For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus global pandemic. The rapid and insidious path of COVID-19 across the planet teaches us in a whole new way how small the world has become. Our network of multilingual journalists are busy finding out what's being reported locally — everywhere — to provide as clear a picture as possible of what it means for all of us at home, around the world.
PLACE OF WORSHIP, HOTBED OF CONTAGION
The fear rippling through local communities around the world is finding little solace in places of worship. Regular prayer services — not to mention weddings and other special ceremonies — have largely been called off as the virus spreads into new countries and among different faiths. In South Korea, where there are recent, positive signs of containing an initial major outbreak, authorities have been working to keep churches shut and congregants home. Still, 74 new cases have just been reported in a church cluster outbreak near Seoul. Meanwhile, in another hard-hit country, Iran, hard-line Shiia faithfuls pushed their way into the courtyards of two major shrines that had just closed over fears of the new coronavirus.
For those looking to gather together to pray, an increasing number of churches, mosques and synagogues are offering online services. For Catholics, with Easter celebrations approaching, people are preparing to do what they can. In the central Italian town of San Giustino, a local priest did not let the shutting down of all churches keep him from celebrating mass. As reported by the Umbria-based news site Tutto Oggi, Don Fillippo held mass from high in the town's bell tower, broadcasting the service on Facebook Live. Online, up high and praying that the Lord can hear.
• European Union prepares for full border closures as France, Spain, Israel and several U.S. localities impose local shutdowns to limit COVID-19 spread.
• China and U.S. continue war of words over origins of the outbreak, with President Trump calling it "the Chinese virus."
• Tom Hanks and wife released from the hospital in Australia after contracting the virus. Other new cases include British actor Idris Elba.
NUMBER DU JOUR
NEWBORN STAT: The UK identified its first baby born with COVID-19, Saturday in a north London hospital, reports The Guardian. The child's mother arrived at the hospital several days before giving birth with a suspected pneumonia. With her results for coronavirus coming through after the birth, the mother also tested positive.
FACE MASK SHORTAGE I - SOUTH KOREAN THEFT: Surgical masks were a thing in South Korea long before it became one of the countries hardest hit by coronavirus. Face masks were already prevalent during pollution peaks and at the first signs of a cold or seasonal flu. Even K-pop music idols endorse mask brands, while kids' models feature cute anime characters. So it's not surprising that when the country got hit by COVID-19, stocks immediately ran out. A quota was put in place to monitor purchases, limiting residents to only two masks a week and only upon presentation of their ID card. But with these new restrictions came a new crime. According to The Korean Times, police have registered an increasing number of identity theft cases, reported by residents who were unable to buy their masks because their resident identification number had been stolen and used elsewhere as a sesame for face protection.
FACE MASK SHORTAGE II - CZECH DIY: A shortage of face masks in the Czech Republic —even for medical staff, social workers and food vendors – has prompted a crafty response: the mobilization of thousands of people to sew simple cotton masks at their homes, reports leading Czech news site Novinky. Since its launch on Sunday, more than 21,000 people joined the Facebook group "Česko šije roušky" ("Czech sews face masks') to exchange tips on homemade face protection. Amateur tailors now use the platform to sell or donate their products to those in need. With much of the country on lockdown since Saturday, the Government added sewing supply stores to the short list of commerces that can stay open, as only those wearing a face mask are now allowed to take public transport.
FACE MASK SHORTAGE III - UKRAINIAN HOLD UP: Even with just a handful of reported cases so far in Ukraine, criminals are preparing for the spread: five people were arrested this week, suspected of trying to rob 100,000 surgical masks at gunpoint in Kiev.
BRING OUT THE BIG GUNS: Americans are preparing to fight the virus by stocking up on food, toilet paper, and ... guns. The Los Angeles Times reports an enormous uptick in ammunition sales around the U.S. as a direct response to the COVID-19 crisis, with an increase in first-time buyers. Reports show that many of the initial customers were Asian-Americans who feared the disease would cause a racist backlash. Gun control organizations are nervous that the combination of people — especially children — quarantined with firearms increases the likelihood of accidents. According to one gunslinger interviewed by the L.A. Times, "There's no sports games on (T.V.)… so I guess people want to shoot."
PUTIN PLAYING POLITICS? With only 11 known cases in Russia, a columnist at independent daily Novaya Gazeta argued that President Vladimir Putin's ban on gatherings of over 5,000 people is just a ploy to limit anti-government protests. Emergencies can be a gift in disguise for authoritarian regimes, he writes, and the virus has come at an opportune time for the Russian president, who is currently seeking to make constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in power for 16 more years — a controversial move that could provoke unrest. How will citizens content this major power grab if they're afraid to leave their house?
A DIGITAL DISEASE: Customers are (rightly) forgoing in-person banking to reduce the possibility of contamination. Some banks, like South Africa"s Nedbank, are using the opportunity to speed up their digital transformation. The Africa Report announced that the bank, who already planned to keep 75% of its sales online, now plans to accelerate the standardization of all digital platforms to help social distancing. It is an impressive objective for a company that suffers from an unreliable supply of electricity, but a bold decision to make progress out of a seemingly regressive situation.
PHARMA BREAKTHROUGH? The combination of two anti-HIV drugs was proven to be useful in the treatment of three elderly patients suffering from COVID-19 in India, providing insight on possible life-saving measures against the novel disease. According to an article published in the Economic Times, the Additional Chief Secretary of Medical and Health, Rohit Kumar Singh, announced three out of the four patients in the state of Rajasthan have now been declared "coronavirus-free." The doctors decided to try this combination of drugs because "the structure of coronavirus is similar to that of HIV to some extent." The first two patients who tested positive for the virus were an Italian couple, one of whom has been discharged from the hospital and moved into quarantine. The other, along with an 85-year old man from Jaipur, have recovered from the disease but still remain in the ICU.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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