Italy cancels Venice Carnival in bid to halt spread of virus

Policemen wearing face masks warn drivers on the road between Codogno and Casalpusterlengo, which has been closed by the Italian government due to a coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy, February 23, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 23 February 2020

Italy cancels Venice Carnival in bid to halt spread of virus

  • Authorities said three people in Venice have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, all of them in their late 80s

CODOGNO: Scrambling to contain rapidly rising number of new coronavirus infections in Italy, the largest amount outside Asia, authorities on Sunday stepped up measures to ban public gatherings, including stopping Venice’s famed carnival events, which have drawn tens of thousands of revelers to a region that is now in the heart of the outbreak.
“The ordinance is immediately operative and will go into effect at midnight,” announced Veneto regional Gov. Luca Zaia, whose area includes Venice, where thousands packed St. Mark’s Square to join in carnival fun. Carnival, would have run through Tuesday. Buses, trains and other forms of public transport — including boats in Venice — were being disinfected, Zaia told reporters. Museums were also ordered to shut down after Sunday in Venice, a top tourist draw anytime of the year.
Authorities said three people in Venice have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, all of them in their late 80s and who are hospitalized in critical condition. Zaia said among those infected was a nurse.
Nearly all of Italy’s 133 known cases are clustered in the north, at least 25 of them in the Veneto region.
Authorities expressed frustration they haven’t been able to track down the source of the virus spread in the north, which surfaced last week when an Italian man in Codogno in his late 30s became critically ill.
“The health officials haven’t been yet able to pinpoint Patient Zero,” Angelo Borrelli, head of the national Civil Protection agency, told reporters in Rome.
At first, it was widely presumed that the man was infected by an Italian friend he dined with and who recently returned from his job, based in Shanghai. When the friend tested negative for the virus, attention turned to several Chinese who live in town and who frequent the same cafe visited by the stricken man. But Lombardy Gov. Attilio Fontana told reporters all of those Chinese have tested negative, too.
So for now, Borrelli indicated, strategy is concentrating on closures and other restrictions to try to stem the spread in the country which already had taken such measures early on in the global virus alarm, including banning direct flights from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. Italy has also tested millions of airport passengers arriving from other places for any sign of fever.
In Lombardy, with 90 cases, so far the hardest-hit region, schools and universities were ordered to stay closed in the coming days, and sporting events were canceled. Lombardy’s ban on public events also extended to Masses in churches in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
But while public Masses were forbidden in some towns in the hardest-hit areas, in the south, thousands turned out in the port city of Bari for a Mass by visiting Pope Francis, who shook hands with the faithful during his public appearance.Among those shaking the pope’s hand in Bari was Italian President Sergio Mattarella, who came to Bari for the event.
Museums, schools, universities and other public venues will be shut as well in Venice and the rest of Veneto. The shutdown is expected to last at least through March 1.
In Turin, the main city of the northern Piedmont region, a least three cases were diagnosed. That region also announced closure of all schools and universities.
The biggest jump in cases of confirmed COVID-19 was reported by authorities in Lombardy, a populous region which includes the country’s financial capital, Milan. Nearly all the cases were in the countryside, mainly in Codogno and nine neighboring towns, where only grocery stores and pharmacies were apparently allowed to stay open while other businesses were ordered shuttered and people — in theory at least — weren’t supposed to enter or leave the towns.
Melissa Catanacci, who lives on one of Codogno’s main roads, said that while entry points were open, others were closed.
Speaking by telephone from her home, she said she ventured outside for a stroll in the morning along with her husband and two children, ages 10 and 13.
“Every quarter-hour or so a car goes by” on the main road, she said. With businesses closed, the usual Sunday “passeggiata” — a leisurely stroll through local streets — didn’t last very long, she said. ”Nothing is open,” not even the town supermarket despite permission to do so, she said. “After a half hour, one turns around and goes back home.”
With school to stay shut through the week, her children were visiting other friends’ houses and vice versa, she said, to break the boredom. For Catanacci, there was no reason to be overly concerned. COVID-19 is “a new virus, it’s still unknown to our body” and its antibodies, Catanacci said, adding: “it’s similar to influenza.”
Italians’ other cherished Sunday routines – from soccer to church-going – were being touched by the spread of the contagion, almost entirely based in the north. Sports events in the affected northern areas, including local kids’ sports team practices to three Serie A soccer matches, were canceled following a long meeting Saturday night by the Italian government to decide infection-containing measures.
Italy’s explosion of infections was sparking concern elsewhere on the European continent.
Austria’s top security official, Franz Lang said that the country could activate border controls to Italy within one hour. Normally both countries are part of the visa and passport-free Schengen zone, but in specific situations, single countries can reactivate border controls. Lang said the situation on the border and possible reactions to the virus outbreak would be discussed in meetings Monday, local Austrian media reported.
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte on Saturday night said for now Italy wasn’t suspending Schengen zone rules.
In Switzerland, which, like Austria, borders Italy, there was a call for calm. Daniel Koch, the head of the department for contagious diseases at the heath office, told SRF public broadcaster that the country had not been contacted regarding possibly infected persons traveling to Switzerland and that there was no need to change the current strategy.
“The news from Italy are worrisome ... but it is too early to think that a wave is rolling our way,” Koch said.
German travelers returning from northern Italy were being asked to check the official German health adviseries online regarding possible exposure to the virus. The German health ministry said it had initiated a phone conference for all European Union public health authorities about the outbreak in northern Italy on Monday.
Italy’s first cases — that of a married Chinese couple who were on vacation in Rome — surfaced in early February.
To date, two deaths — of elderly persons in the north — have been reported among the 133 cases.
Elsewhere in Europe, French Health Minister Olivier Veran said that authorities were getting ready for a possible outbreak in France of the new virus. In an interview published Sunday in French newspaper Le Parisien, he said he was monitoring very closely the “very serious” situation, including in neighboring Italy.
France reported earlier this month the first death outside Asia of a person infected with the virus, an 80-year-old Chinese tourist.


Afghan robotics team builds COVID-19 ventilator

Updated 10 April 2020

Afghan robotics team builds COVID-19 ventilator

  • Team drew up its own product design and sent to MIT, Harvard University for approval

KABUL: A team of Afghan female robotics experts has developed a lifesaving ventilator, made from Toyota car parts, to help with the treatment of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients.

The girls, who won a medal in a global competition for creating a robot that could distinguish between contaminated and clean water, were invited by the governor of the western Afghan city of Herat to try and build a version of the medical device due to a desperate shortage of ventilators in the province.

The impoverished region of war-torn Afghanistan has recently witnessed a sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 cases.

The team, aptly named the Afghan Dreamers, initially tried to source parts from abroad for an advanced digital machine, but high costs and flight suspensions caused by the pandemic made shipments to Afghanistan impossible.

Undaunted, the innovative group looked for supplies closer to home, and came up with the idea of using parts from Toyota Corolla cars sourced from local bazaars.

Based on copies of modern ventilators produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, the team drew up its own product design and sent copies to MIT and Harvard University for approval.

“We had to be prepared for the worst situation because we do not have access to Amazon and other companies for online orders. So, it was best to use local devices we have in our country,” tech entrepreneur Roya Mahboob, who set up the team, told Arab News.

“We discussed our design with a professor from MIT, and sent it, based on the MIT prototype, using Toyota Corolla parts. He (the professor) was so surprised and wrote back to us saying that it was a clever design but would need to see if the system worked.

“What we are hoping, is that with the help of MIT we will be able to improve our model and make it ready for actual use by the end of May or June,” added Mahboob.

The prototype ventilator would have to be approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Afghan Public Health Ministry before the team could start producing more machines, said Dr. Mehdi Hadid, a member of the consultative board fighting the spread of COVID-19 in Herat.

“The machine (ventilator) will be able to supply a certain volume of oxygen and adjust the rate of respiration,” he told Arab News.

With acute shortages of electricity in many parts of the country, the ventilator can operate not only on mains supply, but also by battery and solar power, he said.

Afghanistan has 300 digital ventilators and hopes to buy more for its fight against the virus which has so far infected 484 people and claimed 15 lives.

The Afghan Dreamers’ locally made ventilator will cost around $400 and would mostly be used for emergency cases in remote areas where there were few clinics, said Farzana Nekpour, the team’s head of public relations.

“The current challenge for us is the risk of contracting the coronavirus by being in the workshop under one roof working on the design. We work very close together and there is no social distancing, so there is the chance of contamination despite us wearing masks and gloves,” she told Arab News.

Mahboob said that one of the main future challenges would be finding enough Toyota parts to produce more devices, as many shops and outlets were closing due to lockdowns imposed throughout Afghanistan. “But we have to find a means to help people and make this a successful project for our poor nation. It is vital.”

Entrepreneur Mahboob became one of Afghanistan’s first female chief executives at the age of 23. She set up a nonprofit organization to help young women to build digital literacy and has since been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.

In 2017, the members of her all-female robotics team made international headlines when their US visas were rejected not long before they were due to travel to an international robotics competition in Washington, DC. After individual appeals to the US Embassy in Kabul failed, the group took to social media to air their grievances. The team’s plight received international attention and led to US President Donald Trump intervening on their behalf.

The team returned from the competition with a silver medal for “courageous achievement” won by their ball-sorting robot, designed to distinguish between contaminated and clean water.

Since returning home, the team has become an inspiration for women seeking higher education in male-dominated Afghanistan, where about 40 percent of women are literate.

Its other achievements include the development of a device to help farmers pick saffron, one of the country’s main industries, and the building of drones and robots for use in the mining sector.