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Which countries in Europe might avoid a second wave, and why?

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Berlin, Germany – As some countries across Europe entering the so-called second wave, there are some that appear to be – at least for now – bucking this trend.

Spain, France and the UK have been witnessing a significant spike in daily coronavirus cases after a period of lower numbers.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in the past 24 hours, the UK has reported 14,542 cases and France 10,479, while the Czech Republic, widely-praised for containing its first outbreak, was placed back under a state of emergency this week as cases soared. It reported 4,456.

By comparison, Italy – whose population is six times larger than the Czech Republic’s, has reported 2,677, Germany is at 2,828, and no new cases have been recorded in Sweden.

Analysts say expert-led measures, better compliance and learning from past mistakes are helping some nations manage the virus.

“There is no hiding the fact when looking at the numbers in France compared to Germany or Italy, that something different is going on right now,” Amr Aswad, a virologist and Einstein Postdoctoral Fellow at the Freie University in Berlin, told Al Jazeera. “There are many variables around policy and social and cultural dynamics that can play out in a country and, while it isn’t always useful to compare countries, they can serve as a warning to not become complacent.”

A waiter wearing a face mask sets up tables outside a restaurant in downtown Rome on September 25 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Italy, hit hard by the first wave of the coronavirus, is today an exception in Europe with a limited number of new cases, a result of strict anti-COVID measures [Vincenzo Pinto/AFP]

Italy was convulsed by the early outbreak of the pandemic –  the media carried constant images of body bags and headlines screamed in a panic over daily death tolls nearing 10,000, spreading alarm across the region. A strict lockdown followed.

Flavia Riccardo, an epidemiologist at the Istituto Superiore di Sanita (Italian National Institute of Health) in Rome, told Al Jazeera that authorities used the time they gained from the lockdown “to prepare for a 360-degree approach”.

She said: “We strengthened our healthcare services, both hospital services and public health services. In April, we set up a monitoring system to assess the risk of transmission and health service resilience. Now we have a weekly quantitative risk assessment, which tells us how every one of the 21 regions in the country is coping with the outbreak, the impact of the transmission on health services, and the resilience of public health services, and how we’re managing to track all those chains of transmission down.”

Riccardo says gradual re-openings from May onwards, where a number of rules were issued to businesses, including on personal hygiene, hand washing and tracking people by making sure to record their names and phone numbers, have also helped.

“It has taken a huge effort to ensure this, but everyone complied in order to reopen their business,” she said. “We have also increased our capacity to test, and nowadays we have more than 100,000 molecular tests performed on most days.  Across the board, the communication – from the technical to the political level, to the citizens – has been quite consistent and people have compiled and changed their behaviours very quickly.”

People wearing protective face masks at a vegetable market in Berlin on September 18, 2020 [David GANNON/AFP]

Compared with Italy, Germany’s fatality figures have been much lower, approximately 9,000 compared with nearly 36,000, with analysts putting this – in part – down to a higher number of ICU beds and more testing.

Other measures have included a gradual reopening of schools and restaurants, a track-and-trace system, plus a tracing app that, according to authorities, has been used to send 1.2 million test results from labs to users during the first 100 days from its launch in June.

As Aswad says: “There may not be anything particularly unique in Germany about the interventions such as mask-wearing or local lockdowns, but perhaps there are differences in compliance compared to other countries. I also think there are cultural differences in the way people interact with one another and how public and private spaces are set up.

“My impression is that people and businesses, on the whole, are sticking to social-distancing guidelines quite well. Even now you’re not allowed to walk around a restaurant without a mask and you don’t see many people without masks on when travelling on the underground, and large businesses are quite strict about not letting people in without them. At least from an attitude perspective, most people realise that there’s a lot of caution that needs to be taken.”

Compliance, analysts say, has been a key factor in Sweden too.

The country’s seemingly lax approach to the pandemic has drawn international attention. It has tried to slow down the virus instead of attempting to stop it –  schools, restaurants and bars remained open, and masks measures were not enforced.

While cases are now slowly rising, levels are much lower than they were earlier in the year.

Helena Nordenstedt, an associate professor of Global Health at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said: “At the height of the pandemic in Stockholm, we had 1,100 patients admitted at the same time, now there are 25 people in Stockholm hospitals, so there is a huge difference.

“I think the most important part of the strategy is consistency. We have been given recommendations rather than rules, and these have been coherent and, aside from some small changes, these have not changed that much. And therefore it’s easy for people to adjust. People have not been getting tired of rules and recommendations changing all the time and there’s not so much complacency because people are not being forced to comply with something that they don’t necessarily agree with.”

A medic wearing a protective suit holds a swab while testing people for COVID-19 at a newly opened drive-in testing station in Prague, Czech Republic, October 7, 2020 [David W Cerny/Reuters]

This expert-led response, Nordenstedt says, has been carried out by the Public Health Agency as opposed to the government, and has been proving popular with the public – a recent poll shows public trust in the response at more than 70 percent.

With cases rising as the continent edges towards winter, experts say that while there is no magic solution, eight months into the pandemic, there are tools that those leading the response can now draw on.

As Aswad says: “Federal policymakers and local governments now have an arsenal of ‘pandemic tools’ that have been tried and tested and tweaked over the last few months. I don’t think there’s going to be any major new strategies because nothing has fundamentally changed about the virus. However, we know a lot more than we did in March, with the effectiveness of masks being a prime example. Going forward, I expect that cities and states around the country will be reaching into their bag of tricks to help curb the effect of large outbreaks, and a full quarantine needs to remain on the table as a fail-safe.”

On Wednesday, as cases ticked up, Italy made masks mandatory outdoors and extended a state of emergency. During the initial outbreak, Italy imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns.

Riccardo said: “The future trends will define whether we might need to activate other measures or not. So it’s really very much navigation and modulating as we go.

“We’re happy to be attentive right now, to monitor what’s going on and to take the earliest possible corrective measures, because the last thing we want is to go back to where we were in March.”

Residents of the Vallecas district in Madrid protest in front of the regional parliament in protest against the negligent management of the coronavirus crisis, on October 4, 2020 [Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP]

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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