A billion-dollar bulwark: Canadian government unveils COVID-19 response

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Ottawa swings into action: Hours before the World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, the Canadian government unveiled its response package, which includes waiving the one-week waiting period for employment insurance for those in quarantine, increasing credit support for Canadian businesses impacted by the disease and increasing funds for provinces and territories to prepare for a health emergency. Canada currently has over 100 cases of COVID-19.

ICYMI: COVID-19 “spreads better” than SARS, and is “10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu,” according to Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Markets whiplash: Stock markets plunged for the second time this week. The Dow Jones and TSX entered bear territory—for the former, a loss of 20 per cent from its peak in February that could mark the end of an 11-year bull market. According to Bloomberg, the probability of a U.S. recession within the next year now stands at 53 per cent, the highest it’s been since it left the Great Recession in 2009.

Canada reacts: WestJet Airlines is offering employees a voluntary buyout package as it imposes a company-wide hiring freeze to “protect [its] financial well-being.” Shopify employees will be working from home starting Monday. Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. is the first Canadian post-secondary campus to shut down indefinitely, shifting all classes online starting tomorrow. Here’s our running tally of how Canada’s innovation economy is responding to the coronavirus.

The sky is falling: The global business-travel sector is going to take a whopping US$820-billion revenue loss in the wake of the pandemic. Thousands of flights have been cancelled worldwide, and airlines are set to lose up to US$113 billion in revenue this year, ending a 16-year flying high. Some are still taking to the skies, though. India’s electronics manufacturers and automakers are paying upwards of 125 per cent more for chartered flights to bring spare parts and components from China and South Korea. And as demand increases for contactless delivery, Chinese drone startup Antwork has launched its drone-logistics system months ahead of schedule to deliver testing samples between hospitals.

Germs away: Uber said it may temporarily suspend the accounts of anyone who tests positive for the virus, while Target will now clean its touch screens and checkout lanes every 30 minutes, increasing payroll hours to make it happen.

Global panic: On March 13, India will suspend all existing visas until April 15, with some exceptions; the country is advising people to avoid non-essential travel. Hungary has declared an “unprecedented” national state of emergency, with 13 registered cases, no deaths and almost 70 people in quarantine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that up to 70 per cent of the country’s population—about 58 million people—could get infected. The Bank of England delivered an emergency interest-rate cut as part of a package of measures to mitigate the impacts of the virus. Outgoing governor Mark Carney said,“There is no reason for this shock to turn into the experience of [the 2008 financial crisis] … if we handle this well.”

Advice for Canadians: In a conference call with The Logic’s subscribers this afternoon, Helen Branswell, infectious-disease senior writer at Boston-based Stat who’s covered emerging pathogens since the early 2000s SARS outbreak, advised that people should avoid contact with others as much as possible. “I personally would not go to a hockey game now, or a concert, or take unnecessary travel,” she said. “It’s not going to be life as normal for a while, and we need to get ready for that.” 

Advice for CEOs: On the same conference call, Kevin Carmichael, the Financial Post’s national business columnist, encouraged companies to get in touch with their local MPs as soon as possible. “It’s not like governments are asleep at the switch … but they’re not going at it as hard as they could…. At this stage, what they need is to hear from executives about the sort of things that might be happening, so they can design the right policies to offer bridges to whatever exists on the other side of this calamity.” 

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Our saving grace: A priest at a Hindu temple in Varanasi, India has put face masks on deities to raise awareness of the virus, and asked worshippers not to touch the idols. Hollywood is in crisis. Broadway may be heading there. Major League Baseball is asking for alternate sites. But IBM has a supercomputer that might save us all. And if that doesn’t work, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son broke his three-year Twitter silence by offering one million free virus tests (an offer on which he backpedalled following backlash), joining the list of tech billionaires who are trying to help.

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