Dublin Ireland
People cross the tram tracks in Dublin City centre in Ireland on May 18, 2020, as Ireland cautiously begins to lift it's coronavirus lockdown. Image Credit: AFP

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 53

Thursday May 21, 9am

IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?

COMING TO TERMS WITH THE MENTAL EFFECTS OF THIS LOCKDOWN

I am well into my eighth week of lockdown and severe restrictions on my movements. Since Monday, I can now exercise within a radius of 5 kilometres from my home – it had been 2kms before – and some retail shops have opened.

And some days it hasn’t been easy. I do feel depressed occasionally. Some days are harder than others.

I can take comfort, however, from a study by the Central Statistics Office in Ireland that has just been released on the effects of the COVID-19 restrictions. I am not alone in feeling down some days. The CSO is reporting that a quarter of men and one-third of women feel “downhearted and depressed” due to the COVID-19 emergency.

The CSO’s Social Impact of Covid-19 survey carried out in April found the pandemic has had a greater impact on the wellbeing of women with 38 per cent feeling “downhearted and depressed” compared to 26 per cent of men who reported feeling this way.

It found that one in four, or 27.6 per cent of women are “extremely” concerned about their health, somebody else’s health, and maintaining social ties, compared to one in five men, or 20 per cent.

The impact on women is further highlighted when set against the backdrop of research into wellbeing over the past decade.

DROP IN LIFE SATISFACTION

Around 15 per cent of both women and men reported their life satisfaction as low in 2013. This dropped to 9 per cent for women in 2018 and fell to 8.4 per cent for men that same year.

However, the percentage of women now reporting low satisfaction with overall life is more than double the rate in 2013, climbing to 36 per cent.

Meanwhile, some 22 per cent of men now report a low satisfaction with life, an increase of around 14 per cent since in 2018 but significantly lower than the comparative figure in women.

The CSO noted a bigger trend in psychological distress and changes in alcohol, tobacco and junk food consumption in women than in men.

More women than men reported an increase in alcohol consumption, 23.4 per cent compared to 20.9 per cent, while 26 per cent of men reported a decrease in alcohol consumption compared with 9 per cent of women.

MORE JUNK FOOD AND SWEETS

The CSO survey also found that more women reported an increased consumption of junk food and sweets when compared with men, 54 per cent compared to 36 per cent. Women were also far less likely to report a reduction in junk food consumption.

A huge portion of the Irish population has been adjusting to working from home over the past two months under the government’s public health guidelines.

The CSO survey found that 49 per cent of women reported that they would like to return to their place of work after restrictions are lifted, compared to 32 per cent of men.

Men were also more likely to report wanting a mixture of working from home and at their place of work at 61 per cent, compared to 44 per cent of women.

UNIVERSITIES PLAN FOR LIFE DURING A PANDEMIC AS CAMBRIDGE GOES FULLY ONLINE FOR 2021

Given the results of the CSO survey above, I was rather disturbed to read that the University Cambridge has confirmed that all “face-to-face lectures” will be moved online during the next academic year.

From what I remember of my days in post-secondary education, mingling and socializing was almost as important for development as the formal learning in lecture halls. The UK university has set out measures for the full 2020/21 academic year, saying it is “likely” that social distancing will continue to be required.

Lectures will continue virtually until Summer 2021, the university said, while it may be possible for smaller teaching groups to take place in person if it “conforms to social-distancing requirements”.

A spokesman for the university said: “The university is constantly adapting to changing advice as it emerges during this pandemic.

“Given that it is likely that social distancing will continue to be required, the university has decided there will be no face-to-face lectures during the next academic year.

Lectures will continue to be made available online and it may be possible to host smaller teaching groups in person, as long as this conforms to social-distancing requirements. This decision has been taken now to facilitate planning, but as ever, will be reviewed should there be changes to official advice on coronavirus.

CAPTAIN TOM BECOMES A KNIGHT OF THE REALM

I firmly believe the world needs more people like Captain Tom Moore.

He became a national hero in Britain after raising more than £33 million (Dh145 million) for Britain’s National Health Service in the run-up to his 100th birthday, and Downing Street has now said the remarkable hero of this corona crisis is to be knighted.

Moore becomes “Sir Tom” after a special nomination from Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The Second World War veteran raised the record sum by painstakingly completing 100 laps of his garden with the aid of a walking frame, becoming a symbol of British endurance in the face of the adversity of the coronavirus crisis.

Moore said it was an outstanding honour and that he was looking forward to meeting Queen Elizabeth, 94.

“I hope she’s not very heavy handed with the sword,” Moore said. “By then I might be rather a poor old weak soul.”

A knighthood is bestowed by the monarch tapping a sword on the recipient’s shoulders.

SPAIN MAKES MASKS COMPULSORY IN PUBLIC, EVEN FOR CHILDREN

For what I have seen of trying to ease restrictions, it seems to be a very delicate balance between trying to give people as much freedom as possible while also keeping them safe.

I live for part of the year in Spain, and the government there has now made it compulsory for all citizens, including children over six, to wear masks in public spaces as one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns gradually unwinds.

The Health Ministry order said the - whose efficiency in curbing the coronavirus is hotly debated - would be needed from Thursday for indoor public spaces and outdoors when impossible to keep a two-metre distance.

So far, Spain has recorded 27,778 deaths and had 232,037 cases of the COVID-19 disease, according to latest data, while the tourism-dependent economy is forecast to contract up to 12.4 per cent in 2020 due its virtual paralysis since mid-March.

But the pace of new fatalities has slowed to under 100 a day, and Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s left-wing coalition is aiming to lift most of the lockdown by the end of June unless there is a second wave.

Some are getting weary of the restrictions: demonstrators of up to a few hundred have been gathering daily at 9 pm to bang pots and pans and call for the government’s resignation. Mainly in wealthy, conservative neighbourhoods, the protesters have often ignored social-distancing rules.

QUARANTINE FOR OVERSEAS TRAVELLERS

Madrid has eased restrictions to allow children outdoors, and shops and beaches to reopen. But it is keeping a quarantine for overseas travellers for another two weeks.

“We have not got this far by inertia, but by the work of the health workers. The citizens, united, have bent the curve. No one has the right to waste what we have achieved together,” Sanchez told congress, as his minority government tackled the increasingly hard task of getting support from other parties to extend the state of emergency.

The reality is that no leaders anywhere have faced a situation as required to beat this pandemic.

I have friends who own bars and cafes in Spain and know many others who depend on tourism for their income. Tommy, one friend who opened a café in December, says he won’t re-open until tourists are allowed to travel unrestricted. And that means that his 12 employees will be out of work until then.

It’s a similar story all across southern Europe, where tourism-dependent regions are trying to find some certainty.

EMPTY DANCE FLOORS AND EMPTY BEACHES

The Cypriot resort town of Ayia Napa is known for its boisterous parties. Each summer, thousands of young foreign tourists pack the dance floors of its nightlife district after a day at the beach.

But the pandemic silenced the exuberant Napa Strip district as the island nation of Cyprus went into a lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Now nightclub owners wonder when social distancing rules will be eased enough for the party to resume — and what those new parties will look like.

“We know at nightclubs, young people will go to dance and have a good time. But then you have to tell them that they have to keep two metres apart from each other?” asked Charalambos Alexandrou, the spokesman for a group representing local clubs, bars and restaurants.

In places where tourism drives much of the economy, officials are weighing how to entice travellers to come back even while coronavirus remains a threat. Juggling the sometimes-competing needs of health and business, authorities are introducing measures to reassure visitors that taking a holiday is safe again.

‘A SEASON OF TRYING TO SURVIVE’

Social distancing rules may work in restaurants, but that’s not likely to solve the quandary facing Ayia Napa’s nightclubs. Alexandrou said this will be “a season of trying to survive,” not seeking a profit.

One idea being considered is asking holidaymakers to take a COVID-19 test prior to their arrival. Cyprus has officially reported 916 cases of COVID-19 and 17 deaths.

The country’s deputy minister for tourism, Savvas Perdios, said Cyprus will initially look to bring tourists from nearby countries that have managed to contain the virus — Greece, Israel, the UAE and some central European and Nordic nations.

Authorities will take more time to assess the course of the pandemic in the United Kingdom and Russia, the island’s primary tourism markets, before rolling out the red carpet for those countries.

Tourists in the near future will have to navigate a different set of expectations, routines and rules to counter the virus.

CHANGING THE WAY HOTELS OPERATE

Christos Angelides, president of the Cyprus Hotel Managers’ Association, said new rules being announced soon will mean that from the moment tourists step out of their bus or taxi from the airport, their luggage will be disinfected and taken straight to their rooms. Reception procedures will be done electronically, with employees behind a plexiglass screen and cleaning staff in full protective gear.

Guests eyeing a vacation in Portugal, another major southern European holiday destination, will probably look beyond a hotel’s online reviews to see if it has the “Clean&Safe” seal now being awarded by local tourism officials. The seal indicates that the establishment, be it a hotel, restaurant or other venue, has enacted recommended hygiene and safety procedures to protect against the virus.

The idea has been a big success in a desperate sector that accounts for 15 per cent of Portugal’s gross domestic product and 9 per cent of the country’s jobs. The online classes needed to obtain the seal are being attended by around 4,000 people a week.

“It’s a question of making people feel safe to travel and having confidence in the place where they’re going,” said Luis Araujo, president of the government agency Turismo de Portugal

Portugal lies at the opposite end of the Mediterranean Sea from Cyprus, but its challenge is the same: how to reconcile social distancing and hygiene rules with fun and relaxation.

“Restrictions scare away any tourist,” Araújo acknowledged.

DISCOS WILL BE THE LAST PLACES TO OPEN

The Portuguese government says discotheques will be the last places to open, but many hotels intend to start reopening June 1.

Among the changes being adopted: Guests will not check into their rooms until 24 hours after the last occupant has checked out, to allow time for thorough cleaning and airing of the space. Waiting for sunbeds may come to an end as some hotel guests will get one for their own exclusive use. Buffets are unlikely to be offered, but room service is expected to thrive.

Another challenge is how to reopen southern Europe’s famous beaches.

Portugal has come up with a plan to get people back on the sand starting on June 6. Sunbathers must stay 1.5 metres apart, with umbrellas at least 3 metres apart. New signs and an app will use a traffic-light system of red, yellow and green indicating which beaches are full, partly full or have few people. Paddle boats and water slides will be prohibited.

Even with all the efforts to make tourists feel safe, worries about the coronavirus are not going away.

UK personal trainer Kenny Dyer cancelled an Easter vacation in Cyprus and is hopeful of venturing back in October. But Dyer attached a condition that governments may find hard to guarantee.

“I wouldn’t want to fly somewhere where there’s a sudden spike in coronavirus cases, and I would have to be quarantined abroad,” Dyer said.

… AND UK ROYAL FINANCES HIT BY BAN ON TOURISM

The royal budget in the United Kingdom could lose millions of pounds due to palaces being closed to tourists during what is usually their most busy time.

Royal household staff have been told they face pay freezes and that projects have been put on hold due to the budget squeeze caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

The Sun newspaper reports Lord Chamberlain Earl Peel, the most senior official of the royal household, sent an email to staff warning that income is expected to fall by a third this year.

He said the royal household was “not immune” to the impact of the pandemic adding: “We must therefore assume it could still be many weeks, if not months, before we are able to return to business as usual. There are undoubtedly very difficult times ahead and we realise many of you will be concerned.”

Buckingham Palace would normally be preparing to welcome thousands of visitors between July and September while the queen spends summer at Balmoral in Scotland.

But last week it was confirmed the famous attraction would remain closed to visitors for the rest of the year – believed to be the first time this has happened since its doors first opened to the public in 1993.

“The whole country is very likely to be impacted financially by coronavirus and the royal household is no exception,” a Buckingham Palace spokesman said. “However, the time to address this issue will be when the full impact of all the implications of the current situation is clearer. At the moment the attention of the royal household is on ensuring it follows all the guidelines and supports the national effort in combating COVID-19.”

POTENTIAL COVID-19 DRUG COULD SHORTEN RECOVERY TIME AND OFFER SHORT-TERM IMMUNITY

And here’s some good news that, if it pans out, could help to bring this pandemic to a halt, thanks to work being carried out in a Chinese laboratory to develop a drug it believes can stop the coronavirus.

The outbreak first emerged in China late last year before spreading across the world, prompting an international race to find treatments and vaccines.

A drug being tested by scientists at China’s prestigious Peking University could not only shorten the recovery time for those infected, but even offer short-term immunity from the virus, researchers say.

Sunney Xie, director of the university’s Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Genomics, told AFP that the drug has been successful at the animal testing stage.

“When we injected neutralising antibodies into infected mice, after five days the viral load was reduced by a factor of 2,500,” said Xie.

“That means this potential drug has a therapeutic effect.”

The drug uses neutralising antibodies — produced by the human immune system to prevent the virus infecting cells — which Xie’s team isolated from the blood of 60 recovered patients.

WORKING DAY AND NIGHT SEARCHING FOR ANTIBODIES

A study on the team’s research, published Sunday in the scientific journal Cell, suggests that using the antibodies provides a potential “cure” for the disease and shortens recovery time.

Xie said his team had been working “day and night” searching for the antibody.

“Our expertise is single-cell genomics rather than immunology or virology. When we realised that the single-cell genomic approach can effectively find the neutralising antibody we were thrilled.”

He added that the drug should be ready for use later this year and in time for any potential winter outbreak of the virus.

“Planning for the clinical trial is underway,” said Xie, adding it will be carried out in Australia and other countries since cases have dwindled in China, offering fewer human guinea pigs for testing.

The hope is these neutralised antibodies can become a specialised drug that would stop the pandemic.

China already has five potential coronavirus vaccines at the human trial stage, a health official said last week.

But the World Health Organisation has warned that developing a vaccine could take 12 to 18 months.

Scientists have also pointed to the potential benefits of plasma — a blood fluid — from recovered individuals who have developed antibodies to the virus enabling the body’s defences to attack it.

More than 700 patients have received plasma therapy in China, a process which authorities said showed “very good therapeutic effects”.

“However, it (plasma) is limited in supply,” Xie said, noting that the 14 neutralising antibodies used in their drug could be put into mass production quickly.

PREVENTION AND CURE

Using antibodies in drug treatments is not a new approach, and it has been successful in treating several other viruses such as HIV, Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

Xie said his researchers had “an early start” since the outbreak started in China before spreading to other countries.

Ebola drug Remdesivir was considered a hopeful early treatment for Covid-19 — clinical trials in the US showed it shortened the recovery time in some patients by a third — but the difference in mortality rate was not significant.

The new drug could even offer short-term protection against the virus.

The study showed that if the neutralising antibody was injected before the mice were infected with the virus, the mice stayed free of infection and no virus was detected.

This may offer temporary protection for medical workers for a few weeks, which Xie said they are hoping to “extend to a few months”.

More than 100 vaccines for Covid-19 are in the works globally, but as the process of vaccine development is more demanding, Xie is hoping that the new drug could be a faster and more efficient way to stop the global march of the coronavirus.

“We would be able to stop the pandemic with an effective drug, even without a vaccine,” he said.

WHAT CAN A COVID-19 ANTIBODY TEST TELL ME?

An antibody test might show if you had COVID-19 in the recent past, which most experts think gives people some protection from the virus. The tests are different from the nasal swab tests that determine if you’re currently sick.

But studies are still underway to determine what antibody level would be needed for immunity. It’s also not yet known how long any immunity might last. For now, the tests are most helpful for researchers trying to track how the virus spreads in communities.

Dozens of companies are making rapid antibody tests to help identify people who had the virus and may have developed some immunity to it.

KEY QUESTIONS RESEARCHERS ARE TRYING TO ANSWER

As countries tentatively begin to relax lockdown restrictions in bids to revive their economies, many questions remain about the novel coronavirus and its effect on people.

Despite the tireless efforts of doctors, scientists, and researchers around the world, there are still lingering questions about the transmission of the virus, how it sickens individuals, and what will happen next.

Rob Kozak, a clinical microbiologist at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto who helped isolate the SARS-CoV-2 virus in March, said it’s important to remember that people really only became aware of the virus five months ago.

“It hasn’t been with us for long enough. We’re just sort of starting to see now the follow-up on people who perhaps got infected in January and have recovered and what will happen with them,” he told CTVNews.

And, although quarantined individuals are eagerly anticipating a return to normalcy, researchers say the answers to questions about how that will happen could still be many months away.

Here are 10 important questions about the coronavirus from experts who are trying to answer them.

HOW DO CHILDREN TRANSMIT THE VIRUS?

While children appear to be less affected by the coronavirus than older generations, Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician and scientist with the Toronto General Hospital, said it’s still unclear what role they play in transmitting it to others. He also said they still don’t know if children are being infected, but are affected differently than adults.

Jude Uzonna, an immunologist and infectious diseases researcher at the University of Manitoba, said there is now evidence that children are experiencing widespread and systemic inflammatory response syndrome, which is similar to an inflammatory illness called Kawasaki disease.

“It’s still unanswered,” he said. “If it is true, that young kids are really having this kind of condition, are you going to be sending your kids back to school?”

DO CHILDREN HAVE LOWER RISK OF COVID-19?

There are fewer cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, among children compared to cases among adults, according to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The agency says about 2 per cent of confirmed US cases of COVID-19 have been among people under the age of 18. That rate is 2.2 per cent in China, 1.2 per cent in Italy and 0.8 per cent in Spain.

But, as with the general population, epidemiologists say those rates likely do not include asymptomatic children, since people without symptoms are rarely tested for the infection.

A recent study observed a collection of international family clusters of COVID-19 and found that children were the initial source of infection in less than 10 per cent of cases. The study report, produced by the University of Queensland and posted on the SSRN preprint platform in April, has been submitted to The Lancet medical journal but has not yet been peer reviewed.

Several small studies in countries such as Iran and France have come to similar conclusions, as has the Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.

DO KIDS CARRY SAME AMOUNT OF THE VIRUS?

At least one study that looked at the amount of coronavirus in the body of COVID-19 patients, a measurement known as “viral load,” found that the volume was not related to age.

Researchers at the Institute for Virology at the Charite–Universitatsmedizin Berlin said that an analysis earlier this year of nearly 4,000 positive test samples found that the very young did not differ significantly from adults in viral load, leading them to caution against unlimited reopening of schools.

But a separate analysis of that study carried out by the University of Zurich, cautioned that the findings are difficult to interpret due to the statistical methods used and the small number of cases identified in children and adolescents.

“A reanalysis of summary data with a test for trend suggests that there is moderate, but not overwhelming evidence for increasing viral load with increasing age,” wrote lead author Dr. Leonhard Held, professor of biostatistics at the University of Zurich.

WHAT IS THE SEVERITY OF ILLNESS?

In addition to early evidence of a potentially dangerous inflammatory response in children, both Bogoch and Kozak said it’s still too early to know what the spectrum of the illness is in different individuals.

Bogoch said they’re still trying to understand how the virus affects blood clotting in some patients, for example, or why some people have reported a loss of smell or taste. He said they’re also still in the process of studying how the virus binds to different parts of the body, such as brain cells and kidney cells.

While there has been a lot of attention given to the question of why some individuals are harder hit by the disease than others, Kozak said researchers still don’t have concrete answers to that either.

“If you and I both got exposed to COVID-19, maybe I end up in the ICU (intensive care unit) with very severe disease and you get the sniffles and don’t even go to get tested because you’re not aware you're sick,” he said. “We don't know what the reasons are for that discrepancy if we’re both exposed to the same virus.”

CAN PEOPLE DEVELOP IMMUNITY TO THE VIRUS?

Although there has been plenty of talk of concepts, such as “herd immunity” and “immunity passports,” which are based on the premise that people who contract the virus won’t be able to get it again, Uzonna said they still don’t actually know if patients can develop a protective immunity to the virus and if they can, how long it would last.

“There are different types of immunity, for example, something like a smallpox will give you an immunity that is lifelong. Some immunities will just go away within a year or two,” he explained.

Kozak said preliminary data suggests patients who contract the virus develop antibodies that will likely be protective against a second infection, but he said they still don’t know enough about the disease’s correlates of protection, which are markers that can be measured in a lab to determine whether someone is protected.

WHEN IS SOMEONE NO LONGER INFECTIOUS?

Furthermore, in addition to not knowing how long someone may be immune to coronavirus, Kozak said they also don’t know when a patient is no longer infectious. He said there is interesting data from Germany and the CDC that suggests people may not be shedding the infectious virus about eight or nine days after they develop symptoms, but they still don’t know for sure.

“We need to do lots of studies on lots of patients to truly see when a patient is no longer infectious, even though there may still be viral nucleic acid present in their nose or in their throat.” he said.

“That’s often a problem because you’ll be testing someone and they’ll still be positive, but maybe they’re not shedding virus anymore.”

HOW WILL MUTATIONS AFFECT THE VIRUS?

There have been studies claiming to show the coronavirus has mutated into more virulent strains; however, Kozak said that is still not certain.

“It is entirely possible that there are mutations that are associated with either worse disease or more mild disease,” he said. “So, from a virology standpoint, that’s what we would want to look for. We want to know if there are any mutations where you’re more likely to get admitted to hospital and maybe the ICU or you’re more likely to be fine and just be able to go home.”

Kozak said that information will also be helpful in understanding why certain individuals become sicker than others and whether that’s related to an individual strain of the virus or their genetic predisposition, or a combination of both of those factors.

WILL THERE BE COMPLICATIONS AFTER RECOVERY?

With a lot of diseases, Kozak said patients will often develop complications from it months or even years after they have recovered.

For example, in the aftermath of the West African Ebola outbreak, Kozak said survivors experienced a lot of rheumatological or eye problems, even after they had recovered.

“So, what we don’t know with patients, will there be a syndrome of like a viral syndrome, which occurs in patients after they’ve recovered from COVID?” he asked.

Kozak said it’s still too early to be able to answer those questions because they’re only starting to study the long-term effects on patients who recovered in January.

WHY ARE SOME AREAS HARDER HIT?

Uzonna said researchers are still unable to explain why some populations have been harder hit by the pandemic than others. He said many experts predicted that Africa would be devastated by the virus due to inadequate infrastructure and healthcare, but that hasn’t happened yet.

“Nobody has seen anything like that. So why is that? Why is Africa so far doing relatively OK compared to other countries?” he asked.

Uzonna said African nations aren’t taking more precautions than other countries so he wondered if there are other contributing factors.

“I don’t think it’s related to genetics because if you look in the US, the majority of the people who die are African Americans. I don’t think the African American have changed so significantly over time so there must be something that we don’t know yet,” he said.

WILL THE VIRUS DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY?

While Bogoch and Kozak said they’re confident scientists will be able to develop a vaccine to protect against COVID-19, they said it’s still not clear how protective it would be and how long the protection would last.

“Is the vaccine going to be 100 per cent protective? Or is it going to be like the flu vaccine where it significantly reduces your risk of getting this infection, but doesn’t eliminate your risk of getting this infection?” Bogoch said.

“And if people get infected, is there the possibility that with the vaccine, they just might mitigate some of the severity of the infection that they'll have.”

Although it may seem like there are still so many questions to be answered, Bogoch, Kozak, and Uzonna all agreed that most of them will have answers eventually.

“I’m cursed with a streak of optimism,” Kozak said. “I think that people will find answers to these.”

While he understands the public is eager for answers, Uzonna said they might have to be patient a while longer.

“Science is a rigorous process,” he said. “I understand it. People want to get answers. People want them because of what is happening, but these things take time.”

DUTCH FARM WORKER CONTRACTED CORONAVIRUS FROM MINK

A person who worked on a farm where mink are bred to export their fur contracted the coronavirus from the animals, the Dutch Agriculture Minister said in a letter to parliament on Wednesday.

Outbreaks on mink farms in the Netherlands were first reported in April, when keepers noticed some animals having difficulty breathing, prompting a wider investigation.

In her letter, Carola Schouten acknowledged that earlier advisories from her office that people could infect animals, but not the other way around, was wrong. But she said the Netherlands’ Institute for Public Health still assesses as minimal the chance of transmission outside of the animals’ stalls.

Her letter did not specify details of the affected worker’s condition.

Mink fur is sold in China, Korea, Greece and Turkey. After pressure from animal rights activists, the Dutch government banned new mink farms in 2013 and said existing ones would have to close by 2024.

MEME OF THE DAY

There might be an element of truth in this for my friend Brad who sent it to me from London. Thankfully, I haven’t watched too much television during the lockdown… but the box set of Game of Thrones is beckoning once more, The Sopranos too.

Mick meme
Image Credit: Mick

TAKING STOCK

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

Another day of trading, another day of slight losses, with gains by Diageo and Ocavo failing to make up for losses by Drax and PowerHouse.

A reminder that this is all pretend, I started out in lockdown with £10,000 – about Dh45,000 to invest on the London Stock Exchange, I don’t pay for trade and I can only buy or sell when the market is closed. There’s no minimum on the amount of stocks I can buy, just as long as I can afford them.

Net worth: £12,127.58

Diageo, 100 shares: £2842.50

Ocado, 100 shares: £1996.50

Drax, 2,600 shares: £5293.60

PowerHouse 1,200 shares: £1,980.00

Cash in hand: £14.98

£ loss on last trading day: £58.80

% Gain overall: 21.1 per cent

£ Gain overall: £2,127.58

RELEASED FROM LOCKDOWN, PEOPLE TURN TO PAINT AND PLANTS

I should take advantage of this information and use it to amend my pretend portfolio in the coming days.

Lockdown restrictions have been eased in Ireland and hardware stores and other retail outlets have opened for the first time in some two months. And shoppers seem to have a pent up demand for paint and plants.

Thejournal.ie is reporting that as the lockdown was eased and queues formed outside shops yesterday on the first day of Ireland’s Phase One easing, hardware store owners and staff says paints and plants were in demand.

And while there was minimal drama and perhaps fewer queues than some expected, staff reported that yesterday was an incredibly busy day.

Robert MacNamara, the owner of Expert Hardware in Baldoyle, said people were respectful of public health rules and social distancing.

“People have it in their heads at this point. They know they have to stay apart. Most people have been pleasant,” he said.

The in-demand items in north Dublin? Paint, paint accessories, garden products and plants. “We sold a vast amount of plants,” MacNamara said.

LIMITED ROOM FOR CUSTOMERS IN STORE

The store is serving customers from the door only. McNamara cites the “physical demand” of trying to re-organise stock to make the interior safe as the main obstacle to letting customers inside.

“It’s been very very brisk. Yesterday was one of our busiest days ever,” he said. Compared to this time last year, he was selling four times the amount of hoes, rakes and garden shears.

“People are proud of their houses anyway and a lot of this work has been put off for a long time,” McNamara thinks. “This is giving people down time to work on their homes and gardens.”

Somewhat strangely for a store that was operating a collection and online service, he says that many people came in looking for light-bulbs.

“I can’t really put a finger on it,” he says. “If you needed light-bulbs, you still needed them.”

In Hickeys hardware store in Cork, there was little sign of any geographical variation in demand.

Paint was the most popular item bought yesterday, says owner John Kennedy, followed by vegetable and flower seeds.

“Most of them were looking for paint,” says Kennedy of his customers. “They all knew what they wanted, there was no browsing. They were on a mission.”

Like other hardware stores, outdoor tools like shovels and rakes also sold well.

DID HEDGE FUNDS SCORE ON MASKS AND SANITISER?

As regular readers of this blog will know, my investing knowledge is probable a little better than average, if only because I am a news junkie. And while my own pretend portfolio is up some 30 per cent in a little more than seven weeks of pretend trading, analysts in the US are starting to look at whether hedge funds – boo, hiss – profited from this pandemic.

What would seem like a sure win for elite investors - early bets on companies racing to make face masks, hand sanitizer and other coronavirus-related protective products – turned out to be a relatively unpopular strategy and one with surprisingly mixed results.

Few hedge funds increased their holdings over the first quarter in companies associated with so-called personal protective equipment (PPE) such as 3M Co., Kimberly-Clark Corp. and Honeywell International Inc. according to a Reuters review of regulatory filings compiled by research firm Symmetric.io showing stock positions as of March 31.

Hedge funds, on a net basis, sold off more than $760 million (Dh2.8 billion) in those three stocks over the first quarter, according to Symmetric.io data, bringing the number of funds that own them down to 225 from 230.

Ironically, firms that seized on the opportunity early, including Maverick Capital, Point72 Asset Management and D.E. Shaw Group, have likely faced paper losses given share price declines so far this year, assuming they still hold those stocks.

ROLLER-COASTER TRADING FUELLED BY VIRUS FEARS

Playing the pandemic, investors said, was difficult amid roller-coaster trading fuelled by fears of the virus’ spread, surging unemployment rates, tumbling oil prices and government stimulus spending. By the end of March, the S&P 500 stock index had ended its 11-year bull market run and was off around 20 per cent for the year.

Adding to the complexity, the large companies now closely associated with protective equipment faced separate challenges.

St. Paul, Minnesota-based 3M, for example, became a household mask name as people around the country raced to hardware stores and online to buy the company’s N95 products. But the company’s stock price is off 15.4 per cent this year as mask sales make up only a small portion of revenue, broadly hit as products for the manufacturing sector lagged as factories like automakers were shut down.

Hedge fund firms Alyeska Investment Group, Laurion Capital Management, Point72 and Balyasny Asset Management all put on new positions in 3M during the first quarter, filings show; Millennium Management added to its sizable holdings.

RAMPED UP PRODUCTION OF MASKS

Honeywell, which makes electronics and materials for the aerospace, building and other industries, also ramped up its mask-making business as the virus spread.

Maverick, already a top holder, added to its stake in the first quarter and Arrowstreet Capital, put on a new position, filings show. Still, Honeywell’s stock price is off 24.3 per cent, more than the S&P 500’s roughly 8 per cent loss this year.

Hedge fund bets on smaller PPE-focused companies produced better results.

Balyasny and Arrowstreet were among the hedge funds to initiate investments over the first quarter in protective clothing maker Lakeland Industries valued at $108 million. Lakeland’s stock price is up 26 per cent this year.

Tudor Investment Corp, Millennium and Arrowstreet all made new investments in MSA Safety during the first quarter, filings show. Stock of MSA, which makes protective face gear among other things, has gained 12 per cent in the last four weeks but remains off 4 per cent for the year.

And Tiburon Opportunity Fund LP, a small hedge fund that usually focuses on financial stocks, held and slightly added to its position in Edison Nation Inc which recently scored a large sanitiser and mask contract. The small company’s stock price rocketed higher to now trade with a 22 per cent gain for the year, Reuters says.

COVIDIOTS, YOBS AND GOONS

Here’s my daily collection that serves as a reminder that covidiots have been transported here from an orbiting spaceship.

RIOT POLICE DEPLOYED AS YOUTHS SET CARS ABLAZE IN PARIS SUBURBS

What’s the French for covidiots? Riot police were deployed in force as youths set cars ablaze in some low-income housing estates in the Paris suburbs overnight, online news reports and postings on Twitter showed on Wednesday, amid tensions heightened by the coronavirus lockdown.

The latest unrest in the banlieues – high-rise, low-income neighbourhoods – flared after an 18-year old died last weekend in a motorbike accident in the suburb of Argenteuil.

An investigation into the death of Sabri Choubi was ongoing, said the prosecutor’s department for the district of Pontoise, which handles judicial matters for Argenteuil. It added that initial findings did not show Choubi’s motorcycle had been in a collision with a police car, as some of the victim’s associates had alleged.

Officials at the Paris police department could not be immediately reached for comment on the unrest overnight, but the AnonymeCitoyen twitter feed and residents in the suburb of Argenteuil posted videos and photographs of burnt out cars and riot police in the area.

Residents in the nearby suburb of Bezons also posted videos on Twitter of a large fire, though it was unclear what was burning.

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, Sky News, 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