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COVID-19 roundup: Outbreak claims over a million Canadian jobs

People line up outside of a TD Canada Trust bank while practising physical distancing in Mississauga, Ont., on Friday, March 27, 2020. The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette
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It’s day 30 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 20,703 as of publication time, up 1,412 since yesterday, a 22 per cent increase in daily new cases from the three-day prior average. On their respective 30th day, U.S. daily new cases were up 22 per cent from the three-day prior average; the U.K. had a 15 per cent increase in daily new cases from the three-day prior; and in Italy, new cases were down 21 per cent.* 

Coronavirus cases worldwide are nearing 1.5 million. New York has lost about the same number of people to the coronavirus as the U.K. Between 11,000 and 22,000 Canadians could die from COVID-19 by the end of the pandemic, health officials said on Thursday. Around 500 to 700 people are expected to die between now and next Thursday. The death toll so far is 435. 

Stark numbers: The number of employed people in Canada fell by 1.01 million in March, according to the Labour Force Survey (LFS) Statistics Canada released Thursday, the first since the economic shutdown from COVID-19. The unemployment rate rose to 7.8 per cent, up 2.2 percentage points, the largest single-month jump since the modern LFS began in 1976. “Stark as those numbers are, they aren’t a surprise for a lot of Canadians,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at his morning press conference. But the knowledge the pandemic is affecting people around the world is “no comfort if you’re out of a job, if you’re having difficulty making ends meet,” he acknowledged.   

Women, young people and vulnerable workers such as those earning less than two-thirds the median hourly wage, were disproportionately hurt. Among Canadians in the core work age range of 25 to 54 years old, employment among women dropped by 298,500, more than double the 127,600 for men. Some 392,500 people aged 15 to 24 years old lost their jobs, mostly part-time work, and students who also work were most severely affected—their employment fell 31.6 per cent. Proportionally, far more temporary workers lost jobs than permanent employees (down 14.5 per cent and 5.3 per cent, respectively). No part of the country was spared. Every province except Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador posted record losses, with the most populous provinces—Ontario (5.3 per cent), Quebec (6.0 per cent), Alberta (5.0 per cent) and British Columbia (5.2 per cent)—dropping most.

Innovation-economy workers—those with occupations in the natural and applied sciences, professional, scientific and technical services or business, and finance and administration—were relatively unaffected, possibly because they can easily work from home, StatCan said. But frontline employment took major losses amid social-distancing measures, with 294,000 jobs lost in accommodation and food services and 104,000 in information, culture and recreation.

There’s worse news to come as many job losses were reported in the last 10 days of the month after StatCan had surveyed households. “Today’s numbers are just a first snapshot of the deep-freeze that’s hit the Canadian labour market,” Brendon Bernard, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab, wrote on Thursday.   

It comes in waves: “There will likely be smaller outbreaks for a number of months” after the first round of COVID-19, which is expected to peak in late spring and end in the summer, Trudeau said. Through the first wave, the government and the public are developing “tools and habits” to become more resistant to later ones, and try to keep them localized, he said. However, he warned, “Normality as it was before will not come back full on until we get a vaccine.” The House of Commons will return on Saturday to consider the government’s emergency legislation to implement the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.

In the markets: Global stocks rallied into the Easter weekend, with the Federal Reserve pledging an additional US$2.3 trillion in loans. Chairman Jerome Powell said the central bank would “continue to use these powers forcefully, proactively, and aggressively until we are confident that we are solidly on the road to recovery.” The S&P 500 was up 1.45 per cent and the Dow Jones increased 1.22 per cent; the Nasdaq gained 0.77 per cent and the S&P/TSX rose 1.82 per cent. The loonie increased one cent to 72 cents on the U.S. dollar. 

Canadian banks will now offer interest-free loans of up to $40,000 to small- and medium-sized businesses.The Bank of England will temporarily finance the government’s spending needs. The European Union has reached a tentative agreement over a €3.2-trillion stimulus package after the Netherlands “compromised” on its demands for stricter conditions. The International Monetary Fund has doubled its emergency lending capacity to US$100 billion to meet demand from countries needing financial aid. The global body is anticipating the “worst economic fallout since the Great Depression.” IMF head Kristalina Georgieva said, “We now project that over 170 countries will experience negative per capita income growth this year.” Oil prices fell despite OPEC and Russia making a deal to cut oil production by 10 million barrels a day for a two-month period; G20 energy ministers are set to meet on Friday to discuss measures in the wake of falling demand. 

BDC builds a bridge: On Thursday, BDC Capital announced its Bridge Financing Program, an initiative that will match investments in startups using convertible notes. To qualify for the program, of which The Logic broke news last week, companies need to be backed by a qualified venture capital firm and have raised at least $500,000 at some point before applying for the program. They also must have been directly impacted by COVID-19, and are subject to other due diligence from BDC. “This new program has already been communicated directly to start-ups via General Partners across the country to ensure we can prioritize capital needs,” BDC spokesperson Jean Philippe Nadeau said in an email to The Logic Thursday.

“High-level, this is positive, but the devil is in the details,” Peter van der Velden, managing general partner at Lumira Ventures, told The Logic. “The challenge is going to be meeting some of the criteria around diligence and approval, and dealing with that process in a timely fashion.” Kevin Talbot, co-founder and managing partner at Relay Ventures, agreed that the program has potential, barring eligibility requirements. “Venture-backed tech startups are the future of the Canadian economy, and this is a much needed program to ensure that our companies can not only survive, but also emerge as interesting businesses that can attract capital in the future,” he said. “They cannot simply cut their way to success.” (Relay Ventures is an investor in The Logic.)

Pandemic privacy: An app co-developed by Mila scientific director Yoshua Bengio that seeks to mitigate the risk of contracting COVID-19 by tracking people’s movements is less than a week away from launch, he told The Logic. Both the Quebec government and the federal innovation department confirmed they’ve had talks with the Bengio group about the effort. Theirs is one of several apps under development by Canadian companies vying for government promotion and financial support. “We threw this together literally in two weeks, we’re filing IP and we have a working beta,” said Christopher Hough, whose company, ViralMe, is seeking $5 million from the federal and Ontario governments to get the app working within four weeks. Premier Jason Kenney said Alberta is considering using smartphone apps to track people in quarantine, which prompted Ontario Premier Doug Ford to say it sounds like “a pretty good idea” and that he would be asking for more information about it. 

A group of European researchers has released the code for an app that, like the Bengio group’s, would use Bluetooth on people’s smartphones to monitor potential exposure to the virus. France and the Czech Republic said this week they will incorporate Bluetooth-based apps into their anti-pandemic strategies. Other new crowdsourcing tools are also emerging to help track the spread of the virus. Covid Near You is a Harvard Medical School-created website that uses voluntarily input data to map potential hotspots; 36,340 people in Canada have reported to the site.

Mask on: With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Canada’s chief public health officer now saying it’s a good idea for everyone to wear non-medical masks in public, fashion designers are wading in to fill the sudden mass-market demand with bold prints and luxury fabrics. For some companies, the commercial interest in masks has created new revenue streams that may help carry them through the pandemic, after seeing business dwindle. Some analysts even predict masks will become a mainstay in people’s wardrobes even after the virus has cleared; part of a new aesthetic trend of “preparedness gear,” said Marshal Cohen, who covers the fashion industry. “From high-end exclusives to mainstream brands, this will be the path from recovery to opportunity.”

“I don’t know if these are the revenge of nature, but they are certainly nature’s responses”: Pope Francis reflected on the pandemic in an interview with The Tablet, during which he urged people to care for the poor. “We can’t settle for a partial welfare policy,” he said. “What we are living now is a place of metanoia [conversion], and we have the chance to begin. So let’s not let it slip from us, and let’s move ahead.” 

Cross-country checkup: A 2006 report co-authored by Theresa Tam, now Canada’s chief public health officer, predicted a pandemic eerily similar to what the world is now facing and outlined how governments should prepare. But in the interim 14 years, lawmakers failed to heed the warnings. As recently as late January, federal officials, including Tam, said the risk of an outbreak in Canada was low. 

Travellers returning to B.C. from abroad must now have an isolation plan or face quarantine. Yukon has reported the virus has spread to a small rural community, its first case outside Whitehorse. Meanwhile, gold miners in the territory are ignoring self-isolation rules and travelling from the south to mine for gold. Some health clinics in Saskatchewan have made layoffs as they deal with delays in the new billing process for virtual services. Newfoundland and Labrador’s forecasting models predict the province will run out of intensive-care beds by late June, with the virus likely peaking in early November. Despite the steady drip of bad news, there are early signs that Canada is beginning to flatten the curve, with the rate of new daily cases slowing somewhat. “In this tug of war we are gaining ground but we haven’t won,” said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, “and we are not close to winning yet.”

“We are not going to run out of bread”: Brennan Turner reassured a fellow shopper at the grocery store last week. In 2019, Canada produced over 900 million bushels of wheat, each of which yields 42 pounds of flour or 70 loaves, the CEO of FarmLead and son of a Saskatchewan farming family told the man. “Canada’s a net food producer and exporter and so we have lots to go around,” Turner said. Demand remains strong; as crops in major importer India lie unharvested in the fields because of the country’s strict COVID-19 lockdown, the price traders were paying for lentils on the Ottawa-based startup’s new Combyne grain marketplace jumped almost 40 per cent last week compared to the week before, while peas rose 10 per cent. 

Bay Street to Main Street: Goodfood, the Montreal-based meal-delivery company, is making a number of changes to its operations to protect its workers. They include restricting sign-up days for new members, assigning delivery days for some, providing workers with protective gear and hiring nurses and security to enforce social distancing. In an open letter, CEO Johnathan Ferrari said the company onboarded 450 new employees last week, with hiring set to continue

  • Lightspeed expects social-distancing measures to have a negative impact on its financial performance, but still expects to meet its guidance for fourth-quarter revenue when it reports results on May 21. 
  • Clearbanc has launched Clearbanc Runway, a new financing product to help startups secure money to weather the pandemic. In order to be eligible, companies must have a minimum of $10,000 monthly revenue and at least six months of consistent revenue history.
  • WestJet will rehire almost 6,400 workers once it is approved for the federal wage subsidy.
  • Bell has seen voice traffic surge by 200 per cent and has increased its capacity in order to be able to handle an additional 300,000 wireless and landline calls an hour, with more capacity coming.
  • Layoffs announced March 31 at Mejuri, the Toronto-based e-commerce jewelry startup, affected about 15 per cent of its staff.

Telecom competition in the crisis: Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner is calling on the government to help small internet service providers in their ongoing fight with the Big Three over wholesale internet rates. “The increasing demands on the servers caused by the need to work from home mean that ISPs are now paying astronomical fees to the big telcos to use their networks. If these ISPs are forced to close shop, thousands of Canadians may have to go without internet,” said Rempel Garner, who is also the critic for industry and economic development. TekSavvy laid off 130 people last month, citing the high cost of wholesale rates. Rempel Garner’s call comes as the Conservatives and Liberals are locked in negotiations over COVID-19 legislation. She suggested a range of potential solutions, including requiring large telecoms to accept interest-free deferral of payments or moving to flat-rate billing. 

Postcard from Victoria, B.C.: Nadia Tatlow has converted her guest room into her work-from-home office. It has a door she can close, she said, which means she can separate from her partner to make it seem like a regular workday. The CEO of Shift, a Victoria-based company founded in 2017 that makes a workplace-productivity desktop app, started the year “riding a wave of momentum.” Shift closed $1 million in seed funding in December 2019 and was “pounding the pavement for Series A funding” when the pandemic hit. Discussions were already underway for the fast-growing 15-person company: term sheets had been figured out for a spring 2020 deal. “I realised very quickly that terms and conditions started to change,” Tatlow told The Logic. “The power dynamic between founders and investors and VCs started to change, too.” 

In the early days of the coronavirus’s impacts, Tatlow felt “decision paralysis,” because there were so many factors to consider. She ran through every best- and worst-case scenario and decided to postpone the raise: “In this time of uncertainty, there’s so much up in the air it didn’t make sense.” She decided instead to be “inwards looking” and focus on reforecasting, being more mindful about cash spending, and prioritizing Shift’s product roadmap “without any outside distraction.” In a time when everyone is working from home, the company has seen a consistent surge of new sign-ups, so Tatlow focused on them to “make sure they can’t live without our product.” As she does all this, she’s enjoying the small pleasures. “I often buy my coffee every day in the morning because I don’t think I have time to make my own,” she said. Now, though, “I’m enjoying making my coffee and slowing down parts of my everyday.” 

Drinking from the firehose: Zoom Video Communications has been barred by Google and U.S. Senate for security vulnerabilities. CEO Eric S. Yuan acknowledged the company’s “missteps,” but assured users the platform was safer than its competitors. “We have never sold user data in the past and we have no intention to do it,” he said. The company has brought on former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos as an adviser to address safety and privacy concerns.

  • WeWork has stopped paying rent in some locations as it enters discussions with its landlords globally to cut around 30 percent of its rent liabilities.
  • A lawsuit against Juul and Labs other vaping companies has been amended to include complications from the coronavirus.
  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wore a mask to visit one of its warehouses and a Whole Foods store to thank employees. 
  • Laid-off executives are applying for jobs at Amazon warehouses.
  • Yelp is laying off about 1,000 employees and furloughing another 1,100 employees.
  • Hundreds of workers across 50 fast-food restaurants in California have gone on strike to demand better health and safety conditions, including masks, gloves, soap, US$3 hourly hazard pay, and two weeks of paid sick leave to workers exposed to the virus.
  • Uber is delivering masks to its drivers.
  • Alphabet’s trial drone-delivery unit, Wing, is seeing demand more than double in rural Virginia.
  • American health-care and software companies are joining forces to create a registry of COVID-19 patients by collating medical records to study how the disease is spreading.
  • The pandemic has helped thaw India’s “political coldness” toward e-commerce.

Around the world: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been released from intensive care, where he had been since Monday evening; he remains in hospital. The country’s lockdown won’t be eased until at least next week, said Johnson’s stand-in, Dominic Raab. Germany’s health minister said the country would consider a gradual return to normality after the Easter break if coronavirus cases continued to decline. Spain and Italy, meanwhile, are set to extend their lockdowns. India’s Supreme Court has ordered private medical labs to provide free COVID-19 tests. New research shows most coronavirus cases in the New York area came from travellers returning from Europe, not Asia. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition declared a ceasefire in the five-year war in Yemen, citing fears of the coronavirus spreading. The United Nations has warned that the pandemic could bring “complete economic collapse” in Africa. Half a billion people could fall below the poverty line due to the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak, according to Oxfam. The pandemic could also double the number of people who go hungry. 

“Don’t throw me out into the apocalypse if it doesn’t work!”: Lockdowns around the world are creating some interesting love stories. 

* We’re now 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 three-day prior average. Numbers may also vary based on countries’ individual testing capacity and reporting.

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