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Too Close for Comfort, and the Virus, in Russia’s Communal Apartments

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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Through the thin wall separating her from her neighbors, Dr. Anzhela Kirilova began to hear the rasping cough associated with Covid-19 sometime in May. That was hardly a surprise, as a few weeks earlier her neighbors had heard the same cough coming from her room.

Dr. Kirilova, who works in a Covid-19 ward at a hospital, said she had tried to warn the single man and the young family with whom she shares the four-room apartment, suggesting they wear masks in the kitchen.

“They said, ‘We don’t care, and we’ll do what we want,’” she said with a shrug.

For residents of Russia’s communal apartments — a relic of the Soviet Union but still home to hundreds of thousands of people, most of them in St. Petersburg — self-isolation to fend off the coronavirus is hardly an option.

From a half-dozen to more than 20 people live in separate rooms within a single apartment, typically one to a family, while sharing a kitchen and bathroom in one large, usually unhappy, household. In St. Petersburg, about 500,000 people live in communal apartments, constituting 10 percent of the city’s population.

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Life in communal apartments has always bordered on intolerable. The rules for close-quarters living among people who may despise one another are delicate. Feuds are common.

“Because of a lack of privacy, people become very suspicious,” said Ilya Utekhin, a professor of anthropology at the European University of St. Petersburg and author of “Essays on Communal Life.”

Even in the best of times, which, to be honest, there have not been many for the communal apartment residents of this city, “they believe their neighbors want to inflict all kinds of damage,” he said. “They become afraid. They are sure that in their absence, their neighbors are looking at or touching their things.”

Some families keep their own toilet seat, usually hanging on a nail in the bathroom, which they swap out for the common seat. In another arrangement, several families that get along share a seat among themselves, but not with others. This is called a “toilet seat circle.”

The tensions have been compounded by the threat of the new coronavirus. Russia, with more than 500,000 reported cases, has the third-highest number of infected people after the United States and Brazil.

The health authorities have not released statistics on infections in communal apartments in St. Petersburg. But the slow burn of infection has served to heighten tensions between residents, shedding light on the lingering poverty and shabby living arrangements.

The idea of communal apartments sprang up right after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In a process they called “creating density,” the Communists divided up the palaces and apartments of the rich, the noblemen and various lords and vassals of the czarist court and moved in thousands of poor families.

The resulting communal apartments, of which about 69,000 remain today, accounting for as much as 40 percent of the residential real estate in central St. Petersburg, became a blend of architectural opulence and everyday penury.

Millions of people in the Soviet Union lived in communal apartments. Most are now gone outside of St. Petersburg, where they remain because of the vast number of historic buildings that had been converted to communal apartments. On floors once walked by Russian aristocrats, residents argue over noise, unwashed dishes, demented or alcoholic neighbors, guests and germs.

Out on the streets, St. Petersburg remains, as ever, a magnificent tableau of palaces and beauty, now bathed in the eerie, round-the-clock light known as the White Nights.

But inside the communal apartments is a world of dank spaces with dangling wires, sepia-colored sinks, peeling wallpaper and strange smells, but sporting high ceilings and original 19th-century moldings, brass fixtures and parquet floors.

“It’s an amazing city,” said Maia Parkhomenko, a real estate agent who buys communal apartments for investors and resettles their residents in smaller, private apartments. “When I wasn’t working in real estate, it seemed monumental, beautiful. Then I went behind the facades and was horrified. People wait in lines for the bathroom, there are fleas and cockroaches.”

So far, there are no signs of pandemic-related unrest in Russia. But frustration is rising among residents of communal apartments.

In the complex social calculus of their world, inquiring about coughs or sneezes — no matter how vital during the pandemic — is still seen as violating a cardinal rule by intruding on what shreds of privacy remain.

When the coughing started in the next room, for example, Dr. Kirilova did not ask if her cohabitants had the virus, she said, lest she create what is known as a “scandal” by interfering in others’ personal affairs. “It’s not comfortable for me to barge in on their business,” she said.

And Ekaterina Melnika, who lives in a room near Dr. Kirilova, said in a separate interview in the apartment kitchen that she could not recall the doctor warning neighbors about her work in a Covid-19 ward, but added that maybe “I didn’t understand.” She said she was upset.

But, in a sign of how tightly residents guard their privacy, Ms. Melnika said she had not felt it was her place to ask why the couple next door, with whom she shares a kitchen and bathroom, spent two weeks or so in bed.

“Sometimes a person is just at home, but I don’t know why,” she said, adding that her husband coughed not because of the virus, but because he is a heavy smoker.

In one of the city’s more famous warrens of communal apartments, the Emir of Bukhara building, once a palatial residence built for a Central Asian vassal of the czar, Sonya Minayeva, an artist, has continued living much the same as she did before the pandemic.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 12, 2020

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


“I am not taking any precautions, on principle,” said Ms. Minayeva, 32. She refuses to wear a mask in the corridor or kitchen, she said, in the belief that people should enjoy life and not overly focus on the risk. The Russian authorities generally encourage mask wearing but have offered no specific guidance for communal apartments.

But one older neighbor, has taken to eyeing her suspiciously, she said. The neighbor has not yet confronted her directly, lest a scandal break out and disturb the peace.

“You feel the tension,” said Ms. Minayeva in an interview in her room, where the long dead emir’s choice of plaster molding, grape bunches and cherubs, still adorned the 12-foot-high ceilings. The communal shower reeked of mold, even through a high-quality N-95 mask. “There’s a silent paranoia,” she said.

Less dire inconveniences emerged as well during the lockdown, as residents found themselves stuck at home together.

“Nobody goes to work,” she said. “It’s impossible to know when you can take a shower. It’s become completely unpredictable.”

Russian cities began reopening after lockdowns this past week, though reported new infections have plateaued at about 9,000 a day. The city has set up 1,580 cots at convention centers for residents of communal apartments if needed, but few seemed to be aware of this option.

One day recently, under a bare incandescent bulb dangling from a wire in the kitchen, Aziz Eganudiyez, a migrant worker from Uzbekistan, busied himself frying an omelet.

He shares the apartment with a young family and other migrant workers. While the children’s mother fretted about risk, Mr. Eganudiyez, who was not wearing a mask, brushed off her concerns.

“I don’t believe in the virus,” he said. “Nobody I know has it.”

Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting from Moscow.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/13/world/europe/coronavirus-russia-communal.html

Fintech

Accept.inc secures $90M in debt and equity to scale its digital mortgage lending platform

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A lot of startups were built to help people make all-cash offers on homes with the purpose of gaining an edge against other buyers, especially in ultra-competitive markets. 

Accepti.inc is a Denver-based company that is attempting to create a new category in real estate technology. To help scale its digital mortgage lending platform, the company announced today that it has secured $90 million in debt and equity – with $78 million in debt and $12 million in equity. Signal Fire led the equity portion of its financing, which also included participation from existing seed investors Y Combinator and DN Capital.

Accept.inc describes itself as an iLender, or a “technology-enabled lender” that gives people a way to submit all-cash offers on a home upon qualifying for a mortgage.

Using its platform, a buyer gets qualified first and then can start looking for homes that fall at or under the amount he or she is approved for. They can purchase a more expensive home, but any amount above what they are approved for would have to come out of pocket. Historically, most buyers don’t know that they will have to pay out of pocket until they’ve made an offer on a specific home and an appraisal comes under the amount of the price they are paying for a home. In those cases, the buyer has to cough up the difference out of pocket. With Accept.inc., its execs tout, buyers know upfront how much they are approved for and can spend on a new home “so there are no surprises later.”

SignalFire Founding Partner and CTO Ilya Kirnos describes Accept.inc as “the first and only iLender.”

He points out that since it is a lender, Accept.inc doesn’t make its money by charging buyers fees like some others in the all-cash offer space.

“Unlike ‘iBuyers’ or ‘alternative iBuyers,’ Accept.inc fronts the cash to buy a house and then makes money off mortgage origination and title, meaning sellers, homebuyers and their agents pay no additional cost for the service,” he told TechCrunch.

IBuyers instead buy homes from sellers who signed up online, make a profit by often fixing up and selling those homes and then helping people purchase a different home with all cash. They also make money by charging transaction fees. A slew of companies operate in the space including established players such as Opendoor and Zillow and newer players such as Homelight.

Image credit: Accept.inc. Left to right: Co-founders Adam Pollack, Nick Friedman and Ian Perrex.

Since its 2016 inception, Accept.inc says it has helped thousands of buyers, agents and sellers close on “hundreds of millions of dollars” in homes. The company saw ”14x” growth in 2020 and from June 2020 to June 2021, it achieved “10x” growth in terms of the size of its team and number of transactions and revenue, according to CEO and co-founder Adam Pollack. Accept.inc wants to use its new capital to build on that momentum and meet demand.

Pollack and Nick Friedman met while in college and started building Accept.inc with the goal of “turning every offer into a cash offer.” The pair essentially “failed for two years,” half-jokes Pollack.

“We basically became an encyclopedia of 1,000 ways the idea of helping people make all-cash offers wouldn’t work,” he said.

The team went through Y Combinator in the winter of 2019 and that’s when they created the iLender concept. In the iLender model, the company uses its cash to buy a house for buyers. Once the loan with Accept.inc is ready to close, the company sells back the house to the buyer “at no additional cost or fees.”

“Basically what we learned through those two years is that you have to vertically integrate all of your core competencies, and you can’t rely on third parties to own or manage your special sauce for you,” Pollack told TechCrunch. “We also realized that if you’re going to build a cash offer for anyone who could afford a mortgage, you’ve got to make it a full bona fide cash offer that closes in three days as opposed to a better version of what existed. And you have to own that, and take the risk that comes with it and be comfortable with that.”

The benefits of their model, the pair say, is that buyers get to be cash buyers, sellers can close in as little as 32 hours, and agents “get a guaranteed commission check.” 

“Our mission is that everyone should have an equal chance at homeownership,” Friedman said. “We not only want to level the playing field, we want to create a new standard.”

Buyers using Accept.inc win 6-7 times more frequently, the company claims. With its new capital, It also plans to double its team of 90 and enter new markets outside of its home base of Denver.

SignalFire Partner Chris Scoggins believes that Accept.inc is different from other lenders in that its focus is on “winning the home, not just servicing the loan, with a business model that’s 10x more capital-efficient than other players in the market.

The team is driven…to level the playing field for homebuyers who today lose out against all-cash offers from home-flippers and wealthy individuals,” he added. “We see an enormous opportunity for Accept.inc to become the backbone of the future of mortgage lending.”

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/24/accept-inc-secures-90m-in-debt-equity/

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Apple’s AirPods Max fall to a new all-time low of $489 at Amazon

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All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

With good looks, quality construction and great natural sound, Apple’s AirPods Max headphones tick all the right boxes, but they’re mighty expensive at $550. However, you can now pick up a pair from Amazon at $490, the lowest price we’ve seen yet. That’s still not inexpensive by any means, but it’s a substantial savings on high-end headphones that only came out seven months ago. 

Buy Apple AirPods Max (pink) at Amazon – $490 Buy Apple AirPods Max (sky blue) at Amazon – $489 Buy Apple AirPods Max (space gray) at Amazon – $489

With an Engadget review score of 84, the AirPods Max earned a spot in our list of the best headphones you can buy. They look and feel great thanks to the aluminum and metal design, breathable mesh fabric and large earcups. A rotating crown and dedicated button let you switch between ANC and and regular modes, and it’s easy to switch seamlessly between iPhones, Macs and iPads. They offer hands-free capability with Siri, and you can go for up to 20 hours between charges with both ANC and spatial sound enabled.  

AirPods Max offer a more natural sound experience than other headphones, with bass that’s not overcooked. Active noise cancellation quality is right up there, though not quite on par with Sony’s WH-1000XM4 ANC headphones. And they support Apple’s Dolby Atmos-powered spatial audio on iPhones, iPads and Macs right now, and will come to Apple TV this fall. The main drawback is that they won’t stream Apple’s new lossless audio. 

Still, they deliver in nearly every other area and are especially useful for folks with Apple devices. $60 is a substantial discount for an Apple product this new, so if you’re interested, it would be best to act soon. 

Follow @EngadgetDeals on Twitter for the latest tech deals and buying advice.

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Source: https://www.engadget.com/apple-airpods-max-good-deal-amazon-124026253.html?src=rss_b2c

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SA agritech releases AI-enabled OmnioFarm to modernise African poultry farming

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The founders of South African cryptocurrency investment platform Africrypt have disappeared along with $3.6 billion (R51.4 billion) worth of Bitcoin, according to a report….

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Source: https://ventureburn.com/2021/06/sa-agritech-releases-ai-enabled-omniofarm-to-modernise-african-poultry-farming/

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Visa to acquire open banking platform Tink for more than $2 billion

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Visa has announced plans to acquire Tink for €1.8 billion, or $2.15 billion at today’s exchange rate. Tink has been a leading fintech startup in Europe focused on open banking application programming interface (API).

Today’s move comes a few months after Visa abandoned its acquisition of Plaid, another popular open banking startup. Originally, Visa planned to spend $5.3 billion to acquire the American startup. But the company had to call off the acquisition after running into a regulatory wall.

Tink offers a single API so that customers can connect to bank accounts from their own apps and services. For instance, you can leverage Tink’s API to access account statements, initiate payments, fetch banking information and refresh this data regularly.

While banks and financial institutions now all have to offer open banking interfaces due to EU’s Payment Services Directive PSD2, there’s no single standard. Tink integrates with 3,400 banks and financial institutions.

App developers can use the same API call to interact with bank accounts across various financial institutions. As you may have guessed, it greatly simplifies the adoption of open banking features.

300 banks and fintech startups use Tink’s API to access third-party bank information — clients include PayPal, BNP Paribas, American Express and Lydia. Overall, Tink covers 250 million bank customers across Europe.

Based in Stockholm, Sweden, Tink operations should continue as usual after the acquisition. Visa plans to retain the brand and management team.

According to Crunchbase data, Tink has raised over $300 million from Dawn Capital, Eurazeo, HMI Capital, Insight Partners, PayPal Ventures, Creades, Heartcore Capital and others.

“For the past ten years we have worked relentlessly to build Tink into a leading open banking platform in Europe, and we are incredibly proud of what the whole team at Tink has created together,” Tink co-founder and CEO Daniel Kjellén said in a statement. “We have built something incredible and at the same time we have only scratched the surface.”

“Joining Visa, we will be able to move faster and reach further than ever before. Visa is the perfect partner for the next stage of Tink’s journey, and we are incredibly excited about what this will bring to our employees, customers and for the future of financial services.”

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/24/visa-to-acquire-open-banking-platform-tink-for-more-than-2-billion/

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