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COVID-19 roundup: ‘We are doing things the government hasn’t done before’

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu listens during a press conference on COVID-19 in West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Friday, March 20, 2020. The Canadian Press/Justin Tang
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It’s day 15 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is now 3,290 as of publication time. On their respective 15th day, the U.K. had 3,269 cases, the U.S. had 6,344 and Italy 7,375.* 

The virus has now killed more people in Spain than it has in China, the original source of the outbreak. In the past 24 hours, 738 deaths have been recorded in Spain, taking the country’s total to 3,434.

“Help is on the way:” So said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in his daily media briefing this morning, announcing the government will provide $2,000 in monthly financial assistance for the next four months to those who have lost their jobs, are home sick or aren’t getting paid from their jobs during temporary shutdowns. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit combines and increases two measures announced in last week’s $82-billion aid package. Workers can apply through an online portal, although concerns persist about the government’s capacity to process the applications at the speed demanded by the crisis. “We are doing things the government hasn’t done before and scaling up extremely quickly,” Trudeau said. “We are hopeful the systems will be up and running by April 6, and cheques will be flowing soon after that.” The change is included in the emergency legislation the House of Commons passed at the crack of dawn granting Ottawa unprecedented measures to deal with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ve designed this in a way so that it’s a wage subsidy delivered directly to employees, to people,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau said. The actual direct-to-employers 10 per cent measure also remains in place. The bill, which is now law, also gives Morneau the power to increase the Business Development Bank of Canada’s capital until September 30. Health Minister Patty Hajdu has also invoked powers granted to her office under the Quarantine Act to legally require travellers returning from other countries to self-isolate for 14 days or face fines and/or jail time. 

Meanwhile, in lieu of a budget that was meant to be released today, Ontario announced a $17-billion COVID-19 relief package, which includes $10 billion in cash support through tax deferrals. The province is proposing a new Corporate Income Tax Credit and will make $6 billion available by providing five months of interest and penalty relief for businesses to file and make payments for the majority of provincially administered taxes. The province expects growth to “improve in the second half of 2020 and lift consumer, business and investor confidence heading into 2021.”

A busy day at RBC: Canada’s largest bank is reportedly trying to unload over US$600 million of commercial real estate debt in a one-day sale, after seizing it from clients. That includes mortgage-backed securities taken from a New York real estate investment trust, which is suing the bank for allegedly using margin calls to seize its assets at low prices amid the pandemic fallout. RBC has also developed a real-time analytics tool that uses artificial intelligence to analyze data like flight information, port traffic, energy usage and vehicle congestion, to see how COVID-19 is affecting the global economy. 

Worse than 2008: Canadian banks could be harder hit in the coming economic downturn than they were during the financial crisis. In fiscal 2021, the banks could post a 32 per cent earnings decline, according to Canaccord Genuity analyst Scott Chan. The higher share of uninsured mortgages—at 69 per cent now compared to 50 per cent five years ago—may also be a risk. Not all analysts are as pessimistic, however: Barclays analyst John Aiken is predicting just a 10 per cent earnings decline in 2021. BMO is offering an immediate lifeline, vowing to increase existing lines of credits, defer payments on loans with no change to original amortization, as well as payments on credit cards and credit lines, to help small businesses meet payroll. Export Development Canada is also guaranteeing exporters bank loans of up to $5 million so that they “can access more cash immediately.”

In the markets: Wall Street continued to make gains today after U.S. congressional leaders reached an agreement on a US$2-trillion stimulus package, which Senator Mitch McConnell called a “wartime-level investment.” At closing, the Dow Jones jumped 2.39 per cent; the S&P 500 was up 1.15 per cent; and the Nasdaq Composite fell by 0.45 per cent. The gains made up for earlier losses in the uncertainty over the pandemic’s economic impact. While the shares of airline and aerospace companies also soared Wednesday on the news that the hugely hit industry would be among the beneficiaries of the U.S. stimulus package—Boeing, for example, rose 33 per cent—American public pension funds have lost nearly US$1 trillion. The S&P/TSX has also continued to build on its record gains from yesterday, rising 4.52 per cent. The Canadian dollar was back above seventy cents U.S., rising to 70.38 cents U.S.

MILA launching AI-driven anti-COVID initiative: On Friday, the Montreal-based research institute will debut ai-against-covid.ca, The Logic has learned, an effort to structure nationwide collaboration between partners in the fight against COVID-19. With the site, the institute is reaching out to health and research institutions for mass data on the virus. The “collaboration platform” can help researchers find collaborators, code, pertinent publications and other information to find solutions for the pandemic “while ensuring the confidentiality of the information collected,” according to MILA spokesperson Vincent Martineau.

The Canadian connection: Researchers at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention used Stemcell Technologies’ human tissue medium to grow airway cells to help identify and isolate the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the Vancouver-based biotechnology firm. In April 2018, the federal Strategic Innovation Fund allocated the company $22.5 million in one of the program’s first awards outside the auto and aerospace sectors. “We’re really trying to be that scale-up anchor firm that will help build this ecosystem of biotechnology companies in Vancouver and in B.C.,” then-chief commercial officer Andrew Booth told The Logic that year. 

Toronto cellphone data redux: On Tuesday evening, Mayor John Tory walked back claims he made at a Monday night technology event and first reported by The Logic that the city was gathering cellphone location data to identify where residents were congregating in defiance of anti-COVID-19 social-distancing advice. “I made it sound like it was happening, not knowing it wasn’t happening,” he told the Toronto Star.

COVID-19 “will almost certainly overwhelm” Saskatchewan: An internal Saskatchewan Health Authority document obtained by The Logic says the virus “will have a significant impact on acute health care delivery across the province.” Some 15,000 will require ICU care, reads the document, which says Saskatchewan has a total of 109 ICU beds. COVID-19 will infect an estimated 300,000, or about 30 per cent of the province’s population, and kill between 9,000 and 15,000 Saskatchewanians, it reads. That 30 per cent figure may not even be the worst-case scenario, according to the province’s chief medical health officer: “Over the course of 12 to 18 months, 30 to 70 per cent of us will get COVID-19,” Saqib Shahab said at a March 18 news conference.

Cross-country checkup: Waterloo Region and its seven municipalities have each declared a state of emergency, granting leaders broad enforcement powers to curb the spread of COVID-19. “Quite literally, we could enlist bylaw officers to go around and make sure that people are adhering to staying in their homes and practising physical distancing,” said regional chair Karen Redman. Ontario is considering moving non-coronavirus inpatients from hospitals to to hotels, anticipating a surge in COVID-19 cases. Two major mall operators in Ontario and Quebec have closed shopping centres to comply with provincially mandated halts on non-essential businesses. Alberta is also planning to order all non-essential businesses to close; oilsands workers will be declared essential, sources told The Globe and Mail, even as the virus tests operations at an oilsands camp north of Fort McMurray, Alta. As April 1 looms, landlords face pressure to defer rent for the month. Nunavut enacted the strictest travel ban in the country, allowing only residents and critical workers to enter the territory; it’s the only place in Canada with no confirmed COVID-19 cases. Researchers at the University of Manitoba have started a clinical trial to test if a malaria drug could prevent people from getting COVID-19. With events at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena postponed, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has donated 27,000 pounds of food to the food-rescue charity Second Harvest. An opera singer is serenading Torontonians from her fifth-floor balcony.

Briefly: 

  • Bombardier is temporarily laying off 12,400 workers, as the firm halts private jet and rail production in Ontario and Quebec. 
  • Furniture chain Leon’s will shutter 72 of its 205 stores for the time being and lay off 3,900 employees; the company said it will top up EI payments for workers it sends home. 
  • Telus cellphone customers across Alberta were unable to call 911 on Wednesday morning, due to an “outage,” the firm said. 
  • Canada Goose is shifting production at its Toronto and Winnipeg manufacturing facilities to make medical scrubs and patient gowns starting next week; the company will donate the 10,000 units it plans to make.
  • Save Small Business, a new advocacy campaign, is calling on the federal government to fund landlords so they can waive the first $10,000 of commercial rents for three months, increase the wage subsidy to 80 per cent and defer payments on all loans; it’s backers say more lending by the banks and agencies like BDC will just burden firms with more debt.
  • Breather will be providing free spaces in April “to companies and organizations that are working on the front line during the COVID-19 outbreak.” That will include those who need to split their teams, need space to distribute food or provide child care, or companies that need to set up temporary headquarters.
  • #Movethedial, which runs conferences for women in tech, is pausing its operations for the foreseeable future. 

Global solutions: Ireland has taken major steps to manage the impact of the coronavirus, including nationalizing its health-care services. The government will also pay 70 per cent of workers’ salaries—up to €410 per week (about $634)—and has increased welfare payments for unemployed citizens to €350 per week. Its other emergency measures include a ban on evictions and a rent freeze. Meanwhile, leaders from nine European countries—including France, Spain and Italy—are calling for “corona bonds,” a way to purchase debt during the crisis, to ensure “stable long-term financing” for pandemic-related policies. In guidelines due to be released today, the European Commission is warning governments to be “vigilant” over foreign corporate takeovers. France has announced a €4-billion liquidity plan for startups, including a short-term refinancing scheme, early payment of some tax credits, faster payment of already-planned investments in the sector and guarantees over cash-flow costs. Canada is among a group of Pacific Rim nations that signed a pledge not to restrict trade during the pandemic, even as some countries veer the other way.

Across the world: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman is readying to chair tomorrow’s G20 meeting virtually; he has also extended the country’s curfew. Iran has tougher travel restrictions in place. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are pleading for internet access: “What we mostly hear about the coronavirus are false rumours, passed from person to person across the camps…. This alone is creating a panicked and unstable situation in the camps,” wrote Mohammed Arfaat, a refugee in Cox’s Bazar. Meanwhile, the Indian government has ordered a restoration of 3G and 4G services in Jammu and Kashmir, which have been in a high-speed internet blackout for 233 days. The country’s lockdown has spurred an exodus of migrant workers heading by foot from cities to their rural hometowns. In Russia, the virus has delayed a vote on constitutional change that would’ve allowed President Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for a total of two decades, to remain at the helm for two more terms. Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, has become the most prominent public figure in the U.K. confirmed as having the coronavirus. In the absence of live sports, Fox Sports will broadcast the rest of NASCAR’s virtual races, which drew in 903,000 viewers on Sunday. People in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania have been charged with terroristic threats after they allegedly purposely coughed on others in stores and said they were infected with the virus. “There are knuckleheads out there,” New Jersey’s governor said.

Briefly:

  • Over 90 per cent of Huawei’s China-based employees have returned to work.
  • Tencent has launched a US$100-million Global Anti-Pandemic Fund to buy medical supplies and gear needed to fight COVID-19. 
  • Spotify is raising up to US$20 million to help musicians affected by the pandemic. 
  • Facebook has seen calling and messaging activity on its platforms increase by more than 50 per cent in some markets in the last month. Despite the usage surge, business is suffering, according to the firm: it doesn’t monetize private calling and messaging, and like other platforms, advertising dollars are drying up. 
  • Apple plans to donate nine million N95 masks for healthcare workers fighting COVID-19, up from the two million it pledged over the weekend. 
  • Amazon workers at 10 different U.S. warehouses have tested positive for COVID-19, as the firm races to hire 100,000 new staff to fill growing demand. 
  • American tech accelerator Y Combinator is speeding up its application process so it can fast-track investments in startups taking on the virus.
  • U.S. retailers, including Subway and Mattress Firm, plan to withhold or slash rent starting in April after closing shop to mitigate the spread of the virus. 
  • BuzzFeed is reducing pay for the majority of its employees as the media company grapples with plummeting ad dollars. 
  • U.K. companies, including Airbus and Dyson, are waiting for government approval to start making ventilators for COVID-19 patients. 
  • Malaysia, which produces three of every five pairs of disposable rubber gloves globally, is struggling to keep up production amid a month-long lockdown.

15.3 per cent: That’s how much Canadian job postings have dropped by for the seven days ending March 23 compared with their trend from 2019, according to job-listing firm Indeed. Hospitality and tourism job postings are down 21 per cent, while food preparation and service are down 29 per cent. Canada has seen the sixth-largest decline in postings. First-place Italy’s postings are down 18.2 per cent, although they have increased since January. There are some sectors hiring in Canada: software development jobs are up four per cent and personal-care and home-health jobs are up two per cent. Here is a crowdsourced list of Canadian companies still hiring.

E-scooters to the rescue?: Bird Canada is pitching cities on free e-scooter rides to help reduce the number of people crowded on public transit. “With social distancing, which will obviously remain with us for some time, it kind of renders public transit useless. How do you have social distancing on a subway, or on a bus or even in ride-share?” CEO Stewart Lyons told The Logic. Bird has discussed the idea of limited-time free rides with Calgary, where it already operates, as well as Toronto and Ottawa, where it’s hoping they’ll be permitted. Bird’s pitch includes offering to sanitize the e-scooters three times a day and could include giving out latex gloves. There’s some precedent for this kind of move. Last week, Los Angeles declared e-scooters “a key transportation option,” and San Francisco called them “essential services” amid COVID-19. In the latter city, however, as of last week only one company was still operating: Ford-owned Spin.

“Sensitize the masses to sanitize”: Bobi Wine, the Ugandan reggae singer turned member of Parliament, has recorded a song urging everyone to wash their hands, report symptoms and take social distancing seriously. “The coronavirus is sweeping over mankind (everybody must be alert). It’s a global pandemic we must never take for granted (everybody must take charge).”

* 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.

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