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COVID-19 roundup: A ‘bridge to better times’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during his daily press conference on COVID-19 in front of his residence at Rideau Cottage, on the grounds of Rideau Hall in Ottawa, on Sunday, March 29, 2020. The Canadian Press/Justin Tang
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It’s day 20 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is now 7,312 as of publication time. On their respective 20th day, the U.K. had 8,077 cases, the U.S. had 33,592 and Italy 17,660.* The following day, the U.K. jumped to 9,529 cases, the U.S. 43,781 and Italy 21,157.

The total number of cases and deaths fell globally on Monday for the first time in two weeks, according to the Financial Times.

“Every dollar of this should go to workers”: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday that businesses that have seen a 30 per cent drop in revenue due to the economic impacts of COVID-19 will qualify for the federal 75 per cent wage-subsidy program. Wages will be capped at $847 a week (or the first $58,700 a worker earns), backdated to March 15, and companies can qualify regardless of how many employees they have. Non-profit organizations and charities will also be eligible. More details about the program, the broad strokes of which were announced Friday, will be revealed tomorrow, but Trudeau said it will “help everyone affected bridge to better times.” Asked how much it will cost the treasury, he said the numbers “keep climbing,” but that Canada had “one of the best balance sheets in the G7.” Trudeau said the government’s “focus is to make sure that Canadians are safe now and that our economy can bounce back strongly after this time of slowdown, of stoppage, is done.”

The money is a step in the right direction, but it won’t stave off a nationwide increase in bankruptcies, according to Charles St-Arnaud, chief economist at Alberta Central. “The 75 per cent helps. The fact that banks are offering a loan-payment deferral of up to six months, that will help. But what happens once those programs run out?”

The 30 per cent loss-of-revenue threshold may disadvantage startups that are still measuring the effect of the COVID-19 outbreak, Dustin Walper, CEO of Newton, a Toronto-based cryptocurrency trading platform with 12 employees, told The Logic. He contrasted their experience with the “immediate and obvious” impact on a restaurant forced to close. The government’s timeframe for measuring the 30 per cent drop will also be crucial. “In our business it can be very variable [month to month], depending on volatility in the market,” he said, although Newton doesn’t need the subsidy to keep operating. Comparing against the previous quarter or year would hurt fast-expanding firms for which “the whole point is to grow rapidly.” Walper also said the subsidy could benefit large firms that don’t need it, because they have enough cash to weather revenue shortfalls. Here’s an updated guide on the federal and provincial assistance programs, created by Carleton University professor Jennifer Robson.

In the markets: After the United States extended its social-distancing guidelines to the end of April, Wall Street started the week on a positive note: the S&P 500 rose 3.35 per cent after its biggest weekly gain since March 2009, the Dow Jones increased 3.19 per cent and the Nasdaq Composite rose 3.62 per cent. The country’s unemployment benefit claims are projected to hit another peak this week. Companies are also urging the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve to clarify how they can access the US$454 billion of the US$2-trillion stimulus package set aside for corporations. Meanwhile, Eurozone banks are foregoing dividends in favour of strengthening cash reserves. The continent’s IPO market is expected to be frozen until at least September. Gold prices are rising, as oil continues to tumble. The Toronto Stock Exchange ended the day 2.26 per cent higher despite news of falling consumer confidence, which according to the Bloomberg Nanos Canadian Confidence Index, dropped to 46.9 last week, the biggest weekly drop and the lowest figure since the 2008 financial crash. The MNP Consumer Debt Index also found that roughly half of Canadians are on the brink of insolvency, some $200 or less away from not being able to meet their debt obligations each month. The Canadian dollar dropped to 71 cents to the U.S. dollar.   

“I felt dizzy trying to work out which were mustard greens, which spinach and which pak choi”: So reported a Malaysian man on Twitter after attempting to grocery shop,, which the government has mandated be done by “the head of the family” to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

The Caisse de dépôt kicks in billions: Citing the “unprecedented crisis” of COVID-19, Quebec’s public pension fund manager has introduced a $4-billion aid package to address the liquidity needs of companies in the province that were profitable before the pandemic and are seeking financing over $5 million. The Caisse is also donating $300,000 to five Canadian charities and has frozen executive salaries. In 2008, the Caisse ponied up a $1.5-billion aid package for Quebec companies during the financial crisis. 

Cross-country checkup: Over the weekend, Ontario Premier Doug Ford banned gatherings of over five people and announced stiff fines for businesses found to be price gouging—along with a phone line to report them. The provincial government also proclaimed the Supply Chain Management Act, enabling it to purchase and deploy critical equipment. Ford said Monday the province’s state of emergency will be extended to April 14. With the legislature still suspended, one Ontario MPP has returned to her health-care roots and is serving on the front lines of the crisis. Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil announced support for small businesses, including rent-deferral agreements for landlords and up to $5,000 a month if a business goes under. McNeil also guaranteed up to 800 tablets for long-term care facilities so seniors can stay in touch with their families. Manitoba is shutting down all non-essential businesses starting April 1. Albertans are struggling to apply for the province’s emergency funding. Meanwhile, First Nations communities are asking companies to shut down major resource and mining projects to curb the spread of the disease to their communities. (According to Bloomberg, oilsands workers are bracing for a “hellish” COVID-19 outbreak.) And Toronto Public Health officials have been told to stay home after several staff in the building tested positive for COVID-19. Statistics Canada has released a data set with detailed information for about 3,000 COVID-19 cases in Canada.

While major crime in Toronto has decreased in all categories except homicides, coronavirus-related restrictions continue to be subverted across the country. In an attempt to escape the pandemic, and on the whim of a dream, one Quebec couple sold everything they owned, drove to Whitehorse and boarded a plane to Old Crow, a self-governing First Nations community of 250 people; they reportedly did not self-isolate. Yesterday, Saskatchewan police were involved in a car chase that ended with the arrest of 11 people for violating the COVID-19 gathering limit of 10 people (they also had weapons). Vancouver has inspected nearly 7,000 establishments for health and safety compliance, and shut down one Tim Hortons franchise. But in happier news, a Canadian Nobel laureate is heading the production of a simple ventilator, and a church in Belleville, Ont. is offering drive-through confessions: “When you drive up … next to the priest’s window, he will open the window and you open yours. Then, CONFESS YOUR SINS AND RECEIVE PENANCE AND ABSOLUTION.” 

Lightspeed’s COVID-19 outlook: Many of the independent retailers and restaurants who make up the customer base of the point-of-sale firm are closing their doors or losing much of their business amid the pandemic. But while its stock has swooned in March, analysts say the Montreal-based company can weather the outbreak thanks to its business model, good timing and strong balance sheet. 

Briefly: 

  • Air Canada will temporarily lay off over 15,000 workers, according to an internal memo.
  • Shopify has expanded Shopify Capital, its lending program for U.S. merchants, to the U.K.
  • Flour and sugar producers are struggling to keep up with the spike in demand; Prairie Flour Mills said sales have surged about 25 per cent in recent weeks. 
  • Travel bans and increased demand for certain products are straining supply chains; a price surge in shipping from China and the grounding of passenger planes are barring sufficient supplies of goods, including some pharmaceuticals, from getting into Canada. 
  • Digital lending companies say they’ve had to tighten loan-eligibility criteria, restricting them from deploying the sufficient amounts of capital to small businesses that need it, even as demand soars. The fintechs want the federal government to use their platforms to deploy new funding for businesses; so far, the government is working with traditional banks only. 
  • Bar and nightclub owners are concerned for their businesses as they aren’t eligible for the federal government’s $10-billion Business Credit Availability Program, meant to help firms affected by COVID-19. 
  • Canadian companies are adapting their operations to fill the dearth of medical supplies and protective equipment; among them is InkSmith, a Kitchener, Ont.-based educational-toy manufacturer that’s hiring 100 new staff to build face shields for health-care workers. 

Crowdsourcing the crisis: Hundreds of independent restaurants in Canada have formed a coalition called SaveHospitalityCA, which is asking for a rent freeze and a cash infusion to pay bills and stay open. According to the group’s calculations, some 25,204 people have been laid off in the hospitality sector. Meanwhile, hospitals are asking anyone with a 3D printer to create protective visors, with instructions and a video provided here. Global Skills Hub is offering to match developers to projects that are creating solutions for the crisis. Venture fund Luge Capital has compiled a list of resources available for Canadian startups and entrepreneurs. And there is now a list of beer-delivery options, mainly in Ontario. 

Tracking the virus: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local governments, are reportedly using anonymized cellphone location data from mobile advertising companies to identify where residents are still gathering and trace their movements. Users have typically opted in to being tracked by the apps. Meanwhile, 51 per cent of the 84 technology experts and executives whom the Washington Post surveyed said authorities shouldn’t be using location data in antiviral measures, with some saying there isn’t enough evidence that doing so is useful. Toronto-based BlueDot is using aggregated and anonymized mobile location data acquired from a third-party provider for software that monitors disease spread. Last week, the Public Health Agency of Canada said it would use the company’s technology. Health authorities in Italy, Germany and Austria have used anonymized and aggregated data to monitor population-level compliance with social-distancing measures, while South Korea and Taiwan have used identifiable location information to trace contacts and enforce quarantines. Across the Atlantic, the Irish Health Service Executive is developing a voluntary app to track with whom users come into contact to notify them if they test positive. The agency hopes to launch within nine days; the outbreak in Ireland is expected to peak in 11 to 15 days. 

Briefly: 

  • Some Instacart shoppers are striking today, protesting what they say are unsafe working conditions. The shoppers are asking for US$5-per-order for hazard pay, expanded sick leave and protective gear. Instacart announced yesterday it would work to keep shoppers safe, including by supplying them with hand sanitizer.
  • Whole Foods workers are planning their first-ever strike on Tuesday to protest what they call dangerous working conditions; employees of the Amazon subsidiary are asking for hazard pay of double their current wages. 
  • Zipline, a medical-drone-delivery company that launched in Rwanda, is speeding up plans to launch in the U.S. to deliver medical supplies.
  • Johnson & Johnson and the U.S. government are planning to spend US$1 billion to make more than one billion doses of the coronavirus vaccine the pharmaceutical company is testing. 
  • Twitter is cracking down on misinformation about COVID-19; among other actions in recent days, it blocked the account of The Federalist for linking to an article that promoted spreading the virus to build immunity, and deleted a tweet from Rudy Giuliani suggesting an anti-malaria drug could cure the coronavirus. 
  • Hackers have registered more than 1,700 new “Zoom” URLs since the pandemic began, as they try to exploit the surge in remote workers using the popular video-calling platform.
  • Online hiring platform ZipRecruiter is laying off about a third of its staff as businesses halt hiring. 
  • Richard Branson’s rocket company Virgin Orbit is working with researchers at the University of California Irvine and the University of Texas at Austin to mass-produce ventilators. 
  • Abbott Laboratories is launching a rapid test kit that can deliver a positive result in as little as five minutes and will be run on a portable machine the size of a toaster.

Across the world: The World Health Organization is asking countries to protect the free flow of medical supplies. A virtual gathering of G20 trade ministers today pledged to do that, among other things. Moscow experienced its first day of lockdown. Hungary passed emergency legislation letting Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rule indefinitely by decree. Indigenous communities in South America are locking themselves down over fears that the coronavirus could spur “a true genocide.” Doctors in India are being evicted from their own homes and camping out in hospital restrooms due to the stigma that they could carry the virus. Thomas Schaefer, finance minister of Germany’s Hesse state, which includes Frankfurt, has reportedly died by suicide after becoming “deeply worried” about the economic fallout of the virus. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in quarantine after being in contact with an aide who tested positive for COVID-19. A U.S. Navy hospital ship with 1,000 beds and 12 operating rooms arrived at New York City to help relieve the city’s hospitals; the ship was last sent to the city after 9/11. The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics have been rescheduled for summer 2021. Lionel Messi and his FC Barcelona teammates have taken a 70 per cent pay cut. A Vincent van Gogh painting was stolen from the Singer Laren museum in the Netherlands, which had been closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “I’m shocked and unbelievably annoyed that this has happened,” said museum director Jan Rudolph de Lorm.

“This is an injury due to self-isolation and boredom”: Daniel Reardon, an astrophysicist and research fellow at a Melbourne-based university, was trying to create a device made from magnets to help people stop touching their faces, when the magnets went into his nostrils. He tried using other magnets to pull them out, but they simply stuck to those already inside his nose. “Needless to say, I am not going to play with the magnets anymore,” said Reardon.

* Numbers aren’t adjusted for population because the virus spreads at roughly the same pace regardless of country size. Numbers may also vary based on countries’ individual testing capacity and reporting.

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