For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus global pandemic. The insidious path of COVID-19 across the planet is a blunt reminder of 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. To receive the daily brief in your inbox, sign up here.
For the first time in most peoples' lives, no matter where we are, we're living our days amid a swirl of statistics and news flashes that leaves us waking up the next morning with the same question. How big will it get?
So how is it that we can't, with the brainpower of all the virologists, biologists and public health officials around the world, figure out what COVID-19 will mean for our future?
Well, part of the problem is just that: the whole world. Experts are dealing with a sample size spanning all of humanity in which much of the information is missing, confusing or unreliable. In Iran, a clerical regime known for its opaqueness is believed to severely understate the already high number of 1,100 deaths — and the same now goes for Russia, with an equally dark record of state censorship, where only one death has been reported so far — a suspicious figure considering the country ranked 116th last year in the Global Health Security Index for "detecting" pandemics. But even in more open societies like the U.S. and Italy, overloaded institutions and slow rollout of diagnostic tests have blurred both the actual figures and geographical scope of the spread.
The hard truth is that even with more accurate numbers, we're missing many pieces of a puzzle that keeps multiplying: How strong is the immune response to a novel infection? How does the virus react to warmer weather? And how fast can it mutate? For now, we are left to stay at home, wonder, and wash our hands for longer than we're used to. At least that number we can be sure of: 20 seconds.
THE SITUATION - 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW
Shutting India + California: Prime Minister Narendra Modi urges all citizens (1.37 billion) to observe self-imposed curfew on Sunday. Governor of California announces statewide lockdown (40 million). Meanwhile, Florida officials struggle to get young spring breakers off the beach.
Markets bounce back: Investors reassured as governments inject huge relief packages into the world economy.
Treatment hope: A drug used for decades to treat malaria, called chloroquine, is being hailed by a number of doctors around the world as a highly effective treatment of COVID-19. (See details below from France)
Whistleblower justice: The martyred doctor in Wuhan who first signaled the novel coronavirus, and was silenced by local officials, gets posthumous vindication from Beijing.
Royalty not spared: Prince Albert of Monaco tests positive.
NUMBER DU JOUR
ITALIAN ENFORCEMENT: Italy is now two weeks into its nationwide lockdown, which is being extended even as warm spring weather arrives. There are tough crackdowns on those who defy restrictions there. But there was also this video circulating of Antonio Decaro, mayor of the southern city of Bari, taking matters, gently but firmly, into his own hands. Note: don't worry if you don't speak Italian, the only words that matter are "Andate a casa" … Go home.
ITALIAN HOPE: Having now registered more coronavirus-related deaths than any other country, Italy is discovering a rare spirit of unity and searching for signs of hope from its balconies ... to its maternity wards. In Bergamo, one of the worst-hit cities, La Stampa reports that the first baby born with coronavirus was released from the hospital yesterday. And this newborn's diaper says it all: with the rainbow and slogan that is keeping spirits up: "It will all be Ok."
FRENCH WAR ECONOMY: French President Emanuelle Macron called it "war" in his nationwide address this week on the COVID-19 response. And with any war, an economy must be mobilized — and pivoted:
Perfume: Luxury conglomerate LVMH announced their makeup and fragrance facilities in France to manufacture for free disinfectant gel, Le Figaro reports. Delivery of the product, put in a "simple" Christian Dior perfume bottle, started on Wednesday for Parisian hospitals.
Fine Spirits: French beverage giant Pernod Ricard donated 70,000 liters of pure alcohol for the Copper laboratory to produce 1.8 million individual bottles of sanitizer.
Boutique Fashion: A 100% Made-in-France jeans company halted pants production this week in order to dedicate their operations to the free production of sanitary face masks for local healthcare workers, reports Le Parisien.
AUSTRIAN SKI RESORT, A COVID-19 HOTBED: Health authorities in Norway report that nearly 40% of the 1,700+ infections in the country originated from a single ski resort in Austria. Oslo-based Aftenposten daily reports that the picturesque village of Ischgl, known as the "Ibiza of the Alps' for its lively after-ski scene, became a perfect incubator for COVID-19 as authorities failed to act against the burgeoning outbreak, eventually sending busloads of infected European tourists back to their home countries. Health authorities have traced one-third of all cases in Denmark and one-sixth of those in Sweden to the tiny resort, as well as dozens in Germany.
POLITICAL DISTANCING: Writing in Folha de S.Paulo, editorialist Marcos Nobre sardonically argues that Brazil"s president Jair Bolsonero should be "quarantined" for his incompetence in the face of the current coronavirus crisis. Already in crisis, the country is facing a health and economic fiasco that requires heightened organization and order — crucial skills that Nobre writes that Bolsonero, ideology aside, sorely lacks.
DRIVE-INS REBORN, THEN SHUT DOWN: As Americans ran out of Netflix shows to binge, drive-in theatres momentarily became a popular way to get some fresh air while remaining at least one meter away from one another. While the United States only has 305 drive-in cinemas left, the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this week that some are experiencing a significant uptick in customers. As an activity where customers are confined to their own car, it was seen as an acceptable alternative for quarantined families to leave their living quarters. But from Hollywood to the Redwoods, the trend looks to be notably shortlive after California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered a lockdown for the entire state of 40 million.
ROBOT NURSES: In Thailand, where 200 COVID-19 cases have been discovered so far, hospitals are using "ninja robots" to measure fevers and protect medical workers who can now communicate with patients through a video link. The robots were initially built to monitor recovering stroke patients but have been repurposed to help fight the disease. Experts say the coronavirus pandemic may be a turning point for telemedicine and other healthcare innovations, including products ranging from fever-detecting goggles to antibacterial fabrics and speaker drones.
SECOND WAVE IN TAIWAN: Just across the strait from China, Taiwan has had among the best records of containing the coronavirus so far, with only 53 cases and one death between January and early March. But as Taipei-based United Daily News reports, a sharp increase of 55 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the five days from March 14th to March 19th has authorities mobilizing to launch a second wave of virus-combating efforts to hold back this sudden acceleration of the pandemic.
Almost all the new cases are Taiwanese travelers or students coming back from the countries where they reside, mostly from the United States, UK, Spain and France.
The Central Epidemic Command Center has now decided to ban all foreign nationals from entering Taiwan, with derogations for people with certain justifications.
All travelers are subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon their arrival, and this is being backtracked to include all inbound travelers since March 5th whether the person is a Taiwanese national or not.
LOCKDOWN MARRIAGE & DIVORCE: In the Chinese city of Xi'an, the Global Times reports a record number of people are filing for divorce following the lifting of the curfew on March 1. Several local offices reached the upper appointment limit of 14 divorce filings per day. At the same time, in the city's Yanta district, the marriage registry was also maxing out its daily appointments. Such is love in the times of lockdown!
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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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