Europe’s Hospitals Among The Best But Can’t Handle Pandemic

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As increasing numbers of European hospitals buckle under the strain of tens of thousands of coronavirus patients, the crisis has exposed a surprising paradox: Some of the world’s best health systems are remarkably ill-equipped to handle a pandemic.  
Outbreak experts say Europe’s hospital-centric systems, lack of epidemic experience and early complacency are partly to blame for the pandemic’s catastrophic tear across the continent.
 
“If you have cancer, you want to be in a European hospital,” said Brice de le Vingne, who heads COVID-19 operations for Doctors Without Borders in Belgium. “But Europe hasn’t had a major outbreak in more than 100 years, and now they don’t know what to do.”  
Last week, the World Health Organization scolded countries for “squandering” their chance to stop the virus from gaining a foothold, saying that countries should have reacted more aggressively two months ago, including implementing wider testing and stronger surveillance measures.
De le Vingne and others say Europe’s approach to combating the new coronavirus was initially too lax and severely lacking in epidemiological basics like contact tracing, an arduous process where health officials physically track down people who have come into contact with those infected to monitor how and where the virus is spreading.  
During outbreaks of Ebola, including Congo’s most recent one, officials released daily figures for how many contacts were followed, even in remote villages paralyzed by armed attacks.
After the new coronavirus emerged late last year, China dispatched a team of about 9,000 health workers to chase thousands of potential contacts in Wuhan every day.  
But in Italy, officials in some cases have left it up to ill patients to inform their potential contacts that they had tested positive and resorted to mere daily phone calls to check in on them. Spain and Britain have both declined to say how many health workers were working on contact tracing or how many contacts were identified at any stage in the outbreak. 
“We are really good at contact tracing in the U.K., but the problem is we didn’t do enough of it,” said Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Exeter in southwestern England.  
As cases began picking up speed in the U.K. in early March, Pankhania and others desperately pleaded for call centers to be transformed into contact tracing hubs. That never happened, in what Pankhania calls “a lost opportunity.”  
Pankhania added that while Britain has significant expertise in treating critical care patients with respiratory problems, like severe pneumonia, there are simply too few hospital beds to cope with the exponential surge of patients during a pandemic.
“We are already running at full capacity, and then on top of that we have the arrival of the coronavirus at a time when we’re fully stressed and there isn’t any give in the system,” he said, noting years of reductions in bed capacity within Britain’s National Health Service.  
Elsewhere, the fact that health care workers and hospital systems have little experience with rationing care because European hospitals are generally so well resourced is now proving problematic.  
“Part of the issue is that Italian doctors are getting very distressed to make decisions about which patients can get the ICU bed because normally they can just push them through,” said Robert Dingwall, of Nottingham Trent University, who has studied health systems across Europe. “Not having the triage experience to do that in a pandemic situation is very overwhelming.”
In a departure from their normal role as donors who fund outbreak responses in poorer countries, countries including Italy, France and Spain are all now on the receiving end of emergency aid.  
But Dr. Chiara Lepora, who heads Doctors Without Borders’ efforts in the hot spot of Lodi in northern Italy, said the pandemic had revealed some critical problems in developed countries.
“Outbreaks cannot be fought in hospitals,” she said. “Hospitals can only deal with the consequences.”
Doctors in Bergamo, the epicenter of Italy’s outbreak, described the new coronavirus as “the Ebola of the rich” in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, warning that health systems in the West are at risk of being as overrun by COVID-19 as West African hospitals were in the devastating 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak.  
“Western health systems have been built around the concept of patient-centered care, but an epidemic requires a change of perspective toward community-centered care,” they wrote.  
That model of community care is more typically seen in countries in Africa or parts of Asia, where hospitals are reserved for only the very sickest patients and far more patients are isolated or treated in stripped-down facilities — similar to the field hospitals now being hastily constructed across Europe.  
Even Europe’s typically strong networks of family physicians are insufficient to treat the deluge of patients that might be more easily addressed by armies of health workers — people with far less training than doctors but who focus on epidemic control measures. Developing countries are more likely to have such workforces, since they are more accustomed to massive health interventions like vaccination campaigns.  
Some outbreak experts said European countries badly miscalculated their ability to stop the new coronavirus.  
“But I think the fact that this is a new disease and the speed at which it moved surprised everyone,” said Dr. Stacey Mearns of the International Rescue Committee.  
Mearns said the current scenes of desperation across Europe — doctors and nurses begging for protective gear, temporary morgues in ice rinks to house the dead — were unimaginable just weeks ago. In Spain, 14% of its coronavirus cases are infected medical workers, straining resources at a critical time.
“We saw hospitals and communities get overwhelmed like this during Ebola in West Africa,” she said. “To see it in resource-wealthy nations is very striking.”

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Trump Administration to Release Final Rule on Mileage Rollback

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President Donald Trump is poised to roll back ambitious Obama-era vehicle mileage standards and raise the ceiling on damaging fossil fuel emissions for years to come, gutting one of the United States’ biggest efforts against climate change.
The Trump administration is expected to release a final rule Tuesday on mileage standards through 2026. The change — making good on the rollback after two years of Trump threatening and fighting states and a faction of automakers that opposed the move — waters down a tough Obama mileage standard that would have encouraged automakers to ramp up production of electric vehicles and more fuel-efficient gas and diesel vehicles.  
“When finalized, the rule will benefit our economy, will improve the U.S. fleet’s fuel economy, will make vehicles more affordable, and will save lives by increasing the safety of new vehicles,” Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer said Monday, ahead of the expected release.
Opponents contend the change — gutting his predecessor’s legacy effort against climate-changing fossil fuel emissions — appears driven by Trump’s push to undo regulatory initiatives of former President Barack Obama and say even the administration has had difficulty pointing to the kind of specific, demonstrable benefits to drivers, public health and safety or the economy that normally accompany standards changes.
The Trump administration says the looser mileage standards will allow consumers to keep buying the less fuel-efficient SUVs that U.S. drivers have favored for years. Opponents say it will kill several hundred more Americans a year through dirtier air, compared to the Obama standards.
Even “given the catastrophe they’re in with the coronavirus, they’re pursuing a policy that’s going to hurt public health and kill people,” said Chet France, a former 39-year veteran of the EPA, where he served as a senior official over emissions and mileage standards.
“This is first time that an administration has pursued a policy that will net negative benefit for society and reduce fuel savings,” France said.
Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the senior Democrat on the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, called it “the height of irresponsibility for this administration to finalize a rollback that will lead to dirtier air while our country is working around the clock to respond to a respiratory pandemic whose effects may be exacerbated by air pollution.  
“We should be enacting forward-looking environmental policy, not tying our country’s future to the dirty vehicles of the past,” Carper said.
In Phoenix, meanwhile, resident Columba Sainz expressed disappointment at the prospect of losing the Obama-era rule, which she had hoped would allow her preschool age children to break away from TV indoors and play outside more. Sainz reluctantly limited her daughter to a half-hour at the park daily, after the girl developed asthma, at age 3, at their home a few minutes from a freeway.
“I cried so many times,” Sainz said. “How do you tell your daughter she can’t be outside because of air pollution?”
Trump’s Cabinet heads have continued a push to roll back public health and environment regulations despite the coronavirus outbreak riveting the world’s attention. The administration — like others before it — is facing procedural rules that will make changes adopted before the last six months of Trump’s current term tougher to throw out, even if the White House changes occupants.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has been the main agency drawing up the new rules, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
The standards have split the auto industry with Ford, BMW, Honda and Volkswagen siding with California and agreeing to higher standards. Most other automakers contend the Obama-era standards were enacted hastily and will be impossible to meet because consumers have shifted dramatically away from efficient cars to SUVs and trucks.
California and about a dozen other states say they will continue resisting the Trump mileage standards in court.
Last year, 72% of the new vehicles purchased by U.S. consumers were trucks or SUVS. It was 51% when the current standards went into effect in 2012.
The Obama administration mandated 5% annual increases in fuel economy. Leaked versions of the Trump administration’s latest proposal show a 1.5% annual increase, backing off from its initial proposal simply to stop mandating increases in fuel efficiency after 2020.
The transportation sector is the nation’s largest source of climate-changing emissions.
John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group representing automakers, said the industry still wants middle ground between the two standards, and it supports year-over-year mileage increases. But he says the Obama-era standards are outdated due to the drastic shift to trucks and SUVs.
The Trump administration standards are likely to cause havoc in the auto industry because, with legal challenges expected, automakers won’t know which standards they will have to obey.
“It will be extraordinarily disruptive,” said Richard J. Pierce Jr., a law professor at the George Washington University who specializes in government regulations.  
States and environmental groups will challenge the Trump rules, and a U.S. District Court likely will issue a temporary order shelving them until it decides whether they are legal. The temporary order likely will be challenged with the Supreme Court, which in recent cases has voted 5-4 that a District judge can’t issue such a nationwide order, Pierce said. But the nation’s highest court could also keep the order in effect if it determines the groups challenging the Trump standards are likely to win.
“We’re talking quite a long time, one to three years anyway, before we can expect to get a final decision on the merits,” Pierce said. 

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China’s Huawei Warns More US Pressure May Spur Retaliation

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Huawei’s chairman warned Tuesday that more U.S. moves to increase pressure on the Chinese tech giant might trigger retaliation by Beijing that could damage its worldwide industry.  Huawei Technologies Ltd., which makes smartphones and network equipment, reported that its 2019 sales rose by double digits despite curbs imposed in May on its access to U.S. components and technology. But the chairman, Eric Xu, said 2020 will be its “most difficult year” as Huawei struggles with the sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic.  Huawei is at the center of tensions with Washington over technology and possible spying that helped to spark Trump’s tariff war with China in 2018.Xu said he couldn’t confirm news reports President Donald Trump might try to extend controls to block access to foreign-made products that contain U.S. technology. Xu said Huawei can find other sources but warned more American action might trigger Chinese retaliation against American companies.”I think the Chinese government will not just stand by and watch Huawei be slaughtered,” Xu said at a news conference. He said U.S. pressure on foreign suppliers “will be destructive to the global technology ecosystem.”  “If the Chinese government followed through with countermeasures, the impact on the global industry would be astonishing,” Xu said. “It’s not only going to be one company, Huawei, that could be destroyed.”  Huawei, China’s first global tech brand, denies U.S. accusations the company is controlled by the ruling Communist Party or facilitates Chinese spying. The company says it is owned by the 104,572 members of its 194,000-member workforce who are Chinese citizens.Chinese officials say the Trump administration is abusing national security claims to restrain a rival to U.S. tech companies.  Last year’s sales rose 19.1% over 2018 to 858.8 billion yuan ($123 billion), in line with the previous year’s 19.5% gain, the company reported. Profit increased 5.6% to 62.7 billion yuan ($9 billion), decelerating from 2018’s 25% jump.  Huawei has had to spend heavily to replace American components in its products and find new suppliers after Trump approved the sanctions on May 16, Xu said.  The controls, if fully enforced, could cut off access to most U.S. components and technology. Washington has granted extensions for some products, but Huawei says it expects the barriers to be enforced.  The company, the world’s No. 2 smartphone brand behind Samsung, said 2019 handset sales rose 15% to 240 million units.  Xu said it was impossible to forecast this year’s handset sales until the spreading coronavirus pandemic is brought under control.Huawei phones can keep using Google’s popular Android operating system, but the American company is blocked from supplying music and other popular services for future models.  Huawei is creating its own services to replace Google and says its system had 400 million active users in 170 countries by the end of 2019. That requires Huawei to persuade developers to write applications for its new system, a challenge in an industry dominated by Android and Apple’s iOS-based applications.  Huawei hopes Google applications can run on the Chinese company’s system and that its apps can be distributed on the American company’s online store, Xu said.  Huawei also is, along with Sweden’s LM Ericsson and Nokia Corp. of Finland, one of the leading developers of fifth-generation, or 5G, technology. It is meant to expand networks to support self-driving cars, medical equipment and other futuristic applications, which makes the technology more intrusive and politically sensitive.  The Trump administration is lobbying European governments and other U.S. allies to avoid Huawei equipment as they prepare to upgrade to 5G. Australia, Taiwan and some other governments have imposed curbs on use of Huawei technology, but Germany and some other nations say the company will be allowed to bid on contracts.  The company has unveiled its own processor chips and smartphone operating system, which helps to reduce its vulnerability to American export controls. The company issued its first smartphone phone last year based on Huawei chips instead of U.S. technology.  Huawei also is embroiled in legal conflicts with Washington.  Its chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who is Ren’s daughter, is being held in Vancouver, Canada, for possible extradition to face U.S. charges related to accusations Huawei violated trade sanctions on Iran.  Separately, U.S. prosecutors have charged Huawei with theft of trade secrets, accusations the company denies.  The company, headquartered in the southern city of Shenzhen, also has filed lawsuits in American courts challenging government attempts to block phone carriers from purchasing its equipment.   

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German Scientists Identify New Strain of Plastic-eating Bacteria

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German scientists say they have identified a strain of bacteria that is feeding on polyurethanes, a plastic resistant to biodegradation. A team of researchers at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, has found that a strain of soil bacterium, identified as Pseudomonas putida, can produce enzymes to digest polyurethanes thus making it biodegradable.  The German team says the bacterium found in the soil surrounding a heap of plastic waste was feeding on polyurethane diol, which is used in plastic as a component that protects products from corrosion. Hermann Heipieper, one of the researchers and author of the study published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, said “this finding represents an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle (polyurethane) products.”A worker sorts through recycling bins at a center that offers residents money in exchange of their recyclable garbage in an attempt to keep the streets clean in Cairo, Egypt, March 11, 2017.The study offers hope of ridding the planet of the growing quantities of discarded plastic products that threaten human and animal life. But some scientists are skeptical.  In earlier experiments, biodegradation of some plastic components was achieved with fungi. Yale University students in 2011 discovered a fungus that can digest and break down polyurethane plastic even in a place without air – like the bottom of a landfill. Since then scientists around the world have identified other fungal species that can breakdown polyurethane. In 2017, a team of scientists identified another fungus that can feed on plastic by breaking down chemicals that hold it together.  These studies also raised concerns about the ability of micro-organisms to invade and corrupt a dead and therefore sterile substance like plastic. Research on coral reefs has shown that floating plastics carry disease-causing microbes that infect the coral.  The Leipzig study says bacteria are much easier to control and produce for industrial use. Its authors say the next step is to identify the gene code of the enzymes produced by the bacteria to digest polyurethane. Some scientists are arguing against introducing man-made enzymes or potentially dangerous micro-organisms into the natural environment.  Two years ago, scientist Douglas Rader wrote in an op-ed for the Environmental Defense Fund that “There is so much more we need to understand about the complex relationships between plastics and marine ecosystems before we can take drastic action such as spraying the ocean with so-called plastic-eating bacteria.”Workers load collected plastic bottles on to a truck at a junk shop in Manila, March 10, 2015. The Philippines placed third among the list of countries with the most ocean plastic pollution per year.Despite new findings, science is nowhere near solving the growing plastic pollution problem. Humankind has manufactured and discarded so much plastic over the years that the world is getting short of places to dump the enormous quantities accumulated every day. Refusal by many developing countries to accept plastic waste from rich nations has exacerbated the problem.  Some countries are cutting down on the use of plastic bags, drinking straws, plastic bottles and utensils. Scientists keep coming up with new biodegradable products to replace plastic, such as wrapping materials made from algae, straws made of paper and disposable utensils made of bamboo, but the movement could be described as “too little too late.” Recycling the plastics to make building materials, fabrics, and other new plastic products cannot even make a dent in the growing amounts of plastic waste.   Plastic remains the most practical packaging material and is indispensable in medical, pharmaceutical, sanitary and many other industries. Some new biodegradable, but equally useful material, has yet to be developed. Meanwhile scientists estimate that about 8 million pieces of plastic enter the oceans every day. For some of them it will take hundreds of years to properly degrade if they are not first swallowed by fish and other marine creatures that will die from it. 

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Spain Postpones 5G Spectrum Auction Due To Coronavirus

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Spain will delay a planned auction of 5G spectrum due to the coronavirus outbreak, the government said on Monday.
 
As part of a Europe-wide drive to speed up the roll out of fast Internet and broaden coverage, Spain had been due to free up space in the 700 MHz band of its network by switching from analog to digital terrestrial television by June 30.
 
One of the world’s worst national outbreaks of the virus, which had infected 85,915 people and killed 7,340 as of Monday, constitutes force majeure, making it impossible to stick to that deadline, the government said in a statement.
 
Madrid has told Brussels it will set a new deadline for the 700 MHz band depending on the eventual end-date for emergency measures including restrictions on people’s movements, it added.
 
Austria postponed a planned 5G auction last week, and the CEO of French group Iliad said one coming up in France would likely meet the same fate. 

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Spain Tries Tracking Coronavirus, Sparking Privacy Concerns

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In Madrid only a few weeks ago, thousands of demonstrators took part in a women’s march, defiant or unaware of calls for social distancing to stop what then appeared to be the distant threat of coronavirus. Now, Spain is one of the biggest battlegrounds in the global war against the pandemic.Spain’s health system is stressed to the breaking point. Coronavirus information hotlines have been jammed by frightened people desperate for information.Madrid city leaders launched a web and mobile service modeled after ones that South Korea successfully used to track those infected.
 
“Our sole objective at this time is to save lives,” explains Isabel Diaz Ayuso, President of the Community of Madrid.The CoronaMadrid website and the App – is a public-private initiative that involves giving citizens’ personal information to the government and to various companies whose names are not disclosed.  In these times of fear, few ask questions. 
“We are immersed in a state of extreme urgency or extreme need, that is when at least we begin to understand these rather awkward actions of various public administrations when developing technological solutions,” says Enric Lujan, a politics professor at the  Universitat de Barcelona. “The application of the Community of Madrid does not specify data protection clauses, of transfers to third parties and, it seems, these data can be transferred to companies.”South Korea’s tracking measures helped the government there flatten the contagion curve – and other countries have followed.  Israel has approved the use of counterterrorism technology to track the virus, and Iran’s official coronavirus app was recently pulled by Google from its Play Store, amid privacy concerns.
 
“Medical data is classified as highly sensitive,” Lujan says.  “The transfer to third parties of medical data is being left in the background when what is prioritized is the fact of having a lower number of deaths.”The coronavirus pandemic has made many people across the world feel afraid, helpless, and desperate for solutions.  It has also raised new questions about how much of their personal freedom and privacy they are willing to sacrifice.     

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Kyrgyzstan Cancer Patients Make Face Masks to Fight COVID-19

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A group of cancer patients in Kyrgyzstan is working to meet the demand for protective surgical masks while earning funds to help pay for their treatments.The group is organized by an association known as “Together for Life,” established in July 2019. Originally, the group made handbags and purses as a kind of therapy, as well as financial aid for women overcoming cancer.But once the demand for masks increased, the president of the group, Aigul Kydyrmysheva, told The Associated Press that they received permission from the Ministry of Health to switch to making the protective gear.Kydyrmysheva said they market their products through social media and that while bigger factories can produce masks faster, many customers have turned to them, understanding that their profits go to a good cause.  The group works nearly round-the-clock, making as many as 1,000 masks a day, which earns them about $2,500 a month. In turn, they have been able to allocate about $770 a month to offset cancer treatment drugs. 

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Sesame Workshop Enlists Elmo, Cookie Monster on Hand Washing

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Elmo, Rooster and Cookie Monster are doing their part to help keep kids safe as the coronavirus pandemic grinds on.
The beloved Sesame Street Muppets are featured in some of four new animated public service spots reminding young fans to take care while doing such things as washing hands and sneezing.  
One of Elmo’s signature songs, the toothbrush classic “Brushy Brush,” has been updated to  “Washy Wash.”Rooster pops up in another of the 30-second spots  to remind kids to “wash hands now” before eating, playing sports or using the bathroom.
The new content on SesameStreet.org/caring builds on last week’s launch of Sesame Workshop’s Caring for Each Other initiative to help families stay physically and mentally healthy during the health crisis. The overall project ranges from messages of comfort to learning activities in reading, math and science.  
The new spots will be distributed globally in 19 languages through partners that include HBO, PBS Kids, YouTube and the Ad Council.
“As families around the world adjust to their new realities, parents and caregivers are looking for help in creating new routines, staying healthy and fostering learning at home while little ones are out of school,” Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop, said in a statement.
The workshop will continue to roll out new resources for parents and caregivers on creating new routines, fostering playful learning at home and managing anxiety. Families can also watch Sesame Street episodes on HBO, PBS stations and the PBS KIDS 24/7 live stream. Free on-demand episodes of “Sesame Street” are offered on PBS KIDS digital platforms, along with more than 110 free “Sesame Street” e-books on all major e-book platforms.

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 Americans Get their Art Fix Despite Corona Threat   

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Museums across the U.S. have closed to the public, to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.But that hasn’t stopped the guardians of some of the greatest art collections in the country from sharing their national treasures with people around the world. Washington’s revered Smithsonian museums are among the institutions that are temporarily closed to the public. But all 19 museums, and the National Zoo, are inviting the public to visit them online, for a compelling collection of digital offerings. Lin-Manuel Miranda/Mark Seliger/2016 (printed 2018), Archival pigment print/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution“A great place to start is to go to our Anna Wintour, New York City, 2015/Annie Leibovitz/2015 (printed 2019), Archival pigment print/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian InstitutionThe museum plans to launch more digital storytime sessions, art-making workshops, and more, in the coming weeks. “I think when we talk about social distancing, I’d like to think of social connecting — just because we can’t be in proximity to each other doesn’t mean that we can’t be actually communicating with each other.”

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Coronavirus-Stricken Cities go Digital to Boost Solidarity, Wellbeing 

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On the streets of Barcelona, a few lone shoppers and dog walkers, their faces obscured by masks, are the only signs of life in this once-vibrant city — but online it’s a different story.   In Spain, as in the rest of the world, increasing numbers of people are going digital to keep community spirits up and avoid feelings of isolation during the coronavirus crisis, which has infected about 725,000 people and killed more than 34,000 worldwide.   Since Spain’s population of 47 million went into lockdown on March 14, there has been a flourishing of virtual parties, online classes and remote cultural events as people rush to find new ways to stay connected during the pandemic.   On any given day, Barcelona residents can look at a list called #ElBarriDesdeTuCasa (“The Neighbourhood On Your Doorstep”), posted on the online community platform Nextdoor, and find five or six events in their neighborhood alone.   These kinds of online activities are useful for “keeping people motivated and giving them a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” Joana Caminal, head of community at Nextdoor Spain, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.   They are a good way of “getting people to interact more  at such a complicated time,” she stressed.   The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Spain has reached more than 80,000, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.   Since the start of March, 10 times more neighborhood groups than usual have been created on Nextdoor Spain, with the site’s number of global daily active users soaring by 80% in March from the previous month.   On Tuesday, California-based Nextdoor launched a “Solidarity Map,” letting registered users worldwide ask their neighbours for help or offer to help someone local in need.   FILE – The dating app Tinder is shown on an Apple iPhone in this photo illustration taken Feb. 10, 2016.Online dating app Tinder is also finding new ways to bring people together at a time when everyone is keeping apart.   The company has announced it is making its “Passport” feature free until April 30, meaning non-premium users, who can usually only connect with people in their current location, can “transport themselves out of self-quarantine to anywhere in the world.”Health experts say that the internet could be a useful tool for staying positive during the pandemic.   “In this unprecedented time, we are all, in most cases, very, very isolated from the world … never in our lifetime have we experienced isolation like this,” said Nathan L. Vanderford, an assisant professor at Kentucky University’s medical school.   “While the potential negative aspects of the internet still apply in our current situation, we can use these platforms to enhance our wellbeing,” he added.   However many elderly people are not plugged into social media and online activity also means we are “bathed in communication” about the pandemic, which could enhance stress, noted Sara Thomee, an assistant professor of psychology at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg.  Virtual socializing  Many people are also finding solace in virtual socialising, with colleagues and friends the world over raising a glass via video-conferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.   A man walks past hanging Koinobori during a snowfall in Tokyo, March 29, 2020. Tokyo governor has repeatedly asked the city’s 13 million residents to stay home this weekend, saying the capital is on the brink of an explosion in virus infections.In Asia, these sessions have become so popular they have given rise to a Japanese phenomenon called “on-nomi,” or online drinking.   With so many people working from home, virtual get-togethers are key to boosting team spirit, said Kate Walton, head of Steyer Content, a Seattle-based content agency.   “People crave connection. It’s a fundamentally human instinct,” she said, noting that since her 100-strong team began working remotely a month ago, it has bonded over drinks in several so-called “virtual happy hour” sessions.   Some online gatherings go beyond after-work drinks. In Malaysia, which imposed a partial lockdown on March 18, locals are organising online poetry readings, as well as a Stay at Home music festival to raise funds to buy food for medical workers.  Jabier Grey, a languages teacher in Madrid who participated in another online music festival, CoronavirusFest, in March, said the thriving digital scene is giving people the chance to experiment with different ways of coming together.   “It’s a great opportunity for everybody … I think some of the online [gatherings] are likely to remain online after [the crisis],” said Grey, who livestreamed a singing session from his flat via Instagram.   In Germany’s capital Berlin, the city’s famous nightlife has gone digital, with about 250 nightclubs joining forces on the website United We Stream to livestream DJ sets into people’s homes every evening from 7 p.m. until midnight.   In Italy, which has registered more coronavirus deaths than any other country, a group of artists and social media users have launched an Instagram account called My Sweet Quarantine to provide followers with a daily schedule of classes and performances.   Self-improvement  While many people are going online to meet up without leaving their homes, others are using the web to learn something new. In Wuhan, the epicentre of China’s coronavirus outbreak, 24-year-old Zhao Xiaowei has discovered a new culinary passion after the country’s lockdown prompted him to start watching cookery classes on livestreams and the popular video app Douyin. “It’s easier to pass time with technology during lockdown, or our day can be very dull,” he said by phone.   Over in the United States, Valerie Canon, a 38-year-old ballet teacher from Kentucky, said she has been inundated with responses since starting a Facebook page called “My Friends Do Awesome Things. Let’s Learn from Them.”  The mother-of-three, who began by posting classes to keep her students fit during lockdown, said that within three days 1,500 people were using the page, giving her and others the chance to learn a host of “awesome and useful things.”   “In the past few days, I have learned how to put victory rolls in my hair, make a Manhattan [and] how to make an at-home cleaner with citrus fruit and apple vinegar,” she said.   A view shows the deserted area in front of the glass Pyramid of the Louvre museum in Paris as a lockdown is imposed to slow the rate of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in France, March 18, 2020.Museums from Paris to Tbilisi have also moved online, providing virtual tours of their collections or letting artists film live performances in empty rooms.   “We wanted to show that even though we are physically closed, we remain open as an institution that produces culture, disseminating experiences and knowledge,” said Stefano Boeri, president of the Triennale Art & Design Museum in Milan.   Malaysian yoga instructor Susan Tam, who has moved her classes online, said staying digitally active is important for bridging the gap between people caused by self-isolation and social distancing.   “We are used to having these social connections,” she said.   “Doing live online classes means we can still have the community connection without the risk — it’s good for our health.”
   

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