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COVID-19 roundup: Vancouver-based Amazon VP quits in labour protest

A protester holds a sign that reads "Unionize Amazon Tax Bezos," as she rides in a van during a car-based protest Friday, May 1, 2020, at the Amazon Spheres in downtown Seattle. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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It’s day 55 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 60,616 as of publication time, up 1,142 since yesterday—a 29 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of new cases, which was up dramatically over the weekend. On their respective 55th day, U.S. daily new cases were down 14 per cent from the seven-day prior average; the U.K. was also down 14 per cent in daily new cases from the seven-day prior; and in Italy, new cases were down three per cent.* 

Australia, which has kept schools open, has released a new study that found children are not “superspreaders” of COVID-19, as previously assumed. The preliminary data, which has not yet been peer reviewed, could help in the decision to reopen schools. 

“Fungible units of pick-and-pack potential”: Tim Bray, a prominent Canadian engineer and a vice-president at Amazon Web Services, has resigned, citing the company’s firings of employees who spoke out against its environmental record and handling of COVID-19. 

Bray, whose last day was Friday, did not mince words in a blog post Monday, calling Amazon “chickens–t” for its treatment of vocally critical staff and protest organizers, and saying the firings were “designed to create a climate of fear.” Staying at his Amazon post in Vancouver, which he held for over five years and called “the best job I’ve ever had,” would have meant “signing off on actions I despised,” he wrote.  

Bray’s last day was May 1, and coincided with Amazon warehouse workers calling in sick to protest what they’ve called unsafe working conditions amid pressure to meet the growing demand for online delivery. While Amazon said it’s prioritized safety during the pandemic, many workers at facilities around the world have said it isn’t enough. More than half of Amazon’s 110 warehouses in the U.S. had reported cases of COVID-19 as of mid-April; workers at warehouses in the Toronto and Calgary areas, among others in Canada, have also tested positive, leaving some of them feeling unsafe at work. “At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response. It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential,” said Bray. “Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done.” 

The decision will likely cost him more than US$1 million in salary and unvested Amazon stock.

Hours after announcing his resignation, Bray said he’d already been contacted by recruiters for Google, Huawei, Comcast and several startups; he is not looking for work just yet. 

By the numbers:

  • Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy
    75 per cent of an employee’s wages, up to $847 a week, for employers whose gross revenues dropped by at least 15 per cent in March, and 30 per cent in April and May
    An estimated 1.7 million workers will receive aid through this program after 96,000 applications were submitted as of May 3.
  • Canada Emergency Business Account
    Loans of up to $40,000 to small businesses and non-profits
    Financial institutions have signed off on over $20 billion in loans to more than 580,000 applicants, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said on a Monday teleconference organized by HR software firm Ceridian.
  • Canada Emergency Response Benefit
    $2,000 a month for up to 16 weeks for workers who have lost income due to COVID-19
    Almost 7.3 million Canadians have received this benefit from a total of 10.6 million applications.

VC funding down seven per cent: The amount raised in Canada in the first quarter hit $834 million—but that likely reflects only part of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on Canadian venture deals. The decline comes off 2019’s record year for VC funding, which saw over $6 billion raised, about double the year before and the largest annual haul since 2000. Funding dropped 44 per cent from the $1.5 billion raised in the fourth quarter of last year. While VC funding is typically weakest in the first quarter, this is the largest percentage drop in at least seven years.

“This is a very good time to borrow money, which means it may not be such a great time to lend money”: Warren Buffett is braced for the worst. At Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholder’s meeting, held online for the first time, Buffett lauded the U.S. Federal Reserve’s rapid stimulus response, but said companies received help from the public market “at terms [Berkshire] wouldn’t have given to them.” Buffett also announced he’d sold his holdings in the four biggest U.S. airlines. 

In the markets: All major North American indices ended the day up slightly after early-day losses on renewed U.S.-China tensions and Buffett’s comments over the weekend about his concerns for a potential economic recovery. The tech-heavy Nasdaq was up the most, by 1.23 per cent. The dollar briefly hit an 11-day low of 70.95 cents U.S., before rising one-hundredth of a cent in late afternoon trading. Consumer sentiment in Canada, as measured by polling from Nanos Research, ticked up slightly last week, its first gain since February, although the measure remains near all-time lows. 

U.K. business confidence, by contrast, dropped the most on record last quarter, with companies projecting revenues to be a fifth lower than previously expected. Manufacturing activity for the eurozone also fell to its lowest records on level. Some governments are rolling out new programs to try and stop the bleeding, with the U.K. launching £50,000 small-business loans that are entirely government-backed, and emerging-market central banks cutting interest rates, in the highest number of reductions since the 2008 financial crisis. The Bank of England’s deputy governor said banks in his country should have more than enough available capital to back loans needed by businesses during the pandemic. The Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, a group that includes BlackRock and collectively manages trillions in assets, is calling on G20 nations to ensure their post-pandemic recovery plans help them meet the targets in the Paris climate accord.

Operators are standing by: A European Union-led telethon to raise €7.5 billion for global COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines had nearly hit its target as The Logic sent this newsletter. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged more than $850 million, but that’s actually money Ottawa has already promised for research and development over the last six weeks. “To keep Canadians safe and restart our economy, we need to defeat this virus not just within our borders, but wherever it will be found,” he said. Norway pledged the most, at $1.4 billion, while Germany is budgeting $806 million. 

Canada’s funding will mostly be spent domestically. On Sunday, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains announced that Vancouver-based biotech company AbCellera will receive $175.6 million through the Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF) to continue developing its technology for identifying disease antibodies and set up a manufacturing facility. The firm is working with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly on a COVID-19 treatment. “A process that will normally take a decade—to discover an antibody, get it into [testing] and approved to the market—we are [doing] in what will be a number of months,” AbCellera CFO Andrew Booth told The Logic last month. The SIF award is the second-largest to date, and worth more than the program’s four previous biotech and health tech projects combined, according to The Logic’s ongoing analysis.

In the lab: Other countries are making some progress on the vaccine front. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said a clinical trial of the drug Avigan was going well; Japan has fast-tracked the approval process for the drug, which will be shared free with 43 countries for research. Abe added that an application for the use of the antiviral drug remdesivir, which the United States approved Friday, was filed in Japan on Monday. The U.S. is already preparing for the eventual vaccine: on May 1, it ordered US$100 million of needles and syringes “for a COVID-19 Mass Vaccination Campaign.” According to one WHO expert, the world is “currently on target” for a vaccine in 2021, with the cost of development and administration likely to exceed US$20 billion. A University of Oxford researcher is more optimistic about their efforts, saying they could have a sense of their vaccine’s efficacy by June.

Trace me on my cellphone: On Friday, Alberta launched what is believed to be Canada’s first contact-tracing app. ABTraceTogether uses Bluetooth signals to track the spread of the virus. It was developed in partnership with Deloitte and reportedly cost $625,000. It requires iPhone users to keep their phones, screens and Bluetooth on for it to work. The app is decentralized: Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer, described it as an “encrypted digital handshake” as all information is stored in the app. As of Sunday, over 60,000 of the province’s 4.4 million residents have downloaded it. Singaporean officials said about three-quarters of the population needed to adopt TraceTogether, the app on which Alberta’s is based, in order for it to be effective.

The U.K is launching a pilot of its “test, track and trace” strategy on the Isle of Wight, which lies off England’s south coast and remains in lockdown. The National Health Service’s app will be available for health-care professionals from Tuesday, and for the island’s 140,000 residents from Thursday. It will be ready nationwide by “the middle of this month.” France’s state-supported StopCOVID contact-tracing app will be tested the week of May 11 when the lockdown is first lifted. India’s government-backed app has hit record downloads, but continues to raise privacy and surveillance concerns after the government made it mandatory for nearly all citizens. Here’s a guide comparing apps being developed by governments around the world.

Apple and Google released sample code and screenshots to show how their contact-tracing software could operate. The two companies said they would ban location tracking in apps that use contact tracing.

Cross-country checkup: Trudeau said he was undecided about whether to send his kids back to school if classes resume this month. “I would make that decision probably at the last minute,” he said. Regulators in Alberta are anticipating delays in resuming routine medical and dental procedures, despite the province clearing providers to start seeing patients again today. Quebec’s official opposition is calling on the government to delay its reopening plan and focus instead on increasing testing and lowering the transmission rate. The province is postponing reopening retail stores by at least one week, citing high hospitalization numbers. Métis Nation Saskatchewan is considering calling in assistance from the Red Cross to help control the surge of COVID-19 cases in the province’s north. Nunavut’s only reported COVID-19 case turned out to be a false positive. New Brunswick is entering its third week without any new cases; there are currently no active cases in the province. 

Bay Street to Main Street: Air Canada is expecting the effects of the pandemic to last at least three years, with CEO Calin Rovinescu describing what’s to come as “the darkest period ever in the history of commercial aviation.” The airline reported a capacity drop of 85 to 90 per cent in the current quarter and an adjusted loss of $392 million, compared to a first-quarter profit of $17 million last year. The worse-than-expected results prompted Air Canada’s stock to drop 8.9 per cent. This may be the beginning of a difficult earnings season for Canada, with over 100 TSX-listed firms reporting this week, including companies from hard-hit sectors like Suncor Energy and RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust. At the end of the week, Statistics Canada will drop its latest labour-force survey, for which expectations are generally quite gloomy. Derek Holt, Scotiabank’s vice-president of capital markets economics, is predicting an unemployment rate of 20 per cent with 5.5 million jobs lost. That’s on the more pessimistic end of predictions, with the median economist estimate being 4.3 million jobs lost. 

  • Montreal-based online grocer Goodfood is opening its first Greater Toronto Area fulfillment centre and plans to hire over 300 people and start deliveries this month. 
  • The federal government announced $240 million for virtual health care.
  • Workers at the Cargill meat-packing plant in Alberta, which processes 35 per cent of all federally regulated beef in Canada, are returning to work today, despite an intense campaign by its union to stop the reopening due to safety concerns. 
  • Toronto-based healthtech firm Newtopia went public on the TSX Venture Exchange.
  • AIMCo is facing pushback from clients who say the pension fund is avoiding questions over how it lost billions of dollars and what it’s doing to stop it from happening again. 
  • Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke is worth over $7 billion dollars due to his stock’s meteoric rise during the pandemic, and is now one of Canada’s wealthiest people. The company reports first-quarter earnings on Wednesday.
  • Irving Oil received federal approval to connect the oilsands to its East Coast refinery after years of attempts to get a cross-country pipeline built. The oil will be shipped from B.C. to New Brunswick via the Panama Canal.

Drinking from the firehose: Indian digital-services firm Reliance Jio has secured nearly US$750 million from U.S. private equity firm Silver Lake, a week after Facebook took a US$5.7-billion stake in the company. The new investment round values Jio at US$65 billion. This is the latest in a string of high-profile tech investments from Silver Lake, including some deals in firms struggling through the pandemic. Last month, it participated in a US$1-billion round in Airbnb and Expedia’s US$3.2-billion fundraise.

  • Factories across Asia posted record low production numbers for April, even as lockdowns eased. 
  • French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said a European tax on digital businesses is needed more urgently than ever, saying if plans from the OECD to institute such a levy fail, the European Union should do it itself. 
  • General Electronics is cutting about 13,000 staff from its jet-engine business, 25 per cent of the division, which makes engines for aviation giants including Boeing and Airbus. 
  • Norwegian video-conferencing firm Pexip has launched a virtual roadshow as it prepares to go public, setting an example for what remote public offerings could look like, as some firms consider postponing their IPOs. 
  • Meal-kit companies like Blue Apron and Home Chef are seeing an uptick in sales during the pandemic, after a period of slow growth for the industry.  
  • J. Crew has filed for bankruptcy protection; it is the first major retailer to go bankrupt during the pandemic. 
  • Uber Eats is leaving seven markets, and transferring its operations in the United Arab Emirates to its local subsidiary Careem. The firm said the move wasn’t related to COVID-19, but part of its strategy to be only in cities where it has a first- or second-place market position. 
  • Uber is requiring drivers and passengers to wear masks during all rides; the firm is reportedly developing technology to verify that drivers are wearing masks before logging onto the app. 

“The plague sweeping the world has turbocharged the growth of the internet and catapulted us into the future. In the space of March 2020, many businesses fast-forwarded to 2025”: Sequoia Capital’s Michael Moritz predicted that airlines and small businesses would experience the impacts of changed behaviour—including working from home and consumer self-sufficiency—for much longer than anticipated. 

The grand reopening: Small businesses reopened Monday in Germany, Portugal and Greece. Business resumed in hard-hit Spain and Italy, where people with a “solid emotional bond” (family and partners, but not friends) can start seeing each other, though everyone must wear masks. Face masks are also mandatory on public transit for Belgium’s first day of deconfinement: the country’s experts are working on a reconfinement plan in case of a second surge. Seven draft reopening documents have been written for different parts of the British economy and include staggered shifts, no face-to-face meetings and shuttered cafes; students aged 10 and 11 would go back to school on June 11. Malaysia resumed business activity today, ordering all migrant workers to undergo mandatory tests. South Korea will reopen schools on May 13; students and teachers will have to wear masks. Japan has extended its state of emergency to May 31; experts have been asked to create a roadmap to restart the economy. Some mosques reopened in Iran. Florida also reopened today after avoiding the worst.

Around the world: The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments via teleconference for the first time, and let the public listen. As of Sunday, the United States has delivered 2.2. million small-business loans worth over US$175 billion in the program’s second round, which began April 27; a divided Congress is considering another round of aid. The U.K.’s small-business loan program came into effect today. New Zealand and Australia are in talks to open their borders to create a “Trans-Tasman bubble.” A French hospital has retested old samples from pneumonia patients and discovered it treated a man who had COVID-19 on Dec. 27, 2019, nearly a month before the country’s first confirmed case. Singapore is planning a 500 per cent increase in its virus-testing capacity, from 8,000 tests a day up to 40,000. Coronavirus test kits used in Tanzania—where the government is under fire for hiding the true extent of the pandemic—were dismissed as faulty after they reportedly showed positive results on samples taken from a goat and a papaya.

A disturbance in the Force: Officials in one Philippine village dressed as Darth Vader and stormtroopers while enforcing a strict lockdown.

* 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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