Coronavirus breakthrough: ‘Key’ reason virus spread through Wuhan so quickly exposed

The deadly virus has now infected 800,000 people worldwide, racking up more than 38,000 deaths as the US, Italy and Spain struggle to deal with the huge influx in numbers. Coronaviruses are known to jump from animals to humans and COVID-19 is believed to have originated in Wuhan at a seafood market where wild animals including birds, bats and snakes were traded illegally. The first case of the virus is thought to have been recorded in Wuhan as early as December 1, but China did not report the outbreak to the World Health Organisation (WHO) until December 31.

Speaking on Four Corner’s “Secrets behind Coronavirus” documentary, Centre for Strategic International Studies senior fellow Richard McGregor says this time lost was vital to how the pandemic unfolded.

He said last month: “The key point in this saga is they lost about two weeks, maybe three, just when the virus was at its nascent point, just at a time where they could have traced it, a time when perhaps they could have checked it.

“That was lost because it got caught up in the politics of the information flow and surveillance in China.”

China has already come under fire after it was found the most-popular messaging app, WeChat, had been censoring keywords around the virus since January 1.

The key point in this saga is they lost about two weeks, maybe three

Richard McGregor

The communist country also arrested anyone spreading “rumours” online, including Dr Li Wenliang, who was hailed a hero for raising the alarm about the coronavirus in the early days of the outbreak.

But, presenter Sean Nicholls proposed a secondary reason that allowed the huge spike in numbers in Chinese cases in January.

He said: “Four weeks after the first infections China notifies the World Health Organisation of the outbreak, things are about to get worse.

“In early January, millions of Chinese are preparing to travel to travel to and from Wuhan to celebrate Chinese New Year with their families.”

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This year, the Chinese New Year fell on Saturday, January 25.

Two days earlier, the central government of China imposed a lockdown in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei in an effort to quarantine the centre of an outbreak.

But, the BBC’s China correspondent Stephen McDonell told viewers that millions of Chinese residents from across the country had already crossed paths by that point.

He said: “If you were to pick the most dangerous time, the worst time for a virus to break-out, the worst time for it to spread quickly across China and around the world, it would be the Lunar New Year.

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“You have hundreds of millions of people crisscrossing China, travelling overseas, and because of that mass-migration, the largest mass-migration annually in the world, it was a terrible time for this virus outbreak to happen.”

China’s lockdown appears to have been effective once it came into force, with a significant drop in the number of reported cases.

The city of Wuhan began lifting a two-month lockdown on Saturday by restarting some metro services and reopening borders, allowing some semblance of normality to return and families to reunite.

Life in the city is far from normal though, the vast majority of shops are shut while bright yellow roadblocks remain. Wuhan will not let people leave the city until April 8.

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Coronavirus: More than 90% of UK airliners grounded as travel demand plummets

More than 90% of passenger airliners in the UK have been grounded as demand for air travel has plummeted, Sky News can reveal.

EasyJet has become the latest airline to ground its entire fleet of aircraft, while Ryanair has warned it can’t rule out a complete shutdown over the COVID-19 pandemic.

International Airlines Group, which owns British Airways, has grounded 75% of its aircraft. More than 327 airliners belonging to the group have been parked in storage without a single flight for the past seven days, according to aviation analytics company Cirium.

Wizz Air, the Budapest headquartered airline that flies to 10 destinations in the UK, is operating 7% of its original scheduled capacity – utilising just 19 out of its entire fleet of 121 Airbus aircraft.

Low cost airline and package holiday provider Jet2.com has not operated a single flight over the past seven days on 93 aircraft. The company currently flies 110 airliners.

Data from Cirium also showed more than 40% of the global passenger jet fleet was now in storage – inactive for at least seven days – leaving just over 15,000 available.

It also showed a sharp increase in the number of aircraft placed in storage in the month of March as airlines around the world desperately try to trim costs.

Flight numbers have fallen to a trickle globally as international air travel responds to a collapse in demand and restrictions on movement.

Earlier this month, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Foreign Office is advised against all non-essential worldwide travel for a period of 30 days.

The UK government has ruled out a support package but promised to work with individual airlines should they seek help.

Scottish regional airline Loganair has indicated it will do just that.

Flight information specialist OAG said the aviation industry was now less than half the size reported in mid-January.

It noted that 30% of global flight capacity was lost over the past week alone, with BA losing 72% to date.

Only KLM has lost more in Europe (73%).

Globally, the US, China, UK and India had the most number of airliners grounded.

Middle East-based Emirates said it been brought to a “sudden and painful halt” by the coronavirus pandemic as it too grounded majority of its passenger flights.

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India event sparks massive search for Covid-19 cases

Officials across India are searching for hundreds of people who attended a religious event in the capital that has set off several Covid-19 clusters.

At least six regions have reported cases that can be directly traced to the days-long congregation at a mosque.

Delhi officials are now clearing the building, where more than 1,000 people have been stranded since the government imposed a lockdown last week.

At least 24 have tested positive so far, the state health minister said.

They are among some 300 people who showed symptoms and have been moved to various hospital to be tested, he told the media. Another 700 have been shifted into quarantine centres, he added.

It is believed that the infections were caused by preachers who attended the event from Indonesia.

State officials have called for action to be taken against mosque officials, but they have denied any wrongdoing.

Local media reports say that Nizamuddin – the locality where the mosque is located – has been cordoned off and more than 35 buses carrying people to hospitals or quarantine centres.

The congregation – part of a 20th Century Islamic movement called Tablighi Jamaat – began at the end of February, but some of the main events were held in early March.

It’s unclear if the event was ticketed or even if the organisers maintained a roster of visitors as people attended the event throughout, with some staying on and others leaving. Even overseas visitors, some of them preachers, travelled to other parts of the country where they stayed in local mosques and met people.

So officials have no easy way of finding out how many people attended the event or where they went. But they have already begun to trace and test.

The southern state of Telangana reported on Sunday night that six people who had attended the event died from the virus. The state’s medical officer told the BBC that more than 40 of Telangana’s 71 cases were either directly or indirectly linked to the event.

Indian-administered Kashmir reported its first death from the virus last week – a 65-year-old who had been in Delhi for the congregation. Officials told BBC Urdu that more than 40 of the region’s 48 cases could be traced back to that one patient.

A cluster has even appeared in the distant Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where six of the nine who have tested positive, had returned from the Delhi event.

The southern states of Tami Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have said more than 3,000 people from their states had attended the event, and Tamil Nadu has traced 16 positive patients to it.

States have also asked other people who attended to come forward for testing.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has asked for a police complaint to be registered against the head of the mosque.

However, the event’s organisers have issued a statement, saying they had suspended the event and asked everyone to leave as soon as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that there would be a day-long national curfew on 22 March.

While many were able to leave, they say, others were stranded because states began to seal their borders the following day, and two days later, India imposed a 21-day lockdown, suspending buses and trains.

The mosque’s premises include dormitories that can house hundreds of people.

The organisers say they informed the local police about all of this and continued to cooperate with medical officers who came to inspect the premises.

The mosque, the statement says, “never violated any provision of law, and always tried to act with compassion and reason towards the visitors who came to Delhi from different states. It did not let them violate the medical guidelines by thronging ISBTs (bus stops) or roaming on streets.”

This is not the first time religious congregations have been blamed for the spread of coronavirus.

Tablighi Jamaat events have also been blamed for spreading cases in Indonesia and Malaysia.

And in South Korea, many positive cases were linked to the Schincheonji church, a secretive religious sect, that has since apologised for its role in the outbreak.

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MPs review home visits amid coronavirus concerns

Long queues formed at the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) Nee Soon South branch at Block 850 Yishun Street 81 last night. But this is a common sight on Mondays at the centre where Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah holds her Meet-the-People Session (MPS).

Coronavirus or not, the number of residents seeking help has stayed constant at about 60 people a night.

But the virus’ effect was visible in other ways. Temperatures were taken, and desks for interviews with residents were now spaced out across two rooms instead of one. Markers helped ensure people stayed 1m apart while queueing.

Ms Lee said she has no plans to cut down on her MPS. “This is an everyday job. It is necessary for us to continue to help our residents, whether through online or offline sessions,” she told The Straits Times. She also receives several appeals daily via e-mail or direct Facebook messages, she shared.

With a general election looming, engaging voters one-on-one remains a priority for MPs even as they cut back on house visits and take precautions.

The PAP MPs contacted said they would continue to hold their MPS, though several, like Ms Lee, have asked residents to make their appeals online.

The Workers’ Party (WP), which earlier issued a statement saying it would temporarily suspend all house visits, declined to comment about its MPS plans. But its MPs and members have been walking the ground, and yesterday posted photos of them observing safe distancing in Aljunied GRC at the weekend.

At West Coast GRC MP Patrick Tay’s Boon Lay ward, interview booths and chairs in the queue are spaced farther apart to ensure safe distancing. “We also encourage residents to e-mail us and we will follow up with phone calls and send appeals for them,” he said.

On Facebook, several MPs have also asked residents to consider online appeals, such as Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong in Marine Parade GRC, and MPs Ang Hin Kee in Ang Mo Kio GRC and Zainal Sapari in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC.

Many PAP MPs also cancelled home visits over the weekend.

In Tampines GRC, Ms Cheng Li Hui held off on door-to-door visits in her Tampines East ward, saying: “We will continue to assess the situation for the next week before we decide whether to start visits again, to prioritise the safety of our volunteers and residents.”

Previously, she had asked volunteers to check and avoid visiting those who were unwell or on a stay-home notice. These residents could get help by calling the town council or e-mailing her directly.

NECESSARY WORK

This is an everyday job. It is necessary for us to continue to help our residents, whether through online or offline sessions.

NEE SOON GRC MP LEE BEE WAH, on why she has no plans to cut down on her Meet-the-People Sessions.

In Boon Lay, Mr Tay had planned to visit a block of 350 units which would have involved over 20 volunteers at the weekend. He decided to postpone it after stricter distancing measures were announced and also cancelled his walkabouts. MP Vikram Nair also said on Facebook that Sembawang GRC MPs have decided to cancel home visits until end-April and are discussing other forms of outreach they can “safely do”.

In Nee Soon South, Ms Lee said she was reviewing her regular weekend home visits, but would still visit residents in need at their homes.

ST understands that the decision to scale back or cancel house visits lies with the individual MPs.

When contacted, the People’s Association (PA) said: “PA will conduct house visits if there is a need to reach out and assure our residents during this period.”

It cited a March 13 advisory to volunteers, which said the size of house visit teams should be kept small and that volunteers should fill up travel history and health declaration forms before visits. Details like time spent interacting with each resident should be recorded for possible contact tracing, it added.

While the latest rules limit gatherings to 10 people, unlike Mr Tay, several MPs have continued with walkabouts. Last Wednesday, WP chief Pritam Singh asked in Parliament if such outreach should still be allowed, given they could easily lead to over 10 people gathering closely.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19, said the rules apply to all activities including those by political parties, which will have to abide by them and adjust their activities.

PAP heavyweights were still seen out at the weekend, though with precautions such as distancing, going around in smaller groups and not shaking hands. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen was at a market and coffee shops in Bishan-Toa Payoh with fellow GRC MPs and potential candidate Gan Siow Huang, a former air force general. On Saturday, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam visited Ayer Rajah with the ward’s MP, Ms Foo Mee Har.

Several opposition parties have cancelled their outreach efforts. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and Progress Singapore Party (PSP) said they have stopped door-to-door visits and weekend walkabouts. WP members Lee Li Lian and Yee Jenn Jong said on Facebook they had switched to distributing fliers, in pairs, instead of doing home visits.

SDP chief Chee Soon Juan said SDP would resume campaigning as soon as circumstances permit, while PSP told ST it is reviewing the situation but considering other methods of engagement.

A PSP spokesman added that its videos have been well received, and PSP is also considering live-streaming to engage with the public.

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A Haggadah for Seders Near and Far

“Our Family Haggadah” is designed with children in mind.


By Florence Fabricant

Here’s a lively Haggadah that’s kid friendly and easy on the budget, making it reasonable to distribute multiple copies at home or to send to others to participate in a remote Seder. It’s the fourth and improved edition of the book filled with children’s drawings. It suggests (and explains) an orange on the Seder plate (but it’s not so up-to-date that it includes a remote Seder, as dictated by the 11th plague, Covid-19.). It has all the songs, easily followed and presented with guitar chords.

“Our Family Haggadah” by Spring Asher, $12, ourfamilyhaggadah.com.

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GLOBAL MARKETS-Asia shares edge up, China factories show flicker of life

* Asian stock markets : tmsnrt.rs/2zpUAr4

* Asia shares supported by month-end demand, calmer mood

* China factory survey beats forecasts, PMI rises to 52.0

* Oil prices steady for now after steep drop

By Wayne Cole

SYDNEY, March 31 (Reuters) – Asian shares managed a tentative rally on Tuesday as factory data from China held out the hope of a rebound in activity even as other countries across the globe all but shut down.

China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) bounced to 52.0 in March, up from a record-low 35.7 in February and topping forecasts of 45.0.

Analysts cautioned the index could overstate the true improvement as it measures the net balance of firms reporting an expansion or contraction in activity.

If a company merely resumed working after a forced stoppage, it would read as an expansion without saying much about the overall level of activity.

Still, the headline number was a relief and helped MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan rise 1.1%.

Japan’s Nikkei firmed 1.0% after a jittery start, while South Korea added 2%.

E-Mini futures for the S&P 500 added another 0.6%, supported by talk of book-keeping demand.

“It’s month-end rebalancing, whereby balanced funds now underweight equities versus fixed income given this month’s valuation destruction, need to buy stocks to get back into balance,” analysts at NAB said.

Healthcare had led Wall Street higher, with the Dow ending Monday up 3.19%, while the S&P 500 gained 3.35% and the Nasdaq 3.62%.

News on the coronavirus remained grim but radical stimulus steps by governments and central banks have at least provided some comfort to economies.

Infections in hard-hit Italy slowed a little, but the government still extended its lockdown to mid-April. California reported a steep rise in people being hospitalised, while Washington state told people to stay at home.

Trade ministers from the Group of 20 major economies agreed on Monday to keep their markets open and ensure the flow of vital medical supplies.

OIL PRICES OVERWHELMED

Portfolio management also played a part in the forex market where many fund managers found themselves over-hedged on their U.S. equity holdings given the sharp fall in values seen this month, leading them to buy back dollars.

That saw the euro ease back to $1.1020, from a top of $1.143 on Monday, while the dollar index bounced to 99.330, from a trough of 98.330.

Month-end demand for dollars from Japanese funds saw the dollar inch up to 108.45 yen, though it remained some way from last week’s peak at 111.71.

Oil prices plunged to the lowest in almost 18 years on Monday as lockdowns for the virus squeezed demand even as Saudi Arabia and Russia vied to pump more product.

In a new twist, U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed during a phone call on Monday to have their top energy officials meet to discuss slumping prices.

“However, the reality is that the level damage to demand is likely to overwhelm any production cut agreement between major producers,” wrote analysts at ANZ in a note.

“The lockdown of cities around the world and the shutdown of the aviation industry will cause a fall in demand the industry has never seen before.”

Prices did at least try and steady early Tuesday, with U.S. crude up 56 cents to $20.64. Brent crude futures gained 19 cents to $22.95 a barrel.

In the gold market all the talk has been of a rush of demand for the physical product amid shortages in coins and small bars. Flows into gold-backed ETFs have ballooned by $13 billion so far this year, the most since 2004.

The metal was holding at $1,615 an ounce, well up from a low of $1,450 touched early in the month.

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Britain says need for global 'lessons learned' inquiry into pandemic

LONDON, March 30 (Reuters) – Britain said on Monday that there should be a ‘lessons learned’ inquiry led by the World Health Organization into the coronavirus pandemic, responding to reports that the government was angry with China over the origins of the outbreak.

Foreign minister Dominic Raab was asked about media reports that some in government feel China should face a ‘reckoning’ for the virus, which was first recorded in the country.

“Obviously, after the crisis has abated I think the time will be right to conduct a kind of ‘lessons learned’ and I’m sure the World Health Organization will be at the forefront of that,” Raab said at a news conference. (Reporting by William James, Editing by Kylie MacLellan)

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‘The help is really useless’: Albertans frustrated by overwhelmed isolation benefit program

As of Monday afternoon, 29,000 Albertans have successfully applied for the province’s isolation support benefit, meant to tide people over until federal financial aid kicks in — but many others say they have been unable to get through.

John Michael Burke has been trying to apply online for the past six days.

“Then I click submit, it says the site’s been shut down, it’s at capacity and that’s all it’s been saying for days,” he said.

He’s tried calling as well, but can’t get through.

“It’s just frustrating. Very, very frustrating,” Burke said.

“The government should have known to set this up properly ahead of time, because they knew a lot of people were going to be applying for this.”

Burke said he feels fortunate he’ll be able to pay his bills next month, but he worries for those who cannot.

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“I can see some major issues coming up here on the 1st of April, because nobody can seem to get through.”

A statement from Tricia Velthuizen, press secretary to the minister of Service Alberta, said “The demand for emergency isolation supports remains extremely high and we apologize for the snags in the system which are leading to some delays.

“Service Alberta staff continue to work non-stop to address the technical issues that Albertans are encountering and part of that includes temporarily taking the system offline on an ongoing basis.”

The province also confirmed the program will continue until federal financial assistance is in place.

That’s not good enough for Burke.

“The help is really useless until then because you can’t get through to do anything,” he said.

The novel coronavirus, and the economic fallout associated with it, also came at a time when Albertans were already struggling.

“With the COVID crisis and the oil price and everything like that, people are starting to panic now about where they are in terms of their job situation,” explained MNP insolvency trustee, Zaki Alam.

MNP’s Consumer Debt Index survey found that at the start of March, before COVID-19 arrived in the province, 58 per cent of Albertans already felt they were within $200 of being unable to cover their debts each month.

Alam called the numbers staggering — noting Albertans were worse off than respondents in other provinces.

He said as an expert, his phone has been busy with stressed callers, unsure of what to do.

His advice? Do not go deeper into debt on credit cards or with payday loans — but rather take stock of your financial position and contact your pre-existing lenders.

“Reach out to the people you’re supposed to be paying — the landlord, the mortgage company, the credit card company — see if they will work with you. Most, under these circumstances, will work with individuals,” Alam said.

He also recommends making a household budget and calling a licensed insolvency trustee for advice.

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Thames Valley District School Board offering computers to students learning at home

The Thames Valley District School Board is offering computers to children who do not have access to one to support learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to make sure that all Thames Valley students can continue to learn and thrive during this extraordinary time,” said Director of Education Mark Fisher.

He added the board is also exploring ways to provide printed resources to students who may not have reliable internet access.

Those that want to access one of the devices can fill out an online form or leave a message on their school’s voicemail by noon Thursday.

All Ontario public schools were initially closed for two weeks after March break until April 6 in response to the pandemic.

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The TVDSB expects more details on how much longer schools will be closed to come later this week.

Last week, the Ministry of Education launched an online learning portal to help prevent students from falling behind.

The board also said the Ministry of Education is expected to announce soon how teachers will be engaged with students in remote learning opportunities while schools are closed.

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New York lockdown: Is New York on lockdown? Should I travel to New York?

New York is the state of origin for thousands of coronavirus cases in the United States. Countries and states around the globe are implementing stringent measures to curb the spread of the deadly disease such as national lockdowns and school closures. As it stands, more than a third of the world’s population is under some form of restriction, but is New York on lockdown and can you travel there right now?

On Monday, US President Donald Trump revealed coronavirus deaths in the US are expected to peak in the next two weeks.

President Trump’s top scientific adviser warned the outbreak could kill up to 200,000 Americans.

The US leader announced he was extending the 15-day period of social distancing in the USA, which was due to expire on Monday, until April 30.

In a White House briefing, Mr Trump said his remarks last week which said the US economy would be running again by Easter were “aspirational”.

Mr Trump said: “The modelling estimates that the peak in the death rate is likely to hit in two weeks.

“The better you do, the faster this whole nightmare will end.

“Therefore we’ll be extending our guidelines to April 30th to slow the spread.”

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The United States now has the most coronavirus cases in the world, surpassing the figures for China where the outbreak first began.

More than 155,000 cases have been reported in the US, 66,000 of which have been confirmed in New York.

The United States, which was relatively slow in getting its testing programme underway, has now significantly ramped this up across the country.

The country has also shut down venues where large numbers of people congregate, such as schools and educational institutes.

Of the United States’ 156,602 cases, there have been 2,880 deaths.

In New York, there have been a total of 66,497, making it the most infected state, reporting 50,000 more cases than the second most infected state of New Jersey.

New York has seen 1,218 deaths, more than 40 percent of the total number of deaths across the country.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is holding daily news conferences amid the coronavirus crisis.

The governor noted more than 9,000 people are currently in hospital suffering from COVID-19.

He said: “What’s happening in New York is not an anomaly.”

Mr Cuomo added New York’s situation is a “canary in the coal mine” for other states in the country.

He added New York will share lessons about this virus which will prove instructive for other states.

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Mr Cuomo emphasised his previous statewide order to stay at home, calling it a mandate, not a recommendation.

He said: “If you leave the house, you are exposing yourself to danger.

“If you leave the house you are exposing others to danger.

“I know staying at home can be boring or oppressive but it’s better than the alternative.”

He added: “No American is immune to this virus.

“I don’t care if you live in Kansas. I don’t care if you live in Texas.”

Is New York in lockdown?

New York citizens have been told to stay at home and all non-essential businesses have closed.

The US President appears to have changed his mind about the possibility of imposing a quarantine on New York.

He wrote on Twitter: “On the recommendation of the White House coronavirus task force, and upon consultation with the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, I have asked the CDC to issue a strong travel advisory, to be administered by the governors, in consultation with the federal government.

“ A quarantine will not be necessary.”

The tweet came hours after he told reporters a quarantine was wanted in New York by some people as it was a “hot spot”.

Should you travel to New York?

As of March 16, it is impossible for many British citizens to enter the USA if they have been in the UK, Ireland, Schengen zone, Iran or China within the previous 14 days.

US citizens and permanent residents of the USA, certain specified close family members and certain other limited categories of visa holders are exempt and still able to enter the USA.

But those permitted entry may be asked to self-isolate for up to 14 days after their arrival.

British nationals will also be unable to transit the USA on an ESTA visa waiver if they have been in the UK, Ireland, Schengen zone, Iran or China within the previous 14 days.

Currently, Britons in the USA are allowed to leave and are advised to make travel arrangements at their earliest convenience.

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