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COVID-19 roundup: Not everybody can WFH

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It’s day 90 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 96,149 as of publication time, up 450 since yesterday—a 32 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of new cases. 

A new study has found that lockdowns may have prevented around half a billion coronavirus cases in China, South Korea, France, Italy, Iran and the U.S.

Widening the gap: The pandemic-driven shift to working from home will probably widen earnings inequality in Canada at least in the short term, according to a new Statistics Canada study. Members of higher-earning and -educated households were much more likely to have jobs that allowed them to complete their tasks from their spare rooms or via teleconference. In more than half the top 10 per cent of dual-income families, both sides of the couple held roles that allowed them to work from home; the same was true for just 8.1 per cent of households in the bottom tenth. “Holding jobs that can be done from home reduces the likelihood of work interruptions,” the agency said.

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Policymakers and economists have highlighted the importance of maintaining links between employers and workers. Programs like the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy are designed to keep staff on payrolls, even if there’s a lot less for them to do. The study’s findings suggest that’s even more important for less-well-compensated workers. 

In the markets: All major North American indices continued their rally from last week, with companies like airlines and retailers—whose prospects are tied to reopening—leading the charge. The Nasdaq, which closed at a new high on Monday, is already up from where it started the year despite the significant pandemic-induced stock drop-off in March and is now the first major U.S. index to reenter bull market territory, according to one widely-used definition. The S&P 500 also turned positive for the year. The Canadian dollar continued its rise, up 0.44 per cent in late afternoon trading to reach 74.77 cents U.S. The cross-board rally came despite a report that the U.S. entered a recession in February, ending a 128-month expansion. 

Energy stocks helped drive today’s rally after OPEC and allies, excluding Mexico, agreed to cut oil output by 9.6 million daily barrels until the end of next month. The real market driver in recent weeks, though, are tech stocks, with Apple and Amazon in particular helping push both the S&P 500 and Nasdaq to their new highs. Newer tech companies are driving the rise too. More firms have gone public on the tech-heavy Nasdaq then the NYSE this year. 

European stocks had a weaker day, with the benchmark Stoxx Europe 600 index dropping 0.3 per cent following reports that some countries oppose raising new debt for a COVID-19 stimulus plan. Meanwhile, the World Bank warned that GDP levels in 90 per cent of 183 nations will drop this year in the most widespread global economic downturn since at least 1870. The bank is expecting global GDP to drop 5.2 per cent this year, over double the downturn post the 2008 recession. Emerging and developing economies will be particularly hard hit, with their economies shrinking for the first time in at least six decades and with projections showing as many as 100 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty. 

“We have a number of reports from countries who are doing very detailed contact tracing. They’re following asymptomatic cases. They’re following contacts. And they’re not finding secondary transmission onward. It’s very rare”: Maria Van Kerkhove, head of WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, said person-to-person transmission between asymptomatic carriers was not a “main driver” of the spread of the virus.

Cross-country checkup: Ontario is loosening restrictions on bars and restaurants, allowing them to expand patios onto sidewalks, parking lots and, in some cases, streets, as the province moves into its next phase of reopening. Ryerson University-based Future Skills Centre announced $37 million for 30 projects that aim to help retrain workers and match people with jobs in the post-pandemic economy. Projects include nearly $1 million for Humber College to improve digital fluency in the workforce, and $1.52 million for the University Health Network and the Vector Institute to build artificial intelligence into health-care systems. A report by the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change details complaints from 1,162 migrant workers about dangerous and unfair working conditions during the pandemic, including close living quarters and no quarantine pay. Nearly half of the staff that contracted COVID-19 at Northwood Halifax, one of the hardest-hit long-term care facilities in the country, were people of colour, despite making up just 25 per cent of employees. Alberta’s beekeeping industry is getting $1 million to cover increased costs of replacing colonies during the pandemic, as importing from their typical sources in New Zealand and Australia has been halted. 

Bay Street to Main Street: Ontario is banning commercial evictions for some businesses from June through August, joining British Columbia, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Ontario’s ban applies to firms that have lost 70 per cent of their revenue during the pandemic, and reverses any evictions that happened after June 3. The policy change follows months of lobbying from businesses concerned they had no leverage to require their landlords to apply for government rent relief instead of evicting them. Other provinces may soon follow Ontario. Last week Alberta said it’s considering a commercial eviction ban. 

  • Canadian consumer confidence increased for the sixth straight week, reaching 41 last week, a level that remains near the index’s worst-ever reading in April. 
  • Canadian housing starts everywhere except Quebec dropped 20.4 in May compared with April, reaching 132,576 units and below the 155,000 economists expected. 
  • Telecom Iristel claims it is owed $79.6 million in tax refunds but the Canada Revenue Agency is auditing the firm over concerns it is wrongly asking for the funds. Iristel unsuccessfully asked the Federal Court to order the CRA to pay it part of the money while it’s being audited and is now appealing to the Federal Court of Appeal. 
  • Providence Equity Partners, Live Nation Entertainment and Guy Laliberté are expected to bid to purchase or refinance Cirque du Soleil. Bids are due today, but the process is expected to take several months. 
  • HSBC is widely advertising a 1.99 per cent five-year fixed mortgage, the first Canadian bank to do so and well below the 2.99 per cent rate advertised by some banks a month ago. 
  • Colette Warson, Rogers senior vice president of television and broadcast, is leaving the company. Julie Adam will become senior vice president of radio and television on June 16, overseeing Rogers radio stations, podcast networks, and television stations. 
  • The federal superintendent of bankruptcy is allowing assessors to examine businesses by video, telephone and email until March 31, reversing a prior rule that required individual approvals for any non in-person reviews. 
  • Toronto-based biometrics startup Invixium raised $3 million from a group including BDC Capital, Export Development Canada and McRock Capital. The firm has seen an increase in demand for its products, which include elevated body temperature detectors, during the pandemic. 

Trace me on my cellphone: Canadian employers, retailers and transit authorities should be allowed to mandate the use of contact-tracing apps, most respondents to a new Cybersecure Policy Exchange survey say. But the Ryerson University-based group is calling for governments to pass legislation preventing agencies and businesses from imposing such requirements, citing their discriminatory impact on low-income people and seniors. Across the Atlantic, an unreviewed study from Imperial College found U.K. residents who thought they had already had COVID-19 were less willing to install a contact tracing app than those who believe they had not yet been infected. Switzerland’s government has voted to approve a Bluetooth contact-tracing app that uses Apple and Google’s technology; the app is optional and will be released this month.

Crowdsourcing the crisis: Google’s first Canadian accelerator for early-stage startups was scheduled to accept its first cohort in April but was paused due to COVID-19. The accelerator, planned for set up in Waterloo, Ont., has now shifted to a virtual setting, which the company hopes will allow startups outside Ontario to also apply. Applications are open till June 30 for its inaugural program in September.

In the lab: AstraZeneca approached Gilead Sciences last month about a possible merger. The two companies, which are racing to create a COVID-19 vaccine, aren’t currently in formal talks. People with type O blood may be at a lower risk of catching coronavirus and being hospitalised, according to a study from 23andMe, the genetics testing company. The world could see a viable coronavirus vaccine later this year, but it won’t stop the pandemic; here is why. 

Drinking from the firehose: After facing pressure from privacy groups, the U.K. government has released the terms of contracts it signed with big tech companies Palantir, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and British AI specialist Faculty, which gave them access to sensitive personal and health data. The contracts show Palantir charged only £1 for use of its Foundry data management software while Google offered “technical, advisory and other support” for free. Palantir has not commented on the contract. You can see the contracts here.

  • Twitter has started displaying fact-check labels on tweets that appear to incorrectly link 5G mobile technology to the spread of the coronavirus.
  • Google will show COVID-19-related travel restrictions on its Maps service.
  • Airbnb saw more nights booked locally for U.S. listings between May 17 and June 3 than the same period last year, and a similar boost in domestic travel globally.
  • Didi Chuxing, China’s biggest ride-hailing company, reported its ride-sharing orders have recovered to levels seen over the same period in 2019.
  • British Petroleum will cut 10,000 jobs due to the COVID-19 slump in oil demand.
  • Dunkin’ wants to hire 25,000 workers as the restaurant sector reopens; the coffee chain is also partnering with Southern New Hampshire University to offer employees an online college education.
  • U.S. e-commerce sales will increase by 18 per cent this year, due to the coronavirus, says eMarketer.
  • Employers are offering workers new job perks, including mental health and mindfulness services and digital fitness classes.
  • Forty-one per cent of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. shut down because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Around the world: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern “did a little dance” after New Zealand declared itself COVID-19-free. On Tuesday, Moscow will end restrictive measures including digital passes required for traveling around the city. The Philippines won’t reopen schools until a vaccine is available. Saudi Arabia’s virus cases have passed 100,000; the country is considering limiting numbers of attendees at the upcoming Hajj pilgrimage. Brazil has partly resumed publishing a running total of coronavirus deaths and infections after removing all data from the health ministry’s website over the weekend; the initial decision was decried a “statistical coup” and led to a nationwide uproar. Around 35 million stimulus cheques still need to be issued by the U.S. government. Growing amounts of “covid-waste”—masks and gloves—is threatening the world’s oceans.

“All-pet private jet”: A Mumbai-based cybersecurity researcher has organized a flight to reunite pets who were separated from their families because of lockdowns. So far, the flight’s passengers include one Golden Retriever, two Shih Tzus and a Lady Pheasant bird. 

* We’re emphasizing new cases, rather than running totals, because “flattening the curve” is when each day’s new cases are fewer than those of the previous day. The percentage increase is determined based on how today’s cases compare to a rolling seven-day prior average. Numbers may also vary based on countries’ individual testing capacity and reporting.

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