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COVID-19 roundup: Canada opposes White House border plan

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks during a press conference on COVID-19 in West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Thursday, March 19, 2020. The Canadian Press/Justin Tang
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It’s day 16 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is now 3,890 as of publication time. On their respective 16th day, the U.K. had 3,983 cases, the U.S. had 9,197 and Italy 9,172.* The following day, the U.K. jumped to 5,018 cases, the U.S. 13,779 and Italy 10,149.

The U.S. added 13,355 cases today alone; there are now 68,489 reported cases of COVID-19 in the country. Germany recorded 4,954 new coronavirus cases over the past day, taking the total to 36,508—the third-highest in Europe, behind Italy and Spain.

Live from Rideau Cottage: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada is “in discussions” with the White House about the U.S.’s proposal to place 1,000 troops near the border. According to the CBC, the soldiers would be positioned 25 kilometres from the border and would use sensors to detect irregular crossers. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said she was strongly opposed to the U.S. proposal. Trudeau’s comments followed an online G20 meeting, after which he emphasized the need for global coordination. Speaking from his 15th day in self-isolation, Trudeau also warned Canadians of a “text scam” about the new emergency-aid benefit announced yesterday, which will provide $2,000 to those without work within 10 days of applying on the website. Here’s a guide to accessing the federal and provincial income support. 

In the markets: Despite record-high U.S. unemployment numbers, the Dow Jones surged 6.4 per cent and stock as a whole continued to rise for the third consecutive day this week. The S&P 500 gained 6.2 per cent, and the Nasdaq Composite added 5.6 per cent. The gains came the morning after a US$2-trillion stimulus package was approved by the U.S. Senate. It was one of several stimulus extensions that have been announced in the last 24 hours. The European Central Bank removed all constraints preventing it from executing its €750-billion bond-purchase program. Meanwhile, the Bank of England, which has already made two emergency interest rate cuts, is predicting a “large and sharp” U.K downturn, saying, “There is a risk of longer-term damage to the economy, especially if there are business failures on a large scale or significant increases in unemployment.” The Toronto Stock Exchange reentered bull market territory Thursday, gaining 1.8 per cent. The Canadian dollar gained 0.94 per cent to trade for 71 cents U.S.

$104 billion: That’s The Logic’s estimate of how much value the combined public equity holdings of Canada’s top 10 pension funds had lost in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak as of Wednesday. The 10 funds have an average of 27 per cent of their assets invested in the public markets, based on an analysis of each firm’s disclosed asset allocation at the time each last reported its finances. British Columbia Investment Management Corporation, which manages funds for over 2.3 million people, is the most exposed to public equity, which represents 41 per cent of its $153.4 billion in assets. The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board had $140.8 billion invested in public equity as of Dec. 31, 2019, about 27 per cent of its portfolio, but the largest amount of any pension fund.

US$124 billion: That’s how much Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, had lost in the markets prior to today. The fund was valued at over US$1 trillion at the end of 2019 and has now dropped 16.2 per cent to US$930 billion. Its stock market portfolio, its main asset class, has also lost 22.8 per cent of its value. It’s now looking to raise its stock market investments from 65.3 to 70 per cent. 

Banking’s moment of truth?: CIBC CEO Victor Dodig said the bank is seeing a huge volume of requests after announcing it would defer payments on mortgages, loans and credit lines. “This is our moment of truth as a bank,” he told The Globe and Mail. “Nobody’s ever faced anything like this. It’s a highly human story.” Ottawa is in discussion with banks and credit-card companies to lower interest rates. The government will also buy up to $150 billion of mortgage securities from banks, triple the amount it had previously announced. Market watchers expect the Bank of Canada to introduce large-scale asset purchases in due course. Entrepreneurs remain wary of the government’s efforts to provide financial relief to businesses, saying the Business Development Bank of Canada program will not resolve their immediate cash-flow needs. Capital from seed-stage funding has fallen by about 22 per cent globally since January, according to a new CB Insights analysis. 

“Worst employment month in post-World-War history”: That’s what David Macdonald, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, is projecting in his latest analysis of the immediate economic impacts of the coronavirus on Canadian workers. Some two million workers in the airline; art, culture, recreation and sport; retail; and food and hospitality sectors have already lost or are at immediate risk of losing their jobs by the end of this month, in what Macdonald called “the first round of layoffs.” In the “probable” scenario, that will push the country’s unemployment rate to an estimated 13.5 per cent. Newfoundland and Labrador could see the biggest surge in the country, rising from 13.3 to 21.8 percent; Quebec may grow from 5.0 to 12.8 per cent and Alberta from 7.5 to 14.7 per cent. Toronto could see 250,000 people newly unemployed. While Macdonald’s analysis is based on February labour-force data, and new employment data won’t be available until April 9 (the new Statistics Canada economic dashboard shows only a slight dip in January), others have made similar findings. In a report released yesterday, the Conference Board of Canada projected a loss of more than 330,000 jobs over the second and third quarters of 2020, boosting the unemployment rate to 7.7 per cent. 

The employment landscape around the world remains bleak. The International Labour Organization estimated a week ago that in the worst-case scenario, global unemployment will rise by up to 24.7 million, compared to 22 million during the 2008 financial crisis. Today, the organization said that number will be significantly higher. In the United States, a record 3.3 million people applied for unemployment benefits—five times the previous record high in 1982—overwhelming an aging system (and that may be an undercount). 

There is, however, a silver lining for Canadians, Macdonald told The Logic: The government’s newly announced emergency response benefit will ensure that 84 per cent of these laid-off workers are much better off than if they were reliant on employment insurance. Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said the benefit could be a model for future government assistance. The situation, however, changes day by day. Employment lawyers are warning that companies are not legally permitted to hand out short-term layoffs. Meanwhile, a crowdsourced database called “Save Small Business” has reached over 17,000 entries, with many claiming they have had to lay off their staff. 

“This is serious business, you’re not overreacting”: Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told NBA star Stephen Curry in an almost 30-minute Instagram Live conversation about the coronavirus.

Cross-country checkup: Canada shipped 16 tonnes of personal protective equipment to China last month to help Beijing fight the coronavirus, and now Beijing is reportedly returning the favour by sending back more than was received. Ontario’s $17-billion relief package was created in 16 days, and may be based on outdated projections. Municipalities in the province are worried about the health of their coffers. The provincial government is allowing any establishment with a liquor licence to sell alcohol for takeout or delivery. 

Meanwhile, British Columbia is freezing rent and banning most evictions, offering residents $500 a month for the next three months to help with bills. The province also used emergency powers to establish a new supply-chain coordination unit; ban the secondary resale of essential items; restrict the quantities of items bought by individuals; and enable municipal police to enforce business closures and gatherings. Alberta is asking companies to share their pandemic response capabilities. Cities like Toronto and Vancouver are considering closing roads to encourage social distancing. Major Toronto hospitals are rationing masks, urging some frontline health-care workers to use one mask per day. In the span of a week, over 450 mental health workers have signed up to provide free teletherapy sessions to health-care staff. The beauty industry is reeling from the closure of non-essential businesses.

From Bay Street to Main Street: 

  • Canada’s oil sector is poised for deep production cuts in the coming days, as demand for fuel shrinks and crude hits storage capacity. 
  • Cirque du Soleil is considering a bankruptcy filing after cancelling all its shows and laying off most of its staff. 
  • Toronto-based telehealth company Insig closed a $5.94-million strategic investment round from Vancouver-based Well Health, which provides electronic medical-record software to Canadian clinics.
  • Internet service provider TekSavvy is laying off 130 employees and raising its rates in part to deal with increased costs associated with COVID-19, as well as a court challenge on wholesale rates. 
  • Business groups across North America are urging governments to delay the implementation of the U.S.-Canada-Mexico Agreement, saying that doing so at a time of crisis would be “recklessly harmful.”

Helping hands: Imagine Canada is projecting that three months of mandated social distancing and the economic downturn associated with COVID-19 will cause charities to lose $9.5 billion and lay off more than 117,000 employees, of which the majority would be women. In light of that, 140 major charities including United Way, the YMCA and Kids Help Phone have asked Ottawa to establish a $10-billion stabilization fund. Meanwhile, the last two weeks have seen the creation of about 1,000 GoFundMe campaigns that have raised nearly $2 million for Canadian businesses, individuals, and communities impacted by COVID-19, the firm told The Logic. The Royal Canadian Legion has launched several new support programs including a virtual buddy-check coffee.

Force majeure: Jane Wisener’s event-planning company had eight clients with conferences scheduled for this spring in Ottawa and Toronto; as of yesterday, all of them have been cancelled outright or postponed. Her first client to call off an event did so on March 9, for a conference scheduled for the end of the month. “If you, the client, cancelled because your guests aren’t travelling or you’re uncomfortable with it, you’re on the hook 100-per-cent for the deposits you paid,” she told The Logic. One of her clients was bracing to spend $35,000 on a venue and vendors they’d never use, she said. “They were unwilling to budge on that because there was no policy or directive from above to let any of that slide. My advice at that point to my clients was sit tight.” 

Despite mounting calls for prolonged social distancing, some conference organizers and vendors have been playing a game of chicken, each waiting for the other to call off the event first. Most contracts have a “force majeure” clause, Wisener explained—a provision that lets clients back out of their agreements in “act of God” scenarios that are outside their control. In this circumstance, it was government directives to maintain social distancing that gave clients an out. “All of the clients I have been personally dealing with have been left off the hook, from a venue standpoint,” she said. While Wisener has spared her clients of tens of thousands in sunk costs, she’s had to lay off her own team in the process and forgo revenue for the busiest conference season of the year; she also worries about the venues, caterers and AV companies in the same boat. “A lot of the small businesses we work with have had to lay off staff. We’re all hoping they survive so we can use them in the future.” 

Putting COVID-19 through the AI wringer: A 12-member team of bioinformaticians from MILA and Université de Montréal is using AI to study whether hundreds of thousands of mutations of the virus will hamper the development of a vaccine, The Logic has learned. A sub-study of the Montreal Heart Institute’s Colcorona study will use data harvested from Quebec cases of the virus.  

“Machine learning can be used to learn features that are important to the prediction of severity, comorbidities and response to treatment,” said team leader Julie Hussin, a professor of computational genomics at the Université de Montréal. The team’s findings, which are expected in a few months, will also be able to predict the mutations of the virus once a vaccine is introduced, which could potentially blunt the next outbreak. Such mutations are inevitable, Hussin said. “The virus wants to pass on its genes like everything else in the world. It wants to infect as many people as possible because it wants to take over.”

Solutions as a service: Several new data tools have emerged as entrepreneurs and innovators across the country heed government calls to help. On Thursday, the Canadian Urban Institute launched two volunteer-built platforms: CityWatch Canada, which tracks in real-time local governments’ daily emergency responses, and CityShare Canada, which crowdsources community crisis-response initiatives. “This is an all-hands-on deck moment,” the institute’s CEO and president Mary Rowe told The Logic. “We found that municipalities were responding in real time and making it up as they went … so we wanted to create broad mutual-aid tools that can help us learn faster and adapt more quickly.” The community response platform, Rowe added, was a way to “enliven” discussions about the most effective initiatives “when you can’t physically be in the same space.”

With campus closed and classes shifted online, Shrey Jain, a first-year engineering student at the University of Toronto, has joined forces with his classmates to create Flatten, a free online platform that provides a real-time heat map of potential and confirmed COVID-19 cases. Users are asked to anonymously self-report potential cases of COVID-19, based on a series of screening questions that the team developed in consultation with public health professionals. It’s backed by Google Cloud and the Vector Institute. Jain hopes it will help governments identify areas that require the most attention. “Whether you’re a CEO or a student, people don’t care about their ego at this point. It’s a time to collaborate and help each other,” Jain told The Logic.A collection of coronavirus innovation projects around the world, including those in Canada, can be found here. A list of helpful deals for businesses navigating this crisis can be found here

Postcard from the Catskills: Sidewalk Labs executive Nerissa Moray’s current base of operations is the mountain region north of New York City, in a “fixer-upper” home she and her husband have been working on on weekends for the better part of a decade. At least every other week, she typically flew to Toronto, where she was raised and where most of the rest of the team working on the Alphabet subsidiary’s Quayside smart-city project are based. “The nice thing [in the Catskills] is we can go outside and just walk around, and there’s no one around,” she told The Logic

Moray has reworked her schedule to spend the mornings helping her daughter, who recently turned seven, adapt to remote learning; her eight-year-old son is teaching himself how to code. She now typically works between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m., with other colleagues starting and finishing earlier or later. “Trying to make that all match up with people, that’s a huge challenge at the moment,” Moray said. Her husband is in charge of biosafety for a university in New York City. “Some of the labs are doing work on COVID now, very actively,” she said, so “he has to be there in person.” He’s up on weekends, but that means the family can’t see friends who are similarly isolating in the remote Catskills. The city was “like a ghost town” before she left. While there were people on the street, businesses were all closed. “Your favourite deli shop or local restaurant would usually be full of people, [so] it feels obviously very empty.” The Catskills feel empty, too—her property is on a remote road, where the houses are a few acres apart. “It snowed eight inches two days ago,” she said. “I sit next to a forest, so it’s actually really beautiful.”  

Across the globe: More than 100 former national security officials urged the Trump administration to activate the Defense Production Act, which would give it powers to ramp up the manufacturing and distribution of critical supplies like ventilators and personal protective equipment; the president has said he’s prepared to implement the act, but hasn’t yet. Reuters reported that Washington slashed over two-thirds of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention workers in China in the two years leading up to the pandemic; the agency, which has worked in China for 30 years, is responsible for helping countries stop diseases from spreading. As the situation in China improves, it will suspend the entry of foreign nationals with visas or residence permits starting at midnight on March 28. India unveiled a 1.7-trillion-rupee ($31.73-billion) relief package that will include support for farmers and migrant workers, and state-sponsored contributions to retirement funds. Kosovo lawmakers ousted Prime Minister Albin Kurti, after he fired the country’s health minister without consultation; the minister had supported the president’s calls for a state of emergency to deal with the virus, which Kurti said wasn’t justified. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said world leaders have squandered their first opportunity to stop COVID-19. Now, he said, governments should be wholly focused on fighting the pandemic, including identifying, isolating and treating patients. 

Briefly: 

  • Nestlé will pay its laid-off workers their full salary for three months and raise hourly pay for its remaining workers in Canada by US$3.
  • Airbnb is asking hosts to open their homes to health-care and relief workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, waiving all fees it typically charges them. The company is also negotiating with bankers on extending its US$1-billion loan facility to help cope with the plunge in rentals. 
  • E-scooter company Lime is raising emergency funding at a valuation 80 per cent lower than it was last year, The Information reported, after retreating from nearly two-dozen markets.
  • As internet use surges, regulators in the EU have asked tech companies to reduce video size and quality to improve download speeds, while U.S. regulators are giving telecoms more spectrum to boost network capacity. 
  • A consortium of researchers in the U.S. has earmarked US$367 million to study how AI can slow the spread of COVID-19 and accelerate treatment development.
  • Starting April 30, Amazon will let merchants on its platform defer loans the e-commerce giant had provided.
  • McDonald’s is paring down its U.S. menu to simplify operations during the pandemic; it has already closed all restaurants in the U.K. and Ireland. 

Mistaken identity: The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission paused the trading of Zoom Technologies because investors were confusing it with the Zoom Video Communications. The latter’s stock price has risen by more than 30 per cent in the past five weeks.

* 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. All numbers are as of time of publication.

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