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Double virus trouble: When COVID-19 meets the flu season

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Editor’s Note: This series is produced in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO).

As the Northern Hemisphere heads into winter, countries face the double threat of the annual flu season overlapping with the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

Influenza cases typically see a spike from November to March in the Northern Hemisphere and from June to August in the Southern Hemisphere – coinciding with cold weather conditions. In tropical and subtropical countries, there is no marked cold season, so flu tends to circulate all year round.

The WHO has warned that the co-circulation of influenza and COVID-19 – both of which cause respiratory illness – could place an additional burden on vulnerable populations and healthcare systems that are already stretched because of the pandemic.

To alleviate some of that strain, the UN health agency is urging countries to prioritise their influenza vaccination programmes this year, vaccinating those at high risk of developing complications – including pregnant women, the elderly, children, and people with underlying health issues. According to interim recommendations for the COVID-19 pandemic, if the flu vaccine is in short supply, two target groups – health workers and older people – should have the highest priority to get vaccinated.

There are currently no licensed treatments nor a vaccine for COVID-19, but several drugs and more than 200 vaccine candidates are being studied in large clinical trials.

“The good news is that there are ways to prevent and treat flu through vaccination, and antivirals for treatment, and also through the public health and social measures, which we’re using quite a lot for COVID that serve a purpose for both of them,” Ann Moen, chief of influenza preparedness and response at the WHO, told Al Jazeera.

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This year, countries in the Southern Hemisphere have already reported a significantly lower number of flu cases compared with previous years.

In Australia, for instance, a total of 21,156 lab-confirmed cases of influenza have so far been recorded by the department of health, compared with 289,731 flu cases over the same period last year.

Similar trends were seen during the peak winter months in New Zealand, South Africa and parts of Latin America.

Experts believe lockdowns, travel restrictions and school closures, as well as other infection prevention and control measures in place for COVID-19 – like physical distancing, hand-washing, respiratory etiquette and face masks –  likely contributed to the downward trend.

But it remains unclear if a similar decline will be seen in the Northern Hemisphere in the coming months.

Moen said other reasons, like viral interference or viral competition, could be contributing factors and need to be studied further.

Flu cases in the Southern Hemisphere [Courtesy: WHO]

Similar symptoms

There are concerns about the overlap of the flu season with the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the similarities between the two viruses.

Both are transmitted by droplets spread through direct or close contact with an infected person, and indirect contact with contaminated surfaces, also known as fomite transmission.

A person infected with COVID-19 or flu can experience their illness in a wide range of ways: from being asymptomatic or getting a mild case, to experiencing severe disease and even death. However, the greater mortality rate and higher fraction of severe and critical infections are seen in patients with COVID-19, according to current data and the WHO.

The flu and COVID-19 also have a similar range of symptoms – from fever, sore throat and dry cough to tiredness, headaches, and aches and pains.

However, a loss of smell and taste, especially among young adults, is more specific to COVID-19 patients.

“The only way to really know if somebody has the flu or COVID-19 is [through] a lab test. People can’t really self diagnose,” Moen said.

In all cases, people should follow local health guidelines, monitor their symptoms and seek medical care in case of severe illness, she added. And, if a person tests positive for COVID-19, it is important for them to self-isolate.

In a recent Q&A, Sylvie Briand, director of the Department of Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness at the WHO, said people with underlying conditions, such as cardiac disease or other respiratory chronic illness, asthma and diabetes, should be more aware of the signs of severity so they can get prompt advice and treatment.

Pregnant women are also at a higher risk of developing a severe form of influenza because of a change in their immunity. Where supplies permit, they should be prioritised to receive the flu vaccine.

The WHO will publish detailed guidelines to help countries better prepare and tackle the upcoming flu season amid COVID-19.

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

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Philippines: Typhoon Molave displaces thousands, floods villages

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At least 25,000 people evacuated in the Philippines as heavy rains and fierce winds swamp villages and rip off roofs.

Thousands of villagers were forced to flee their homes in the Philippines as a fast-moving typhoon made landfall, flooding rural villages, ripping off roofs and toppling trees and powerlines, officials said.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from Typhoon Molave, but authorities on Monday reported at least one person was missing and seven others were rescued after their yacht sank off Batangas province south of Manila.

The typhoon has sustained winds of 125 kilometres per hour (77 miles per hour) and gusts of up to 180 km/h (112mph) and was blowing westward at 25 km/h (15 mph). Molave is expected to start blowing out of the country into the South China Sea on Monday, government forecasters said.

At least 25,000 villagers were displaced with about 20,000 taking shelter in schools and government buildings which were turned into evacuation centres, according to the Office of Civil Defense.

Residents evacuate from their home in the coastal area of Legaspi City, Albay province south of Manila on October 25, 2020, in advance of tropical storm Molave’s expected landfall [Charism Sayat/ AFP]

“Villagers are now asking to be rescued because of the sudden wind which blew away roofs,” Humerlito Dolor, governor of Oriental Mindoro province, told DZMM radio.

Dolor said pounding rains overnight swamped farming villages in his province, then fierce winds toppled trees and power posts early on Monday, knocking out power. Authorities were clearing roads of fallen trees and debris in some towns after the typhoon passed, he said.

More than 1,800 cargo truck drivers, workers and passengers were stranded in ports after the coastguard barred ships and ferry boats from venturing into rough seas.

Molave follows Tropical Storm Saudel, which last week caused widespread flooding in Quezon province in the Calabarzon region, southeast of the capital Manila.

About 20 typhoons and storms annually batter the Philippines, and the Southeast Asian archipelago is seismically active, with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, making it one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries.

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Celebrations in Chile as voters back rewriting constitution

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Tens of thousands of Chileans have taken to Santiago’s main square in celebration after people across the country overwhelmingly backed re-writing Chile’s dictatorship-era constitution that many see as the root cause of the country’s social and economic inequalities.

In Santiago’s Plaza Italia, the focus of the massive and often violent protests last year which sparked the demand for a new charter, fireworks rose above huge crowds of jubilant people singing in unison late on Sunday as the word “rebirth” was beamed onto a tower above.

With more than three-quarters of the votes counted in Sunday’s referendum, 78.12 percent of voters had opted for a new constitution drafted by citizens. Many have expressed hopes that a new text will temper an unabashedly capitalist ethos with guarantees of more equal rights to healthcare, pensions and education.

“This triumph belongs to the people, it’s thanks to everyone’s efforts that we are at this moment of celebration,” Daniel, 37, told Reuters News Agency in Santiago’s Plaza Nunoa. “What makes me happiest is the participation of the youth, young people wanting to make changes.”

Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera said if the country had been divided by the protests and debate about whether to approve or reject plans for a new charter, from now on they should unite behind a new text that provided “a home for everyone”.

People play instruments at Plaza Italia on the day Chileans vote in a referendum to decide whether the country should replace its 40-year-old constitution, written during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, in Santiago, Chile [Esteban Felix/AP]

“Until now, the constitution has divided us. From today, we must all work together so that the new constitution is the great framework of unity, stability and future,” he said in a speech broadcast from his Moneda Palace surrounded by his cabinet.

The centre-right leader, whose popularity ratings plummeted to record lows during the unrest and have remained in the doldrums, spoke to those who wanted to keep the present constitution credited with making Chile one of Latin America’s economic success stories.

Any new draft must incorporate “the legacy of past generations, the will of present generations and the hopes of generations to come,” he said.

‘A better life’

The vote came a year to the day after more than one million people thronged downtown Santiago amid a wave of social unrest that left 30 people dead and thousands wounded.

The sheer size of the October 25 march demonstrated the breadth of social discontent and proved a tipping point in demonstrators’ demands for a referendum. Within weeks, Pinera had agreed to initiate a process to draft a new constitution, beginning with a referendum to decide the fate of the current text.

Chile’s current constitution was drafted by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, and was sent to voters at a time where political parties had been banned and the country was subject to heavy censorship.

It was approved by a 66 percent – 30 percent margin in a 1980 plebiscite, but critics said many voters were cowed into acceptance by a regime that had arrested, tortured and killed thousands of suspected leftist opponents following the overthrow of an elected socialist government.

The free-market principles embodied in that document led to a booming economy that continued after the return to democracy in 1990, but not all Chileans shared. A minority was able to take advantage of good, privatised education, health and social security services, while others were forced to rely on sometimes meagre public alternatives. Public pensions for the poorest are slightly more than $200 a month, roughly half the minimum wage.

Cristina Cifuentes, a Santiago-based political analyst, called Sunday’s results a “big blow for the conservative parties” and said a new constitution was necessary to provide equitable access to healthcare, education and pensions systems.

“If you’re born in the least affluent areas of the city, you don’t have access to a good health system, you don’t have good education, you don’t have transport. And you can’t even dream of having a better life. It affects all aspects of life in Chile and that’s why it was so important for Chileans to change the constitution,” she told Al Jazeera.

Demonstrators supporting the reform of the Chilean constitution celebrate while waiting for the referendum official results at Plaza Italia in Santiago on October 25, 2020 [Javier Torres/AFP]
People embrace as others gather to protest against Chile’s government during a referendum on a new Chilean constitution in Santiago, Chile, October 25, 2020 [Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

‘New beginning’

As votes were counted on Sunday on live television, spontaneous parties broke out on street corners and in squares around the country. Drivers honked car horns, some as revellers danced on their roofs, and others banged pots and pans. The flag of the country’s Indigenous Mapuche people, who will seek greater recognition in the new charter, was ubiquitous.

Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman, reporting from Plaza Italia, said the landslide victory had given Chileans something to celebrate after a year of sometimes violent protests.

“Many people know it’s going to take at least two years to have a new constitution, and that would only set a roadmap for the future. It won’t solve all of this country’s problems, but at least it does give them hope for a new beginning,” she said.

Four-fifths of voters said they wanted the new charter to be drafted by a specially elected body of citizens – made up of half women and half men – over a mixed convention of legislators and citizens, highlighting general mistrust in Chile’s political class.

Members of a 155-seat constitutional convention will be voted in by April 2021 and have up to a year to agree upon a draft text, with proposals approved by a two-thirds majority.

Among issues likely to be at the fore are recognition of Chile’s Mapuche Indigenous population, powers of collective bargaining, water and land rights and privatised systems providing healthcare, education and pensions.

Chileans will then vote again on whether they accept the text or want to revert to the previous constitution.

The National Mining Society (Sonami), which groups the companies in the sector into the world’s largest copper producer, said it hoped for “broad agreement on the principles and norms” that determine the sector’s coexistence with Chilean citizens and that the regulatory certainty that have allowed the sector to flourish would continue.

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A Lebanese artist created an inspiring statue out of glass and rubble from the Beirut port explosion

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Written by Alaa Elassar, CNN

Hayat Nazer doesn’t remember a time when Lebanon was at peace. But she has learned to channel her grief and pain into beautiful works of art.

She was on her way to Beirut on August 4 when a massive stockpile of ammonium nitrite exploded at the port, killing 190 people, injuring more than 6,000 and leaving more than 300,000 displaced from their homes.
Lebanon had already been reeling from months of political turmoil, economic collapse and a worsening coronavirus outbreak. The weight of it all had nearly paralyzed the small country.

“The explosion broke my heart. I was just devastated. I was traumatized, but honestly, all of us in Lebanon are traumatized,” Nazer, 33, told CNN.

Like many residents, she joined efforts to clean debris and restore the city to its former glory. That’s when she got the idea to use some of what she found to create a statue that could inspire her people to unite and rebuild.

“When I’m feeling that way I just try to help, and fix and heal through art, so this is my way of accepting reality and trying to build my people back up,” she said.

A Lebanese artist made a statue of a woman using glass and rubble from the Beirut port explosion

The unnamed scultpure made from explosion debris depicts a woman with long flowing hair. Credit: Courtesy Hayat Nazer

For weeks, Nazer walked the streets of Beirut, collecting twisted metal, broken glass and people’s discarded belongings to use in the sculpture.

“I traveled to people’s homes after they were destroyed by the explosion and told them, ‘I just want you to give me anything I can include to make you a part of my sculpture,'” Nazer said.

“I was shocked. People gave me such valuable things — things from their childhood, their grandparents who died in the civil war, things they wanted to save for their children. So many emotions went into this.”

When Nazer finally had enough items, she put them together — creating a woman raising Lebanon’s flag, her hair and dress flowing in the wind. The sculpture, which still doesn’t have a name, even features a damaged clock stuck at 6:08, the moment of the explosion.

For Nazer, the process was cathartic. But it wasn’t the first time she had created a work of art inspired by Lebanon’s social and political troubles.

A Lebanese artist made a statue of a woman using glass and rubble from the Beirut port explosion

Nazer stands beside her sculpture of a woman made entirely from Beirut port explosion debris. Credit: Courtesy Hayat Nazer

Before the explosion, as the country descended into months of protests against the country’s ruling elite, Nazer left her job in communications to create art in hopes of inspiring change.

“I suddenly started feeling the need to paint,” Nazer said. “It was a need that I couldn’t stop. I had to quit my job because I felt like I just couldn’t make the change I want to see in the world without focusing on my art.”

Her works include other found object sculptures, as well as graffiti and paintings on canvas.

In 2019, she created a sculpture called “The Phoenix,” which was made from tents broken by counterprotesters during the country’s political upheaval. The work depicts the mythological bird rising from ashes. She also created a giant heart from stones and tear gas canisters left over from riots.
Nazer, who chronicles her projects on Instagram, said most of her work has been destroyed by authorities who don’t take kindly to criticism of the government.

Related video: The architectural heritage Beirut stands to lose

She fears the same fate will befall her latest work, the sculpted woman.

“After an explosion, you can build back homes and buildings, but what you can’t bring back are memories. And throughout Lebanon’s history, our government removes anything that reminds us of what has been done to us,” Nazer said.

“That’s what makes this project so special. It’s fighting. We’re raising our voices through art. We’re telling our own stories.”

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