahim interjected. “He is confident. He’s not shy. He picks things up fast. But you have to remember the background he has. He didn’t watch TV for even a day in his life. He didn’t know who the people in the newspaper were. For him, words are just black-colored lines. Now for someone like this to come into this world and to do these things is not easy. This isn’t his language and he feels tension that why am I not getting it? Why can’t I do it? I understand him, you see. I have an idea … ” He snapped his fingers to get Arshad’s attention. “Don’t look there. Pay attention here.” He flicked a button on the remote and turned the TV off. “So, as I was saying, when he tries to do something and he can’t, then he feels shame. Right, Arshad?”

“Yes.” Arshad nodded. “Absolutely.”

Fahim said that in his ten years of managing artists, he’d never seen anything in Pakistan like Arshad’s rise to stardom. It usually takes years for people to get the kind of attention that Arshad had gained in a very short time. In the early days, when Arshad’s schedule had included up to a dozen interviews in a day and meetings with people throughout the day to work on deals, the team was sleeping only three or four hours a night, and he was mobbed by fans wherever he went. “This is a star’s goal,” Fahim explained. “Stars are used to this and it’s what they work for. But Arshad never had these goals. He was tired and he got sick a lot.”

Fahim and Rizwan stressed how important it was to them that Arshad think of himself as a star. “If he is a star with us, only then will he be a star in the market,” Fahim reasoned. “A star’s fans think that he is bigger and better than them. Their idea of you is what they want to see. That’s what you need to give them.” And where the fans go, he said, the industry follows. “If you’re a producer, why would you choose Arshad Khan for your movie over someone else? Star power. That’s why. The audience you can pull. The fans. If Arshad can guarantee that his movie will make two hundred crore rupees, that’s a safe bet for a producer.”

However, four months after he was discovered, work had all but dried up for Arshad. In the past two weeks, he had only appeared at a “meet and greet” breakfast and dinner in Lahore—an opportunity for fans to take selfies with him.

I asked Fahim if he felt the novelty was wearing thin. After dozens of interviews and appearances on almost all the popular talk shows and morning shows in the country, Arshad’s rags-to-riches story had been told so many times that it had lost one crucial element in a viral star’s ability to draw a crowd: it was no longer surprising or unique. If Arshad wished to forge a career on the strength of one viral photograph—if he wanted the modeling contracts, advertisement offers, and invitations to appear on talk shows—he had to continue to give Pakistanis something they had never seen before.

But Fahim insisted that Arshad wasn’t being talked about as much because he had become “exclusive.” “Actually, we have decreased his appearances ourselves,” he argued. He said that he had recently received inquiries from China, Malaysia, Greece, and Dubai. “We want him to rest and relax. People think his fame has decreased, but we are making him exclusive. We don’t just give interviews to everyone anymore.”

Fahim and Rizwan urged me to stay for dinner. They planned to have a big, traditional meal of grilled lamb. But it was late, and I refused. As Arshad saw me out, he grinned. “Forget this grilled stuff,” he said. “The next time you meet me, I’ll be a star. I’ll bring you a live lamb.”

Six months passed before Arshad was in the news once more. In July 2017, the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) stated that Arshad and his family had come from neighboring Afghanistan and were living in Pakistan illegally. The media contacted Arshad’s team for a comment. “Arshad Khan’s manager Malik Fahim … found the NADRA claim shocking,” an investigative story noted. “[Fahim] made it clear that he did not know Arshad prior to the Chaiwala becoming a celebrity.”

Nearly two years passed before Arshad appeared on television once more. In April 2019, he was interviewed on a morning talk show, and the hosts prompted him to make tea and asked him to say a few sentences in other languages he might speak. He confessed that he could speak Punjabi, but not very well. “Can you say, ‘This tea does not have enough sugar?’ ” the host asked. Arshad repeated the sentence. The hosts appeared delighted. “This is the kind of stuff that will go viral!” they said. “No one has ever heard him speak Punjabi before.” The interview failed to generate any buzz.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Friday 28 February 2020

India's bird population 'going down sharply'

Much of India's bird population has sharply declined in the past few decades, according to a major study.

The State of India's Birds report relied on the observations of more than 15,000 birdwatchers who helped assess the status of 867 birds.

It found the greatest decline in the numbers of eagles, vultures, warblers and migrating shorebirds.

But the population of peafowl, the national bird, has increased significantly.

Hunting and habitat loss are the two main reasons behind the decline. "Collision" with electricity lines, according to the study, is a "prime current threat" to birds.
The population of peafowl, the national bird, has increased significantly

The report, the first comprehensive study of its kind, made two assessments: the drop in bird population over the last 25 years, and over the last five years.

"In the long-term trend assessment, there was appropriate data available only for 261 species, of which 52% had declined [in numbers]. For current trends, there was data only for 146 species, of which [numbers of] nearly 80% were declining," said MD Madhusudan, co-founder of Nature Conservation Foundation.

It's based on more than 10 million observations, drawn from sightings and meticulous notes made by professional birdwatchers.

The data was then collated on eBird, a global crowdsourced database that has real-time data on the distribution and abundance of birds.
The population of the white-rumped vulture has gone down

The local sparrow population was found to be roughly stable across the country as a whole, although it has fallen in the major cities.

The population of migratory birds - both long distance and within the subcontinent - also showed a "steep decline".

The report says that since the 1990s, the numbers of several species of vultures, bustards and other specialist grassland birds have also drastically dropped.

Some species popular in the bird trade, such as the Green Munia, are at "dangerously low" numbers, the report says.
The local sparrow population has declined in the major cities

Meanwhile, the Jerdon's Courser, an endangered bird with "mysterious" breeding habits which was rediscovered in 1986 after a gap of 138 years, has not been seen since 2008.

But there's some good news as well: the Forest Owlet, another endangered bird that was rediscovered in 1997, is being reported from many more locations.

But the study cautions that its research is also a chronicle of "individual species", and not a report on the "overall health of India's birds, including those considered common and hence of little conservation concern".

It says that "abundance trends" are available only for "a handful of bird species" - and mostly for those that tend to be "larger, more obviously threatened and relatively charismatic".

"For the vast majority of Indian birds, lack of data has hindered a clear understanding of how they are faring. Such an understanding is vital for conservation science, management and policy."

Species that have suffered the highest declines
  • White-rumped Vulture
  • Richard's Pipit
  • Indian Vulture
  • Large-billed Leaf Warbler
  • Pacific Golden Plover
  • Curlew Sandpiper
Species whose numbers have increased
  • Rosy Starling
  • Feral Pigeon
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Plain Prinia
  • Ashy Prinia
  • Indian Peafowl
(Source: State of India's Birds report)

(Source: BBC)

More humans than thought survived volcanic super-eruption 74,000 years ago, scientists find

Study also suggest humans migrated out of Africa earlier than predicted

More people survived one of the world’s largest volcanic eruptions than previously thought, new research suggests.

The super-eruption 74,000 years ago on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, was 5,000 times bigger than the Mount St Helens eruption in 1980 that killed 57 people and was the most destructive in US history.

There had been a theory that the eruption of Toba in Indonesia was followed by a “volcanic winter” of up to 10 years, leading to a 1,000-year cooling of the Earth, with the near-extinction of our own species.

But archaeologists have found man-made tools dating from before and after the super-eruption, suggesting it was not as apocalyptic as first believed.
Lake Toba, on northern Sumatra, was formed by the volcano's eruption 74,000 years ago ( iStock )

Toba’s eruption was believed to have decimated Asian populations of mammals and hominins – members of the human family tree more closely related to one another than to apes. Of those, only Homo sapiens, to which everyone on Earth belongs, remains today.

The few surviving Homo sapiens in Africa had been thought to have survived by developing sophisticated social, symbolic and economic strategies that enabled them to eventually re-expand and populate Asia 60,000 years ago.

The new study, published in Nature Communications, also suggests Homo sapiens were present in Asia earlier than expected.

Scientists looked at records of rocks up to 80,000 years old at Dhaba in the Son Valley in northern India.

Stone tools uncovered in the rocks indicate that Middle Palaeolithic tool-using populations were there before and after 74,000 years ago.

The researchers say their findings also support fossil evidence that humans migrated out of Africa and expanded across Eurasia before 60,000 years ago.

And the evidence supports genetic findings that humans interbred with archaic species of hominins, such as Neanderthals.

Lead author Chris Clarkson, of the University of Queensland, said: “Populations at Dhaba were using stone tools that were similar to the toolkits being used by Homo sapiens in Africa at the same time.

“The fact that these toolkits did not disappear at the time of the Toba super-eruption or change dramatically soon after indicates that human populations survived the so-called catastrophe and continued to create tools to modify their environments.”

Jagannath Pal, principal investigator from the University of Allahabad in India, said: “Although Toba ash was first identified in the Son Valley back in the 1980s, until now we did not have associated archaeological evidence, so the Dhaba site fills in a major chronological gap.”

(Source: Independent)

Thursday 27 February 2020

Coronavirus: New York doctors make diagnosis breakthrough

Ground-glass opacities seen in patient CT scans were identified as similar to those seen in related outbreaks such as Sars and Mers

Examining coronavirus patients' CT scans could lead to a quicker diagnosis of those with suspected symptoms, doctors have discovered.

A team of researchers in Mount Sinai, New York - the first in the US to analyse CT scans of patients - have said they can identify specific patterns in the lungs as markers of the disease.

The study revealed scan analysis could be a viable option for suspected patients and help determine which patients with inconclusive results should be kept in isolation.
A man wearing a face mask crosses a road in Wuhan, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Reuters

The doctors, who published their findings in Radiology, received the scans of 94 patients in China who had been admitted to four medical centers in four Chinese provinces between 18 January and 2 February. 

Most of them had traveled to Wuhan or had close contact with an infected patient, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine said.

Of the 36 patients who received scans in zero to two days within reporting symptoms, more than half showed no evidence of lung disease.

In a group of 33 patients who received CT scans three to five days after reporting symptoms, the team observed patterns of “ground-glass opacities” - white patches showing up on the scan which became more round in shape and dense. 

In the 25 patients scanned six to 12 days after symptoms, the scans analysis showed fully involved lung disease.

Patterns seen in these images are similar to patterns seen in related outbreaks such as Sars and Mers.

“Recognizing imaging patterns based on infection time course is paramount for not only understanding the disease process and natural history of COVID-19 but also for helping to predict patient progression and potential complication development, “ said lead author Adam Bernheim, assistant professor of diagnostic, molecular and interventional radiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Doctors said when patients first report symptoms of possible COVID-19, they are nonspecific, often resembling a common cold, so it can be difficult to diagnose and confirmatory tests by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can take several days.

It also cited that the study allows hospitals in the United States and worldwide to confirm or rule out coronavirus based on CT images.

If lung scans for patients with early symptoms are inconclusive, doctors can consider holding the patient in isolation for a few days until a decisive verdict can be made.

Prof Bernheim added: “This is necessary for prompt diagnosis for any individual patient (which will lead to more rapid and effective care), but also for patient isolation to prevent the spreading of the highly contagious disease.”

Currently, there are 81,191 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 2,768 people have died from the respiratory virus.

(Source: Independent)

Creator of New York City subway map Michael Hertz dies

Michael Hertz, the man who designed the map of the New York City subway system, has died aged 87.

In the 1970s his firm, Michael Hertz Associates, was hired by city transport officials to redesign the old map.

At the time, crime was on the rise and subway ridership was at its lowest level since the late 1910s. Few tourists rode trains to see sights.

His team added streets, reshaped parks, distorted boroughs and re-formed and gave curves to the snaking train lines.
The New York Subway map which was first used in 1979

A native of New York's Brooklyn borough, Mr Hertz previously helped create transit maps for Houston and Washington DC before undertaking the New York project for the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

In an effort to remove some of the straight lines that were disliked by riders, Mr Hertz hired a Japanese designer who rode every subway line with his eyes closed so that he could better depict the curves in the railways.

The map that Mr Hertz produced in 1979 was tweaked by his firm several times, but the basic design remains.

In 2004, he told the New York Times that he appreciated every time he saw tourists using the map for the first time.

"I still get a pleasure in a subway station when I see somebody in lederhosen looking at the map," he said.

(Source: Independent)

Coronavirus: Quarantine raises virus fears in northern Italy

In an era of online ordering and borderless travel, Tino has had to revert to hand-delivering items across a checkpoint - within his own country.

He parks beside the police cars blocking a road to Codogno, the epicentre of Italy's coronavirus outbreak. And across the ad hoc barrier, fencing off an invisible threat, he passes a simple object to his sister stuck on the other side: a facemask.

Pharmacies in the town of 16,000 people are running low. Queues of anxious customers are forming, as Codogno hits headlines around the world.

The mayor, Francesco Passerini, tells me by phone that the situation is completely calm and supplies of food and medicine are stable. "Our town has overcome everything, including the Second World War," he says - an attempt at reassurance.

But in the 11 closed-off towns, in which more than 50,000 people are quarantined, fear is setting in.
Police have been stopping cars trying to get into Codogno

Andrea Alloni, a resident in Codogno, says while some are convincing themselves that the outbreak will blow over, others are so worried that they're using sleeping pills.

Emergency medical phone-lines are saturated. The elderly are feeling particularly vulnerable.

And while a handful of shops are open inside the town, the streets are quiet. Most are staying at home - or if they venture outside, they do so in face masks.

Italy is struggling to understand how it went from six coronavirus cases to more than 200 since last Friday, becoming Europe's worst-affected country and the third worst hit in the world after China and South Korea.

So far, seven people have died.

"Patient zero" - the individual first infected - has still not been identified. It was initially believed to be a 38-year-old man who visited a hospital in Codogno where a woman later died from the virus and whose colleague had been in China in January.

But when his colleague tested negative, the search for the original infector continued. Finding the source of the outbreak would help authorities understand the spread and potentially stem it.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has defended his government's response, insisting that the high number here is because Italy is testing more people than other European countries. There is a hope that the outbreak has stabilised, with new cases slowing.
But the authorities here are worried.

With the unprecedented containment measures widening, the economic impact could be severe.

Public spaces have been cordoned off, schools, universities and museums are closed, key events like the Venice Carnival and Milan fashion week have been curbed, even filming of the new Mission Impossible in Venice has been suspended.

Lombardy and Veneto - the two most affected regions - make up 30% of the Italian economy. Italy's growth is already estimated at just 0.1% for 2019 - the lowest in the eurozone. The talk now is that the impact of the virus could tip it into recession.
Passengers at the main station in Lombardy's capital, Milan, are now wearing face masks because of the rapid spread of the virus

Neighbouring Croatia and Greece have cancelled all school visits to Italy. Kuwait has stopped flights here. Italy itself was the first European country to halt flights to and from China when the outbreak began: a risk for an economy that depends on some five million Chinese tourists a year.

In an era of social media, rumours and scaremongering fly fast.

It's too early to talk of panic here. But some supermarkets are seeing empty shelves, as families stock up.

Bars and restaurants are closing this week - the old town of Piacenza was eerily quiet for a weekday evening. The far-right opposition is harnessing the situation to push its call for closed borders.

"We're confident our public health system can face this if it's a few hundred cases," says Andrea Alloni by phone from Codogno. "But if the number spikes, it won't be able to cope. I pray to God this doesn't happen."

(Source: BBC)

New blue British passport rollout to begin in March

The first blue British passports for nearly 30 years will be issued next month, the Home Office has said.

The current burgundy design is being replaced, following the UK's departure from the European Union.

Blue passports were introduced in 1921 and phased out after 1988 when members of the then European Economic Community agreed to harmonise designs.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said the passport will "once again be entwined with our national identity".
Home Secretary Priti Patel holding one of the new blue passports

She said Brexit had given the UK "a unique opportunity to... forge a new path in the world" and enabled a return to "the iconic blue and gold design".

The UK was never formally compelled to change the colour of its passport in the 1980s but did so with other member states.

Securing a change in the design became a rallying point for Brexit supporters, with the government announcing in December 2017 that the blue passport would return.

The government estimates that all newly-issued passports will be blue from the summer.

Until then, they will be issued alongside burgundy passports, which will remain valid for travel until they expire.

The UK burgundy passports carried the wording European Union on the cover, although the Passport Office last year began to issue them without such a description as older stocks ran out.

The blue passports will be made by Gemalto, owned by French firm Thales. However, they will be personalised with the holder's details in the UK.

The back cover will carry an embossment featuring the floral emblems of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

The Home Office said the manufacturing carbon footprint of the passports will be reduced to net zero, through projects such as planting trees.

It added the new passport will carry updated security features, including a "super-strength" polycarbonate data page, containing embedded technologies to keep personal data secure, and involve the "most secure printing and design techniques" to combat identity theft and forgery.
A new blue British passport alongside the current burgundy design

What's in a colour?
According to the Passport Index, 81 countries have blue passports, including Australia, the United States, Canada, India and Hong Kong.

Several Caribbean countries also favour them, including Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

In Europe, people from Iceland, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina carry blue passports, while it is a popular colour in central and south America - including in Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Other nations to have blue passports include Israel, Iraq, Syria and North Korea.

(Source: BBC)

Wednesday 26 February 2020

Wuhan nurses' plea for international medics to help fight coronavirus

Open letter urges health workers to go to China, saying resources there are stretched

Two nurses in Wuhan have published an open letter pleading for health workers from around the world to come to China to help fight the coronavirus.

Yingchun Zeng, of the Guangzhou Medical hospital, and Yan Zhen, of the Sun Yet-sen Memorial hospital, also in Guangzhou, published a letter in the medical journal the Lancet on Monday describing mental and physical exhaustion and severe supply shortages on the frontlines of the outbreak.

Zeng and Zhen are two of at least 14,000 nurses, among almost 20,000 medical personnel, from across the country who have gone to Wuhan to help the overwhelmed medical system. “But we need much more help. We are asking nurses and medical staff from countries around the world to come to China now, to help us in this battle,” they said.
Nurses in a specialised ICU ward for patients infected by coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. Photograph: Xiao Yijiu/AP

The virus has claimed more than 2,715 lives and infected at least 80,000 people. On Monday, China’s National Health Commission said more than 3,200 health workers had contracted Covid-19, about 90% of those cases in Hubei province. 

According to tallies of deaths reported in the Chinese media, at least 22 health workers have died from the virus.

The two health workers, who arrived in Wuhan in late January, wrote: “The conditions and environment here in Wuhan are more difficult and extreme than we could ever have imagined.”

The letter describes shortages of protective equipment, from N95 face masks with respirators, face shields and goggles to gowns and gloves. Previous media reports have shown doctors and nurses making gowns out of waste bags while hospitals have asked for donations from the public.

Zeng and Zhen’s letter also described the difficulties of day-to-day operations. Protective goggles are hard to see through, while wearing several layers of gloves make opening packages to give patients injections a “huge challenge”. 

Many medical staff have pressure ulcers on their ears and forehead from wearing a mask for so many hours, while others have painful rashes all over their hands from constant washing.

“In order to save energy and the time it takes to put on and take off protective clothing, we avoid eating and drinking for two hours before entering the isolation ward,” the letter said, adding some nurses had fainted from hypoglycaemia, when blood sugar drops too low, or hypoxia, the lack of oxygen.

The letter, which comes as the number of infections in China appear to be falling, contradicts a recent stream of optimistic statements from officials and positive state media coverage hailing the government’s handling of the crisis. An online forum for medical professionals, , translated and posted the letter, but it was later removed.

Zeng and Zhen also highlighted the emotional toll the work had taken. “While we are professional nurses, we are also human. Like everyone else, we feel helplessness, anxiety, and fear. Experienced nurses occasionally find the time to comfort colleagues and try to relieve our anxiety,” they wrote.

“But even experienced nurses may also cry, possibly because we do not know how long we need to stay here and we are the highest-risk group for Covid-19 infection.”

(Source: The Guardian)