ATHENS (AFP) — A central Athens brothel was buzzing with clients on a recent hot July afternoon, and its Venezuelan workers were relieved to have the business.
Sex workers there have had a steady stream of customers since mid-June, when they were allowed to reopen their doors after a three-month ban to control the spread of coronavirus.
While most Greeks are social distancing and keeping their contacts to a minimum, many prostitutes have little choice but to return to work.
“I tried to sleep as much as possible in order to forget my hunger during these three months,” said Bella, who has a child, as another woman cleaned and ventilated her room for the next client.
A list of strict hygiene and safety rules were announced by the Greek authorities to protect clients and the workers, who are more exposed to the risk of infection than those in almost any other profession.
But the measures are unrealistic, the women told AFP.
“They are ridiculous,” said Dimitra Kanellopoulou, president of Greece’s sex workers’ association.
“They tell you not to have a handshake in the waiting room, and then you go inside the room and everything happens,” she said. “What is the point?”
Sex workers are advised to “ensure distance” and avoid “face-to-face contact,” while wearing a face mask “could be introduced as part of a game,” the rules suggest.
Worst time for profession
“It’s a joke. How is a girl going to please a customer with a mask on? Should she put a zipper in the mask?” wondered Katerina, who runs another brothel in downtown Athens.
She laid a new paper sheet on one bed, which she said would be destroyed immediately once the client entered the room.
The list of measures also includes an obligation to keep all clients’ contact details in a sealed envelope for four weeks for tracking and tracing.
Sheets of blank white paper are taped on the sofas in the waiting room to remind clients to keep their distance.
One client entered the building wearing a mask around his neck, a reminder that the pandemic is not over.
“Our job is basically Russian roulette. You put yourself and your family in danger, but either way you would starve,” said Anna Kouroupou, a transgender woman who heads Red Umbrella Athens, an initiative supporting sex workers.
“This is probably the worst time ever for the profession,” she said.
“Things were really bad when AIDS broke out, but back then after a few months we knew that wearing a condom would keep us safe. Now there is no way to protect ourselves,” she added.
The pandemic has laid bare the legal limbo in which brothels operate in Greece, where the majority of them have been left without state aid.
Under Greek law, in order for a brothel to operate legally it should be at least 200 meters (650 feet) from public spaces such as hospitals, parks, churches, schools and stadiums.
In a dense city, that restriction makes virtually any existing brothel illegal. According to Red Umbrella Athens more than 600 brothels operate illegally in Greece.
“There is basically no building that meets the requirements of the law throughout Athens,” said Dimitrios Moraitis, a lawyer for the sex workers’ association.
“There are more than 100,000 people working in the sector and only those with an active cash register and a licence to operate were able to get financial aid from the state, and this is less than 10 percent of total,” he said.
Making matters worse, as part of the protection measures Greek authorities suggest that clients use credit cards to pay for services — an impossible request for establishments operating illegally.
DoH shrugs off criticisms
Whatever comments we receive, we will continue to work in combating against this disease and in caring for the whole population.
The Department of Health (DoH) said it will continue to work despite mounting criticisms over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the DoH will carry on with its initiative to implement its ‘whole of society approach’ in containing the spread of the coronavirus disease.
“We are doing a whole-of-nation, whole-of-society approach to this response that we have for COVID-19. Whatever comments we receive, we will continue to work in combating against this disease and in caring for the whole population,” she told reporters.
This came after a recent study by one of the world’s leading medical journals, the Lancet, ranked the Philippines in 66th spot among the 91 countries based on the rate of the virus’ reproduction since August.
It stated that one of the factors behind the failure in response which countries including the Philippines have experienced was due to the ‘medical populism’ brought by governing political leaders.
They explicitly mentioned President Rodrigo Duterte along with United States President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to be included in this category.
As explained, the term describes leaders as “simplifying the pandemic by downplaying its impacts or touting easy solutions or treatments, spectacularizing their responses to crisis, forging divisions between the ‘people’ and dangerous ‘others’, and making medical knowledge claims to support the above.”
The Lancet said that it has led to some measures as being politicized while others have been prone to breeding misinformation.
“We call on all nations to combat the rampant rumor-mongering and misinformation that abounds on COVID-19, and we call especially on leaders to desist in expressing personal viewpoints that are at odds with the scientific and public health experts of their nations,” they stated.
At present, the Philippines has reported over 291,000 cases of COVID-19, ranking 21st worldwide as shown in the data by Johns Hopkins University.
The US still tops the record at 6.8 million infected individuals with the global tally now reaching over 31 million.
‘Lifting of lockdowns dangerous’
The head of adult infectious disease at the San Lazaro Hospital on Wednesday warned against calls for the lifting of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdowns across the country as he urged the public to take preventive health measures.
This comes after Concerned Doctors and Citizens of the Philippines (CDC-PH) last week launched the #FlattenTheFear campaign, which urges government to end lockdowns and promote intake of proper nutrition to boost one’s immune system.
Infectious disease expert Dr. Rontgene Solante stressed that lifting of virus restrictions should only be implemented once there is a “significant drop” in COVID-19 cases.
“It’s really dangerous to look at it that when you lift the lockdown and take vitamins, prophylaxis. You have that false belief that when you’re taking these drugs you’ll have less harm against the virus,” said Solante in a television interview.
“It’s very dangerous. Premature lifting of the lockdown and taking the prophylaxis, you are facing two very dangerous interventions here that has not been proven at this point when our cases are still ongoing,” he added.
Solante also noted that while there is “nothing wrong” with taking vitamins and getting exercise to boost one’s immune system, the public should still maximize and keep the protocol, wear masks, face shield and keep distance.
He also said hydroxychloroquine has not been proven effective both as treatment or prophylaxis (preventive measure) against COVID-19, contrary to the doctors’ group recommendation.
Health system coping
With more industries eyed to open to allow the economy to recover, the Department of Health (DoH) on Wednesday said that the country’s health system has been able to adapt to the behavior of the virus.
“We can see the gradual indication that we are slowly coping, hospitals are now decongested and we have more capacities to accommodate COVID-19 patients,” said Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire.
“So this might not be a drastic improvement which we said could allow us to return to a lower level but at least we are seeing improvements in our health system,” she also added.
However she stressed that although there was a gradual decrease in the utilization of critical care units in the country, it is not the sole indicator in shifting to more relaxed protocols.
She explained that the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) — which is the deciding body in community quarantines — also has to examine aspects such as the reproduction rate of the virus.
“We use scientific basis as our guide in saying what level of quarantine status should be implemented in a certain area,” she said.
Based on the current data by the DoH, Metro Manila’s critical care utilization rate has lowered from high risk on 2 September at 67 percent to being in medium risk at 58 percent this Sunday.
Areas such as CALABARZON, Bulacan and Cebu, on the other hand, have retained the medium risk level.
Meanwhile, the reproduction rate of the virus or the R-naught has decreased to 0.8 which experts said showed better indication on the viral transmission.
University of the Philippines professor Dr. Guido David earlier said that the ideal rate of the R-naught should only be below one which signifies that the spread of the virus has slowed down.
On Monday, the Department of Trade and Industries Secretary Ramon Lopez expressed that he is in favor of downgrading the quarantine status to areas in general community quarantine (GCQ) into more relaxed protocols under the modified enhanced community quarantine.
He claimed that the country can still sustain its decreasing trend of transmission while allowing for several industries to also get back on its feet.
The IATF is set to make a new decision on the matter as the imposed GCQ is set to end by 30 September.
Indons hunt for gold in desperate times
We’re risking arrest by security forces, but we don’t have any option because we need money to support our families.
TIMIKA, Indonesia (AFP) — With the coronavirus devastating jobs across the country, desperate Indonesians are flocking to illegal gold mines as the soaring price of the precious metal overrides the risk to their lives and the environment.
Spooked by the economic destruction wrought by the pandemic, consumers and investors around the world have been snapping up gold, which is seen as a hedge against volatility, sending its price to a record above $2,000 an ounce last month.
The surge in demand has fueled a boom in mineral-rich Indonesia’s illegal mining industry, with workers ignoring the threat of arrest, mercury poisoning or being caught in the middle of gun battles.
Father-of-two Mustafa is among the hundreds who play a daily game of cat-and-mouse with authorities in the restive Papua region as they pan for nuggets in a river near US-based Freeport’s sprawling Grasberg site — one of the world’s biggest gold mines.
On a good day, Mustafa collects a gram of gold by sifting through the mud with a fabric filter, which he can sell to a local trader for about 800,000 rupiah ($55) — no small sum in one of Indonesia’s poorest regions.
The miners here don’t use mercury, he said, but there are plenty of other dangers lurking in Indonesia’s rugged easternmost territory.
Fear of arrest is ever-present and so is being caught in the middle of deadly fights between security forces and independence-seeking rebels locked in a decades-old insurgency.
“There are more of us here now during the pandemic because the price of gold has jumped,” Mustafa told AFP in a telephone interview.
“We’re risking arrest by security forces, but we don’t have any option because we need money to support our families.”
The arduous job also carries the risk of catching the coronavirus or skin infections from wading through waters chock full of waste from the nearby mine.
“This is very dangerous for our health. Me and some of my friends have skin diseases,” Mustafa said. “But thank god, so far no one has got the virus.”
Thousands of kilometers to the west in Kalimantan — Indonesia’s section of Borneo island — police this month arrested 400 gold miners accused of operating illegally in a conservation area, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Here, the dangers of mercury to both miners and the environment is severe, said Sustyo Iriyono, the environment ministry’s director of prevention and forest protection.
“The recent arrests in Kalimantan show that illegal activity was huge,” he said.
While the ministry does not yet have hard data, Iriyono said illicit mining has spiked nationwide, including on the densely populated Java island and remote Sumbawa.
“The high price of gold during the pandemic is the stimulus behind this… illegal activity,” he said.
“They’re making profits by destroying the environment. We’re trying to find a solution.”
Environmental activist Aiesh Rumbekwan said the “massive increase” in unsanctioned mining was being driven by people desperate to feed their families in the pandemic-battered economy.
Government aid has been slow to reach many parts of the sprawling archipelago nation.
“Illegal miners (often) use mercury to speed up the process and that will harm the environment and places where this activity connects to water sources like lakes or rivers,” said Rumbekwan, who heads the Papua chapter of environmental network Walhi.
“It could lead to an ecological disaster.”
Indonesia banned the use of mercury for artisanal miners in 2017. But the dangerous metal, which can affect the nervous system and cause disabilities in newborn children, can still be purchased on the black market.
The livelihoods of at least one million Indonesians are supported by small-scale mining, according to the United Nations Development Programme, which promotes mercury-free technologies.
Despite pandemic restrictions, there are reports of unlicensed operators bringing scores of domestic migrants to makeshift mines sites across the country, which have long been prone to fatal accidents.
“There’s no control from the authorities,” Rumbekwan said.
‘Don’t hide symptoms’
The Department of Health (DoH) on Wednesday urged patients not to hide their condition or any symptoms of the coronavirus disease as it further affects the well-being of healthcare workers.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire reiterated that every individual has a responsibility in suppressing the spread of the virus.
She said that one of the factors which led to the death of many healthcare workers in the previous months was due to some patients not disclosing their full condition.
“We hope that these incidents will not happen again and that all patients will disclose their complete information so that there will be no transmission and that our healthcare workers will not have this disease,” she said.
Vergeire also stressed that all patients are dealt with proper protocols depending on their condition, especially for high risk individuals such as dialysis patients.
She said that people who are tested for COVID-19 because of symptoms or exposure to another patient are advised to isolate and stay indoors while waiting for their test results.
Those who are tested for different matters such as being a requirement in their workplaces but without any symptoms or exposure may be allowed to leave but only with strict enforcement of the minimum health standards.
Loans, grants for micro online firms
When the coronavirus pandemic struck the world early this year, online transactions thrived due to lockdowns and quarantine restrictions.
But not all sellers earn enough, hence a bill that will provide a range of support in the form of loans and grants, training, and registration assistance is most welcome.
Dubbed as saviors of the COVID-19 economy, online firms will benefit from HB 7698, or the Online Small Enterprise Support Services Act of 2020, which proposed that online businesses with less than P1 million in annual sales be eligible for loans from government banks, free credit reports, grants and training from the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority and other benefits and assistance.
“We will see far more unemployment and less poverty if Filipino households turn to small online businesses,” bill author Albay Rep. Joey Salceda said.
While online businesses have sprung up over the past few months, many are unregistered. Instead of punishing them for simply trying to make a living, Salceda wants them registered and assisted.
“If you’re a small online business, you serve the economy, whether registered or not, but we will offer generous benefits if you register and pay taxes. It’s a fair and humane deal,” he said.
Salceda is also the author of the Digital Economy Taxation Act, which targets large digital corporations to help fund COVID-19 efforts and improve the digital economy.
“The digital economy is the future. That is why we are already laying the building blocks for a strong digital economy. If we delay these reforms, we will face painful consequences as this segment of economy continues to grow,” he explained.
HB 7698 aims to provide adequate capital and credit access for individuals seeking to operate small online enterprises by mandating government banks to offer small business loans at competitive rates, and by providing small online businesses with free credit reports and credit scores.
It also aims to facilitate the registration and operation of such enterprises, and streamline government support services relevant to their needs, by creating a portal for all support services.
Avigan maker to seek virus treatment approval after trials
The maker of anti-influenza drug Avigan said Wednesday it will apply for the medication to be approved for treating coronavirus patients after trials showed it can shorten recovery time.
In a statement, manufacturer Fujifilm Toyama Chemical said its phase III trial in Japan, which began in March, was now complete.
Of 156 individuals described as “analysis targets”, the median recovery time was 11.9 days in those receiving Avigan compared with 14.7 for patients given a placebo.
Recovery was defined in the trial as when the virus was no longer detectable in PCR tests, and when symptoms related to temperature, oxygen saturation, and chest imaging were improved.
The “randomized, placebo-controlled, single-blind comparative study” did not produce any new safety concerns, Fujifilm said.
The firm said it would now “conduct a detailed analysis of the data obtained in this trial, and will work to file Application for Partial Changes to include the additional indication in as early as October.”
The drug, whose generic name is favipiravir, was approved for use in Japan in 2014, but only in flu outbreaks that are not effectively addressed by existing medications.
It is not available on the market and can only be manufactured and distributed at the request of the Japanese government.
Favipiravir, which can be taken orally as a pill, works by blocking the ability of a virus to replicate inside a cell.
Avigan has been shown in animal studies to affect fetal development, meaning it is not given to pregnant women.
Japan has heavily backed the drug, asking Fujifilm to ramp up production for use at home and offering to supply it for free to dozens of countries that have put in requests.
60 nations join Covax access plan
GENEVA, Switzerland (AFP) — More than 60 wealthy nations have joined a WHO-backed program to facilitate poor countries’ access to coronavirus vaccines, but the United States and China are not on the list published Monday.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has in coordination with the global vaccine alliance group Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) created a mechanism aimed at ensuring a more equitable distribution of any future COVID-19 vaccines.
But the mechanism, known as Covax, has struggled to raise the funds needed to provide for the 92 low-income countries and other economies that quickly signed up.
WHO had encouraged richer nations to step up to the plate by the end of last week and when the deadline fell, 64 were onboard with another 38 expected to join in the “coming days,” the three organizations said in a joint statement.
Among those who have signed up are “the European Commission… on behalf of 27 EU member states plus Norway and Iceland,” it said.
The United States, which under President Donald Trump has relentlessly criticized the WHO’s handling of the pandemic and which is in the process of withdrawing from the organization, is not on the list.
And China, where the novel coronavirus first surfaced late last year, is also absent.
“The purpose of the Covax facility is to try to work with every country in the world,” Gavi chief Seth Berkley told a virtual briefing when asked about China’s absence from the list.
“I can assure you that we have had conversations and will continue to have conversations with all countries,” he said.
The aim is for Covax to lay its hands on two billion doses of safe and effective vaccines by the end of 2021.
The WHO has said some $38 billion is needed for its overall ACT-Accelerator program, which includes Covax, but also global collaboration towards developing and ensuring equitable access to tests and treatments for Covid-19, and strengthening health systems.
But so far it has received just $3.0 billion of that.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus voiced optimism that so many countries — representing nearly two-thirds of the global population — had agreed to participate in the mechanism.
“COVID-19 is an unprecedented global crisis that demands an unprecedented global response,” he said in the statement, warning countries against scrambling to acquire vaccine stocks for their populations alone.
“Vaccine nationalism will only perpetuate the disease and prolong the global recovery,” he said.
“This is not charity,” he told journalists.
“It’s in every country’s best interest. We sink or we swim together.”
Gov’t eyeing more contact tracers — Magalong
There is still a pressing need for the national government to recruit more contact tracers with the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continuing to rise, tracing czar and Baguio City Mayor Benjie Magalong said on Tuesday.
In a radio interview, he said that an ideal team of four people which include a health worker and a police investigator should be allotted to trace the close contacts of each COVID case.
However, due to the lack of staff some of the infected patients remain to have untraced contacts.
“Four is to one is the ideal, but because we are overwhelmed with cases sometimes others are not contact traced. There are places in Manila who are calling me that they’ve tested (positive) but not one of the local government tracers has yet called them,” he said.
Although the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) has an ongoing recruitment and training allotted for thousands of contact tracers, he warned that it may not be enough.
This is why Magalong is calling for more volunteers to take part in the national tracing effort.
“The recruitment of the 50,000 contact tracers is a big deal but if you’ll ask me is it enough? It’s not, we will surely have a shortage,” stated the official.
“We need volunteers, cause-oriented groups who think they have the critical thinking ability, or members with an investigative mindset and who are not exactly looking for salaries. They can always volunteer,” he added.
At present, the country has 97,400 contact tracers which will be further increased to 150,000 with the government’s ongoing hiring for tracers.