Mick day 10
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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 46: Thursday May 14, 9am

IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?

COVID-19 SHOWS WHY FACEBOOK IS SO TROUBLESOME

I have been a journalist for almost four decades, churning out stories and working for nine different newspapers on three continents over that time. Three of those newspapers no longer exist.

I have been held to legal and moral account for every word I have or continue to write, every headline or story I edited, every decision I made.

Not so those who post items on Facebook.

And over the course of its development – I joined some 15 years ago to be able to access photos of dead Canadian soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan – Facebook has simply profited from my work, the work of other journalists, editors, marketing and sales, circulation and printers, who worked daily to produce responsible journalism.

Oh, it’s not alone. So too Google and others who aggregate content or cherry pick news stories for their feeds. So too unscrupulous characters who create ‘news’ websites and simply steal – yes steal – content and label it is their own.

And it is particularly galling now during this coronavirus pandemic.

MISLEADING INFORMATION

I was intrigued to read just now that more than 50 million pieces of misleading content were given warning labels on Facebook over these past months.

Publishing its latest Community Standards Enforcement Report, Facebook said that since 1 March, it had removed more than 2.5 million pieces of content linked to sale of medical items such as masks and COVID-19 test kits.

The social network also revealed its COVID-19 Information Centre, which shows health and virus information from official sources, had now directed more than two billion people to resources from health authorities.

Social media platforms, including Facebook, have been repeatedly criticised over the amount of disinformation and harmful content linked to the Covid-19 outbreak which has spread online. And that

A number of charities and online safety organisations have warned that with people – particularly children – spending more time online during lockdown, more stringent monitoring of online platforms is needed.

DETECTION TECHNOLOGY

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Facebook removed 5.7 million pieces of content removed in the last quarter of 2019, and 9.6 million removed in the first quarter of 2020 Image Credit: Facebook.com

In its Enforcement Report, Facebook said its detection technology was now finding around 90 per cent of the content the platform removes before it is reported to the site.

Among the other actions taken against posts on Facebook, the social media giant said that it doubled the amount of hate speech content it ‘took action’ on in the space of three months: from 5.7 million pieces of content removed in the last quarter of 2019, to 9.6 million removed in the first quarter of 2020.

Taking action could mean removing the content, putting a warning on the post to mark it as harmful or add a FactCheck next to a piece of content that is misleading.

It’s not clear if this increase in hate speech being removed is as a result of Facebook’s actions, or if there’s an increase in the amount of hate speech being posted on Facebook.

“We saw further progress in Q3 when we removed 2.5 million pieces of content, of which 97.3 per cent we detected proactively,” it said.

The report introduces Instagram data in four issue areas: Hate Speech, Adult Nudity and Sexual Activity, Violent and Graphic Content, and Bullying and Harassment.

But here’s the crucial difference: Facebook takes AFTER content is in circulation on its platform –responsible outlets take action BEFORE.

That’s just one of the reasons why I’m so down on social media.

SURVIVING COVID-19 AT 113 YEARS’ OF AGE

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Image Credit: Twitter

This is a remarkable story – one that shows that no matter how down COVID-19 makes you feel, there is always hope.

Maria Branyas is 113 years’ of age and is believed to be the oldest person living in Spain. And she’s just beaten coronavirus.

Maria was born in the US and became infected in April at the Santa Maria del Tura care home in the eastern city of Olot where she has lived for the past 20 years.

Isolating in her room, she fought off the respiratory illness.

“She survived the disease and is doing fine,” a spokeswoman for the residence said yesterday, adding Branyas had only displayed mild symptoms.

“She feels good now, she took a test last week and the result was negative.” the spokeswoman said without giving further details.

Branyas, a mother of three, was isolated in her room for weeks, with only a single employee in protective gear allowed in to check on her, according to Catalan regional television TV3, which broadcast images of the centenarian.

SECRET TO A LONG LIFE?

In the video, Branyas can be heard calling the staff at the residence “very kind, very attentive”.

When an employee asks her for the secret of her long life, Branyas replies simply that she is lucky to enjoy “good health”.

The care home has recorded “several” virus-related deaths during the pandemic, the spokeswoman for the residence said.

Branyas’ daughter Rosa Moret told the station that her mother was “in shape, wanting to talk, to explain, to reflect, she has become herself again”.

She was born on 4 March 1907 in San Francisco where her father, who was from northern Spain, worked as a journalist.

Branyas moved to Spain with her family on a boat during the First World War and also lived through the Spanish flu pandemic that swept the world in 1918-19 as well as Spain’s 1936-39 civil war.

What a remarkable old dear and she now has another story to add to the chapters of her life.

CANADA’S SENIORS GET A $500 BONUS FOR EXTRA COSTS

And writing of seniors, this news item from Ottawa made me proud too. I lived in Canada for 19 years and loved it. I still hold Canadian citizenship and respect where it stands in the world.

Seniors across Canada will be receiving a one-time payment of up to C$500 (Dh1,307) to help offset any increases in their cost of living due to COVID-19.

The direct supports will amount to $2.5 billion and are expected to help 6.7 million older Canadians. The government said seniors are facing extra dispensing fees for prescriptions, added costs for grocery delivery services and taxi fees when they might normally take the bus. It's all small amounts, but it adds up. A nice gesture indeed from Ottawa.

COVID-19 AND THE CAMELS

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Image Credit: Twitter

I know that if you’re living in the UAE, the birth of camels is nothing new. But if you’re living in Yorkshire in the northeast of England, it’s news and noteworthy.

Two baby Bactrian camels, named Marvin and Merlin, were born in April at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park in Doncaster and have just been placed in the main herd in their reserve.

According to the park, they are the first camel calves to be born during the coronavirus lockdown.

“Both of the new calves are males and seem to be having the best time ever, enjoying the sun, bonding with their mothers, and getting to know the rest of the herd,” Ayesha Seston from the park said. “Bactrian camels are very family-oriented animals with strong bonds within the herd. It is clear that they are all delighted with the new additions and so are we. It is great to have new babies here at the park. They create so much joy among the animals and the rangers, especially during such uncertain times.”

The gestation period for a Bactrian camel is 13 months, with the newborns staying with their mothers for a considerable length of time after they are born.

THAILAND TURNS TO TOURISM TAX

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Tourists visiting Thailand may face a THB300 levy. Image Credit: Instagram

Thailand is one of my favourite places. I love the culture, the food, the climate, the islands, the cities – and the people. Several years ago, I considered buying property there in or around Hua Hin. Instead, I opted for Spain. But who knows what can happen down the road?

Like everywhere else, authorities there are trying to get their nation back up and running.

But is a tax on tourists the right way to go – considering that it relies so heavily on the sector?

Thailand’s Tourism and Sports Ministry is considering a tax of THB300 baht (Dh35) per person for foreign arrivals that could cover pandemic insurance, once inbound flights and tourism activities resume in the country, the Bangkok Post is reporting.

Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, the tourism and sports minister, said the tax would be collected once foreigners arrive by air, land or sea transport.

The scheme is part of the 20-year national strategic plan that requires government agencies to have recurring income to sustain and stabilise the national economy.

REBUILDING AND REDEVELOPING

The levy will be added to the tourism fund managed by the ministry that aims to rebuild and develop tourism supply chains here, as well as offer safety and security protection for tourists.

Phiphat said this idea was initiated last year but was delayed because of the pandemic and believes now is the right time to initiate collection.

The goal is to have tourists entering via air travel charged as a part of their air tickets, but the government has not finalised how collection for land and sea transport would work.

“The pandemic has had a severe impact on tourism confidence, and the tourism fund should set aside a budget for state agencies to carry on when looking after tourists affected by the pandemic,” he said.

Personally, the fee doesn’t seem to be excessive. But is the timing right for such a measure when people will find any excuse not to travel right now?

REFUNDS OR VOUCHERS FROM AIRLINES

A couple of months ago now, I had to cancel and amend all sorts of travel arrangements in the process of trying to return to Europe from Bali as the world shut down nation by nation.

Airlines cancelled flights and little notice, and it was something of a game to me to stay ahead of the curve when it came to fly to Dublin when Singapore shut down, KLM cancelled three sets of flights and I subsequently had to cancel alternative arrangements made with Aer Lingus. I also was delayed and because Spain was closed too, had to seek redress from Ryanair.

According to well-established European law, any passenger who is affected can ask for a full refund in cash from an airline that serves the European Union. That’s clearly the case with Ryanair, Aer Lingus and KLM. Ryanair and KLM, though, have only offered vouchers for flights – and these have to be used with a year.

For the past number of weeks, there’s been a debate raging between consumers and airlines, with governments mostly keeping on the sidelines as much as possible.

On Wednesday morning, however, the European Commission weighed in.

Citing EU law, it said European airlines must give passengers refunds for cancelled flights and cannot force them to accept vouchers instead.

PRESSURE FROM TROUBLED AIRLINES

The commission had been under pressure to ease passenger rights regulations to allow airlines to withhold cash refunds from passengers by a group of member states concerned about a collapse of the aviation industry due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But the push has failed, and the commission is threatening to move against member states for failing to implement EU law if they fail to enforce passenger rights and hold airlines to account.

“If you have lost your job, if this is your entire holiday budget for travelling that sits in these tickets you cannot use anymore, then you need a refund. And that is why we say this is your right, full stop,” said commissioner Margrethe Vestager. She added that letters were being sent out to member states that were failing to force airlines to respect passenger rights: the first step in infringement procedures when countries fail to implement EU law.

“We expect the member state to correct it immediately, otherwise the next step will be taken,” Vestager said.

KLM-AIR FRANCE PUSH

KLM-Air France and governments in the Netherlands and France had led the push to persuade the commission to water down the regulations requiring cash refunds as a series of airlines were forced to seek government support to avoid collapse.

The Irish government was among 13 member states who joined the governments in The Hague and Paris co-signing a letter calling for the commission to temporarily allow airlines to issue vouchers instead of refunds to passengers whose flights have been cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under EU Regulation 261/2014, airlines must reimburse passengers whose flights are cancelled the choice of a refund or a re-routing within seven days.

But the member states – Ireland, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Greece, France, Latvia, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, and Portugal – claimed current rules place airlines in a difficult situation, particularly as many are facing financial difficulties.

The letter follows complaints from customers that Ryanair and Aer Lingus had joined a number of other airlines across the continent in primarily offering vouchers to those whose flights had been cancelled.

Passengers were told they would have to wait until the Covid-19 pandemic had passed before applications for refunds would be considered.

COMMISSION SAYS RULES CANNOT BE CHANGED

A number of airlines including Ryanair and KLM – and I know this from my own personal experience – had left passengers awaiting payments as the row played out, as airlines slash jobs and struggle with a backlog of millions of refund requests as the pandemic wipes out demand for flights and grounds the majority of fleets.

But the commission insists the rules cannot be changed, and suggests that if airlines want fewer passengers to seek cash refunds they should make vouchers more attractive, for example by adding perks or making them redeemable for cash if unused by their expiry date.

“If one can afford to take a voucher or would like to support the businesses by taking a voucher, this can be made attractive,” Vestager said, adding that long delays before reimbursement were “not what is supposed to happen”.

Support for relaxing the rules had been widespread among member states, but the commission said it was not unanimous.

As things stand right now, I’m owed about €1,500 in flight refunds. I’m not holding my breath though…

TRYING TO SALVAGE THE SUMMER HOLIDAYS

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Image Credit: Twitter

As well as clarifying the refund issue, in Wednesday the EU also unveiled its plan to help citizens across its 27 nations salvage their summer holidays after months of coronavirus confinement. Around 150,000 people have died across Europe since the virus surfaced in northern Italy in February, but with the spread of the disease tapering off, people in many countries are cautiously venturing out of confinement to return to work and some schools are reopening.

A question on the minds of people, tour operators and the thousands of small businesses that depend on the tourism industry is whether the summer months this year will be reduced to a home-style “staycation”.

“This is not going to be a normal summer, not for any of us,” Vestager told reporters. “But when we all work together, and we all do our part… then we don’t have to face a summer stuck at home or a complete lost summer for the European tourist industry.”

In a series of guidelines, the European Commission laid out its advice for lifting ID checks on hastily closed borders, helping to get airlines, ferries and buses running while ensuring the safety of passengers and crew, and preparing health measures for hotels to reassure clients.

HOLIDAY COMPANY TUI SOUNDS WARNING

The border shutdowns have hit the travel industry hard. German-based tour and hotel operator Tui said on Wednesday that it expects to cut up to 8,000 jobs due to the pandemic.

Tui said it was “prepared for a resumption” and its first hotels on the German coast would reopen in the coming days. It also sees the possibility of offering holidays in Spain’s Balearic islands and in Greece starting in July, German news outlets reported.

As long as new infections remain relatively low, there is “no reason why one shouldn’t be able to travel there,” chief executive Fritz Joussen said, but local companies and hotels need to be open.

Ryanair has said it will begin operating up to 40 per cent of its schedules from July 1. Greece, with a low coronavirus outbreak, is calling for the resumption of travel between EU countries by June 15.

BUT WILL OTHER NATIONS FOLLOW THE EU ADVICE?

The European Commission’s guidelines come amid deep concern that Europe’s ID check-free travel zone – the 26-country Schengen Area – is being strangled by controls, further harming virus-ravaged economies by limiting the movement of goods, services and people that are essential to business.

On Wednesday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced that from Friday May 15 there will only be random checks at the German border, and from June 15 the border will be opened again.

He said his government is looking to do the same with Switzerland, Liechtenstein and neighbouring countries in eastern Europe, “provided the infection numbers allow it”.

Even with restrictions easing, social distancing rules would apply, and the commission is recommending that robust disease monitoring measures are put in place – including good testing capacity and contact tracing – so that people have the confidence to return to hotels and camping sites across Europe.

Norway said on Wednesday it was opening its borders to people from other European countries who have a residence there or have family they want to visit.

HERE’S THE SCOOP ON POOP AND A SECOND WAVE

Honestly, I can’t make this up. But scientists are developing ways of using sewage to locate new infection hotspots and track a second wave of Covid-19.

An international group of wastewater experts are researching new techniques that could identify the level of infection in a community without the need for testing individuals, one British television outlet is reporting.

New standardised procedures could identify the virus in wastewater and provide a picture of how coronavirus is spreading, the researchers told ITV.

The group, who were brought together by the Water Research Foundation and include engineers from the University of Sheffield, are developing a range of best practices concerning the use of sewage.

These include collecting and storing wastewater samples and using molecular genetics tools to identify levels of Covid-19 in sewage samples.

The scientists are also developing recommended approaches for using levels of coronavirus in wastewater samples to inform trends and estimates of the spread of the virus in communities and developing strategies to communicate the implications of the results with the public.

AN ACCURATE MAP FROM SEWAGE SAMPLES

Professor Vanessa Speight, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, is researching techniques to reliably interpret the data collected from sewage samples.

Her results could help create a more accurate map of how the virus is spreading and show the emergence of a second wave of the pandemic.

“There is great potential for wastewater to provide valuable information about the occurrence of Covid-19 across communities,” she said.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said a new alert system to monitor the threat posed by coronavirus could eventually identify local flare-ups if Covid-19 is detected in the waste water from a local area.

“Some studies have been carried out overseas on this and I think it is something we are looking at as a possible way of seeing if you could track the rate of infections locally,” the PM’s official spokesman said.

The Downing Street spokesman said officials are investigating whether sewage samples would allow them to “track if the virus is more prevalent in some parts of the country than in others”.

VITAL GENETIC MATERIAL

Experts said some countries are testing waste water to see if there is infection in the community. And, while there is no evidence of the live virus being found in sewage or that the virus has been spread through sewerage systems, one study from the Netherlands found viral genetic material in waste water samples several weeks before the first case was detected.

“We are actively engaging with the research community and Government scientific advisers to investigate whether monitoring waste water could be used as a way of tracking the prevalence of the virus,” a spokesman from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said

In April, scientists from Newcastle University said they were collaborating with Spanish academics to monitor sewage in their local networks in both countries to estimate the prevalence of Covid-19 in north-east England and across Spain.

MEME OF THE DAY

This was shared with me on WhatsApp. And yes, just checking my calendar, Wednesday is Day 134 of 366. I forgot it was a leap year, which makes 2020 feel all the longer. Even the middle of March seems so long ago.

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Image Credit: Supplied

TAKING STOCK

HOW I’M PRETENDING TO GROW £10,000 IN PLAY MONEY

So, three days into this trading week and my pretend portfolio stands at £12,185.88. A reminder that this is all pretend, I started off some 40 days ago with £10,000 – about Dh45,000 to play with, I don’t pay for trades, I can buy any amount of shares and can only do so when the London Stock Exchange market is closed

Overall, the portfolio is showing growth of just under 22 per cent since I started a little over seven weeks ago. On Wednesday, my Drax shares were unchanged, PowerHouse dipped slightly, Ocado continued to grow and Diageo slipped too. I showed a loss of £45.50 on the day’s trading.

Net worth: £12,185.88

Diageo, 100 shares: £2828.50

Ocado, 100 shares: £2096.00

Drax, 2,600 shares: £5236.40

PowerHouse 1,200 shares: £2,010.00

Cash in hand: £14.98

£ loss on last trading day: £45.50

% Gain overall: 22.2 per cent

£ Gain overall: £2,185.88

WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO LONDON PROPERTY PRICES?

London is one of the great cities of the world – and the price of property there reflects that. I’ve lived there for a year back in the early 1990s and rents where astronomical then – and have only gone one way since then.

From Wednesday, the Boris Johnson government has allowed socially distanced viewing to begin again. And since the announcement for that was made on Monday, London estate agents and housebuilders

are reporting a surge in enquiries, the Evening Standard is reporting.

The announcement by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick caught the industry by surprise but triggered an immediate spike in activity this morning that is expected to gather momentum rapidly.

Property search portal Rightmove has already reported a 45 per cent increase in visits on Tuesday compared to the same time Monday, while Guy Gittins, managing director of Chestertons says the phones “have been ringing off the hook”.

The lockdown imposed on March 23 left 450,000 buyers and renters stranded mid-transaction, unable to push on with moves worth an estimated £80 billion – about Dh32 billion.

A LOT SOONER THAN EXPECTED

“This welcome announcement is excellent news for the housing industry and the wider UK economy,” Rightmove’s Miles Shipside says. “We’ve all been eagerly anticipating the day that people can start buying, selling, renting and letting properties again and it has come a lot sooner than many of us expected.”

Many property industry commentators reported a steady increase in pent-up demand from home buyers leading into the lockdown. And although transaction levels plummeted as the coronavirus crisis brought the property market to a standstill, Rightmove reports activity has been rising at a stable rate for a few weeks now, while new buyer registrations with estate agent Savills have surged in the past few weeks.

Viewings and moves will only be allowed to go ahead under strict social distancing conditions. In this post-lockdown housing market, potential buyers could be asked to complete a health declaration before being offered viewings in person and market appraisals for sales and lettings. Estate agents will wear masks and gloves and sanitise properties before and after viewings.

PROTECTING CLIENTS AND AGENTS

The Evening Standard quoted Jonathan Hudson, founder of Hudsons estate agents in Fitzrovia saying: “Ultimately everyone wants to stay safe – so as long as everyone practices social distancing to protect each other, we will all help minimise infection and help get our customers moving again. We have new technology to improve virtual viewings, to include 360-degree walk-arounds,” he adds.

“I have just been asked this morning to arrange a viewing for a billionaire owner of a flat in Mayfair,” says James Gubbins, of Knight Frank’s Mayfair office. “They hadn’t previously been looking to upsize. However, as a direct result of the lifting of lockdown, they have made the decision to buy a larger property, having been isolating there as a family.”

It’s not just in London that real estate activity is picking up. I have several friends who are estate agents in Spain. One, Lynne, had her first viewing after eight weeks of very strict lockdown on Tuesday afternoon. Her complaint? “I age too much in lockdown,” she says. “I can’t fist into my work jeans.”

COVIDIOTS, YOBS AND GOONS

Here’s my daily collection that serves as a reminder covidiots get honours grades in stupidity exams

COVIDIOTS LIGHT UP THE SCOTTISH NIGHT

So, not only are covidiots stupid enough to risk the health of others by ignoring lockdown rules in the UK, they’re even stupid enough to light campfires to show they’re doing it!

Police in Scotland say covidiots have been breaking lockdown there to throw campfire parties in the Pentland Hills.

Rangers patrolling the beauty spot near Edinburgh have found evidence of gatherings despite the car parks being closed, signs up and barriers down.

Park bosses have told people to stay away and warned anyone found ignoring the warnings will be shopped to the police.

“As lockdown gets harder, we have had the occasional campfire or party to deal with,” natural heritage officer Victor Partridge wrote to volunteers. “Again, we are encouraging people who witness others not following the government’s advice to call 101 Police Scotland, who can enforce the guidelines better than Natural Heritage staff.”

Rangers closed off car parks following Scottish Government advice for people to exercise locally rather than drive to parks. “Generally, people have been very good and not been driving to the park,” he added.

He said both police and traffic wardens have been drafted in to investigate lockdown breaches and carry out weekend patrols.

Rangers have advised any locals walking in the park who see large groups to tell police rather than confront them.

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, DW, 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