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 evolving rules about who is allowed out, where, and under what circumstances. The rules are slowly changing as the first wave of the crisis eases.
DAY 89: Friday June 26, 9am
IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?
WHO HASN'T HEARD OF COVID-19 BY NOW? MORE THAN YOU THINK
A half-year into the most momentous pandemic in decades, it's hard to imagine that anyone, anywhere has not heard of the coronavirus. But scores of migrants arriving in Somalia tell United Nations workers every day that they are unaware of COVID-19.
Monitors for the UN migration agency interview people at the border in Somalia, a crossroads on one of the world's most dangerous migration routes: across the Red Sea with traffickers, through war-ravaged Yemen and into Arabian Gulf countries.
The questions for migrants are simple. Origin? Destination? Why are you going? But after the first infections were confirmed in Somalia, a new one was added: How many people in your group are aware of the coronavirus?
In the week ending June 20, just over half – 51 per cent – of the 3,471 people tracked said they had never heard of COVID-19.
“The first time I saw this I was also very shocked,” Celeste Sanchez Bean, a program manager with the UN agency based in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, said.
REMINDER OF HUGE CHALLENGES AHEAD
The findings, little more than a line in the agency’s reports, are a reminder of the huge challenges in reaching everyone in the world with information about the pandemic, much less getting them to wear face masks.
The migrants are often young men from rural parts of neighbouring Ethiopia. Most have no education, and some are from communities where internet access is low, Bean said. She doubted that anything had been lost in translation.
“We’ve been interviewing migrants for many years," she said.
In past interviews, many migrants were not even aware that a war was being waged in Yemen, the next step on their journey, she said.
With that in mind, "I'm not super shocked that levels of awareness of the coronavirus are still very low."
Instead, she's heartened that the number of those unaware of COVID-19 has been dropping over the dozen weeks that the question has been asked, down from 88 per cent at the start.
SHORT EXPLANATION OF THE PANDEMIC
Anyone who is unaware of the coronavirus is given a short explanation of the pandemic, including how the virus is contracted and descriptions of the symptoms and preventative measures.
What worries Bean now are the findings of a new project mapping the migrant route through Somalia, a country destabilized by decades of conflict, and merging it with epidemiological data showing coronavirus infections.
“It’s very clear to us that migrants are transiting areas with confirmed cases” she said. “When you have migrants with such levels of unawareness, combined with this ... I don’t want to say dangerous, but the migrants are putting themselves at risk.”
Possibly others, too. Migrants already face stigma in cities like Bosaso, where boats set off for Yemen, as some residents blame them for bringing the virus, the UN migration agency has said.
MIGRANTS CANNOT FIND WORK
Now with the pandemic hurting the local economy, many migrants cannot find the work that allows them to save money for their onward journey, Bean said. “So they are struggling even more than ever before.”
Lack of awareness about COVID-19 isn't limited to the migrants.
“I’ve heard of something that sounds like that name, but we don’t have it here,” Fatima Moalin, a resident of Sakow town in southern Somalia, said. “Muslims don’t contract such a thing.”
Others in rural Somalia, especially in areas held by the Al Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group, have been dismissive of the virus. Somali authorities cite limited internet access, limited awareness campaigns and even extremists' restrictions on communications with the outside world.
A recent assessment by the UN migration agency of displaced people in Somalia’s breakaway region of Somaliland found “very high: levels of misunderstanding, with some people confusing COVID-19 with a mosquito-borne disease or thinking a key symptom of the respiratory disease was diarrhea.
But most respondents were aware of the pandemic, thanks largely to radio broadcasts, word of mouth and messages played by mobile phone services while waiting for someone to pick up – a common approach in many countries in Africa.
“Slowly, slowly the information is getting there,” Bean said.
The virus is, too. Somalia, with one of the world's weakest health systems, now has more than 2,800 cases.
HOW ‘AIRBRIDGES MIGHT’ WORK AND PLANNING FOR SUMMER HOLIDAYS
One of the ideas being tossed around Europe at the moment is the idea of “air bridges”. People living in Ireland, for example,
can travel freely to other countries in Europe who have similarly managed to suppress COVID-19 in communities.
perhaps Greece. Government officials in Dublin have already begun talks with other countries such as Spain, Germany, Greece and Portugal , Taoiseach Leo Vradkar has confirmed.
Other countries, such as the UK, are also exploring the idea of creating links with nations to allow citizens to pass freely without any COVID-19-related restrictions placed upon them.
So how will an air bridge work? And could it be possible to go abroad for a holiday later this summer?
People in Ireland are being urged to avoid non-essential travel to other countries at present, according to advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs. It means that people are being told not to go abroad for holidays, for example, at this time.
Currently, people who arrive in Ireland from abroad – including people resident here – are asked to self-isolate for 14 days. Everyone who arrives here from another country must fill out a COVID-19 passenger locator form, and provide details on where they’ll be going to self-isolate.
They are advised to avoid public transport where possible, and stay indoors and completely avoid contact with others for two weeks.
Such a system means that any tourists hoping to visit Ireland can’t do so for now – unless they follow the advice and self-isolate for 14 days and their stay here is longer than that.
MEASURES IN PLACE FOR ANOTHER WEEK
These measures are set to remain here until July 9 at the earliest, but the government may extend this requirement beyond that date.
While there have been far, far fewer flights in and out of our airports during the COVID-19 restrictions, the lifting of these lockdown measures at home and abroad has seen airlines like Ryanair plan to increase their schedules again from July.
As Ireland and some countries in Europe have largely eliminated widespread of transmission of Covid-19 in their community, the idea of opening up air bridges has been explored.
If Ireland was to have such a bridge with, for example, Spain it would mean that tourists could travel between the two countries without needing to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival.
Creating such a bridge would be dependent on both countries having low levels of virus transmission within the community.
A list of possible countries had been drawn up at government level, with other countries in eastern Europe such as Croatia also being considered.
I will be driving to Spain over the next few weeks, having first spent time in Britain. Most people going on holidays will simple fly – if they can.
CASES REMAIN HIGH IN SPAIN AND ITALY
The EU has encouraged member states to seek out such arrangements in order to allow for some travel for citizens during the summer months and beyond, so it could be the case that air bridges are developed with a number of other countries in the future.
With new cases in the likes of Spain and Italy still high, they may not be among the first countries Ireland agrees an air bridge with.
One country that could prove a major sticking point diplomatically is Britain. At a time when we could open up to other EU countries, not opening up to Britain – which we share a Common Travel Area with – could prove difficult.
It should be noted that there no restrictions on travel to and from Northern Ireland at this time.
Senior sources state there is a “sensitivity issue” in how to handle any air bridge list that might exclude Britain.
Varadkar has already said there is a risk of COVID-19 being re-imported into Ireland by people travelling into the country from Britain.
“Yeah, it is a concern,” Varadkar said. “You know, to be frank with people, there are almost 50,000 deaths already confirmed in the United Kingdom, probably higher if they count them the way that we do – they only count lab confirmed deaths.
“Indications we have is that the R number is still at one or above one in southern British regions. So there is a real risk at the moment of the virus being re-imported into Ireland by people travelling here from Britain and that’s why the restrictions have to stay in place for now,” he said.
And we’re not the only ones looking at developing these air bridges. The UK is in talks with Portugal while Spain has also begun to welcome people from Britain without the need for a quarantine.
So right now, everything is literally up in the air.
MEME OF THE DAY
This were shared with me on Facebook by my second cousin Rob who lives just outside Toronto. Maybe we will hook up in the coming months. I usually go to Canada in late October or November and give a couple of lectures on journalism at Algonquin College in Ottawa. Then I either go to New York, or back to Toronto to see extended family and friends. Now, the world is a lot more closed, Who knows what will happen in the coming months…
CANADIAN RESEARCH TEAM MAKES BREAKTHROUGH IN UNDERSTANDING IMMUNE RESPONSE TO COVID-19
A research team out of London in the Canadian province of Ontario says it is the first in the world to profile the body’s immune response to COVID-19, which could have big implications for treatment.
The team from the Lawson Health Research Institute and Western University say they have found six molecules that could be used as targets for treating the virus.
Since the beginning of the pandemic several studies around the world have reported that the immune system can overreact to the virus, causing a cytokine storm.
A cytokine storm can cause hyperinflammation in patients, which can have deadly results.
Until now clinicians did not know which molecules in the body to target in order to combat the inflammation.
“Our study takes away the guessing by identifying potential therapeutic targets for the first time,” said lead researcher Dr. Douglas Fraser with Lawson and Western.
CRITICALLY ILL COVID-19 PATIENTS
Of 57 molecules studied a total of six were found to be elevated in critically ill COVID-19 patients.
The research team also enlisted artificial intelligence to confirm their findings.
They even were able to identify one molecule, called heat shock protein 70, as being strongly associated with an increased risk of death when found in the blood during the early stages of infection.
“Understanding the immune response is paramount to finding the best treatments,” said Fraser in a statement.
The study included 30 participants: 10 critically ill COVID-19 patients, 10 critically ill patients with other non-COVID-related infections and 10 healthy control participants.
The study was made possible by funds donated to the London Health Sciences Foundation.
Now the team will be moving forward with testing potential treatments, according to Fraser.
“Our next step is to test drugs that block the harmful effects of several of these molecules while still allowing the immune system to fight the virus.”
HOW I’M PRETENDING TO GROW £10,000 IN PLAY MONEY
I have to say that I am happy this exercise is drawing to a close on Friday evening after three months. My portfolio took another whack Thursday, down nearly £90 on the day.
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 shares I can buy.
However the market closes Friday evening will be the end of this – and hopefully I can keep the gains above the 20 per cent mark. I don’t know if there are fund managers out there who could have done better – I would like to hear what they think. I am an amateur, after all.
Both Ryanair and JD Wetherspoons finished down £10.48 a share, with Vodafone only up marginally.
This is how my portfolio stands now:
Net worth £12015.90
Ryanair, 500 shares: £5240.00
JD Wetherspoon, 500 shares: £5240.00
Vodaphone, 970 shares: £1533.57
Cash in hand: £2.33
£ loss on last trading day: £89.78
% gain overall: 20.1 per cent
£ Gain overall: £2,015.90
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