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Monday March 30th, 2020 9:35AM

The Latest: Study to examine psychological toll of lockdown

By The Associated Press
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The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 425,000 people and killed over 18,000. The COVID-19 illness causes mild or moderate symptoms in most people, but severe symptoms are more likely in the elderly or those with existing health problems. More than 109,000 people have recovered so far, mostly in China.

TOP OF THE HOUR:

— Researchers to study psychological effects of lockdown.

— Environmentalists say air quality is improving.

— Thailand issues national state of emergency order.

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BRUSSELS — A renowned Belgian university is launching a cross-border study in three European countries to assess the nefarious psychological effects of lockdown measures on individuals.

Researchers from the Louvain university say they want to find out to what extent the quarantine measures imposed to fight the novel coronavirus epidemics have changed people’s way of life, and to analyze their impact on mental health.

Fearing a rise in the number of suicides, health sociologist Vincent Louvain said that governments are often overlooking the side effects of the quarantine measures as they try to stop the spreading of the deadly virus.

“Governments are currently putting their energy on managing the epidemic. As a result, other risks are forgotten,” he said, insisting that a large part of the population is psychologically fragile and in need of health care. "The situation could deteriorate in terms of mental health".

The survey will analyze data collected in Belgium, France and the Netherlands. It will be piloted by the Louvain university in collaboration with a French institute specialized in health economy and the Antwerp university.

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BRUSSELS — With a soaring infection rate, steadily growing death toll and enforced quarantine, it’s hard to see the positive side of the coronavirus, but the European Environment Agency says that air quality is improving.

The EEA said Wednesday that new data confirms “large decreases in air pollutant concentrations — of nitrogen dioxide concentrations in particular — largely due to reduced traffic and other activities, especially in major cities under lockdown measures.”

Nitrogen dioxide is mainly emitted by road transport, and the agency says levels of the pollutant in northern Italy, the epicenter of the country’s coronavirus outbreak, are ranging from 21-47% lower this month than in March 2019.

Similar trends have been seen in other parts of Europe under lockdown. Levels in Barcelona and Madrid in Spain dropped by 40-55% in the week of March 16-22, while NO2 levels in the Portuguese capital Lisbon also dropped 40% over the same week.

The agency notes that air pollution contributes to respiratory and heart disease but that it’s not yet clear whether exposure to such gases might worsen the condition of people with COVID-19.

However, EEA chief Hans Bruyninckx insists that crisis measures are not the way to tackle air pollution. “Addressing long-term air quality problems requires ambitious policies and forward-looking investments,” he says.

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BANGKOK — Thailand's prime minister says he will take sole charge of the country's battle against COVID-19, warning the outbreak may get much worse.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's government issued a 16-point order for the national state of emergency set for Thursday until April 30 that forbids most foreigners from entering the country and bans rallies and other gatherings in crowded places.

It does not include a curfew that had been expected as a measure to enforce social distancing and uninfected people are not confined to their homes.

Prayuth declared that strict measures would be taken against anyone violating the regulations and officials who do not carry out their duties.

He emphasized control of information, calling on the mass media not to interview officials who aren't authorized to make announcements and warning that social media users spreading 'fake news' would be strictly dealt with.

The chief of defense forces will be in charge of national security and deal with violations of the law, Prayuth said. Violations are punishable by a prison term of up to two years and a 40,000 baht ($1,220) fine.

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MOSCOW — Russia’s prime minister ordered provincial governors Wednesday to move more quickly to ready hospital beds for coronavirus patients as the outbreak has spread across the vast country.

The government reported 658 cases of the new coronavirus in Russia, up from 495 a day before. That marked a significantly bigger daily increase compared to previous day when the number of infections increased by several dozens.

The warning to governors came a day after the mayor of Moscow told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Russian regions weren’t acting energetically enough to prepare for the outbreak. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin warned that the low number of cases in Russia compared to Europe could be explained by insufficient screening and called for quicker action to brace up for the worst.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova reported that 112,000 people are currently in self-isolation being monitored for coronavirus after return from abroad. Earlier this month, the government has requested all those who returned from the countries plagued by the outbreak to self-quarantine for two weeks.

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RAMALLAH, West Bank — Tens of thousands of Palestinian workers are expected to return to the occupied West Bank from Israel following orders from the Palestinian Authority.

Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh late Tuesday ordered the workers to return and go into 14-day quarantine, the latest in a series of measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

He says those disregarding the orders will face unspecified legal consequences.

Israel has reported more than 2,000 cases and five deaths. The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank, has reported 58 cases.

Israel had allowed 65,000 Palestinian workers to remain in the country during the crisis, but many are expected to return as Israel tightens its own restrictions. Most work in construction, agriculture and manufacturing.

Working in Israel pays much better than in the West Bank, where decades of Israeli military rule has hindered economic development.

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TIRANA, Albania - Albania has declared the natural calamity emergency because of the virus.

The government late Tuesday issued the decision at the official gazette saying that the rights are limited “to the level considered necessary to protect the citizens’ health.” That means that all public gatherings, including demonstrations and strikes are prohibited.

The government authorities have increased rights, including entering people’s homes to check for virus cases. People are also obliged to report virus symptoms or cases.

That situation is to continue for an unspecified time “during the period of infection.”

As of Tuesday, Albania had 5 deaths and 123 cases.

The country is in a lockdown with all border crossing routes shut, but one flight to Turkey. Schools, cafes, restaurants, gyms and shops are closed, except those offering food items and medicine. Only a limited number of public and private employees can work during an eight-hour time a day while all people may only get out to buy food and medicine.

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LONDON — Britain’s Parliament is set to shut down for at least four weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers have continued to attend -- though in smaller numbers — despite the spread of COVID-19, which has reached 8,077 confirmed cases and 422 deaths in the U.K. Visitors have been banned from the Parliament buildings and some staff have been working from home.

With Britons now ordered to stay home and all but essential shops shut, Parliament is expected to shut down once lawmakers have approved an emergency law on Wednesday giving the government more powers to fight the coronavirus.

Lawmakers will vote on a motion suspending Parliament until April 21. They had previously been due to take an Easter break from April 1-20.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said “Parliament has to lead by example, follow the guidelines wherever it can, and ensure that we protect the staff that work in Parliament as well."

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JOHANNESBURG — Coronavirus cases across Africa are now above 2,400, and South Africa has more cases than any other African nation with 709. The continent's most developed country enters lockdown first thing Friday.

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BERLIN — Germany’s parliament is meeting to approve an enormous package drawn up by the government to cushion the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

Lawmakers were to vote Wednesday on a series of measures that will allow the government to offer aid totaling more than 1 trillion euros ($1.1 trillion).

As a precaution, members of parliament were spaced widely apart in Berlin’s Reichstag building for the session.

The government is breaking with six years of balanced budgets to borrow what Finance Minister Olaf Scholz called the “gigantic sum” of 156 billion euros to finance the packages and cover an expected shortfall in tax revenue. Parliament’s approval is needed to loosen legal limits on running up debt.

Scholz, who is Germany’s vice chancellor, presented the package in place of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is in quarantine at home after a doctor who gave her a vaccination tested positive for the coronavirus.

Scholz said that “we as the German government are doing everything necessary and everything possible to cushion the economic and social consequences of managing the crisis.”

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka police on Wednesday warned of strict legal action against the people who violate a countrywide curfew.

In a statement, police said those who violate the curfew will be immediately arrested, even without a warrant, and legal action will be taken against them. The statement did not elaborate on the possible punishment.

Within the last 24 hours, police have arrested 420 people who violated the curfew and seized 97 vehicles.

The government has imposed the curfew since Friday (March 20), as the Indian Ocean island nation has been struggling to contain the spreading of the virus. The number of positive cases has now jumped to 101.

Since Friday, police have detained 2,682 persons for violating the curfew and detained 786 vehicles, police said.

Police urged people to stay at home during the curfew, except those who engage in essential services such as health and supply of essential commodities.

The government has asked the pharmacies to be kept open during the curfew and allow people to use their prescription as a curfew pass.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea says it plans to provide coronavirus testing materials to the United States in response to President Donald Trump’s request for help.

Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the country is willing to send chemical reagents used to extract genetic material during COVID-19 tests, but at a level that doesn’t affect its own testing capacity.

She didn’t provide a detailed estimate on the size of supplies that could be shipped to the United States.

The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in earlier said Trump during a telephone conversation between the leaders asked whether South Korea could send medical equipment and supplies to help the United States cope with its outbreaks.

South Korea is pushing an aggressive test-and-quarantine program that some experts say possibly contributed to its lower death toll in comparison with mainland China and hard-hit European nations.

As of Wednesday, South Korea had tested around 358,000 people while reporting 9,137 infections and 126 deaths.

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WASHINGTON — The White House and Senate leaders of both U.S. political parties have struck an agreement on a sweeping $2 trillion measure to aid workers, businesses and a health care system strained by the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak.

Top White House aide Eric Ueland announced the agreement in a Capitol hallway shortly after midnight. The agreement comes after days of often intense haggling and mounting pressure and still needs to be finalized in detailed legislative language.

The unprecedented economic rescue package would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.

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