Italy frets over lockdown, eyes eventual staggered re-opening

ROME (Reuters) – Italian health officials warned on Tuesday it was too soon to consider lifting lockdown restrictions, saying a deceleration in new cases of coronavirus should not raise hopes that the crisis was near an end.

The government announced on Monday that curbs on movement and business activities introduced nationwide on March 9 would stay in place until at least the Easter holidays in mid-April.

Politicians fear it will be hard to keep people penned up in their houses much beyond that date, especially as the daily medical bulletins start to improve, but doctors on the frontline of the fight against the disease urged caution.

“Today, official sources are suggesting that perhaps we can (lift restrictions) after Easter … It seems to me highly unrealistic to think this nightmare will end by then,” said Guido Marinoni, head of the doctors’ association in Bergamo, the northern city at the epicenter of Italy’s epidemic.

“If we let work resume (too soon), it will reignite the outbreak and the fire will return. This will cause devastating damage, not only for people but also for the whole economy,” he told a group of foreign reporters.

After days of steep rises in cases, the data this week has suggested the pace of growth is slowing, with new infections coming in at 4,053 on Tuesday – some 1,200 less than the daily rate recorded a week ago. Deaths have remained largely steady at over 800 a day.

“The sacrifices and effort we have made are beginning to bear fruit,” Giulio Gallera, the top health official in the northern region of Lombardy, told reporters, adding that there might be a gradual reopening after April 15.

In an effort to make the lockdown more bearable for families, the government said on Tuesday that parents would be allowed to take their children out for short walks around the block, although parks will remain closed.


Italy was the first Western country to introduce swingeing restrictions on movement after uncovering the outbreak almost six weeks ago. It has tightened them week by week, banning all but core strategic activities, while shuttering restaurants, most shops, schools and universities.

The fragile Italian economy is expected to be plunged into a deep recession by the virus, with investment bank Goldman Sachs forecasting a contraction of 11.6%. This is putting huge pressure on the government to get business back up and running.

Industry Minister Stefano Patuanelli said on Tuesday that work restrictions would probably be lifted on a sector-by-sector basis, rather than on a geographical basis.

“Things will have to be reopened in stages, when people’s safety can be guaranteed. Today it is too early to do a timeline analysis. I think it will take a few more weeks before we get anywhere,” he told Radio 24.

Urging against complacency, Silvio Brusaferro, the head of the national health institute ISS, said it was vital to reduce the rate of infection – the number of people each coronavirus sufferer themselves infect.

At the start of the epidemic, the number was as high as four in Lombardy. It has now sunk to around one.

“The ideal is to go to zero … but reaching zero will be quite difficult until we get the vaccine,” Brusaferro told a news conference, adding that in the meantime Italy needed to aim for a level of around 0.5, or below.

However, it might take weeks to reach that point, making it hard for the government to reopen bars, cafes, cinemas and theaters where social distancing is difficult to patrol.

“We must avoid any measure that causes the curve (of cases) to climb again,” said Brusaferro, adding that Italy was in a tough position because it was the first Western country to be hit by the virus so was plotting a path for others to follow.

“There are no studies or literature on this … We are looking into scenarios that have never been taken before by countries that resemble Italy. Other nations are looking at us as a pilot program,” he said.

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India’s race to build a $650 ventilator

In an 8,000 sq ft (743 sq m) facility in the western Indian city of Pune, a bunch of young engineers are racing against time to develop a low-cost ventilator that could save thousands of lives if the coronavirus pandemic overwhelms the country’s hospitals.

These engineers – from some of India’s top engineering schools – belong to a two-year-old start-up which makes water-less robots that clean solar plants.

Last year, Nocca Robotics had a modest turnover of 2.7 million rupees ($36,000; £29,000). The average age of the mechanical, electronic and aerospace engineers who work for the firm is 26.

India, by most estimates, only has 48,000 ventilators. Nobody quite knows how many of these breathing assistance machines are working. But it is a fair assumption that all those available are being used in intensive care units on existing patients with other diseases.

About one in six people with Covid-19 gets seriously ill, which can include breathing difficulties. The country faces seeing its hospitals hobbled as others around the world have been, with doctors forced to choose who they try to save.

At least two Indian companies make ventilators at present, mostly from imported components. They cost around 150,000 ($1,987; £1,612) rupees each. One of them, AgVa Healthcare, plans to make 20,000 in a month’s time. India has also ordered 10,000 from China, but that will meet just a fraction of the potential demand.

The invasive ventilator being developed by the engineers at Nocca Robotics will cost 50,000 rupees ($662). Within five days of beginning work, a group of seven engineers at the start-up have three prototypes of a portable machine ready.

They are being tested on artificial lungs, a prosthetic device that provides oxygen and removes carbon dioxide from the blood. By 7 April, they plan to be ready with machines that can be tested on patients after approvals.

“It is most certainly doable,” said Dr Deepak Padmanabhan, a cardiologist at Bangalore’s Jayadeva Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences and Research, and a key advisor on this project. “The simulations on artificial lungs have been done and seem to work well.”

Inspiring story

The race to develop this inexpensive, home-grown invasive breathing machine is an inspiring story of swift coordination and speedy action involving public and private institutions, something not common in India.

“The pandemic has brought us all together in ways I could never imagine,” says Amitabha Bandhopadhyay, a professor of biological sciences and bioengineering at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, and a key mover of the project.

The young engineers mined open source medical supplies groups on the internet to find information on how to make the ventilators. After securing permissions, it took them exactly eight hours to produce the first prototype. Of particular use, say doctors, were some designs by engineers at MIT. With imports stalled, the engineers picked up pressure sensors – a key component of the machine that helps supply oxygen to lungs at a pressure that doesn’t cause injury – from those used in drones and available in the market.

Local authorities helped open firms that stock components – each machine needs 150 to 200 parts – and made sure that a bunch of engineers who had returned home to Nanded after the lockdown were still able to travel 400km (248 miles) back to Pune to work on the machine.

Some leading Indian industrialists, including a major medical device-making company, have offered their factories to manufacture the machines. The plan is to make 30,000 ventilators, at around 150-200 a day, by the middle of May.

Social media influencers joined the effort. Rahul Raj, a lithium battery-maker and an IIT alumnus, crowd-sourced a group called Caring Indians to “pool resources and experience” to cope with the pandemic. Within 24 hours, 1,000 people had signed up. “We tweeted to the local lawmaker and local police in Pune to help the developers, and made contacts with people who would be interested in the project,” Mr Raj said.

‘No-frills machine’

Expat Indian doctors and entrepreneurs who went to the same school – IIT is India’s leading engineering school and alumni include Google chief Sundar Pichai – held Zoom meetings with the young developers, advising them and asking questions about the machine’s development. The head of a US-based company gave them a 90-minute lecture on how to manage production. A former chief of an info-tech company told them how to source the components.

Lastly, a bunch of doctors vetted every development and asked hard questions. In the end, more than a dozen top professionals – pulmonologists, cardiologists, scientists, innovators, venture capitalists – have guided the young team.

Doctors say the goal is to develop a “no-frills” breathing machine tailored to Indian conditions.

Ventilators depend on pressurised oxygen supply from hospital plants. But in a country where piped oxygen is not available in many small towns and villages, developers are seeing whether they can also make the machine run on oxygen cylinders. “In a way we are trying to de-modernise the machine to what it was barely 20 years ago,” says Dr Padmanabhan.

“We are not experienced. But we are very good at making products easily. The robots that we make are much more complex to make. But this is a life-saving machine and carries risk, so we have to be very, very careful that we develop a perfect product which clears all approvals,” said Nikhil Kurele, the 26-year-old co-founder and chief executive officer of Nocca Robotics.

In just a week’s time, India will learn whether they pulled off the feat.

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Convicted sex offender considered a risk to women, girls expected to live in Winnipeg: police

Police are warning the public about a convicted, untreated sex offender who was released from Stony Mountain Penitentiary Tuesday.

Christopher Assiniboine, 37, is considered a high risk to re-offend in a sexual/violent manner against all females, both adults and children, according to police.

Police say he’s expected to live in Winnipeg.

Assiniboine was serving a 90-day sentence for his 10-year term supervision order related to convictions of sexual assault and uttering threats in a 2015 incident involving an 18-year-old stranger.

Police said he committed those offences while on parole for a previous sexual assault conviction.

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Man dies after arrest by Oxford House RCMP, IIU investigating

Manitoba’s police watchdog is investigating a man’s death following his arrest in Oxford House.

Police say the man was intoxicated when he was arrested after officers were called to reports of a disturbance in the community, roughly 577 km northeast of Winnipeg, Thursday.

Oxford House RCMP say the man was put into a cell at their detachment shortly before 10 a.m., but was then found unresponsive in his cell around 5:48 p.m.

The man was taken to the nursing station and sent to hospital in Winnipeg, where he died Saturday.

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Turkmenistan bans use of the word ‘coronavirus’

Coronavirus? What’s a coronavirus?

Turkmenistan‘s authoritarian government has banned all uses of the word “coronavirus” from public discourse in a bizarre attempt to control any mention of the COVID-19 disease.

State-controlled media have been ordered not to use the word and police are arresting citizens who say “coronavirus” or wear face masks in public, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international NGO dedicated to promoting free speech.

RSF cites the Turkmenistan Chronicle, one of the country’s “few sources of independent news,” in its reporting. The Chronicle published a story earlier this month showing that “coronavirus” has been removed from all state Ministry of Health pamphlets.

“The Turkmen authorities have lived up to their reputation by adopting this extreme method for eradicating all information about the coronavirus,” said Jeanne Cavelier, head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, in a statement.

“This denial of information not only endangers the Turkmen citizens most at risk but also reinforces the authoritarianism imposed by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. We urge the international community to react and to take him to task for his systematic human rights violations.”

Turkmenistan is a closed-off nation of about 5.8 million people bordering on Iran.

Its leader, President Berdymukhamedov, is a strongman in the same vein as ally Russian President Vladimir Putin. The former dentist loves riding horses, writing books about tea, and driving fast cars.

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He also presides over a “black hole” of public information, according to RSF.

The RSF says Turkmenistan is the worst country in the world for press freedom, behind even North Korea. Berdymukhamedov also has a “dire human rights record” for brutally punishing “all unauthorized forms of religious and political expression,” according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published earlier this month.

“There is a total absence of media freedom in Turkmenistan,” the HRW report says.

In the absence of science or certain words, Turkmenistan’s government has been promoting President Berdymukhamedov’s books about the medicinal powers of tea and incense.

On March 13, for example, the government told people to use smoke from burning herbs to “prevent various infectious diseases,” citing the president’s books.

“The multi-volume work of the President of Turkmenistan also provides information on the benefits of red pepper, which has long been used in our country for medicinal purposes,” a portion of the government’s translated message says.

The country has shuttered many stores, cancelled classes and closed borders in order to stop the virus, according to Radio Azatlyk, another independent outlet affiliated with Radio Free Europe.

“At the same time, the country’s authorities do not inform citizens about the coronavirus, but take measures to suppress panic among the population,” the outlet reports.

Radio Azatlyk has also reported on crackdowns against people who use the word “coronavirus.”

“They take away people for any talk about the coronavirus,” a correspondent in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, told the outlet. “Special people listen to the conversations in lines, at bus stops, on buses.”

Turkmenistan has not reported any cases of the novel coronavirus to the World Health Organization, according to WHO data from March 30.

It’s unclear whether the tea, the smoke or the repression are responsible for that number.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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Fears for Pakistani journalist missing in Sweden

A Pakistani journalist who fled the country to escape death threats has gone missing in Sweden where he was granted political asylum.

Sajid Hussain was last seen boarding a train in Stockholm on his way to Uppsala on 2 March, according to the group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The group said it was possible he had been abducted “at the behest of a Pakistani intelligence agency”.

Hussain, 39, fled to Sweden in 2012 after writing about crime.

He had reported on forced disappearances and organised crime in Pakistan, relatives said.

Why might he have been a target?

Online newspaper the Balochistan Times, for which Hussain was chief editor, said it had reported his disappearance to Swedish police on 3 March.

“As of today [28 March], there is no clue about his whereabouts and wellbeing,” it said in an editorial. “The police have not shared any progress in the investigations with his family and friends.”

Relatives told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn they had waited two weeks before expressing their fears in case he had gone into isolation because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Hussain’s wife, Shehnaz, told Dawn that before going into self-imposed exile, her husband had sensed he was being followed. As well as writing about forced disappearances he had exposed a drug kingpin in Pakistan.

“Then some people broke into his house in Quetta when he was out investigating a story,” she said. “They took away his laptop and other papers too. After that he left Pakistan in Septem­ber 2012 and never came back.”

Balochistan, in the west of Pakistan, has been the scene of a long-running nationalist insurgency. The Pakistani military has been accused of torturing and “disappearing” dissidents. Insurgent groups have also killed members of non-Baloch ethnic groups.

RSF, which campaigns for press freedom, said Hussain had vanished after boarding a train in Stockholm at around 11:30 on 2 March to go to Uppsala where he was to collect the keys to a new flat. He did not alight in Uppsala, RSF said, quoting police.

“Everything indicates that this is an enforced disappearance,” said the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, Daniel Bastard.

“If you ask yourself who would have an interest in silencing a dissident journalist, the first response would have to be the Pakistani intelligence services.”

Pakistan is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist .It ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in the 2019 RSF Press Freedom Index.

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Russian jeweler tries to tap zeitgeist with coronavirus-shaped pendants

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A small Russian jewelry company specializing in science and medicine-themed ornaments has launched a coronavirus-shaped pendant, a move that has drawn accusations of insensitivity by some.

When the first microscopic images of the coronavirus emerged a few months ago, Dr. Vorobev, a jewelry firm based in Kostroma, a city around 300 kilometers (186 miles) northeast of Moscow, thought the intricately-shaped virus could become a good addition to its collection.

Sold online for around $20, its sterling silver coronavirus pendants reproduce the shape of the virus – a circular shell topped with club-shaped spikes – that causes an acute respiratory illness known as COVID-19.

“People started buying it, posting the product on their social media pages,” Pavel Vorobev, the firm’s founder, told Reuters. “No matter how sad it is, it has become a trend. It has had a viral effect.”

The virus, which emerged in China late last year, has since infected more than 777,000 people and killed 37,500 globally, according to a Reuters tally compiled on Tuesday.

Russia has reported 2,337 cases and 17 deaths across its vast territory, and on Tuesday registered its biggest daily rise in cases for the seventh day in a row. Moscow and dozens of other regions have declared lockdowns.

The company also produces pendants in the shape of hearts, lungs and DNA double helixes.

Responding to accusations of insensitivity, Vorobev said the pendants are not intended to cash in on what has become an international crisis.

“Our followers on social media are respectable people – doctors and people with ties to medicine,” he said, adding that some former coronavirus patients had purchased the pendants as gifts for the medical staff who had treated them.

Vorobev said the firm was now planning to donate brooches with caged coronaviruses to doctors toiling to curb its spread.

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Malaysia says curbs preventing major spikes in coronavirus cases

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s stay-at-home order has prevented major daily spikes in coronavirus infections, the government said on Tuesday, but the World Bank warned the trade-reliant country’s economy would shrink this year for the first time in more than a decade.

Malaysia recorded 140 new coronavirus cases and six deaths on Tuesday, taking the total number of infections to 2,766 with 43 fatalities. Nearly half of its infections are linked to a religious gathering held late last month.

The country, which has the highest number of reported cases in Southeast Asia, has imposed month-long restrictions on travel and non-essential business that expire on April 14 to contain the spread of the respiratory illness.

“We have not lost the war against COVID-19, neither have we won the war yet,” Noor Hisham Abdullah, director general of the Ministry of Health, said on Twitter.

“We need each and everyone of you to break the chain of transmission. Please continue to stay at home, practice frequent hand-washing and keep a distance from others. So far, we are succeeding with no spike of cases.”

The number of coronavirus infections has risen by generally 140-200 a day since restrictions on movement were imposed two weeks ago. Noor Hisham said on Saturday that if cases surged to 1,000 a day, there could be a shortage of hospital beds to treat patients.

Meanwhile, the World Bank forecast that Malaysia’s economy, Southeast Asia’s third biggest, would contract 0.1% this year, sharply down from its previous projection of 4.5% growth, and actual growth of 4.3% last year, under the impact of the virus.

The economy last slipped below zero in 2009, dragged down by the global financial crisis.

“The large degree of uncertainty over the outcome of the (coronavirus) outbreak presents a major downside risk to the economy,” the bank said in a statement.

“An uncontained or further deterioration of the outbreak would result in more severe or prolonged restrictions on overall economic activities, posing a further drag on growth into 2021.”

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Pressure for Turkey lockdown grows, Erdogan vows to sustain economy

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan is under growing pressure from unions and the opposition for a lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus, but insists that Turkey should “keep wheels turning” in the economy and that people continue going to work.

Ankara has stopped all international flights, limited domestic travel, closed schools, bars and cafes, suspended mass prayers and sports fixtures to counter the outbreak.

The authorities have not, however, ordered people to stay at home, even as the number of cases in Turkey has risen sharply. On Monday these reached 10,827, less than three weeks since Turkey registered its first case. The death toll jumped to 168, drawing fresh calls for tighter measures.

With Turkey emerging from a recession triggered by a 2018 currency crisis, Erdogan aims to avoid endangering the recovery by enforcing a stay-at-home order that would halt economic activity and has called instead for voluntary self-isolation.

Two leading union confederations called for a halt to all but emergency work and for measures to be implemented to support workers. “All work should be stopped for a minimum of 15 days except for the production of essential and emergency goods and services,” TURK-IS Chairman Ergun Atalay said in a statement.

He also called for a ban on layoffs for the duration of the pandemic and said income support should be provided to all workers who are experiencing loss of work and income. The DISK union confederation issued an identical statement.

The Turkish Medical Association said on Monday there were many mistakes in Ankara’s “inadequate” response to the pandemic, saying borders had been left open too long and that quarantine had not been imposed on most Turks returning from abroad.

“At this stage, the disease has spread to every part of the country, hence the opportunity to enforce a quarantine has gone,” it said in a statement.

It said that more than 30,000 tests needed to be carried out daily and that those testing positive needed to be properly isolated.

But after a cabinet meeting on Monday, Erdogan said it was necessary to maintain output to sustain the supply of basic goods and support exports.

“Turkey is a country that needs to continue production and keep the wheels turning under all conditions and circumstances.”

The main opposition CHP party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said measures imposed on senior citizens and the chronically ill should be extended to a nationwide “quarantine”.


The CHP’s Istanbul mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, underlined the importance of a lockdown in the country’s biggest city, with a population of 16 million people – nearly a fifth of Turkey’s population.

“If 15% of the city’s population goes out that is 2.5 million people. As the weather gets better people will go out,” Imamoglu told Fox TV in an interview on Monday. “Even if they don’t do it for Turkey, a lockdown can be announced for Istanbul.”

On Monday, Erdogan also launched a campaign to collect donations from citizens for those in need, saying he was donating seven months of his salary to the cause and that the effort had already drawn $11 million.

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Poland tightens public life restrictions against coronavirus

WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland will impose further curbs on public life, including closing access to parks, beaches, bike rentals, and other public places, to stop the spread of coronavirus, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Tuesday.

“Whether we will be able to return to semi-normality depends on whether we will obey the rules being introduced today,” Morawiecki told a news conference, adding the new limits will last for at least two weeks.

He also said that shops will introduce exclusive service hours for elderly people, and minors will not be allowed to walk outside when not accompanied by adults.

The government’s actions announced on Tuesday add to measures it has taken earlier this month. Poland has already banned gatherings of more than two people, excluding families, and told citizens not to leave their homes except for essential activities.

As of Tuesday, 2,132 people had tested positive for coronavirus in the country of 38 million, while 31 people had died, according to the health ministry.

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