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COVID-19 roundup: The cost of Ottawa’s pandemic programs

Minister of Finance Bill Morneau stands in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The Canadian Press/Justin Tang
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It’s day 106 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 102,184 as of publication time, up 221 since yesterday—a 28 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of 308 new cases. At its peak on May 3, the seven-day average was 1,603 new cases a day. 

Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program, said, “Unfortunately, the pandemic for many countries in the Americas has not peaked.”

The state of play: Ottawa’s three key COVD-19 support programs have disbursed tens of billions to pandemic-affected businesses and workers—and there’s more to come.

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Potential applicants continue to wait for more details on the expansions of the measures, which provide credit, salary-assistance and direct payments. On Friday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau postponed the rollout of new qualification criteria to allow small firms that pay staff as contractors instead of employees to get $40,000 partially forgivable loans via the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA); there’s no timeline yet for changes that would make operators who use personal instead of business bank accounts eligible. 

Ottawa has also promised to reconsider the criteria for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), the $847-per-employee-per-week salary-assistance program, including the requirement that firms show significant revenue declines during the pandemic. 

And last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government would extend the eligibility period for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a $2,000-monthly transfer, by eight weeks. It will also modify the approval process to ensure applicants are looking for jobs, if they’re able to work. 

Over the last three months, The Logic has been tracking the dollars Ottawa has actually paid out from the three programs. Here’s how much each program has disbursed and how their budgets have changed since April 6, when applications for the CERB opened.

Ottawa’s pandemic-fueled spending hasn’t gone unnoticed. Fitch Ratings downgraded Canada’s credit rating to AA+, citing the growing size of provincial and federal deficits. The agency said it expects the economy to “gradually recover.” It also said the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio will “stabilize over the medium term,” citing pre-pandemic trends; Morneau has chosen to focus on that figure, rather than the size of his budget deficits. “A worst-case scenario for Canadians and the economy would have been not to act,” the finance minister said Wednesday, responding to the Fitch change. 

In the markets: All major U.S. indices closed down over two per cent after Arizona, Texas and California reported record daily infection rates and the U.S. said it was considering US$3.1 billion in tariffs on products from the U.K., France, Spain and Germany. 

The TSX fared better than its U.S. counterparts, but was still down 1.74 per cent after Fitch’s announcement. The International Monetary Fund predicted a global economic contraction of 4.9 per cent this year, worse than the three per cent it estimated 10 weeks ago. Canada’s GDP is expected to contract 8.4 per cent, 2.2 percentage points below the previous estimate. The Canadian dollar fell to 73.37 cents U.S. in late afternoon trading. 

Trade tensions were on display again Wednesday with both the U.S. and Europe threatening to increase tariffs on each other if they didn’t negotiate in a dispute born of aircraft-manufacturing subsidies. U.S. products being imported from China are reportedly being held at Indian ports amid rising Beijing-New Delhi tensions. And the Pentagon has compiled a list of 20 firms that are aiding the Chinese military as part of an effort to make it harder for Beijing to get access to sensitive technologies. Gold neared an eight-year high as investors look for a safe harbour from falling stock prices. 

“It’s like we’re saying, ‘Let’s go out and see just how bad the virus can get’”: Pedro Hallal, the dean of the Federal University of Pelotas, is concerned Brazil has become what Bloomberg described as “the true worst-case scenario, a laboratory for what happens when a deadly and little-understood pathogen spreads without much restriction.”

Trace me on my cellphone: Privacy advocate groups from across Canada have written to the prime minister expressing concern that Ottawa’s contact-tracing app was announced “far too early, as the requisite privacy assessments are yet to be completed.” The groups, which include the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association and OpenMedia, are calling for much more research and testing before the app’s release. 

A new ransomware called CryCryptor has been targeting Android users in Canada through two websites a fake COVID-19 contact-tracing app disguised as Health Canada-approved software. According to researchers from ESET, a Slovak internet security firm, the two websites were designed to look like formal Government of Canada sites. The malware surfaced just a few days after Trudeau announced the app.

Bay Street to Main Street: Brookfield Asset Management said it’s seeing higher demand for office space as some companies return to socially distanced workplaces that necessitate more physical space. “They want to accommodate their people and get them back quickly. They’re increasing their footprints versus taking less,” said CEO Bruce Flatt. The company, which is one of the world’s largest real estate investors, has set aside US$60 billion for new investments. Seventy per cent of its London workforce and 30 per cent of its New York staff are already back in the office. 

  • Quebec is taking equity stakes in struggling businesses in an attempt to speed up recovery in the province. 
  • Nationwide manufacturing sales rose 6.2 per cent in May, according to an initial estimate from Statistics Canada. 
  • Federal lobbyists are pushing for more government cash for their clients, with 1,998 lobbyist reports filed in May. 
  • A New Brunswick-based virtual health-care company said it’s been forced to cut services after the province redacted the rate it can bill by a third.  
  • The largest catering and tourism firms in Halifax have laid off almost all staff despite being allowed to reopen by the government. 
  • PaymentGenes, a recruitment firm headquartered in the Netherlands, has chosen Toronto as the location of its North American headquarters. 
  • WestJet is cutting 3,333 jobs, restructuring management and contracting out much of its domestic airport operations in what its CEO described as a “last resort” amid the pandemic. 
  • Canada Goose is distributing 20,000 general scrub uniforms to hospitals in New York.

Crowdsourcing the crisis: Borrowell has launched Boost, a new tool within its mobile app designed to help Canadians pay their bills on time and keep their credit score healthy. The Help List, a database created by Prospect of Canadian tech workers looking for jobs during the pandemic, has now broadened its scope to include tech workers in the U.S. who have been impacted by the H-1B visa suspension. Job seekers and employers can access it here.

In the lab: Alberta is investing $10 million to fund the development of antibody tests meant to show how many people have had COVID-19. China National Biotec Group has been approved to run a large-scale Phase 3 clinical trial of its vaccine in the United Arab Emirates; China is looking overseas due to a dearth of domestic patients. Japan is facing the same problem. “Due to the decreasing number of coronavirus infections, we believe it will take some time before clinical research is completed,” said Tetsuya Nakamura, who is running a trial at Guna University Hospital of Avigan, a drug that has been approved in Russia and India, but not Japan.

Cross-country checkup: A pilot project in B.C. is testing sewage samples for traces of COVID-19 and associated outbreaks of the virus. Ontario is providing full funding to long-term care facilities for the rest of the year, while also admitting fewer residents in a bid to control the spread of COVID-19 in the homes. The four Atlantic provinces are lifting travel restrictions between their borders; anyone traveling from outside the bubble will have to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. Nova Scotia’s Progressive Conservative Party submitted its own plan to the governing Liberals on how to safely return to school in the fall. Its recommendations include capping class sizes at 15 students up to Grade 5; school buses operating at half capacity; and at-home learning that considers parents’ access to the internet. The growing number of children and teens contracting COVID-19 has some experts questioning plans to reopen schools. 

Drinking from the firehose: 

  • The latest ride-hailing data shows a slowdown in users for the week ended June 21, after a brief uptick. 
  • Speaker maker Sonos is cutting 12 per cent of its workforce, citing uncertainty due to the pandemic. It is also closing its New York retail store and six satellite offices. 
  • Vitamin supplier GNC Holdings has filed for bankruptcy amid falling sales during the pandemic; it plans to close between 800 and 1,200 stores and is looking to sell itself. 
  • Game developer Tencent Holdings has surpassed Alibaba as China’s most valuable company.
  • WeWork has asked the local government of Spelthorne Borough in the U.K. to waive 18 months of rent in exchange for a five-year extension on its lease; the local authority has borrowed more than US$1.24 billion to invest in commercial property. 

Around the world: Seven U.S. states have reported their highest coronavirus patient admissions in the pandemic so far: Arizona, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. The Texas Children’s Hospital system has started to accept adult COVID-19 patients. More than 13,000 employees within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or 75 per cent of the workforce, are facing extended furloughs starting August 3 due to a sharp decrease in applications. The New York City Marathon, scheduled for November 1, has been cancelled.

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Pubs, bars and restaurants in the U.K. will reopen on July 4 and have been instructed to refrain from hosting live performances. Soldiers have been called in to manage health-care centres in Delhi, after the country recorded its highest single-day increase in cases. The pilots of a Pakistan airliner that crashed last month, killing 97, were distracted by conversations about the pandemic. A new report from Amnesty International that examined the enforcement of physical-distancing measures in 12 European countries found the pandemic has led to greater “marginalisation, stigmatisation and violence.” Aggressive groups of monkeys have taken over a city in Thailand, fuelled by junk food instead of bananas. Said one resident, “We live in a cage, but the monkeys live outside.”

A paranormal pandemic: Japan is home to a drive-in haunted house experience, where “guests are confined in a car so they can’t escape the horror until the end.”

* 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.

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