Like millions of others around the world, Gulf News Foreign Correspondent Mick O’Reilly is currently under Covid-19 lockdown. This is what life is like in social isolation in Ireland, where there are strict rules about who is allowed out, where, and under limited circumstances.
DAY 40: Friday May 8, 9am
IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?
CAN DOGS SNIFF OUT COVID-19? DOGS ARE BEING TESTED TO SEE IF THEY CAN SMELL CORONAVIRUS
As we all know from reading and listening about Covid-19 these past weeks, one of the big issues is trying to figure out who has it, who is capable of transmitting it, and where indeed the bugs for this virus might be lurking.
So, I was more than delighted to read that dogs might be able to sniff out coronavirus – just as they are trained to sniff out some cancers, those carrying drugs, or those trying to snuggle other contraband natural products.
I’m also a huge fan of service dogs having had one pooch, Bear, who was a rascal most of the time but once you put on her service vest, she would turn on the woof charm and was used in a seniors’ care home a couple of times week.
But I digress. Back to the development coming out of Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica, the French island in the Mediterranean Sea. There, dogs are being trained by the emergency services department and the local fire brigade to see if they can detect people who may be infected with coronavirus.
Firefighters in Ajaccio are doing this by using sweat samples from Covid-19 patients who have agreed to be part of the trial.
DOES COVID-19 EMIT A CERTAIN ODOUR?
“Dogs are known for their capacity to recognise other diseases including cancers, such as breast and prostate cancers and even diabetes, although it has not been officially proven,” said Corporal Mar Anto Costa, a firefighter based in Ajaccio. “What remains to be proven is whether the Covid-19 molecule emits a particular odour.”
The samples are placed in particular places to see if the dogs can then detect them.
“It’s simply a plastic tube by which the smell is placed, leaving the smell-emitting molecules,” said Brice Leva, another Corsican firefighter. “And then, with these plastic tubes, we train the dogs.”
If this test is successful and the results are confirmed, it could allow rapid screening very effectively.
Another reason, I guess, why dogs are man’s best friend!
CLICK BAIT – THERE’S SOMETHING FISHY GOING ON IN THE AQUARIUM
Seeing as I started off the blog today with a piece about dogs, I might as well stick to the theme of nature for this item.
It was reported last week that eels at a Tokyo aquarium were getting used to not having humans peering n on them. The slippery characters were feeling lonely. Yes, Gulf News did indeed carry the story.
But the latest development is that staff at Sumida Aquarium have now gone a step further and organised a video chat event to interact with the shy eels that.
Sumida Aquarium, housed in a commercial complex at the foot of the landmark Tokyo Skytree tower, keeps about 300 spotted garden eels.
Three times this week, the aquarium held an interactive event with the public through the FaceTime video call app. Five tablets were placed in front of the tank. As soon as the event began, a flood of calls came in from those hoping to interact with the fish from home.
At first, eels hid into the sand in surprise when seeing the images of participants waving at them on tablet screens, but they grew gradually accustomed and began to poke their heads timidly, staff said.
The event attracted more than one million calls and two million live viewers from around the world over the three days, the aquarium said on Twitter.
These eels give a whole new meaning to the term ‘click bait’.
PRECIOUS IS SERKIS READING THE HOBBIT
We wants it. We needs it. Must have the precious… One of the great animated characters of our time if Gollum, the conscience-riddled creature from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, played to perfection by Andy Serkis is all of his computer-generated imagery and perfection.
Serkis is also the genius who is known as being Caesar in the Planet of the Apes films too. But not comes word he is to turn all of his great talents to raising funds for Britain’s National Health Service workers who are on the frontline in fighting the deadliest outbreak of the coronavirus in western Europe.
Serkis is to give a 12-hour live reading of The Hobbit – “with all of the voices”.
How perfect indeed! A great way to pass half-a-day of lockdown.
Speaking to Sky News ahead of the challenge on Friday, the award-winning actor said he was looking forward to reading the entire book from start to finish as a way to provide entertainment during the restrictions on movements.
As well as benefitting the NHS, the live “Hobbitathon” will raise money for the charity Best Beginnings, for which Serkis has been an ambassador for several years.
‘ONE BIG ADVENTURE RACING ACROSS MIDDLE EARTH’
"It’s a marathon or Hobbitathon, if you like,” says Serkis. “So many people have been trapped in lockdown for so long and the thought of going on any kind of adventure is so far away, I wanted to somehow bring this extraordinary story to life for people, in one hit, in one big adventure racing across Middle Earth.
“And at the same time, managing to raise some money for our key workers, NHS Charities Together, and one of my favourite charities, Best Beginnings, which is an amazing cause. So that’s the idea. I really want to bring it to life and make people feel they are going on this massive adventure.”
Serkis says he was inspired by Captain Tom Moore, the centenarian who has raised tens of millions of pounds for the NHS’s Covid-19 efforts by walking laps of his garden.
“Captain Tom and so many people running marathons,” he says. “I just thought, what’s the equivalent? If you can’t actually run a marathon if you’re trapped indoors, an armchair marathon would be good. And what a great story to do it with”
But as any parent or teacher experienced in the art of good bedtime storytelling knows, when you’re reading aloud you have to do all the different voices.
“I’m going to be doing all of them,” Serkis promises. “It’s interesting because there are the iconic versions played by so many great actors over the years so I'm going to do my own interpretation.
“Some of them might be closer to the ones I've been involved in, but, yes, I’m going to be doing all of the voices of all the great characters, like the trolls and the orcs and all of those.”
It begins Friday at 10am GMT – 1pm in the UAE, and you can find it on Apple’s podcasts.
LOCKDOWN CAN MAKE YOU HOARSE
The very thought of reading The Hobbit for 12 hours straight is enough to make me feel hoarse and a little dry in the throat.
But there’s now word that lockdowns themselves and working from home can affect people’s voices – due to a lack of face-to-face interaction.
The idea is based on the experience of people who work in call-centres, who can be prone to voice problems due to the nature of their job. This is due to the fact that people tend to raise and tense their voice when they are not face-to-face.
The study is by academics at Trinity College Dublin’s Department of Clinical Speech and Language Studies who say that anecdotal evidence has suggested that some people working from home during this pandemic have started to report symptoms such as hoarseness, or a dry, tight or lump-in-the-throat feeling.
“Our ability to communicate is something we take for granted until it’s gone. We use our voices to catch up with friends, do our jobs and sing to our kids. We use it to tell people when we feel sad, or to share a laugh,” Dr. Ciaran Kenny said Thursday.
LASTING CHANGES IN YOUR VOICE
Hoarse voice and an uncomfortable throat are caused by repeated inflammation from straining the voice. If left unchecked, this could lead to long-lasting changes in the voice-box that may need surgery or therapy to address.
The research team is conducting a survey for people to share their experience of how their voice is holding up during lockdown. In particular, it wants to find out if there are specific areas of work that are potentially more likely to lead to voice problems.
Among the questions the survey asks are about the physical sensations people are experiencing while working from home, such as burning, tight, dry aching or tickling.
“If this survey finds that voice problems are more common than usual, employers might need to provide information or training to employees about how to work from home safely, even after the pandemic,” Kenny adds.
“It also means that educational institutions that provide distance learning might need to make sure that students are not put at risk.”
REFUGEES HELP GERMANS COPE WITH COVID-19
I have nothing but the greatest respect for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. When more than a million refugees streamed from Syria and Iraq, fleeing violence and upheaval across the region, she was first to step forward and open the doors of her nation to these desperate and desolate people.
And over the past five years, those who have made Germany their home have become pillars of German society – despite with right-wing hate mongers in Alternative for Germany might like to have you think otherwise.
While Germany is probably the most advanced European Union member now in coming out of lockdown – even professional games will begin by the end of the month – its refugees have played a huge part in helping Germans.
Whether it’s cooking for grocery store workers to making masks for those in need, many newcomers to Germany are stepping in and helping during the coronavirus-19 pandemic. And as DW reports in a fascinating piece, the knowledge those refugees bring from home is priceless. People like Malakeh Jazmati, who runs a Syrian restaurant.
Because of the coronavirus crisis, many people are struggling financially. Typically, Jazmati has around ten employees at her restaurant, but now she’s alone in the kitchen from Tuesday to Sunday preparing carry-out orders. She makes traditional Syrian dishes such as fajitas and okra, as well as Western classics such as cordon bleu with ingredients specific to the Middle East. Like all restaurateurs, she is concerned about the current situation.
Yet that hasn’t stopped her from volunteering. Jazmati currently cooks extra portions two days a week for supermarket employees. She talks to store managers beforehand and cooks for those interested — free of charge. Some are skeptical, such as the branch manager of a large chain whom she recently spoke to.
“She asked ‘Why do you want to do that?,” Malakeh says in the DW interview. For Jazmati, the matter is simple: doctors and nursing staff are doing great work at the moment, but so are supermarket employees, who also don’t have the luxury of sheltering themselves at home. “What would happen if they didn’t want to work and stayed at home? We’d all have big problems.” she says.
Malakeh Jazmati has been living in Berlin since 2015. She left her hometown of Damascus after being blacklisted by the government during her studies Her crime? She organised clothing drives and collected donations for families whose relatives were in prison.
HOSTED HER OWN COOKING SHOW
After the escape, she lived with her mother, sister and brother in Jordan, where she met her current husband. By chance, Malakeh ended up on the radio, then on television hosting her own cooking show. Since her husband was not allowed to work in Jordan, the couple decided to relocate. Her husband first came to Berlin, and a year and a half later, Malakeh followed through the family reunion programme.
“I left everything behind and started from scratch here,” she tells DW. First she cooked for friends and acquaintances, but then the orders started to pour in. Half a year after her arrival, she was able to make a living from catering.
At an event for which she did the catering, a man named Steffen Seibert approached her and asked her if she would cook for a different event at the Bundestag, the German Parliament. “I said ‘yes’ even though I didn’t know what the Bundestag was yet,” she recalls with a laugh. Little did she know, the man who approached her was Merkel’s spokesperson.
At the event, she even had a brief conversation with the chancellor. “She inquired very knowledgeably about certain ingredients and asked me for a recipe.: Jazmati gave it to her, of course.
But Jazmati is not the only newcomer to provide coronavirus-related assistance. The platform GoVolunteer connects people who want to volunteer for projects and also helps refugees and migrants find jobs and educational opportunities in Germany.
‘NEWCOMERS AGAINST CORONA’
Through the platform, the programme Newcomers against Corona was created, and currently has 40 participants, many of whom are refugees. “They go shopping for others, cook, sew masks, one participant translates between doctors and patients on the phone,: says Thomas Noppen, managing director and programme director at GoVolunteer.
LouLou, a meeting place for refugees in the neighborhood of Moabit in Berlin, is one of the spaces listed on GoVolunteer. Because the centre is currently closed due to the pandemic, the 15 refugee women who participate in a self-help group must now meet online. “They really miss direct social contact,” says Sandy Alhambri, who has been working at LouLou and organising the meetings for the past year. During their encounters, the women discuss problems they have adapting to their new home. “Often, someone has had a similar problem and could help solve it,” explains Alhambri.
One of the women in the group works as a caregiver in a shelter. “Because there was a great need for masks, she started sewing them,” explains Alhambri. So, the idea came about for the group to sew masks for those who need them – for free of course.
Alhambri and her family fled Damascus in 2014. Initially, they lived in a home for refugees in Berlin. “After the first language courses, I translated for other residents there,” she says. Now, she works in a shop and is also studying to become a social worker. “We want to show that we have brought something from our homeland: Knowledge that we can use here that can benefit others.”
How right she is. What a fantastic and uplifting story!
SO WHY DID PORTUGAL FARE BETTER THAN NEIGHBOURING SPAIN?
AS regular readers of this lockdown blog might recall, I live for part of the year in Spain, part of the year in Britain and Ireland. The Iberian Peninsula is firmly on my list of top five places in the world and I just love the history, food and culture that seems to ooze from every stone there.
Both Spain and Portugal share a land border that is some 1,200 kilometres long, stretch from near Huelva in the south to just below Vigo in Galicia to the north. In normal times – and these are not normal times – crossing the frontier most often means cross a bridge or a stream, such is the porous and open nature of the border in these days of the European Union.
So how come then Portugal escaped relatively easy compared to Spain – with Portugal having far lower Covid-19 infection rates compared to hard-hit Spain.
Pulmonologist Dr Filipe Froes, an advisor to health chief Graca Freitas, said Portugal had benefited from being behind Madrid in terms of the virus’ spread. This, he said, had given the country time to get hospitals ready and increase capacity in intensive care units.
MORE TIME TO PREPARE
“The difference in Portugal was that we had more time to prepare,” Dr Froes told the widely broadcast Good Morning Europe show. “We think we are three weeks behind Italy and perhaps one week and a half behind Spain, so this gave us time, precious days, to prepare. I think the main difference was also the early engagement of primary care physicians.”
Portugal declared a state of emergency on 18 March, just two days after the first Covid-19 death was reported. Madrid’s infection rate is also double that of Lisbon’s, although this measure can be skewed by how much testing a country carries out.
Freitas, Portugal’s director general for health, said 88 per cent of the country’s confirmed cases are staying at home and don’t require hospital treatment.
“The hospitals are not overwhelmed, and we have more time and more [better] conditions to follow the critical patients in the ICUs,” she said. “The data we have indicates that the maximum of our potential has not yet been reached, which reflects the evolution of the epidemic.”
MEME OF THE DAY
This was shared with me on Facebook Annie O’Brien, my second cousin from Dorking, just to the south of London.
HOW I’M PRETENDING TO GROW £10,000 IN PLAY MONEY
Ouch. That was sore – and thankfully the trading is done now for the week – I took a big hit on my 50 BT shares, which dropped by 8.14 per cent.
So why the big decline?
Well, the decline was caused by confirmation that Liberty Global and Telefonica have agreed to merge their British businesses in a $38 billion deal that will create a powerhouse in mobile and broadband to take on market leader BT.
In the biggest shake-up of the British telecoms market for five years, the deal will bring together the biggest cable TV provider in Liberty’s Virgin Media with Telefonica’s O2, the second-largest mobile operator.
The tie-up mirrors a succession of European deals struck by Liberty’s billionaire founder John Malone to create one-stop shops for mobile and broadband. The Telefonica deal will allow the debt-laden Spanish company to extract cash while remaining in Britain, having tried and failed to sell O2 in 2016.
It will also force rivals Vodafone, Comcast’s Sky, Three UK and TalkTalk to examine whether they need to have the full set of fixed and mobile assets to keep up.
“It’s not a secret anymore, when 5G meets 1 gig broadband we know magic can happen for customers,” Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries told reporters on a conference call, referring to superfast internet speeds in both mobile and broadband.
Under the terms of the deal, one of the biggest since the coronavirus pandemic upended the world economy, the parent companies will have equal ownership of the combined entity. They expect to achieve £6.2 billion in total operating benefits, equivalent to £540 million a year by the fifth full year after closing.
CAPTURING A BIGGER MARKET SHARE
The new group will also hope to capture a bigger share of the business sector, competing with BT and Vodafone just as the coronavirus pandemic forces companies to cut spending.
It could further hurt Vodafone, the world’s second-biggest mobile operator, which has struggled in its home UK market and had signed a deal to provide mobile services to Virgin from next year.
Shares in BT, which announced separately that it was suspending its dividend until 2021/22, fell as much as 12 per cent to an 11-year low of 101.1p before retracing some losses.
Alvarez-Pallete, who has responded to concerns over low profit growth and high debt with a plan to focus on more profitable markets including Britain, told a virtual news conference he had not expected the market to reward Thursday’s announcement immediately.
“We are convinced that with both these actions - signing this deal and the dividend policy we have proposed - our company gets stronger,” he said.
That’s all food for thought that I’ll need to digest over the weekend before setting my pretend portfolio up for trading on Monday morning.
But, thankfully, it is all pretend.
By 1,200 shares in PowerHouse remained unchanged, while both by 100 shares apiece in food-deliver company Ocado and drinks distiller Diageo were up.
This is how I stand heading into the weekend:
Net worth £11,299.38
Diageo, 100 shares: £2778.00
Ocado, 100 shares: £1864.00
BT, 50 shares: £5247.50
PowerHouse 1,200 shares: £1,380
Cash in hand: £29.88
£ Gain loss: £372.00
% Gain overall: 11.3 per cent
£ Gain overall: £1,299.38
COVIDIOTS, YOBS AND GOONS
Here’s my daily collection of covidiots, serving as a reminder that weeds sometimes end up in the turnip patch.
UK POLICE REPORT RISE IN HATE CRIMES
A lot of hate is being churned up on social media by ignorant covidiots who don’t know any better. Shame on them. And now police forces across the United Kingdom have reported an alarming rise in hate crimes against mostly ethnic Chinese people during the coronavirus pandemic.
They revealed at least 267 offences were recorded between January and March during the Covid-19 crisis – and the covidiots committed assaults, robberies, harassment and criminal damage at a rate nearly three times that of the previous two years.
British Transport Police recorded 49 hate crimes against victims whose “ethnic appearance was recorded as Chinese, Japanese or South East Asian” in the first three months of 2020. This compared to 49 crimes throughout the whole of 2019 and 42 in 2018.
VERBALLY ABUSED ABOUT CORONAVIRUS
The force listed several hate crimes in 2020 in which victims were verbally abused about coronavirus.
One victim was told “go back to your own country, you have coronavirus you [expletive],” another was told “I’ll catch coronavirus off you.”
Other crimes included an offender who said “[expletive] Chinese” five times and punched the victim in the jaw, another victim who was spat on, an offender who used threatening body language and referred to the victim “as though they were an infection,” and an offender who said to a victim on at least 10 occasions “you are Jackie Chan aren’t you, you are Jackie Chan.”
Crimes in 2020 included an incident where a suspect approached the victim and said “masks don’t work you Chinese” before threatening the victim with violence and raising his fist.
Another offence saw a suspect approach a woman in the street and cough in her face, with the victim believing she had been targeted due to her race and the coronavirus outbreak.
London Metropolitan Police recorded 63 hate crimes against Chinese people in the first three months of 2020, compared to 76 in 2019 and 83 in 2018. Crimes in 2020 included 14 violence against the person offences as well as robbery, theft, burglary, criminal damage and public order offences.
COVIDIOTS’ BARBECUE SETS TREES BLAZE
British police in the town of Aylesbury, about 60 kilometres northwest of London, have criticised a group of covidiots who not only broke strict lockdown rules to have a barbecue with friends on Wednesday evening but also caused a fire in the process.
Officers were on patrol on the Buckingham Park estate after reports of a group of friends having a barbecue in the warm weather.
The police took to Twitter to highlight the incident after the group disposed of their hot barbecues in a wooded area, causing a fire which required speedy intervention from the local fire brigade.
“While it’s clear you shouldn’t be out having a BBQ with your friends it’s also not a good idea to dispose of hot BBQs into an area where there are trees!” a police spokesman said on Twitter.
But covidiots are so stupid, can they actually read? We know they can’t think.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
I’m not an expert, but I might be able to help you make a bit of sense of this. And we can all get through it together. Isn’t this what this is all about.
Send your questions for me to Readers@gulfnews.com.
That’s it for now. Let’s check in with each other tomorrow. I have used files from Reuters, AP, SkyNews, Twitter and other European and North American media outlets in today’s blog. And remember to stay safe.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe