20201618 going viral
Image Credit: Supplied

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 81

Thursday June 18, 9am

IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?

LONELINESS CAN IMPAIR IMMUNE SYSTEM AND INCREASE RISK OF DEATH

SOCIAL DISTANCING AND LOCKDOWNS ARE ALSO DAMAGING TO HEALTH

Come Saturday, I will be entering Week 13 of lockdown here in Ireland. While things are slowly starting to open up, not all stores are operating as before, social distancing applies and I am still permitted only to travel within my immediate county of Wexford.

At one time or another, two-thirds of the world’s population lived under some form of lockdown or restricted movements as this pandemic spread around the world.

Researchers are looking at every aspect of COVID-19, out fight against it, where we went right, where we went wrong, how it affects us, and what might happen if there’s a second wave.

It hasn’t been easy for a lot of people.

Now, new research is revealing how the feeling of loneliness can have far-reaching consequences for people’s psychological and physical well-being, and even their life expectancy.

The findings, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences earlier in June, show how social isolation can negatively affect the health of the brain as well as the immune system.

“Social isolation, or a lack of social opportunity, gives rise to a sense of loneliness. Directly or indirectly, this feeling has many wide-ranging consequences for our psychological well-being as well as our physical health, even our longevity,” the study states. “In short, loneliness kills people.”

THE EFFECTS OF SOCIAL ISOLATION

For the study, researchers at McGill University in Montreal and the University of Oxford in the UK analysed a range of existing studies on loneliness in order to explore the neurobiology of social isolation.

They found that loneliness can have a profound impact on the brain and that insufficient social stimulation affects its reasoning and memory performances, its hormone homeostasis, which controls blood glucose levels and blood pressure, its amount of grey and white matter, its connectivity and function, and its resilience to mental and physical disease.

The academics also found that feeling lonely can directly impair people’s immune system, which makes them less resistant to diseases and infections. They said those who were more socially integrated have better adjusted biomarkers for physiological function, such as lower systolic blood pressure, lower body mass index (BMI), and lower levels of C-reactive proteins, which are found in higher levels when there is inflammation in the body.

While short periods of loneliness in humans rarely have any long-term adverse outcomes, according to the study, persistent feelings of isolation can increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and poor sleeping habits, which can then lead to adverse psychological and physiological consequences.

COVID-19 EXACERBATES LONELINESS

That’s why co-author Robin Dunbar, an emeritus professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford University, said the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to make the problem of loneliness even worse.

“These concerns can only be exacerbated if there are prolonged periods of social isolation imposed by national policy responses to extraordinary crises such as COVID-19,” he said in a press release.

What’s more, the research team said that many studies have shown that social isolation was a significant predictor of the risk of death.

For example, a longitudinal analysis of 6,500 British men and women in their fifties found that being socially isolated increased their risk of dying in the next decade by about 25 per cent.

“We are social creatures. Social interplay and co-operation have fuelled the rapid ascent of human culture and civilisation. Yet, social species struggle when forced to live in isolation,” co-author Danilo Bzdok, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at McGill University, said in a press release.

“From babies to the elderly, psychosocial embedding in interpersonal relationships is critical for survival.”

LONELINESS CAN BE HARFUL TO GROUPS TOO

And while social isolation can be dangerous for individuals, the researchers found it can also be harmful to wider groups as a whole.

That’s because feelings of loneliness can be spread through a social network, resulting in a negatively skewed perception of society that is reinforced among the members of the group.

“Once lonely, humans can get trapped in a psychological downward cycle that can be difficult to escape,” the study said. “This is in part reinforced by a skewed perception of negative cues and social threat from others, or the expectation of being socially excluded by others.”

However, the paper said people who belong to more groups, such as sports clubs, church, charitable organisations, and hobby groups, were less likely to become ill and had higher rates of survival. They were also found to reduce their risk of future depression by almost 25 per cent.

In conclusion, the researchers acknowledged recent efforts by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UK government to recognise the dangers of social isolation to people’s physical and mental health.

In 2019, the WHO declared loneliness a major health concern worldwide. In the UK, the first minister of loneliness was appointed in 2018 to address the problem.

“Loneliness has accelerated in the past decade,” Dunbar said. “Given the potentially severe consequences this can have on our mental and physical health, there is growing recognition and political will to confront this evolving societal challenge.”

DEBUNKING CLAIMS WEARING A FACE MASK IS MORE HARMFUL THAN COVID-19

Despite public health officials around the world urging individuals to wear face masks to prevent further spread of COVID-19, there have been several claims posted on social media and printed on posters that suggest wearing a face mask is more dangerous to the wearer’s health than contracting the virus. But a Canadian doctor says those claims are easily debunked.

In one post from earlier in June that has been shared thousands of times on Facebook, a graphic lists a number of supposed health risks of wearing a mask, including decreasing the wearer’s oxygen intake, and increasing their inhalation of toxins and carbon dioxide.

The post claimed that would eventually cause the mask wearer’s immune system to “shut down.”

That post has since been flagged as containing false information by Facebook’s independent fact-checkers, according to a pop-up message.

Another popular Facebook post which has been shared more than 10,000 times, claims that people’s immune systems will become weaker the longer they wear face masks.

In several Canadian, US and European cities, posters claim that wearing a face mask is a bigger threat to your health than COVID-19. The signs also suggest that covering the mouth increases levels of carbon dioxide in the body and promotes hypoxia – oxygen deprivation – which can impair brain activity.

‘NOTHING SHORT OF FRIGHTENING’

Dr. Iris Gorfinkel, a family physician and medical researcher in Toronto, described the posters and their dangerous claims as “nothing short of frightening.”

Gorfinkel stressed that wearing a face mask is safe for the vast majority of individuals and should be done to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“The data is very, very clear that for countries that have adapted this practice [of wearing face masks] and the people have got into it, they don’t just see lower numbers of diseases, they see fewer hospitalizations, and far less mortality,” she told CTV News.

The suggestion that wearing a face mask will decrease oxygen intake is simply false, according to Gorfinkel. She said the public is being asked to wear face coverings that are breathable and looser fitting than the N95 respirators worn by health-care professionals.

“These are loose-fitting masks. The air in front of them, and the air within the mask, is no different in terms of oxygen or carbon dioxide levels,” she explained.

HUMIDITY – BUT NOT HARMFUL EFFECTS

Gorfinkel said the mask may cause a difference in humidity in the air surrounding the face, but that won’t cause any harmful effects for the wearer.

Even if some users experience a bit of resistance in breathing in oxygen due to the physical barrier in front of their nose and mouth, Gorfinkel said it would be minimal because the masks are not designed to be airtight against the face.

“Doctors wear masks that are much heavier than that, N95s, and I’m included in that group, and when I’m seeing patients, I’ve worn them for hours on end with absolutely no change,” she said.

Gorfinkel said only a small minority of people may experience negative health outcomes from wearing a face mask. She said they can be people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an inflammatory lung disease sometimes found in long-time smokers, which causes obstructed air flow from the lungs.

“Their air exchange is hugely compromised,” she said. “So looking at a group of them, only the very most severe of them had any problems with a N95. So you’re talking about a very small segment of the population.”

SUFFERED PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA

Gorfinkel said another group of people who may experience difficulty wearing face masks are those who may have suffered psychological trauma related to their faces being covered.

“Those are the individuals who, if they put something in front of their face, feel a form of almost a claustrophobia,” she explained. “It’s very confining, and it just feels as though it could be even an extension of PTSD for some individuals who’ve suffered the trauma of having someone place their hand over their face.”

Again, Gorfinkel emphasized that this only impacts a small minority of the population and for most individuals, wearing a face mask is safe for their own health and for the health of those around them.

“When we talk about public health, as we’ve had to learn in the most brutal of ways, we don’t talk about what’s good for the one. We talk about what’s good for the community as a whole,” she said.

TOXIN INHALATION ‘HIGHLY UNLIKELY’

Gorfinkel said the claim that wearing a face mask will increase the wearer’s risk of inhaling toxins is highly unlikely and she hasn’t heard of any evidence to suggest this is occurring.

While there are many different types of masks made of different materials now available, she said she’s not aware of any cases where an individual has inhaled a harmful toxin from the mask itself.

“Theoretically, is it a possibility that we could be breathing in, I don't know, carcinogenic stuff or something? I suppose it’s theoretical,” she said. “But what matters is, would that translate into really negative health outcomes in the kind of numbers that we’re seeing infected by COVID?”

As for the suggestion that toxins released from the body are then re-inhaled because of the mask, Gorfinkel said that wouldn’t happen because there is enough airflow around the masks, which allows the user to breathe in the first place.

ACCUMULATION OF BACTERIA

There is a risk, however, of bacteria accumulating on the inside of the mask if it’s not properly washed between uses or thrown out after a single use in the case of disposable paper masks.

In conclusion, because there is no risk of decreased oxygen levels and increased inhalation of carbon dioxide or toxins, mask-wearers’ immune systems will not “shut down” as a result.

Gorfinkel reiterated that the countries that have embraced face masks have fared better in preventing the spread of COVID-19 than those that haven’t.

“As a society, we owe it to one another to make sure that we protect each other in the best way we can,” she said. “And one of those best ways turns out to be widespread use of masks. If we’re to reopen as a society successfully, we must do that.”

UNDER-20S HALF AS LIKELY TO CATCH COVID-19, ACCORDING TO STUDY

Under-20s are half as likely to catch COVID-19 as over-20s, making school closures less effective at stopping the spread of the virus, a new scientific study has found.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that susceptibility to the coronavirus was low for younger people, before increasing around the age of 20.

Nicholas Davies , one of the peer-reviewed paper’s co-authors, said there was “a very sharp increase” in COVID-19 susceptibility “somewhere between the ages of 15 and 25”.

It is not known why this is the case.

The results meant school closures were less effective in stopping the spread of coronavirus than other respiratory diseases.

The researchers simulated outbreaks of COVID-19 and pandemic influenza in three cities with different age profiles: Birmingham, Bulawayo in Zimbabwe and Milan in Italy.

SCHOOL CLOSURES NOT COMPLETELY INEFFECTIVE

In all three cities, closing schools had a much bigger effect on the spread of influenza than COVID-19.

“School closures may be less effective than COVID-19 than for example, influenza,” co-author Rosalind Eggo told Sky News. “This doesn't mean that school closures are completely ineffective.”

Asked whether this meant the UK government could safely reduce social distancing in schools, for instance by dropping the distance between children from two metres to one metre, the researchers said they had not assessed that question.

The researchers did not assess the infectiousness of children, so the study did not analyse the impact of school closures on teachers.

Dr Eggo said: “Whether to reopen schools or not is a very complicated question. You need to bring in a variety of different pieces of evidence... More studies are definitely needed.”

CORONAVIRUS IN CHILDREN IS HOTLY DEBATED

The topic of coronavirus in children has been hotly debated, with some suggesting that young people may not be susceptible to the virus, while others argue that they contract it asymptomatically, meaning it is less likely to be detected.

The researchers found that young people’s decreased susceptibility was the most likely cause of the low incidence of the virus among under-20s, rather than asymptomatic spread.

But they were less likely to have symptoms if they caught the virus.

Among 10-to-19-years old, for instance, 79 per cent of infections were either asymptomatic or only mildly symptomatic, compared to 31 per cent in those over 70 years of age.

Symptoms did tend to increase with age, the researchers found, but – unlike susceptibility – did not increase sharply.

Fears about the impact of COVID-19 on poorer countries could be unwarranted, the paper concluded, because they generally have younger populations than higher-income countries.

These demographic differences could result in fewer clinical cases in poorer countries than richer countries, the researchers said.

The paper used epidemic data from China, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Canada and South Korea to simulate the effects of different epidemics.

Researchers said “there was a chance” results could “vary from place to place”, both because of other health conditions, or differences in the spread of the virus among different populations.

MEME OF THE DAY

My erstwhile neighbour Craig, who lives in Spain, shared this with me on WhatsApp. Yes, it’s true: Lockdowns mean we’re spending more time snacking on nibbles.

20200618 panda meme
Image Credit: Supplied

FLUSHING THE TOILET CAN CREATE A CLOUD OF VIRUS PARTICLES WHICH THE NEXT USER MIGHT INHALE, STUDY WARNS

Flushing the toilet can create an aerosol cloud of coronavirus droplets more than a metre high which can be inhaled by others, spreading the infection, new research warns.

Physicists specialising in fluid dynamics are warning about the transmission method following studies which found coronavirus particles surviving in the faeces of the infected.

The danger that COVID-19 could be transmitted through the common use of toilets could impact how workplaces, restaurants and bars re-open as the world leaves lockdown.

According to the researchers, flushing things down the loo doesn't necessarily mean that they are simply leaving the premises.

Instead the enormous turbulence caused by flushing water can spread bacteria and viruses, although the public appears to be largely unaware of this infection pathway.

Precise computer models were used to simulate water and air flows in a flushing toilet, and the resulting droplet cloud, in a study published in the journal Physics of Fluids.

The investigators tested a standard set of fluid dynamic formulas to simulate flushing in toilets with one and two inlets for flushing water.

“The results of the simulations were striking,” said the American Institute of Physics, which published the journal.

VORTICES CARRY DROPLETS INTO FINE MIST ABOVE TOILET

It found that as water pours into the toilet bowl is creates a number of vortices which continue upward into the air above the bowl, carrying droplets to a height of almost one metre.

At this height the droplets are very likely to be inhaled or to settle on another surface in the lavatory.

What’s more, these droplets are so small they actually float and hang in the air for more than a minute – and for toilets with multiple inlets for flushing water, the distance is even greater.

“One can foresee that the velocity will be even higher when a toilet is used frequently, such as in the case of a family toilet during a busy time or a public toilet serving a densely populated area,” said co-author Ji-Xiang Wang, of Yangzhou University.

One key way to prevent this deadly problem is to close the toilet lid before flushing which will decrease the aerosol spread.

But in many countries, including the US, toilets in public restrooms often don't have lids – posing a serious hazard to public health.

The researchers suggest a better toilet design would include a lid which automatically closed before flushing.

TAKING STOCK

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

I think that if this was my portfolio for real, I would be tearing my hair out. Not that I have hair…

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 trades and I can only buy or sell when the market is closed. There’s no minimum on the amount of share I can buy.

In the past seven trading days, I have been in the red, and only on Tuesday did I manage to turn a profit.

Very slight increases in Dignity, the funeral homes company, and in green energy provider PowerHouse couldn’t overcome losses by budget airline company Ryanair and Halfords, a retailer of hardware, car parts and the like. A loss of nearly £160 on the day. It could have been worse!

Nearly 13 weeks in, and my portfolio is up by more than 30 per cent overall. That’s a positive at least.

Net worth £13021.63

Dignity, 700 shares: £1953.00

Halfords, 1500 shares: £2550.00

PowerHouse, 1200 shares: £4392.00

Ryanair, 375 shares: £4117.50

Cash in hand: £8.88

£ loss on last trading day: £159.25

% gain overall: 30.2 per cent

£ Gain overall: £3,021.63

DEBUNKED: NO, CONTACT-TRACING APPS AREN’T INSTALLED ON ANDROID PHONES

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There’s no truth to this social media message. Image Credit: Facebook

A post on an Irish Facebook page claims that all Android phones have had COVID-19 contact tracing apps installed on them.

The post, which is a screenshot of another Facebook post, claims that the apps are on the phones due to what are known as “exposure notifications”.

The post details how users can disable this function, and tells others to check their phones for the setting. It has been shared 67 times since it was first posted on 31 May.

What the Facebook post describes is how to disable diagnostics – which are device and app usage data – from being sent to Google. The presence of exposure notifications does not mean that a contact tracing app is installed on your phone.

There are also reports of similar false messages being spread on Facebook about other nations and their contact-tracing apps. It’s all goes to prove some covidiots just love to spread fear and false information. And Facebook is the perfect social medium to spread these rumours.

EXPOSURE NOTIFICATIONS

The post alleges that all Android phones have had Covid-19 tracing apps placed on them, via a system known as exposure notifications. Exposure notifications are a tool currently being developed by Google and Apple to support governments and public health authorities who are developing tracing apps.

The notifications mean that anyone who has a contact tracing app on their phone will be sent a notification if they’ve likely been exposed to COVID-19. While both Google and Apple are offering the use of this system, neither company will be involved in the development of contact tracing apps.

The system works through generating a random ID for every person using a contact tracing app, which changes every 15-20 minutes to prevent a users’ location from being tracked.

These random IDs would be transferred between phones via Bluetooth, with contact tracing apps keeping a list of anyone a user meets who also has the app installed.

This list would then be referenced with a list of COVID-19 patients and if any match, a notification would be sent to the pone. This would provide information from public health authorities as to what to do next.

However, exposure notifications cannot do this unless a contact tracing app is installed.

The Irish Department of Health confirmed that the tracing app will not be placed on any phone automatically.

“The app will operate on a voluntary and fully opt-in basis,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Health.

Like a lot of stuff out there on social media, it’s sheer bull.

CAN YOU CATCH COVID-19 FROM FROZEN OR CHILLED FOOD?

A spike in coronavirus infections has been linked to a large wholesale food market in China, after the virus was discovered on chopping boards used for imported salmon.

The development has prompted officials to warn people against eating raw salmon, although the origin of the fresh outbreak remains unclear.

Wu Zunyou, chief Epidemiologist of China's Centre for Diseases Prevention Control told state media coronavirus can survive on the surface of frozen food for up to three months and that his agency “highly suspects” contaminated goods were the source of the latest outbreak.

However, he said more investigation was required, as it was possible infected people arriving in Beijing could have spread it.

Chinese and Norwegian authorities have concluded, however, salmon from Norway was not the source of the coronavirus found on cutting boards at the Beijing wholesale food market

“We can clear away uncertainty,” Norway’s Fisheries Monister Odd Emil Ingebrigtsen told a video conference.

Chinese and Norwegian officials had decided on Tuesday the source of the outbreak did not originate in fish from Norway, he added.

CHINA SUSPECTED EUROPEAN SALMON FOR NEW OUTBREAK

China halted imports of European salmon after reports on Saturday that the virus was discovered on equipment used for handling fish at Beijing’s Xinfadi market, prompting supermarkets in the Chinese capital to remove salmon from their shelves.

Norwegian salmon producers saw orders from China cancelled over the weekend, although Norway’s Food Safety Authority said there was no evidence fish could be infected.

The Norwegian Seafood Council, a state-run marketing company, told Reuters that some shipments of salmon were being sent to major Chinese cities, with the exception of Beijing.

One salmon exporter, who declined to be named, said that some exports went through to China but most were still on hold.

Eyal Leshem, Director of the Centre for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases, Sheba Medical Centre in Israel said coronavirus contraction via frozen food usually involves viruses such as the rotavirus and hepatitis A virus being transmitted through the gastrointestinal tract.

NO EVIDENCE OF CONTAMINATION THROUGH FOOD

“It typically happens with contaminated food consumption, which is not the route through which respiratory viruses infect people,” he said. “SARS-CoV-2 is not known to be transmitted via consumption of contaminated food,” Leshem said. “It requires further investigation to determine whether a person can contract the coronavirus either by touching contaminated surface or via direct food consumption.”

“There is no evidence of novel coronavirus transmission through food, food containers or food packaging. The vast majority of infections occur due to close contact with infectious patients.

“Infection from fresh food like meat and fish may occur if a kitchen worker or waiter goes to work while ill and touches the food, thus transmitting the virus.

“We think risk from frozen food is very low when proper food preparation guidelines are kept.”

Paul Tambyah, president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases said that A group from Hong Kong has shown that the survival of the virus is significantly altered by temperature and humidity.

“It has said in a preliminary report that the virus can survive for only a day at 37C , compared with a week at 22C and more than two weeks at 4C,” he said. “The data relates to a solid inanimate surfaces, not meat. I am a little sceptical that this outbreak in the market was actually related to a source thousands of miles away carried through frozen food.”

SELF-CLEANING MASK CAN KILL VIRUSES WITH HEAT FROM PHONE CHARGER, RESEARCHERS SAY

Researchers say they have invented a reusable face mask that can kill the coronavirus with heat by drawing power from a mobile phone charger.

The disinfecting process takes about 30 minutes – and users should not wear the mask while it is plugged in, said Professor Yair Ein-Eli, who led the research team at Israel’s Technion University.

The new mask has a USB port that connects to a power source such as a standard cellphone charger that heats an inner layer of carbon fibres to up to 70 degrees Celsius – high enough to kill viruses.

Ein-Eli said disposable masks, in high demand globally during the health crisis, were not economically or environmentally friendly.

“You have to make it reusable and friendly, and this is our solution,” he said about the invention.

The prototype looks like a standard N95 face mask, with a valve at the front and rubber bands to hold it in place around the head.

The researchers submitted a patent for the mask in the United States in late March and say they are discussing commercialising the product with the private sector.

It will likely sell at a $1 premium over the price of a typical disposable face mask, the researchers say.

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