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Resilience is, well, resilient… February 25, 2021

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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A very useful addition to the research conducted during the pandemic is reported here in the Observer this last weekend. Richard Bentall, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Sheffield, details research he and others have conducted over the course of the outbreak into mental health. And rather than the ‘tsunami’ of ‘mental health problems’ that some, particularly on the Covid-denial, or soft-denial, end of the spectrum point to the research finds a much more nuanced picture and some important results, not least:

…only a few studies have examined changes that have occurred since that first lockdown period, and when these changes are examined a different picture emerges. We have seen an overall reduction in the number of people who report “above threshold” levels of psychiatric symptoms and similar findings have been reported by other research groups. This picture of adaptation and resilience should not be surprising because we know from previous research that individual, interpersonal traumas (for example, sexual assaults) are far more mentally damaging than collective traumas such as natural disasters. This is at least in part because strong social bonds protect people against stress and, during a crisis, people often come together to help each other, creating a sense of belonging and a shared identity with neighbours.

This is – surely, heartening to those of us who place any value in societal and communal and collective endeavours. And perhaps suggests in part why some would be more comfortable with narratives of atomisation, isolation and so on. And indeed how those narratives might become politicised in certain ways.

And he raises a key point:

At the same time, it is important to recognise that average levels of psychological symptoms in the population could never be particularly informative. Even if there really were a tidal wave of mental illness washing over the population, what would anyone be able to do about it (it would not be possible to install a clinical psychologist in every neighbourhood)?

And there’s a degree of bad faith amongst some using this line of a ‘tsunami’ because they being right of centre or libertarian do not themselves support the sort of measures required to address any such tsunami.


He also notes:

when we use advanced statistical methods to discover different patterns of change, we see that the majority of the population (56.5% in the case of anxiety and depression) have been resilient, showing no evidence of mental illness at any time. These are contrasted with a small group who have been unwell throughout (6.5%), some who have deteriorated after starting with low (17%) or moderate symptoms (11.5%) and some who have shown considerable improvement in their mental health (8.5%). So, in total, about a quarter of the population is doing badly. This picture of what we might call “different slopes for different folks” does not look like a tsunami.

None of this is to suggest people aren’t bored, frustrated, weary and so on of the pandemic. Anything but. But these are not in and of themselves emotions and responses that require the sort of measures that more deep-rooted mental health issues do. Of course they do require responses and crafting means to engage with the end of the pandemic, or more likely the amelioration of same, will require nuance and skill and investment as well as seeing about supports in the here and now.

And that leads to another point he makes:

We found that the economic threats associated with the pandemic were most linked with symptoms, whereas exposure to the virus seemed to have little effect (although very few of our sample have required hospital treatment and we know from other studies that those who do are very likely to suffer from persisting post-traumatic stress disorder).

Economic concerns – the fear that jobs long held will fade away due to the length of lockdowns and other measures – are very very real, and that is on government to address directly by supporting areas of the economy which have – in a sense – had to shelter from the virus. For some this pandemic is quite literally a matter of life and death and one where the arrival of vaccines is essential. For many others it is not, at least not directly. For those latter cohorts a boring pandemic is one thing. A pandemic where people have lost jobs is quite another. Incorrect narratives about tsunami’s of mental health problems don’t assist in the slightest in the very real measures necessary to ensure that – ironically, the pandemic is dull rather than anxiety inducing.

Commemorating the formation of Northern Ireland… February 24, 2021

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An excellent IT politics podcast a week or so ago which had Professor Brendan O’Leary on, fresh from the publication of his three volume work “A Treatise on Northern Ireland”. O’Leary is a rock of good sense on the topic, in my view, not least in respect of this thought that historians often reify commemorations, arguing they have more importance and influence than they actually have, and ignoring the fact (as with the fiftieth anniversary of 1916 in 1966) of other dynamics in play. Indeed one can see an almost superstitious attitude on the part of some commentators about such things with more recent commemorations – most obviously from those who would take a particularly anti-Republican line, but not exclusive to them. The idea that some atavistic impulse would surge through Irish people in respect of these is remarkably condescending on the part of those who hold these attitudes. Meanwhile, he makes a sensible point:

I think it is almost impossible for there to be a consensual celebration about the formation of Northern Ireland. Because it was an unilateral event, it was supported by one community and opposed by another. Had there been immediate reconciliation and constructed powersahring from 1920 then we’d have a very different reaction… but it wasn’t like that and therefore it is difficult for a conjoined celebration.

He also argues that it is necessary to prepare for carefully calibrated constitutional change and that if efforts are not taken to do so, in advance of any border poll, there is a real danger of descent into a maelstrom. And he points back to the record of the late 19th century and up to 1925 of irresponsibility on the part of the British government’s (more Tory he says than Liberal) in terms of their involvement in Ireland and with respect to the polit/ies here. He believes there’s “a serious prospect of a referendum on Irish unification on the horizon within a decade and therefore it is appropriate especially for Ireland – sovereign Ireland – to prepare for and contemplate it to decide what it wants to do”.

However he makes the point that while at this point he does not see a referendum likely imminently, but that there are events likely occur that make preparation absolutely necessary, such as demographic change in the North (2021 census will be useful here he suggests), the end of a unionist majority in terms of preferences with the ‘stability of the union depending upon ‘cultural Catholics’ which will be a transformative moment and a seismic change (with the volatility of that community in respect of the union), he points to the ‘significant block of ‘others’ in the North which is ‘less enthusiastic identifying as cultural Catholic or Protestant and is overwhelmingly pro-EU and very hostile to Brexit’, the Protocol and how that works in terms of pushing to either the UK or ROI/EU (to which we can add a few more, not least Scotland and independence).

But he’s also clear that in some ways all the preparation is about an offer to unionism – and key to that is listening not just to unionisms political representatives but actually to unionists on the ground and determining what measures might gain some support should a referendum vote in favour of a UI. And that’s a key point because as he notes implicitly, this isn’t about unionism being able to veto a democratic referendum, because that process sits above their preferences – as such, as indeed does the outcome. That outcome, either way – whether for the continuation of the union or a new Ireland, will be legitimate and legitimated by democratic processes (and majorities) and therefore it is key not to arrive at a stage where potential alternatives aren’t as fully explored as is possible prior to any such vote precisely in order to allow for the widest possible number of those who are unionist and indeed all those who aren’t, to have some input into what emerges. Like many here I don’t think that it will be a ‘traditional’ United Ireland, and that may be for the best – indeed I’d suspect that rather than a fully completed end point it will, rather like the BA/GFA, be another stage on a journey this island has been on for quite some time.

Podcast -The Irish Independence Party February 24, 2021

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A look at the Irish Independence Party which ran from 1977 until the late 1980’s. They fielded 4 candidates in the 1979 UK Elections and were at their height winning 21 seats in the 1981 Northern Irish Local Elections. Sinn Féin’s decision to contest Northern Elections resulted in much of the IIPs support being lost.

As an aside I’ve created a website for the podcast with all the episodes to date available to listen there

Those latest plans for the ‘path ahead’… February 24, 2021

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Thought the new go to excuse for restrictions by the ROI government, that being the ‘new variant’ line, was deployed particularly effectively by Micheál Martin yesterday. That being that: ‘Mr Martin said that the variant that was first detected in the UK “is equivalent to a new virus” and that it is a “major problem”.

Problem being that this is a bit late in the day, and knowledge of the new variant was available as early as 8th of December in the UK and information about its (then) likely (later proven) increased virulence was released publicly on December 14th in the UK. Which raises the question why was the seriousness of all this not recognised immediately, and why restrictions were not reimposed until the 18th? But then there’s the issue that even before the new variant numbers were increasing and this had been flagged by NPHET at the end of November.

There’s little positive in pointing to the experience of Christmas as the reason why the government has now adopted a more cautious approach. That said they do seem to be taking this more seriously than hitherto. No rash promises, nothing other than education to really see any reopening. An intriguing point about how next Christmas may be very tough too and protective measures are likely to still be in place to some degree.

An excellent piece here on RTÉ on why the US has suffered so grievously during the pandemic (one clue ‘”In a country like ours, with 50 independent states, and a huge landmass, with largely a private hospital system, it is always going to be difficult to get everybody on board with one particular set of strategies,”) has this interesting quote:

Prof Masci says that if the variant strains do not turn into a huge problem and once we’ve reached the point where 70-80% of the population is vaccinated then “there’s a good chance” we will not wear masks anymore. “(But) suppose these variant strains do take hold, become more of a problem, are vaccine resistant, and we’re all closing schools and putting masks and locking down again in a few months, (then) it’s a lot harder to say by December, ‘We’ll be out of the woods’.”

A promise to review matters on April 5th and everything effectively being placed on the effectivity of the vaccination drive (Martin states that ‘By the end of June, 55-60% of adults will be fully vaccinated.’). Increasingly we see that single shots of double shot vaccines do seem to confer a significant degree of protection. But is that enough? What do others think?

What you want to say – 24 February 2021 February 24, 2021

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As always, following on Dr. X’s suggestion, it’s all yours, “announcements, general discussion, whatever you choose”, feel free.

Bad faith? February 23, 2021

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The IT had a persuasive point this week in relation to the DUP and the Northern Ireland Protocol and ‘its Irish Sea quasi-border’. Noting that there was no hope at all for unionists that the protocol would be abandoned the piece continued:

The DUP is nevertheless pressing ahead with its insistence that the teething problems on the Irish Sea are an attack on the sovereignty of Northern Ireland and can only be overcome by Westminster reneging on the protocol. No alternative is proposed, so the remedy involves abandoning attempts to maintain a border-free island and to keep the North in the EU’s single market.

And:

All or nothing. Just as it blundered tactically in opposing Theresa May’s failed attempt to keep the whole of the UK in the single market, her alternative to dividing the UK, the DUP continues to see imperfect reform of the protocol as an enemy of perfection, the abandonment of the protocol.

This in a way shows up how threadbare both their criticisms and approach are.They’re defaulting to a situation where a ‘quasi’ border would come into being on the island of Ireland. And this would be one that would not be essentially out of sight and out of mind for the most part, but one that was evident to everyone crossing that particular stretch of land day in day out.

Of course the reality is that any ‘quasi-border’ is imperfect, but there’s worse and better if not best – at least in a world of Brexit and all that entails. Perhaps, bluntly, the fact is that once Brexit occurred there was no real option other than some form of distinction between Northern Ireland and Britain due to the very specific circumstances that the former found itself in. But then let’s not get too teary eyed over this. Northern Ireland has always been distinct from the rest of the UK. This relatively minor change, and one that offers economically a window to the EU that the rest of the UK lacks, is arguably one that could be immensely positive for the North. And if the DUP were just that little bit more imaginative perhaps they would see that that might be an opportunity for them too to maintain the status quo well into the future.

Now the latest news is the deployment of a “legal challenge to the Northern Ireland protocol, challenging its “compatibility with Act of Union 1800, the Northern Ireland Act of 1998 and the Belfast Agreement”.

I wonder how substantial that actually is – one presumes even this Tory government would have been all over the legal aspects of the Protocol. But then thinking of David Trimble’s most peculiar contribution at the weekend one had to note that he listed in those supporting the Protocol, everyone in NI politics bar the DUP and UUP and the EU, ROI government, as well as perhaps most importantly, the UK government. And again this too is as crucial as the point about the distinction of NI from the rest of the UK. The UK government remains the executive authority. In a sense this is an exemplification of the Union, that it is not run for the convenience of the constituent elements, as such, but for the benefit of the political centre.

Reopenings? February 23, 2021

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Too late for the Sunday Statement was this from Lucinda Creighton in the SBP at the weekend who has decided that the closure of schools:

[is] no way for children to live. It is a social experiment which has demonstrably failed and cannot be justified any longer. All schoolchildren and pre-schoolchildren should be back in their classrooms on March 1, without exception.

She believes that classrooms are safe – and brings in a pile of statements to support this contention. Though curiously she seems to only read the parts of the statements that support her stance and not the parts that do not or are equivocal. And that’s the problem, because read through what she offers and suddenly her certainty seems, well, misplaced.

For example:

 The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) both say that schools should be kept open, except as a last resort.

Or;

A study published by the ECDC in December showed that the re-opening of schools was not a driving factor in the so-called second wave of Covid-19. Crucially, that same study found that the negative impact of school closures outweighed any good derived from such closures.It explicitly emphasised this, stating that “the negative physical, mental health and educational impact of proactive school closures on children, as well as the economic impact on society more broadly, would likely outweigh the benefits”.

So explicitly it emphasises this, except at the part where it becomes contingent. Strangely she relates the following:

All of the international expertise points to the need to keep schools open for all of the obvious reasons – educational attainment, socialisation, mental health, preventing further socio-economic inequalities – yet our government, along with many more internationally, have chosen to follow this disastrous shutdown route.

Not just many more, almost all states have restricted education. What is difficult to understand is why she feels that her certainty trumps this actual lived decision making across numerous different societies. 

I’ve some involvement in a local educational establishment and what is clear to me is that huge efforts were made during the period from the Summer to Christmas by teachers and all other staff to maintain safety. However, and this is something she also doesn’t even begin to address, there were outbreaks and for the safety of other children in given classes various classes were sent home for periods of a week or two. This was on public health advice (elsewhere in the piece she argues that “Indeed, our own Minister for Education has stated on the record that at no time have public health officials advised her that keeping schools open is unsafe.” but I know from direct experience that public health officials have indeed advised that sending classes home due to outbreaks was essential). So the idea schools will stay open in their entirety – even in less fraught stages of the pandemic, is incorrect. 

Moreover it is not simply about schools transmitting the virus onwards and outwards as much as the broader environment impacting on schools. Just as with care homes and other care environments, the rate of transmission in the society is reflected by numbers appearing in schools. When a school is open parents congregate, students travel to and from the school, and so on. When community transmission is very high there’s an inevitable spillover from one environment into another. One need spend a minute looking at recent reports of outbreaks in schools in other jurisdictions to see that the picture painted by Creighton appears oddly partial. And as numbers ramped up in the run-up to Christmas the inevitable knock-on effects on schools was painfully obvious. Schools would have to close sooner or later because broader societal levels were too high. It’s remarkable that this reality isn’t apparent to Creighton.

I’ve skin in this game too. I share her concerns in exactly the same way about my offspring. The impact on socialisation, friendships, education and so on are significant. But there’s a broader societal good at stake here. The name of the game is about keeping numbers as low as possible in advance of vaccination. The sooner we get as many as possible to that latter the better. There’s a linked argument about the need to limit variants emerging, something that may become even more important over the coming months. None of this registers with Creighton, indeed there’s no sense of an awareness of how protean the virus actually is.

For Creighton: And yet here we are, with all of our schools closed and no coherent plan to reopen them. It is wrong, it is immoral and most of all it is without scientific basis. The government must open our schools before even more damage is inflicted on our precious children, who deserve much better than this.

Thing is though, this week came further analysis. The Guardian reported that the SAGE group in the UK which advises their government had this to offer:

Reopening classrooms is considered a top priority. Scotland and Wales have begun phased reopenings but in England all schools and pupils are set to reopen on 8 March, raising alarm among unions.

Newly released documents warn that reopening schools is likely to increase the R by 10-50%. “SPI-M-O’s [Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling] consensus view is that the opening of primary and secondary schools is likely to increase effective R by a factor of 1.1 to 1.5,” experts said in a document dated 27 January.

“An initial, limited, and cautious reopening of schools (eg primary schools only) for a time-limited period, in the absence of easing other restrictions, would allow for an assessment of the impact on community transmission.”

Another voice in the mix is Prof. Devi Sridhar,  chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, who commenting on UK reopening plans this week argues: The imminent risk now is the full return of schools on 8 March leading to uncontrolled transmission.

Jennifer Dowd, professor of demography and population health at the University of Oxford, argues: “While there have been many spirited debates about the precise role that schools play in helping Covid-19 spread, two things are indisputable. First, schools bring people into prolonged physical contact with one another, talking and breathing indoors. Second, Covid-19 is spread primarily through aerosols that spread better in unventilated environments. Pretending that the rules of physics and biology somehow don’t apply in classrooms risks undoing the difficult sacrifices of lockdown.”

Stephen Reicher of SAGE argues; But in other respects, this roadmap throws caution to the wind. Opening schools in one go hardly seems like a prudent decision. On this issue, the government could have learned from countries such as Norway, which has adopted a “traffic light” system: in areas with higher levels of infection, children return to school for some of the time to allow for social distancing, and multiple safeguards are still in place. As infections fall, these restrictions are lifted.

And from today:

According to Sage, children aged 12–16 were nearly seven times more likely than older family members to be the first infection in their household. They were also twice as likely as older people to pass the virus on to another family member after being infected. Successive studies have indicated that school closures led to big reductions in transmission and Covid mortality, and are one of the most effective non-pharmaceutical interventions we have against Covid.

So reopening all at once could mean case numbers begin to rise again suddenly, and in a way that is politically difficult to reverse.

And let’s keep in mind another piece of evidence – that even under the rosiest vaccination situation there are going to be further surges (though in fairness to Creighton the ROI government has remained oddly quiet about that). Again in the UK:

The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) released documents on Monday including five different models for easing lockdown in England. They suggest that under even the most optimistic scenarios modelled by teams at Imperial College London and Warwick University, tens of thousands more people can be expected to die from Covid because vaccines will not provide complete protection against the disease, and not everyone will have the jabs.

Note that all the models above retain mask wearing and other basic measures in place throughout and to the end of the period they project.

We’re not out of the woods on this one yet. Not anywhere near it.

I would like nothing better than for schools to reopen, but unlike her I think the evidence is more equivocal and it makes sense while numbers of cases are still so high to take it a little more cautiously. There’s so much more that has to fall into place, and education is only one part of that. I hope schools reopen fully by the end of March, but there’s no certainty in this. And arguing there’s an unequivocal scientific case for schools to reopen immediately does not reflect the experience of states across the world, the analysis of public health officials here (and as noted above in the UK and elsewhere). Perhaps she might in a future article parse out just why there is that gap between what she asserts and the reality on the ground.

 

Dysfunctional? February 23, 2021

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There’s a former Independent, who wound up in government some time back, of whom one would hear it said they never saw a microphone they didn’t like the look of. That thought came to mind reading the following reports:

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has moved to clarify remarks he made that suggested talks were ongoing between the Minister for Education and teaching unions on schools reopening.

In a comment posted on Twitter, Minister Donnelly explained that the talks “had concluded” and the Government “intends on making an announcement” on school reopenings after Cabinet this afternoon. 

And:

His suggestion on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live last night that talks were ongoing, less than 24 hours before the Cabinet was due to make a major announcement on the topic, prompted the Labour education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin to characterise the Government as “dysfunctional”.

This line about dysfunction is being bandied about a lot in relation to the government this last while. And understandably so, as it happens. Messaging, even simply keeping its story straight, appears to be a challenge too far for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in particular. Why would a Minister for Health appear on a television programme and have to clarify remarks on something so fundamental? Why is there a seeming lack of communication between An Taoiseach and the Tánaiste? One has to wonder is this a function of the very nature of the government itself? And that raises the question as to whether all the often expressed sentiments that ‘four years are a long time’ and matters will improve for FF in polls or FG will be there or thereabouts to lead the next one are somewhat overly positive…

A political effect… February 23, 2021

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Andrew Rawnsley had a good piece at the weekend on the British government’s repeated miscalculations in relation to Covid-19 and the management of the pandemic, and in particular the mistakes about too weak and too partial lockdowns. As he noted:

The [danger of having to have a fourth lockdown] has made him more receptive to the counsel to ease with great care that he is receiving from Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser. The two men have had to endure some torrid periods during the crisis, notably last autumn when the unrepresentative, but noisy, libertarian faction of the Tory party and their allies in the rightwing press were beating up the senior advisers for correctly forecasting that the virus was getting out of control. The monikers “Dr Doom” and “Professor Gloom” were the least of a campaign as vicious as it was ignorant to try to discredit them. The advisers have since had the vindication, albeit a grim one measured in the wave of fatalities that they warned was coming, of being proved right. The let-it-rippers, liberate-us-nowists and other varieties of anti-lockdowners have had repeated experience of being on the wrong end of the argument, but that has not stopped them from shouting as loudly as ever. The self-named Covid Recovery Group of Tory backbenchers and their media megaphones are as clamorous as ever for the lockdown to be lifted to a timetable of arbitrary dates of their inexpert choosing.

And:

They still exert a gravitational pull on a prime minister who would probably be one of them himself if he were a Tory backbencher, but there are some indications that their baleful influence on Number 10 is weakening. “The success of the vaccination programme has given Boris enough political space to face down the extreme libertarians,” remarks one senior Tory. The prime minister appears to be less resistant to taking scientific advice, even when it isn’t what he wants to hear, than he was a few months ago. He has lately adopted the mantra, one originally minted by the scientists, that decisions about easing will be determined by “data not dates”.

His point about the vindication of those who sought tighter controls is, sadly given the numbers who have died due to the recklessness of government and business, correct. But as he notes, they haven’t gone away. Any Guardian article, or one in the IT, is swamped BTL by deniers and so on even now. Indeed one of the real puzzles is their attachment to ‘living with the virus’ and ‘opening up’ with it running rampant when Zero-Covid, and near Zero-Covid measures have been seen to work and work effectively. What is the psychology of those folk? Any thoughts? 

And what of Ireland, or the ROI in particular? Sandra Hurley on RTÉ notes that despite criticism over the confusion as to loosening some restrictions in the next number of months:

And while the opposition has pounced on the Government for sowing confusion, there is no resistance to the planned extension of severe restrictions.

No party is advocating a swift reopening and many are now pushing for a further tougher lockdown to eradicate Covid.   

In addition, backbenchers have also gone quiet in calling for any rebalance between protecting public health and the economy.  This marks a contrast to late last year when several were voicing concern that the Cabinet was being too cautious.

With limited political resistance to maintaining the current measures, the Government just needs to focus on communicating this clearly and levelling with people using one voice.

That holds the key to retaining the essential public buy-in for longer shutdowns.  And without that, there will be no suppression of the virus.

In that, that there is essential unanimity, post-Christmas and the lethal debacle of that period, as regards constraints remaining until vaccines allow for them being loosened is perhaps one of the real positives at this point in time. But, one can hear even this weekend some of the voices of some groups pushing to soften the government’s resolve.

Not a fan! But is anyone? February 22, 2021

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Jason O’Toole had a piece at the weekend on Bertie Ahern’s possible run for the Presidency. And in the course of reading the piece one will see that there’s no end of lines of attack on the former Taoiseach across a range of areas. But this raises a question. Would Ahern even bother? Surely he can see the problems that would arise were he to go for the position. And there’s a broader question too, Fianna Fáil is, I think it fair to say, much much reduced from when he was leader. But part of the problem is that the reason for that reduction in support is directly linked to his stewardship of the economy, at least in part. So while some might yearn for the halcyon 2000s, others will think his name inextricably tied up with everything that went wrong. And this before we get to other matters.

So, what would be the support base for any tilt by him for that office? Fianna Fáil? Well they’re already in trouble. Nostalgic former FF voters? Seems implausible.

And perhaps the truth is that time has moved on too. But this raises a further question as to who could command sufficient support to win the election. At this point the names being bandied about seem unlikely victors. As we get closer that may change. The office has always been a magnet for certain forms of political activity and personalities and invested with meanings that sometimes have appeared disproportionate to the reality of what it entails.

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