posted about 5 hours ago on re/code
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James Bareham for Vox Due to Covid-19, video chats with doctors are becoming mainstream. Here’s how it all works. Health care in the United States has never been easy, but with the coronavirus pandemic, a visit to the doctor’s office is just plain risky. That’s why this crisis has become a moment for telehealth, which connects patients to doctors through the internet. Although telehealth has been around for a few years, recent updates to regulations and a surge in demand has made it the easiest way to get many different types of medical care. And, because you don’t have to leave your house to see a doctor, telehealth is also the safest option right now. Though it’s been a popular platform for therapy for some time, telehealth is an option for many kinds of health care. Urgent care centers are encouraging patients to use their telemedicine options instead of coming in. Some hospitals are making use of virtual platforms to screen and triage patients who might have Covid-19, while others are using the technology just to free up space and personnel. Telehealth visits across the board were up 50 percent in March, by one measure, and are on track to hit 1 billion by the end of the year. “Our challenge has always been that we haven’t had wide-scale adoption because there just hasn’t been wide scale awareness,” Hill Ferguson, the CEO of the telemedicine provider Doctors on Demand, told Recode. “In the last month, we’ve had everyone from the president of the United States down to local governors to CEOs of healthcare companies all saying use telemedicine as a first line of defense.” Still, the idea of talking to a doctor through a computer or a smartphone is undoubtedly intimidating for many. There are new services to learn about, privacy concerns to deal with, and insurance issues to figure out. But with rapid changes, telehealth has never been simpler. 1) Telehealth is easier than going to the doctor’s office Telemedicine is typically as straightforward as a patient chatting with a doctor over a video call. Because these consultations require a layer of privacy and security, there are regulations in place for patients’ protection, but those are changing in the face of the Covid-19 crisis. The Department of Health and Human Services has announced that video platforms, like FaceTime and Skype, are temporarily acceptable for health care providers to use. Zoom is has also been given temporary approval, although the platform is currently struggling with some security issues. You also might use a service that’s specifically designed for telehealth consultations, like VSee, Doxy, thera-Link, and Amazon Chime. Officials say that public-facing platforms like Facebook Live and TikTok should be avoided. If you have a regular doctor, it’s possible they already have a telehealth system in place, so check in before looking for another provider. But if you don’t have a primary care physician or need urgent care, you should check out telemedicine platforms, like Doctors on Demand, Teladoc, and Amwell. (If you have insurance, check the insurer’s website, as insurance may only cover or offer discounts for certain platforms.) With any of these telehealth platforms, you should look for HIPAA and HITECH compliance, as well as end-to-end encryption. HIPAA refers to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and this regulation broadly requires restrictions on who can access your personal health information, including when it’s processed digitally, among other privacy assurances. (You can find a list of platforms that claim to be HIPAA-compliant here.) HITECH refers to the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, which builds on HIPAA’s privacy protections while governing and encouraging the use of electronic medical records. 2) Virtual care helps everyone combat coronavirus Many hospitals are encouraging patients to use virtual urgent care for a consultation before heading to a clinic. This is especially important for patients who think they have coronavirus but aren’t sick enough to require hospitalization. Virtual consultations allow doctors to triage patients without the risk of spreading of the virus, and patients can get quick treatment for their Covid-19 symptoms. (Currently, there’s no proven treatment for the virus itself.) “Doctors’ offices are going to be a very high-risk site for Covid transmission because people that come there will be sick, and doctors themselves are going to be important vectors of Covid transmission,” explains Michael Barnett, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We know that health care professionals are getting infected at very high rates, and people can shed the virus when they’re asymptomatic.” Even if you feel healthy enough to visit your doctor in person for a check-up, you should reconsider. Many routine health care needs can be addressed using telemedicine tools, and staying home is still the best way to do your part in the fight against the pandemic. 3) Insurance companies are making it easier to pay for telehealth If you have private health insurance, you should check to see whether your insurer has made adjustments to their policies for reimbursement for telehealth. For instance, Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield are waiving copays for telemedicine for many members until June. But, as always, be prepared to read the fine print. Insurance companies have historically been slow to offer telehealth options. “Insurers, in general, are not trying to add lots of new things that their patients can do to keep health care costs down,” Barnett explains. “Providers do just fine in the status quo of deeper service medicine and having people come in person.” In the face of the coronavirus outbreak, however, government health care programs are opening up more to telehealth solutions. For instance, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is now reimbursing Medicare patients for telehealth services across the country. The government had previously limited telehealth to particular circumstances, like patients in rural areas, and those patients would typically still need to travel to a medical facility to consult with a doctor at another location. CMS is also encouraging states operating Medicaid programs to expand telehealth services. All that said, even those without any health care coverage should be able to access telehealth services. Some community health clinics have already transitioned to telehealth services, and the Department of Health and Human Services has sent $100 million to more than a thousand health centers in part to promote telehealth. The telehealth platform Roman is also offering free Covid-19 risk assessments. For affordable mental health care services, you might consider the nonprofit Open Path Psychotherapy Collective, which offers counseling for between $30 and $60 a session. There are also low-cost text-a-therapist services like TalkSpace and BetterHelp, though they’re not a replacement for speaking to a therapist in real time. You can learn more about finding a therapist in this Vox guide. 4) Telehealth is more versatile than you think Telemedicine is particularly suited to certain types of medical care, including general consultations with doctors, mental health care, follow-up appointments, and even some specialties, like dermatology. It’s also fairly routine for doctors to write prescriptions after a telemedicine visit, and the government is lifting some restrictions for prescribing controlled substances via telemedicine curing the Covid-19 crisis. On the other hand, certain tasks like vaccinations and taking samples need to be done physically. “There are definitely gray areas where telemedicine is not great, but there’s still a big chunk of medicine that could quite easily be taken out of the office and very conveniently delivered in some other medium,” Barnett says. “For physicians, a good 50 to 80 percent of what we do — depending on what your practice — really doesn’t need to happen in person.” If you have the right equipment, a surprising number of health measurements can also be done remotely. As the Center for Connected Health Policy, a nonprofit that promotes telehealth, points out, there are a wide array of medical devices out there than can help you do anything from check your blood pressure to measure your blood oxygen levels. Some wearables, like the Apple Watch, can even produce electrocardiograms. In a telehealth scenario, these tools can provide your doctor with valuable information about your health. 5) Telemedicine is tough without proper internet access Telemedicine often requires broadband that’s strong enough to host a stable video call, in addition to a device with the proper hardware. But according to a 2019 Pew study, 44 percent of Americans who make less than $30,000 a year don’t have access to home broadband, and 29 percent don’t have access to a smartphone. Rural areas, as well as some city communities, are particularly vulnerable to this digital divide. While they’ve traditionally helped low-income people and rural Americans access the internet, libraries and community centers have been shut down to comply with social distancing requirements. There may be some signs of hope, however. The FCC has also loosened rules governing the Lifeline Program — which entitles some low-income Americans discounted telephone and internet services — and has said no one will be kicked out of the benefit until the summer. If you already have a smartphone, your provider may have expanded the amount of data available on your mobile plan in response to Covid-19 crisis. And you may not need a phone that’s video-capable. CMS has now announced that providers can “evaluate beneficiaries who have audio phones only,” according to a statement from the agency, in addition to expanding 80 other telehealth services. 6) In-person health care might never be the same again Whether the coronavirus pandemic will make telehealth mainstream remains to be seen. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the Covid-19 response has caused other types of health care on hold, including treatment for cancer and gender-affirming treatment. We’ll eventually need to find a way to safely return to delivering many forms of in-person care. Still, many people are using telehealth technology for the first time, and creating their initial impressions of telemedicine. “For the first time ever, we’ve had massive levels of consumer awareness,” Ferguson, the Doctors on Demand chief executive, told Recode, adding that there may be even more significant changes in store for brick-and-mortar clinics and private practices. “They’re trying things for the first time and they’re realizing, ‘Wow, I can actually do a lot more to treat my patients over video than I ever thought.’” Many of the adjustments for telehealth, including the suspension of copays and certain regulation, are temporary. But it may be hard for insurers and the government to pull back once patients become more used to using digital health services. After all, even when this pandemic is long gone, who wouldn’t want the convenience of reaching a doctor from anywhere? We might all be healthier for it. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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posted about 23 hours ago on re/code
Getty Images Now more than ever, the coronavirus crisis has Americans living in tech billionaires’ world. There is something deeply frightening about relying on billionaires to save us in this crisis. But what if we have no better choice? The US government has repeatedly proven to be sluggish at best and impotent at worst at controlling the carnage of the coronavirus crisis. American deaths are now over 10,000, officials are comparing this week to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, and at times it can feel like there are no leaders who can help. But saviors, of a sort, loom: billionaires — and tech billionaires in particular. Tech billionaires dominate the list of the world’s wealthiest people. And so Silicon Valley could not be better prepared to step into this void. And it has, even if unevenly. Jack Dorsey on Tuesday promised a new $1 billion philanthropy. Apple has donated 20 million masks. Bill Gates is building factories to produce vaccines that don’t even exist yet. And other tech elites — think millionaires, not billionaires — have mobilized their networks for ambitious efforts to find equipment from around the globe or feed hospital workers in their hometowns. But for all the wealthy’s good deeds, this status quo raises alarming questions about the long-term dangers of this dependency on this private sector and its generosity, especially about the world we’ll inherit once the dust settles. How can we be stronger the next time a pandemic, or any other crisis, strikes? “If we need the resources now but we’ll regret them having this power later, what does it mean for immediate suffering at the moment?” In conversations with philanthropists, wealth advisers, and billionaires over the last week, they described the uneasy bind to Recode: On one hand, tech billionaires are doing many helpful things. A nurse on the front lines of the crisis probably couldn’t care less whether the mask that protects them came from Tim Cook or from Donald Trump — they’re just glad they have one. But two things can be true at once: Tech billionaires can be doing good while simultaneously revealing their power and entrenching it for the long haul. As the government struggles and the safety net crumbles, tech billionaires are reaching the apex of their influence — influence that may not recede so easily once we do manage to survive this pandemic. “If we need the resources now but we’ll regret them having this power later,” asked Megan Tompkins-Stange, who studies the influence of the elite, “what does it mean for immediate suffering at the moment?” “We do need billionaires to donate their resources when a state has failed so abjectly,” she told Recode. “At the same time, opening up all these avenues for philanthropies to provide for the public need — even in the short term — provides more space for them after the crisis to leverage that into new democratic legitimacy.” There are four interrelated spheres in which tech billionaires have commanded more plutocratic influence during this crisis: their philanthropic power, their corporate power, their political power, and the power of their personal brands. We are living in their world more than ever, and it’s worth asking if that’s a good thing. Philanthropic power Over the past year or two, the world of billionaires has wrestled with a fresh, counterintuitive question: Is it wrong for the megarich to give to charity? After all, they could just pay more in taxes instead. But today’s crisis has laid bare how much we might need these billionaires in a specific moment: when the government is failing. And since philanthropists can only do so much, critics say that the crisis points to problems with our system more broadly — and that the US shouldn’t have to rely on charitable billionaires for masks or ventilators next time. “Philanthropy is taking on a greater portion of the responsibility for response than anyone expected,” said Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook and one of Silicon Valley’s most thoughtful billionaire philanthropists. “Unfortunately, I think it’s clear to anyone closely following the situation today that philanthropy simply can’t solve this crisis on its own.” That’s true despite the number of Silicon Valley billionaires whose net worths have skyrocketed over the past decade. Some of them are so wealthy that even if they want to give their money away, they literally cannot dispense their fortunes quickly enough. This has fueled the rise of charitable vehicles like donor-advised funds and thinned the line between a billionaire and an asset manager: Both are overseeing vast financial empires. Advisers to tech billionaires, in particular, describe a paralysis: The nouveau riche don’t even know what to do with the money so they stow it away to be tapped later. Kimberly White/Getty Images Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook, in 2007. And yet the critique of billionaire philanthropy revolves around the idea that these donations are an expression of private power. Indeed, philanthropists like Moskovitz are some of the most important people in determining the shape of America’s response to an unprecedented crisis. They are imbued with unaccountable, untransparent, and undemocratic influence. Power grabs can happen. And their donations can legitimize the philanthropists as heroes, which can discourage scrutiny of their business practices. But that general theory misses two things about this particular moment: First of all, while the donations certainly do offer a public-relations boon, much of the current philanthropic response — for pandemic models, for vaccine research, or for feeding the hungry — are not directly emboldening billionaires’ short-term grip on society, although questions about their taxes remain. And secondly, this critique can overgeneralize the entire philanthropic response to the crisis by focusing solely on top-down efforts from billionaires. Even if you hypothetically believe that the rich should be taxed at a much higher rate and that democratic leaders, not billionaires, should be the ones making funding decisions, it is not as though the tax code is going to be rewritten right now. So in an emergency and with the government failing, you would certainly rather have, say, $25 million from Mark Zuckerberg for therapeutics research than not. The money donated by Zuckerberg or Gates or Moskovitz very well might save lives. “Although I think concerns about the private sector and philanthropy doing what the government is supposed to be doing are somewhat valid, there isn’t a great alternative right now,” wrote Sam Altman, the former head of Y Combinator, on his blog as part of a plea for more private science funding. Defenders of billionaire philanthropy often point to people like Gates, who is spending his fortune to create manufacturing capacity for seven possible different vaccines. Admirers say they would rather have Gates deploying his billions on that, rather than have him pay a few more tax dollars that would be lost in the federal bureaucracy. That may be true, but it also gives him some indirect influence: Who elected Gates to be in charge of America’s vaccine production plan, even if he is savvily spending his money? The millions that Steve Ballmer has contributed to support communities in three particular cities close to his heart — Detroit, Los Angeles, and Seattle — will help, and so will the $100 million that Jeff Bezos is sending to food banks around the US, but who beyond them decided that these are the best uses of America’s resources? Even Anand Giridharadas, among the most strident critics of billionaire megacharity, thinks the gifts are welcome in an emergency. But he argues we still have to continue to ask questions about how we grew so dependent on them in the first place. “We are now awash in press releases and narratives about billionaires stepping up. And there’s a little bit of a ‘How do you like them billions?’ thing happening. Where because this is such a desperate, urgent, fast-moving moment, there is the ability of very rich people to act quickly and step into the breach and do stuff in a way that feels redemptive to many people, even though I think we should be more suspicious,” Giridharadas told Recode. “While as a normal human being you celebrate someone buying a lot of masks quickly and donating them where an American state might take longer to get that done,” he explained, “it’s really important to ask why the crisis has hit us the way it has and the weaknesses it’s exposed. ... A lot of those people stepping up are responsible for the underlying conditions of weakness.” Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images Anand Giridharadas in 2019. To Giridharadas, the real “stepping up” would come from billionaires renouncing the use of loopholes to evade taxes that weaken government’s revenue and ability to respond, to halt their use of offshore manufacturing that has hamstrung our domestic inventory of things like masks, and to campaign for a stronger social safety net with programs like universal health care. “When you are talking about people dying on a minute-to-minute basis, there has to be some space to say, ‘Can we talk about this afterward?’ But I want to be very clear, given where I come from: We actually have to talk about it afterward,” Giridharadas said. ”I don’t think it is unkind to note those things while we are, as a society, taking some of their money.” Secondly, not all donors are so easy to caricature as the critics suggest. It isn’t as though all of the people “stepping up” are power-hungry billionaires. In fact, some billionaires aren’t exerting power with their philanthropy for a different reason — because they’re not publicly doing much giving at all. Jeff Richards, a venture capitalist, feels the conversation about Silicon Valley plutocratic power can be too focused on billionaires and can overlook efforts by ordinary tech leaders who are wealthy, yes, but hardly titans, such as efforts organized by another investor, Ryan Sarver, and former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, to sponsor meals or restaurants. “There’s no agenda. Neither of them are trying to build influence or build an empire or curry favor with politicians or anything like that,” Richards said. “I’m probably naive in that I believe that most of the things people do are from the goodness in their heart.” And a related point: It might not be the case that billionaires are even donating as much as we think, which ironically means they aren’t grabbing as much influence along the way as we might fear. Some of the most prominent tech billionaires, such as Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have so far proven to be MIA, at least publicly, amid the crisis. Representatives of the pair, who together control over $100 billion in assets, didn’t return requests for comment. And the gifts announced by people like Zuckerberg and Bezos are often astonishingly small percentages of their net worth, as critics on the left are quick to point out. Still, it’s hard to know for sure. In the opaque, atomized world of philanthropy, it is always possible that donors are making major gifts that they don’t announce. Corporate power Activists worry that all this philanthropy could have an unintended — or perhaps perfectly intended — consequence: Political insulation for these billionaires’ corporations. These good deeds could slow the building bipartisan scrutiny of these companies’ size, labor practices, and data scandals. It’s not as self-evident that big tech companies will come out of this with enhanced reputations — these companies could be on a path to ugly scrutiny over how they treat low-level employees, for instance. But some are concerned that Big Tech, after years on the defensive, will be able to “charity-wash” their reputations and build corporate goodwill through redemptive, headline-grabbing donations that help lower the temperature on, say, breaking up the tech companies at the end of this. Big Tech’s billionaire class will have more power after the crisis than they had before, argues Sally Hubbard of the Open Market Institute. Brick-and-mortar retail is hemorrhaging jobs at a time when Amazon is adding hundreds of thousands of their own. Google is gaining even more of a foothold in the home as educators across the country deploy Google Classroom to teach students remotely — whether you want your family to use it or not. Officials, among others, from California Gov. Gavin Newsom to Vice President Mike Pence have repeatedly gone out of their way to offer thanks for the generosity of Cook and Zuckerberg — corporate leaders that they themselves will need to regulate for years to come. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Then Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom with Nasdaq CEO Robert Greifeld, center right, unveil the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco in 2015. The center provides business training, mentoring and networking opportunities for early stage startup founders — maybe even the next Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page. Freada Kapor Klein, a tech philanthropist herself who worries deeply about tech philanthropists’ power, said she had applauded, for instance, the specifics of the two largest non-corporate gifts before Tuesday, the $100 million that Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates have each donated to charity. But she’s not naive. “It enhances their legacy, their standing, the way to which they are revered. And sometimes that makes it harder to hold them accountable,” she said. “It’s not a critique of this gift or of them as individuals. It is a critique of the dynamic.” At the very least, the pandemic is surely blotting out competing policy debates. After all, it is hard to focus on almost-academic concerns about tech monopolies amid tales of unprepared hospitals with rising body counts. And yet Hubbard hopes questions about tech power will return either way. “As one crisis comes and destroys so many people’s livelihoods, they’re going to say, ‘Wait, why were these the only companies that were strong enough to weather this?’” she said. Political power Linked to billionaires’ corporate power is their political power. This crisis has shown how tech billionaires have been able to leave their imprint on American policy. After years of building muscular lobbying operations around the globe, some billionaires are wielding and deploying that influence to push their points of view. Take Larry Ellison. The founder of Oracle and one of the world’s wealthiest people, Ellison surprised many in Silicon Valley this February when he hosted a fundraiser for Trump that raised $7 million for his campaign, an event that undoubtedly strengthened Ellison’s ties with the White House. That fundraiser followed years of Oracle’s Washington shop fostering particularly close ties with the administration. “Larry Ellison is not accountable to a public that voted for him” Just one month later, Ellison was reportedly calling upon those ties to the administration to lobby Trump to push two unproven antimalarial drugs, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, as possible treatments for the coronavirus. And that can be problematic for the rest of us — who don’t have lobbying operations or estates to host presidential fundraisers. Trump in recent days has begun pushing from the White House briefing room that Americans should take chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which some doctors say could cause severe side effects and have little evidence of efficacy. “My concern is when Donald Trump calls up Larry Ellison and says, ‘Hey, what do you think? What should I do?’ Because Larry Ellison is, again, not an infectious disease expert,” said Tompkins-Stange. “Larry Ellison is not accountable to a public that voted for him.” Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Oracle chair of the board and chief technology officer Larry Ellison in 2019. To be sure, Tompkins-Stange said she wasn’t yet aware of other overt ways in which tech elites were undemocratically shaping US policy. There aren’t exactly press releases about this sort of stuff. But Ellison’s relationship with Trump offers a case study in how tech billionaires could use their wealth to create political power going forward. “Larry Ellison,” Trump said Sunday from the briefing room. “Amazing guy.” Power of personal brands And then there is billionaires’ brand influence — unquantifiable, yes, but universally recognized. In short: When they speak, we listen. Billionaires have for decades been our oracles and our rock stars, gracing gushing magazine covers, pacing commencement stages, selling how-to-get-rich-too books to the masses, and, more broadly, turning their money into cultural cachet. And during a crisis — when people are so desperate for trustworthy information — these billionaires have filled the void, deploying their celebrity and credibility to try to spread good information. Some tech leaders, in fact, were among the earliest to sound the alarm about the risk of a global pandemic when the coronavirus was only spreading within China. Despite all that good in the short term, this crisis could give these billionaires far greater influence in public life as our so-called thought leaders over the long term, enhancing the size of their platforms and the tenor of their reputations on matters far afield from tech. It is Gates who has emerged as by far the most visible tech leader during this crisis. At a time when representatives for other tech billionaires are evading questions about what their bosses are doing in response, Gates has been seemingly everywhere, offering sober, apolitical analysis. Commanding 30 minutes in primetime on CNN. Offering solutions in the Washington Post and on The Daily Show. On Reddit AMAs and TED livestreams. “At a time like this, we are searching for that kind of calm, clear leadership. Bill has been very consistent in his voice on these issues,” said Jeff Raikes, the former CEO of the Gates Foundation and still a close associate of Gates. “In a vacuum, then people like Bill [resonate more] if we don’t have that clarity of voice from our political leaders.” Wang Ye/Xinhua via Getty Images Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping and a goodwill ambassador of the World Health Organization for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, meets with Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in Beijing on November 21. Along with Gates, tech’s biggest celebrities have generally used their platforms and personal brands to draw attention to the crisis (with the exception of Elon Musk, who initially called it “dumb.”) Zuckerberg, for instance, has been hosting smart, responsible interviews on Facebook Live with people like Newsom and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci. Marc Benioff has used his megaphone to call on other CEOs to promise no major layoffs for three months and for other mayors to lock down their cities. While some would like to see these billionaires be more confrontational toward Trump, it’s hard to criticize all that they have done. If the powerful exerting their power to save lives brings them more power, there’s an argument to be made in three words: So be it. If tech leaders had an outsized voice in America before this crisis — they did, after all, invent some of the platforms — their brands have only been enhanced by it. As is the case with their enhancement of their philanthropic, corporate, and political power, the question here to consider is: What is the alternative? It is understandable to be concerned about the enhanced influence of Silicon Valley’s wealthiest, but is that more concerning than the people who might die if its leaders didn’t make megadonations, expand their company’s reach, or use their voice to speak to their followers? If the powerful exerting their power to save lives brings them more power, there’s an argument to be made in three words: So be it. But there is a trade-off there that shouldn’t surprise us when this crisis is over and we see tech billionaires standing taller than ever in the rubble. “We’re in a situation where we’re both more reliant on the government than we’ve ever been,” said Richards, “but we’re also more reliant on the private sector than we’ve ever been.” And at the end of this, our society may be more unequal, too.

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posted about 23 hours ago on re/code
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. | Fairfax Media/Getty The Twitter founder is making an unexpected and important philanthropic push in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Jack Dorsey is making the country’s most significant private gift to tackling the coronavirus and its consequences, pledging to spend up to $1 billion as part of an unexpected philanthropic push. The founder of Twitter and Square announced Tuesday that he would move $1 billion of his own money into a limited liability company (LLC), where the funds would go, in part, to addressing the Covid-19 crisis. Dorsey described the gift as intended to “fund global COVID-19 relief,” but didn’t specify how much of the money would be earmarked for that as opposed to pushing for “girl’s health and education” and a universal basic income, which he said the LLC, called Start Small, would back once the pandemic subsides. Even if only over 10 percent of the money went to Covid work, though, Dorsey would become the country’s biggest public philanthropist during the crisis. Other tech titans, like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Michael Dell, have each pledged $100 million so far. Billionaire philanthropists like LLCs because they offer the donor flexibility and total control in how the money can be used, including for political donations, for-profit investments, and nonprofit grants. But transparency advocates have long criticized LLCs — which have been established by other tech philanthropists like Mark Zuckerberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, and Pierre Omidyar — for evading some public disclosures about the types of gifts they make. Dorsey is also using a donor-advised fund, which is another opaque approach, to facilitate some grants. But Dorsey, who does not have a long public record as a philanthropist, is taking steps to mitigate those concerns: He has promised to reveal all of the donations he has made on a public spreadsheet, which he tweeted a link to on Tuesday. That being said, all disclosures will be voluntary, and there will be some key financial information that will not be disclosed as it would if Dorsey’s gifts came from a traditional foundation. The LLC will also not be required to donate 5 percent of its assets each year as would a foundation. “Why now? The needs are increasingly urgent, and I want to see the impact in my lifetime,” Dorsey tweeted. “I hope this inspires others to do something similar. Life is too short, so let’s do everything we can today to help people now.” The gift comes in the form of about 20 million shares in Square, which Dorsey said amounts to about 28 percent of his net worth, recently pegged at $3.3 billion. Some billionaires have come under fire for making paltry coronavirus-related donations that sound impressive but are relatively small percentages of their assets. Dorsey said he has given $40 million in the past in mostly anonymous charitable gifts. The billion dollars could also give Dorsey more political power down the line at a time of growing concern about the role of billionaires in politics. Because this is an LLC, Dorsey could use the money on advocacy efforts to push for a universal basic income (one of his preferred policies), which would increase the size of his voice in the political process. Dorsey’s donation comes amid a broader reckoning about the power of billionaire philanthropists, some of whom are showing more leadership during the pandemic than government officials. While their resources are needed to tackle an unprecedented crisis, these gifts also elevate tech leaders and give them more power than ever. Here’s our look at this phenomenon.

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posted 1 day ago on re/code
Getty Images The coronavirus crisis has Americans living in tech billionaires’ world now more than ever. There is something deeply frightening about relying on billionaires to save us in this crisis. But what if we have no better choice? The US government has repeatedly proven to be sluggish at best and impotent at worst at controlling the carnage of the coronavirus crisis. American deaths are now over 10,000, officials are comparing this week to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, and at times it can feel like there are no leaders who can help. But saviors, of a sort, loom: billionaires — and tech billionaires in particular. Tech billionaires dominate the list of the world’s wealthiest people. And so Silicon Valley could not be better prepared to step into this void. And it has, even if unevenly: Companies like Apple have donated 20 million masks. Bill Gates is building factories to produce vaccines that don’t even exist yet. And other tech elites — think millionaires, not billionaires — have mobilized their networks for ambitious efforts to find equipment from around the globe or feed hospital workers in their hometowns. But for all the wealthy’s good deeds, this status quo raises alarming questions about the long-term dangers of this dependency on this private sector and its generosity, especially about the world we’ll inherit once the dust settles. How can we be stronger the next time a pandemic, or any other crisis, strikes? “If we need the resources now, but we’ll regret them having this power later, what does it mean for immediate suffering at the moment?” In conversations with philanthropists, wealth advisers, and billionaires over the last week, they described the uneasy bind to Recode: On one hand, tech billionaires are doing many helpful things. A nurse on the frontlines of the crisis probably couldn’t care less whether the mask that protects them came from Tim Cook or from Donald Trump — they’re just glad they have one. But two things can be true at once: Tech billionaires can be doing good while simultaneously revealing their power and entrenching it for the long haul. As the government struggles and the safety net crumbles, tech billionaires are reaching the apex of their influence — influence that may not recede so easily once we do manage to survive this pandemic. “If we need the resources now, but we’ll regret them having this power later,” asked Megan Tompkins-Stange, who studies the influence of the elite, “what does it mean for immediate suffering at the moment?” “We do need billionaires to donate their resources when a state that has failed so abjectly,” she told Recode. “At the same time, opening up all these avenues for philanthropies to provide for the public need — even in the short term — provides more space for them after the crisis to leverage that into new democratic legitimacy.” There are four interrelated spheres in which tech billionaires have commanded more plutocratic influence during this crisis: their philanthropic power, their corporate power, their political power and the power of their personal brands. We are living in their world more than ever, and it’s worth asking if that’s a good thing. Philanthropic power Over the past year or two, the world of billionaires has wrestled with a fresh, counter-intuitive question: Is it wrong for the mega-rich to give to charity? After all, they could just pay more in taxes instead. But today’s crisis has laid bare how much we might need these billionaires in a specific moment: when the government is failing. And since philanthropists can only do so much, critics say that the crisis points to problems with our system more broadly — and that the US shouldn’t have to rely on charitable billionaires for masks or ventilators next time. “Philanthropy is taking on a greater portion of the responsibility for response than anyone expected,” said Dustin Moskovitz, one of the founders of Facebook and one of Silicon Valley’s most thoughtful billionaire philanthropists. “Unfortunately I think it’s clear to anyone closely following the situation today that philanthropy simply can’t solve this crisis on its own.” That’s true despite the number of Silicon Valley billionaires whose net worths have skyrocketed over the past decade. Some of them are so wealthy that even if they want to give their money away, they literally cannot dispense with their fortunes quickly enough. This has fueled the rise of charitable vehicles like donor-advised funds and thinned the line between a billionaire and an asset manager — both are overseeing vast financial empires. Advisors to tech billionaires, in particular, describe a paralysis: The nouveau riche don’t even know what to do with the money, so they stow it away, to be tapped later. Kimberly White/Getty Images Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook, in 2007. And yet the critique of billionaire philanthropy revolves around the idea that these donations are an expression of private power. Indeed, philanthropists like Moskovitz are some of the most important people in determining the shape of America’s response to an unprecedented crisis. They are imbued with unaccountable, untransparent, and undemocratic influence. Power grabs can happen. And their donations can legitimize the philanthropists as heroes, which can discourage scrutiny of their business practices. But that general theory misses two things about this particular moment: First of all, while the donations certainly do offer a public-relations boon, much of the current philanthropic response — for pandemic models, for vaccine research, or for feeding the hungry — are not directly emboldening billionaires’ short-term grip on society, although questions about their taxes remain. And secondly, this critique can over-generalize the entire philanthropic response to the crisis by focusing solely on top-down efforts from billionaires. Even if you hypothetically believe that the rich should be taxed at a much higher rate and that democratic leaders, not billionaires, should be the ones making funding decisions, it is not as if the tax code is going to be rewritten right now. So in an emergency and with the government failing, you would certainly rather have, say, $25 million from Mark Zuckerberg for therapeutics research than not. The money donated by Zuckerberg or Gates or Moskovitz very well might save lives. “Although I think concerns about the private sector and philanthropy doing what the government is supposed to be doing are somewhat valid, there isn’t a great alternative right now,” wrote Sam Altman, the former head of Y Combinator, on his blog as part of a plea for more private science funding. Defenders of billionaire philanthropy often point to people like Gates, who is spending his fortune to create manufacturing capacity for seven possible different vaccines. Admirers say they would rather have Gates deploying his billions on that, rather than have him pay a few more tax dollars that would be lost in the federal bureaucracy. That may be true, but it also gives them some indirect influence: Who elected Gates to be in charge of America’s vaccine production plan, even if he is savvily spending his money? The millions that Steve Ballmer has contributed to support communities in three particular cities close to his heart — Detroit, Los Angeles, and Seattle — will help, and so will the $100 million that Jeff Bezos is sending to food banks around the US, but who beyond them decided that these are the best uses of America’s resources? Even Anand Giridharadas, among the most strident critics of billionaire mega-charity, thinks the gifts are welcome in an emergency. But he argues we still have to continue to ask questions about how we grew so dependent on them in the first place. “We are now awash in press releases and narratives about billionaires stepping up. And there’s a little bit of a, ‘How do you like them billions?’ thing happening. Where because this is such a desperate, urgent, fast-moving moment, there is the ability of very rich people to act quickly and step into the breach and do stuff in a way that feels redemptive to many people, even though I think we should be more suspicious,” Giridharadas told Recode. “While as a normal human being you celebrate someone buying a lot of masks quickly and donating them where an American state might take longer to get that done,” he explained, “It’s really important to ask why the crisis has hit us the way it has and the weaknesses it’s exposed. ... A lot of those people stepping up are responsible for the underlying conditions of weakness.” Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images Anand Giridharadas in 2019. To Giridharadas, the real “stepping up” would come from billionaires renouncing the use of loopholes to evade taxes that weaken government’s revenue and ability to respond, to halt their use of offshore manufacturing that has hamstrung our domestic inventory of things like masks, and to campaign for stronger a social safety net with programs like universal healthcare. “When you are talking about people dying on a minute-to-minute basis, there has to be some space to say, ‘Can we talk about this afterward?’ But I want to be very clear, given where I come from: We actually have to talk about it afterward,” Giridharadas said. ”I don’t think it is unkind to note those things while we are, as a society, taking some of their money.” Secondly, not all donors are so easy to caricature as the critics suggest. It isn’t as if all of the people “stepping up” are power-hungry billionaires. In fact, some billionaires aren’t exerting power with their philanthropy for a different reason — because they’re not publicly doing much giving at all. Jeff Richards, a venture capitalist, feels the conversation about Silicon Valley plutocratic power can be too focused on billionaires and can overlook efforts by ordinary tech leaders who are wealthy, yes, but hardly titans, such as efforts organized by another investor, Ryan Sarver, and former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, to sponsor meals or restaurants. “There’s no agenda. Neither of them are trying to build influence or build an empire or curry favor with politicians or anything like that,” Richards said. “I’m probably naive in that I believe that most of the things people do are from the goodness in their heart.” And a related point: It might not be the case that billionaires are even donating as much as we’d think, which ironically means they aren’t grabbing as much influence along the way as we’d fear. Some of the most prominent tech billionaires, such as Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have so far proven to be MIA, at least publicly, amid the crisis. Representatives of the pair, who together control over $100 billion in assets, didn’t return requests for comment. And the gifts announced by people like Zuckerberg and Bezos are often astonishingly small percentages of their net worth, as critics on the left are quick to point out. Still, it’s hard to know for sure. In the opaque, atomized world of philanthropy, it is always possible that donors are making major gifts that they don’t announce. Corporate power Activists worry that all this philanthropy could have an unintended — or perhaps perfectly intended — consequence: Political insulation for these billionaires’ corporations. These good deeds could slow the building bipartisan scrutiny of these companies’ size, labor practices, and data scandals. It’s not as self-evident that Big Tech companies will come out of this with enhanced reputations — these companies could be on a path to ugly scrutiny over how they treat low-level employees, for instance. But some are concerned that Big Tech, after years on the defensive, will be able to “charity-wash” their reputations and build corporate goodwill through redemptive, headline-grabbing donations that help lower the temperature on, say, breaking up the tech companies at the end of this. Big Tech’s billionaire class will have more power after the crisis than they had before, argues Sally Hubbard of the Open Market Institute. Brick-and-mortar retail is hemorrhaging jobs at a time when Amazon is adding hundreds of thousands of their own. Google is gaining even more of a foothold in the home as educators across the country deploy Google Classroom to teach students remotely — whether you want your family to use it or not. Officials, among others, from California Gov. Gavin Newsom to Vice President Mike Pence have repeatedly gone out of their way to offer thanks for the generosity of Cook and Zuckerberg — corporate leaders that they themselves will need to regulate for years to come. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Then Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom with Nasdaq CEO Robert Greifeld, center right, unveil the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco in 2015. The center provides business training, mentoring and networking opportunities for early stage startup founders — maybe even the next Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page. Freada Kapor Klein, a tech philanthropist herself who worries deeply about tech philanthropists’ power, said she had applauded, for instance, the specifics of the two largest non-corporate gifts, the $100 million that Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates have each donated to charity. But she’s not naive. “It enhances their legacy, their standing, the way to which they are revered. And sometimes that makes it harder to hold them accountable,” she said. “It’s not a critique of this gift or of them as individuals. It is a critique of the dynamic.” At the very least, the pandemic is surely blotting out competing policy debates — after all, it is hard to focus on almost-academic concerns about tech monopolies amid tales of unprepared hospitals with rising body counts. And yet Hubbard hopes questions about tech power will return either way. “As one crisis comes and destroys so many people’s livelihoods, they’re going to say, ‘Wait, why were these the only companies that were strong enough to weather this?’” she said. Political power Linked to billionaires’ corporate power is their political power. This crisis has shown how tech billionaires have been able to leave their imprint on American policy. After years of building muscular lobbying operations around the globe, some billionaires are wielding and deploying that influence to push their points of view. Take Larry Ellison. The founder of Oracle and one of the world’s wealthiest people, Ellison surprised many in Silicon Valley this February when he hosted a fundraiser for Trump that raised $7 million for his campaign, an event that undoubtedly strengthened his ties with the White House. That fundraiser followed years of Oracle’s Washington shop fostering particularly close ties with the administration. “Larry Ellison is not accountable to a public that voted for him” Just one month later, Ellison was reportedly calling upon those ties to the administration to lobby Trump to push two unproven antimalarial drugs, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, as possible treatments for the coronavirus. And that can be problematic for the rest of us — who don’t have lobbying operations or estates to host presidential fundraisers. Trump in recent days has begun pushing from the White House briefing room that Americans should take chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which some doctors worry could cause severe side effects and have little evidence of efficacy. “My concern is when Donald Trump calls up Larry Ellison and says, ‘Hey, what do you think? What should I do?’ Because Larry Ellison is again not an infectious disease expert,” said Tompkins-Stange. “Larry Ellison is not accountable to a public that voted for him.” Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Oracle chair of the board and chief technology officer Larry Ellison in 2019. To be sure, Tompkins-Stange said she wasn’t yet aware of other overt ways in which tech elites were undemocratically shaping US policy. There aren’t exactly press releases about this sort of stuff. But Ellison’s relationship with Trump offers a case study in how tech billionaires could use their wealth to create political power going forward. “Larry Ellison,” Trump said Sunday from the briefing room. “Amazing guy.” Power of personal brands And then there is billionaires’ brand influence — unquantifiable, yes, but universally recognized. In short: When they speak, we listen. Billionaires have for decades been our oracles and our rock stars, gracing gushing magazine covers, pacing commencement stages, selling how-to-get-rich-too books to the masses, and, more broadly, turning their money into cultural cachet. And during a crisis — when people are so desperate for trustworthy information — these billionaires have filled the void, deploying their celebrity and credibility to try to spread good information. Some tech leaders, in fact, were among the earliest to sound the alarm about the risk of a global pandemic when the coronavirus was only spreading within China. Despite all that good in the short term, this crisis could give these billionaires far greater influence in public life as our so-called thought leaders over the long term, enhancing the size of their platforms and the tenor of their reputations on matters far afield from tech. It is Gates that has emerged as, by far, the most visible tech leader during this crisis. At a time when representatives for other tech billionaires are evading questions about what their bosses are doing in response, Gates has been seemingly everywhere, offering sober, apolitical analysis: Commanding 30 minutes in primetime on CNN. Offering solutions in The Washington Post and on The Daily Show. On Reddit AMAs and TED livestreams. “At a time like this, we are searching for that kind of calm, clear leadership. Bill has been very consistent in his voice on these issues,” said Jeff Raikes, the former CEO of the Gates Foundation and still a close associate of Gates. “In a vacuum, then people like Bill [resonate more] if we don’t have that clarity of voice from our political leaders.” Wang Ye/Xinhua via Getty Images Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping and a goodwill ambassador of the World Health Organization for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, meets with Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in Beijing on November 21. Along with Gates, tech’s biggest celebrities have generally used their platforms and personal brands to draw attention to the crisis (with the exception of Elon Musk, who initially called it “dumb.”) Zuckerberg, for instance, has been hosting smart, responsible interviews on Facebook Live with people like National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and Newsom. Marc Benioff has used his megaphone to call on other CEOs to promise no major layoffs for three months and for other mayors to lock down their cities. While some would like to see these billionaires be more confrontational toward Trump, it’s hard to criticize all that they have done. If the powerful exerting their power to save lives brings them more power, there’s an argument to be made in three words: So be it. If tech leaders had an outsized voice in America before this crisis — they did, after all, invent some of the platforms — their brands have only been enhanced by it. As is the case with their enhancement of their philanthropic, corporate, and political power, the question here to consider is: What is the alternative? It is understandable to be concerned about the enhanced influence of Silicon Valley’s wealthiest, but is that more concerning than the people who might die if its leaders didn’t make mega-donations, expand their company’s reach, or use their voice to speak to their followers? If the powerful exerting their power to save lives brings them more power, there’s an argument to be made in three words: So be it. But there is a tradeoff there that shouldn’t surprise us when this crisis is over and we see tech billionaires standing taller than ever in the rubble. “We’re in a situation where we’re both reliant on the government than we’ve ever been,” said Richards, “but we’re also more reliant on the private sector than we’ve ever been.” And at the end of this, our society may be more unequal, too.

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posted 1 day ago on re/code
The tech sector is keeping the white collar economy alive | Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images The internet has been a productivity bust — until now, when it’s emerged as vital. Internet and mobile phone technology have transformed daily life over the past ten years. Nobody needs to stop and ask for directions anymore, worry about night and weekend minutes, or wait for the nightly newscast to catch up on sports scores. Today’s kids struggle with the concept of television shows airing at specific times and take for granted that grandma’s face is just a couple of touchscreen pushes away. But despite an incredible volume of hype about the economic impact of digital technology the harsh reality is that productivity growth during this period has been very slow. Productivity — the value of a worker’s output during a given period of time — is a fundamental concept in economics. Rising productivity makes it possible for wages to rise without leading to inflation. Rising productivity creates a tax base that can be used to fund useful public programs. Rising productivity is why, fundamentally, people living in 2020 are much richer than people living in 1920 or 1820 or before. And in terms of raising productivity, the internet has largely been a bust. It’s revolutionized the entertainment and media sectors, which occupy a lot of our collective time but don’t actually account for very much economic output. Productivity in those specific sectors has surged, but even though we talk about them a lot (in part because the media and entertainment sectors influence what it is that “we” talk about), they’re tiny slices of the labor force and overall economic output. Coronavirus and the attendant social distancing measures that have been widely adopted to slow its spread have changed all that. Suddenly workplace collaboration tools like Slack, and Zoom that have existed for years as promising sideshows are mission-critical infrastructure keeping the economy functioning. Vaguely promising ideas like telemedicine and remote learning are being used at mass scale, and frivolous food delivery apps have become a lifeline for small businesses. Critically, while the growing digitalization of everything is something that “big tech” participates in the circle of companies whose tools are emerging as vital suddenly extends far beyond the Google/Facebook/Apple/Amazon oligopolistic nexus. This is not how anyone wanted the transformative potential of digital technology to be unleashed. But it is, right now, making our lives much better. And it’s at least plausible that this finite-but-extended period of mass adoption will allow us to break through some pain points and finally start reaping the long-term potential that’s been clearly visible but frustratingly hard to tap for some time. The tools that are keeping the economy on life support during the pandemic could, now that we are mastering them, help open doors to high-paid work outside of high-cost metro areas, improve the quality and convenience of medical care, and help broaden access to affordable forms of higher education. The productivity paradox, explained Thirty years ago, the great economist Robert Solow, whose work is the foundation of the standard understanding of economic growth, quipped that “you can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” This joke was a little premature when he made it, but it’s held up well. The vast majority of the digital revolution has happened since 1980. And despite the incredibly impressive advances in the digital sector, economy-wide productivity growth has been much slower post-1980 than it was in the prior 40 years. What’s more, as Bloomberg’s Justin Fox has pointed out a very large share of the productivity increases we have seen are accounted for just by how much better we are at making computer chips. That improvement is genuinely impressive, of course. But what we keep hoping to see from the technology sector is tools that let us do things better rather than just tools that help us make better technology products. The disjuncture between the apparently relentless progress in tech and the non-existing productivity acceleration has created a mini-dogma in Silicon Valley circles that it’s not the technology that’s failing, it’s our economic statistics. “There is a lack of appreciation for what’s happening in Silicon Valley,” Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, told the Wall Street Journal, “because we don’t have a good way to measure it.” The article states that Varian believes a “problem with the government’s productivity measure” is that “it is based on gross domestic product, the tally of goods and services produced by the U.S. economy.” But this is not a measurement error. This is the definition of economic productivity. When people can create more goods and services for sale in the market economy, their productivity goes up. When they cannot, it does not. It is obviously true that there are things in life that matter that are not monetized in this way — a child’s smile, the beauty of a sunset, or the entertainment value of amusing yourself with ad-supported media. But this is just a fact of life, not a new phenomenon related to the internet. During the productivity boom of the 1950s and 1960s, we also got widespread adoption of free-to-watch ad-supported broadcast television, a change to entertainment habits that’s surely a bigger deal than Instagram. The fact that tech changes were largely limited to this kind of thing is exactly the productivity problem. The changes feel revolutionary because, according to the American Time Use Survey, we spend nearly a quarter of our waking hours on various forms of media consumption which really have changed a lot. The sad reality for culture workers, however, is that culture isn’t that big of a deal economically. The invention of the printing press was inarguably a bigger deal for media consumption than the invention of Netflix, but as Vox’s Kelsey Piper has written, nothing really shows up in hard productivity numbers until the industrial revolution let us get better at manufacturing clothing. One lesson of that is there’s more to life than economics. But economics still matters a lot, and the fact is early modern people spent a huge share of their incomes on clothing so textile factories moved the needle on living standards in a way that cheaper books couldn’t. Technology is keeping the white-collar economy alive I’m writing this article from a little table in my basement while I work from home after consulting briefly on the pitch via Slack with two editors. Later I’m going to record an interview for a video our team is producing via a Zoom call and using my iPhone’s built-in camera. I do The Weeds podcast these days from my closet, because hanging clothing in a small room provides good sound-dampening for people who don’t have access to a studio. None of this is ideal, but it all more or less works, which as far as I can tell is the experience of many white-collar office workers. The big unsolved pain point with quarantine-era working is caring for small children while schools and daycares are closed. But that’s just to say it’s hard to do literally two jobs simultaneously, not that the remote work as such isn’t functional. This isn’t going to show up as surging productivity any more than iMessaging your friends does. But in this case, special pleading is called for. Digital productivity tools aren’t making white-collar office workers more productive than we were pre-coronavirus, but they are making us a lot more productive than we’d be if we faced the need to shelter in place without them. The global economy is currently facing a lot of problems, but a total collapse of white collar work is not one of them in the way that it would have been 20 years ago. Teleworking as a concept, of course, is not new. But modern tools are genuinely much better. A classic telework setup required a lot of dedicated equipment — a desktop computer, a dedicated phone line, a fax machine, a printer — that couldn’t be hurried set up en masse in response to a quarantine order. And modern asynchronous tools like email and chat let you communicate with people who may be momentarily occupied with something else and use away messages and calendar invites to clarify availability. At the moment, I really miss chatting with coworkers over lunch, and personally I am looking forward to getting back to the office. But thanks to digital technology, things are basically working, and even classic face-to-face industries are trying to go remote. Telemedicine and distance learning are finally getting a shot The health care and education sectors are sort of the opposite of media and entertainment when it comes to the impact of technology. Even school and doctor’s office have computers, but the fundamental practice of both fields has been only minimally impacted by technology. Yet these two sectors, along with housing and transportation, account for the lion’s share of a typical household budget. To really raise living standards, these are the things that need to get cheaper and better. Right now because of coronavirus they are both getting worse. But the exigencies of the situation are forcing regulators and institutions to experiment with technological possibilities that have long been evident but little used. Remote medical consultations, which many providers had been reluctant to do both out of force of habit and because of difficulty getting reimbursed, are being normalized. This is in many cases a much more convenient way for patients to get care and in some instances a cheaper way for providers to offer it. It’s obviously not a full substitute for doctors visits or hospitals, but for certain classes of service — and especially for rural communities, elderly patients, parents of young kids, and people with mobility impairments — it could be a game-changer. The education picture is more mixed. It seems pretty clear that even for college-age students, in-person instruction is superior in the vast majority of cases. That said, the nature of scalable digital technologies is that even if only one professor in a hundred to come up with a distance learning paradigm that really works that could still have enormous influence in the years to come. The internet already revolutionized learning things (YouTube is a great place to seek instructions on everything from how to tie a tie to how to replace a garbage disposal). But it’s badly underperformed in terms of changing how formal education works. Coronavirus is forcing the pace of change to accelerate, which should leave a foundation of institutional knowledge for further progress down the road. That is as long as we can get the overall economy moving again. The risk of mass unemployment One reason why digital technology seemed to punch below its weight over the past decade is that for the vast majority of that period the unemployment rate was high and labor was plentiful. Restaurants developed websites and apps and even toyed around with advance ordering, but nobody went through the trouble of rebuilding the entire process around digital technology because it would have been a pain in the butt with little obvious upside. That finally began to change over the past year or two, as the labor market finally got tight and wages finally began to rise. Rising pay is good on its own terms, of course, but it also creates a different set of management incentives. Suddenly thinking about how to adopt and adapt new technology becomes highly rewarded even if there are some hiccups along the way. With unemployment currently skyrocketing again in the wake of the virus, the risk is that progress will be undone during another long slow recovery that sees weak worker bargaining power and a huge expansion in low-wage work. But a rapid bounce-back led by appropriately robust federal stimulus policy could help the US build something better than the food service and retail economy we had before the virus. One where demand for workers is high enough that most people can shift relatively rapidly out of that kind of low-wage employment and into better-paid sectors, and companies work hard to deploy digital technology to get by with fewer cashiers and servers. Coronavirus response has often been compared to a war. And like a war, suffering under the thread of a deadly disease is bad for prosperity. But wartime pressures have often driven innovations — World War II gave us jet planes, radar, synthetic rubber, and fabrics — that later unleash peacetime prosperity. So far we are seeing some early signs of something similar, less with new inventions than with new adaptations to technologies that have been lingering while undershooting their potential. If we’re lucky and smart, we can come out of this with a more prosperous country than ever before.

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posted 2 days ago on re/code
What is a Quibi? | Quibi The trouble with Quibi is that everything Quibi does, other streaming services are already doing better. The easiest question to answer about Quibi is the one I’m most frequently asked: Just what is Quibi, anyway? Quibi is short for “quick bites” — though you don’t pronounce it “quih-bye” (to rhyme with “rib-eye”) but, instead, “quih-bee,” to rhyme with the name “Libby.” It’s a new streaming service built from the ground up for mobile devices, and some of the names behind it include media mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg (who worked at Disney Animation during its renaissance, then started Dreamworks Animation and was instrumental in making such films as Shrek and Prince of Egypt) and CEO Meg Whitman, who is the former CEO of eBay. There’s a lot of money behind Quibi: As The Verge pointed out just last month, the service had raised nearly $2 billion in seed money before anybody saw a single frame of programming. With that much cash in its coffers and with folks like Katzenberg and Whitman involved, you’d expect Quibi to be new and original, wildly innovative, or at least stuffed full of great programming. Quibi is none of those things. Its central aim is to present short-form programming, so every episode of every one of its shows is under 10 minutes long, and many are quite a bit shorter than that. (I watched a couple in the five-minute range.) Quibi’s embrace of short-form content is supposed to be its killer new idea, the must-see that will compel you to pony up $5 a month to watch with ads and $8 a month to watch without. (Vox Media, the parent company of Vox, is creating programming for Quibi. I haven’t seen Speedrun, its daily show premiering Monday.) But in practice, Quibi largely fails to differentiate itself from many other streaming services. At best, it’s like a YouTube you have to pay for. Quibi’s programming ranges from reality show reboots to bland scripted shows to Nicole Richie making fun of herself Quibi The absurdist mockumentary Nikki Fre$h is the best thing on Quibi, which is not much of a compliment. But it’s a pretty funny show. I spent the better part of a workday watching several of Quibi’s new series. The service sent me screeners of nearly 30 shows, usually providing three or four episodes of each. (Several programs that will run daily, to report or comment on the news, were not available, for obvious reasons.) The offerings ranged from reality competition series to game show reboots to scripted dramas to a very odd mockumentary. They were almost all mediocre. Some were terrible. The most notable titles for many who sign up for Quibi’s 90-day free trial will be two remakes of old MTV shows — the prank show Punk’d (hosted by Chance the Rapper in this incarnation) and the dating show Singled Out (hosted by Keke Palmer and Joel Kim Booster). Neither program is bad, exactly, but neither program does much to explain why it’s been revived for 2020, either; if Quibi wants to ride the nostalgia boom, it’s not immediately clear why the programs it’s resurrecting are going to have the most immediate appeal for 20- and 30-somethings who are already inundated with streaming services aimed directly at them. The other reality programming is ... fine, but it’s clear that no one has put much thought into why it should exist in Quibi’s “quick bite” format. Reality television is often concept heavy — meaning a show can live or die based on the clarity of the concept for a series or episode — and in the sub-10-minute running time of Quibi episodes, generally all there’s time to do is introduce that concept before rushing through a quick conclusion. Many of the Quibi reality shows I screened made me feel like I was starting to get interested right before they abruptly ended. The scripted series fare no better. All of them are structured less like episodic TV shows and more like a movie arbitrarily broken up into chunks. This is probably the right approach — a 10-episode Quibi show composed of 10-minute episodes will run 100 minutes, after all — but few of the programs have really thought through what that might look like. I more or less enjoyed its spin on Most Dangerous Game, with Christoph Waltz as the grinning villain who wants to hunt a man (in this incarnation named Dodge because he has to dodge all those murder attempts), and Flipped, an absurdist comedy I’m not sure I can describe but one that makes great use of Will Forte and Kaitlin Olson. And yet these “pretty okay” shows were stacked up against a program called Survive, which I’d call one of the most irresponsible TV shows I’ve ever seen. About halfway through the show’s first episode, its protagonist (played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner) describes at length detailed instructions for both self-harm and suicide, in a way that makes self-harm and suicide seem vaguely alluring. It’s supposed to be dangerous and edgy; instead, it functions as an impromptu how-to manual that seriously crossed the line for me. The one Quibi show I wholeheartedly enjoyed was the Nicole Richie mockumentary Nikki Fre$h. It has something to do with Richie trying to make herself relevant again by dubbing herself “Nikki Fre$h,” and becoming a rapper but also a beekeeper? It makes sense in the moment, but good luck explaining it to anybody. I just know that a major cameo in the third episode, one I dare not spoil, made me laugh uproariously — the only time a Quibi show elicited such a reaction from me. So if Quibi’s shows aren’t worth it, is the service itself? With the caveat that I haven’t actually seen the interface the new service will use — and maybe it will be extraordinary — I’m confident there’s nothing on Quibi that isn’t already being done better elsewhere, and often for much cheaper. Quibi is selling itself as revolutionary. But most of its innovations were pioneered by other services. The various screeners Quibi provided to critics showed us each program in both vertical and horizontal orientations, so we could get an idea of how its shows will look depending on how you hold your phone: Quibi A frame from Quibi’s remake of Singled Out. Every single Quibi show has been considered from the perspective of someone who’d watch in a vertical orientation, as well as from the perspective someone who’d watch in a horizontal orientation. But the narrow framing of vertical orientation often leaves important visual information cropped out anyway, or it creates unintentionally unsettling images, like the contestant looming in the background of the shot above. Particularly in some of Quibi’s more documentary-style programming — where the camera has to dart around to follow what’s happening — the vertical orientation proved difficult to watch. A few programs found a fun way to present information in the vertical orientation, occasionally using a split-screen effect where multiple people onscreen at the same time would appear in different frames stacked on top of each other. Here’s an example of that format in the show Nightgowns, a boring but beautifully filmed series about drag: Quibi A still from Nightgowns. Rather than follow the entire performance of drag queen Sasha Velour — who would be moving all over the stage — the vertical orientation splits it up in a way that gives you the feel of the entire performance while allowing the camera to remain mostly stationary. Unfortunately, it’s the only Quibi show I watched that seemed to have thought about how differently such a performance would play out when watched on a phone. This attempt to accommodate to vertical orientation viewers, I think, will be the difference most people notice when they fire up Quibi. And it might seem incredibly innovative to many of them. I don’t want to sell Quibi short here — the effort made to think about how people holding their phones vertically will experience its programming is welcome, even if it’s yielded far too many shows that just restrict all the action to the center of the frame. But it’s not exactly new. Quibi Nearly every one of Quibi’s programs boasts a big star involved somewhere in production. And that’s the big problem with Quibi: Everything it does that’s interesting is already being done better by somebody else. A lot of the shows feel like lesser, shorter versions of more successful Netflix offerings (for instance, a show about how various pastas get their shapes is okay and all, but it has a pretentious vibe that Netflix’s similar Salt Fat Acid Heat mercifully avoided). And the shows that don’t feel like Netflix knockoffs are exactly the sort of scripted filler that tends to pad out new streaming platforms in need of content. But look beyond Netflix and you’ll find other streaming services delivering even better results on Quibi’s core promises. Quibi is a bunch of short-form content mostly aimed at young people — which makes it a lot like YouTube with more curation, better production values, and occasional celebrities. It’s not immediately clear what Quibi’s Punk’d remake adds to the world that Logan Paul didn’t, other than the chance to see bigger names getting pranked. Similarly, a pop culture rundown show called Memory Hole is no different from hundreds of YouTube videos providing fun looks back at obscure cultural moments, except it’s hosted by Will Arnett instead of an unknown narrator. And YouTube, at least in its base form, is free. It’s also widely beloved by the teens and 20-somethings Quibi seems to be targeting. So Quibi is basically running straight at YouTube with a service that will cost money, for programming that is rarely much better than the best YouTube has to offer but features faces you (and by “you,” I mean an adult who’s not enmeshed in the world of YouTube celebrity) might recognize more. Then there’s Snapchat, which remains enormously popular with teens and early-20-somethings. Snapchat also offers original series — ones that can only be watched vertically, and that have been better designed to play specifically on a phone. They’re TV shows or movies divided into smaller chunks, as Quibi’s shows often seem to be. And they’re free. Snapchat’s shows have deliberately considered what it means to air on a phone screen and how information might best be conveyed. The use of split-screens on a Quibi program is still a tentative thing; on Snapchat, it happens in every single program. And Snapchat’s approach is working, at least according to its internal numbers. Writes Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk: According to its numbers, 218 million people use the app daily. With over 38 million viewers, Endless (previously called Endless Summer), created by Michelle Peerali and Andrea Metz, is the most watched of the 95 original shows that have appeared on the platform in the past few years. It’s now in its third season, and most of its audience is between 13 and 24 years old (by Snapchat’s statistics, 90 percent of people in the U.S. in that age range have the app on their phones). The company has studied what works on a phone and what does not, and from those lessons, it has invented mobile storytelling as a new art form. Even if we assume that Snapchat is overreporting its numbers — because it probably is — there’s still a staggering number of people, mostly young adults and teens, watching its programming. Those are the same people Quibi is targeting, and if they’re already watching Snapchat, it’s hard to imagine them being sucked in by Quibi. (I don’t precisely like Snapchat’s shows, but they are relentlessly designed to do what they do perfectly. I can respect that.) So if Quibi’s target audience is mostly occupied on other apps, and if the service isn’t that innovative, and if its programming is mostly unremarkable, why are we talking about it? Media coverage of Quibi underlines the broken ways we talk about tech and entertainment Quibi Chrissy Teigen as a judge? You know, why not? In the spring of 2019, a new streaming service called Nebula kicked off what’s called a soft launch, going online with a small amount of content with the idea that it would add more and more in the weeks to come. Nebula is another streaming service attempting to do “YouTube but better,” and the concept behind it is literally to pay prominent YouTube creators (with money pooled from the service’s $3-a-month subscriber base) to make what they’d love to if they weren’t reliant on the whims of the YouTube algorithm. (I should note here that one of those creators, Lindsay Ellis, is a friend of mine. She is also the only reason I know Nebula exists, which is going to become important in a moment.) I don’t know that Nebula is presenting itself as something different in the way Quibi is, but it’s definitely trying something new. And yet it received maybe a hundredth of the press coverage that Quibi has. If you Google it, you’ll find a handful of news articles about the service, and then a bunch of confused Reddit threads asking what Nebula even is. Nebula hasn’t ever contacted me to offer screeners or access to the site. It’s unlikely it ever will. My guess is that whatever budget Nebula has, it isn’t being spent on publicists. Quibi — which, again, has nearly $2 billion in capital — has been covered breathlessly from almost the moment it was announced. It aired ads during the Super Bowl. Its shows involve big Hollywood stars. It’s the kind of streaming service those of us who write about entertainment or tech are “supposed” to cover. But why? Why waste so much ink on something that feels so bizarrely underconsidered? To me, Quibi is clearly inferior. It’s “more expensive YouTube” at best and “Snapchat but with worse quality control” at worst. It’s difficult to imagine a huge number of people who are looking to subscribe to yet another streaming service deciding to add Quibi. It’s also difficult to imagine many viewers subscribing to a streaming service specifically targeted at people who might want to watch short videos while on the go, given that said service is launching during a pandemic that is forcing everyone to stay home. (The pandemic isn’t Quibi’s fault, of course; the service’s April 2020 launch date was announced months ago. But now the pandemic is another thing standing in Quibi’s way.) My point is that the reason Quibi has been covered so heavily has little to do with its ideas (which are paltry) or its programming (which is bad) or its business model (which is basically the same as every other streaming business model). The reason Quibi has been covered so heavily is that a lot of money has been sunk into it, and the people who started the service have previously made lots of money doing other things. Therefore, it must be important, because a capitalist society assigns value in terms of dollars. I am aware that I am part of the problem. Look how many words I’ve written about Quibi, a service I clearly don’t like. That’s because I know there will be Quibi ads everywhere, and I know that enough people will say, “What’s Quibi?” and click on this article to find the answer. That’s the way the system works. But it’s also a system that is so frequently hijacked by money as to have become functionally meaningless. In a world where news and entertainment moved at a rate slower than hyperspeed, I might have found a way to write about Quibi six months from now, after it had some time to settle in and become a part of some people’s lives. But in this world, the window of attention for Quibi is right now, and so here is this article. And in six months, some other new streaming service will come along. I don’t know if Nebula is any better than Quibi. I do know there’s nothing on Quibi that other services aren’t already doing better. There are so many great niche streaming services out there, but none of them have the massive marketing budgets to get stuck in people’s brains the way Quibi does. Quibi does not de facto have value because it’s spent enough money to convince people it has value. It is a flawed product, starting from a flawed premise, and the idea that it is worth talking about because it has purchased your attention (and mine) is so much of what’s wrong with America in the 21st century. The service is another naked emperor in a land full of them. So why are we looking for cool new fashions when the bare ass is visible from miles away?

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posted 3 days ago on re/code
Amazon fired warehouse worker Christian Smalls after he led a walkout at a Staten Island facility in late March. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images Leaked internal emails show employee dismay over how their company is handling escalating labor disputes during the coronavirus pandemic. Some Amazon corporate employees are angry and disgusted over how their company is handling escalating labor disputes at its warehouses, where facility workers say the company is not doing enough to protect them from exposure to the Covid-19 coronavirus. On internal company email lists and chat groups on Thursday and Friday that Recode viewed, Amazon white-collar workers expressed dismay over a report from Vice News that the company’s top lawyer had referred to a recently fired warehouse worker as “not smart, or articulate” and implied that executives should use that to help squelch worker unionization efforts. Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky had used that language to describe the fired warehouse worker, Christian Smalls, in notes from a meeting on Wednesday attended by top Amazon executives, including CEO Jeff Bezos. In the wake of the revelation, stunned Amazon corporate employees aired their disappointment in leadership on a listserv that includes thousands of fellow employees. Others convened in smaller virtual groups on Amazon’s workplace messaging service, Chime, after an employee moderator shut down one of the email threads. “We are in a challenging and exceptional situation — but this type of behavior doesn’t align with our [leadership principles] or the image and values we try to embody when working with customers and candidates,” one Amazon employee wrote Friday on one of the email threads viewed by Recode. “If this isn’t [a] situation where people should have backbone and insist on higher standards for our leadership then what are we even doing here.” A different employee referred to the Zapolsky situation and the fact an employee moderator shut down the discussion as “probably the most concerning event and subsequent silencing I have seen at Amazon.” And another employee expressing concern over the conversation being shut down wrote, “a worker at the bottom of our company’s hierarchy being treated like this strikes me as being exactly the kind of inclusivity and diversity issue that should be discussed openly at Amazon.” An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the employee conversations. The internal backlash to Zapolsky’s comments suggests growing internal schisms between a new generation of rank-and-file employees at Amazon, who are more prone to challenging the tech giant’s broader societal impact, and executive leaders, many of whom have worked alongside CEO Jeff Bezos for more than 20 years. In the past two years, lower-level corporate employees have challenged Bezos and other top leaders internally on matters like a lack of diversity at the top rungs of the company, and externally on the company’s environmental impact. Around 580 corporate employees so far have signed a letter that began circulating at the end of March to support increased safety measures and benefits for warehouse workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Several Amazon employees wondered why their company would invite more scrutiny by publicly targeting one of its front-line workers. Amazon employs more than 500,000 employees in the US alone and has added 80,000 over the past few weeks in response to the pandemic; meanwhile, many of its brick-and-mortar competitors are struggling and either furloughing or laying off employees en masse amid widespread store closures. These latest internal fractures over labor come at a pivotal time for Amazon, which has been transformed during the coronavirus pandemic from a popular retail engine of convenience to a necessary resource as millions of Americans — or at least those who can afford to — stay home to try to slow the spread of the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, Amazon had faced scrutiny from progressive politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders as well as worker rights groups over its treatment of the hundreds of thousands of people who power its packing and shipping operations. The firing of Smalls, and the executive conversations about him, have now touched off both internal criticism and a new round of public support for its workers, whom Amazon executives have referred to as “retail heroes.” Amazon has scrambled to implement drastic changes to its business operations amid surging demand for delivery of items like soap, household supplies, and shelf-stable food. The company has banned its warehouses from storing certain nonessential items, and it has limited the sale of face masks and surgical shields to only hospitals and governments. It’s also introduced new policies for workers. Amazon was one of the first retailers to raise pay for its warehouse employees amid the crisis — boosting salaries by $2 an hour. It’s also stepped up sanitation efforts across its warehouse network, staggered break times to promote social distancing, and eliminated the face-to-face meetings between managers and groups of workers that typically kick off each new shift. Earlier this week, Amazon said it would begin checking the temperature of warehouse workers at the start of each shift and planned to distribute masks to its front-line staff that it ordered weeks ago. Yet cases of Covid-19 in more than two dozen Amazon facilities in the US have sparked fear and anger among some warehouse workers like Smalls, who say they’re risking their lives in unsafe conditions while most of Amazon’s office staff has the luxury of working from home. Smalls had worked in Amazon warehouses for more than four years before the company fired him on Monday, shortly after he led a walkout of a small group of workers at the company’s Staten Island, New York, fulfillment center. The group was protesting Amazon’s unwillingness to provide paid leave for any warehouse worker who feels unsafe working through the pandemic — Amazon requires, at a minimum, that employees have common Covid-19 symptoms or exposure to a person with a confirmed case. They are also calling the company to fully close down and deep-clean a facility if any of its employees are diagnosed with Covid-19. Amazon says whether it temporarily closes a facility is determined by factors including the last time a worker was at a facility and whether it has since been cleaned, as well as guidance from health officials and medical experts. Amazon has said Smalls repeatedly violating social distancing guidelines at the facility and was fired for returning to the warehouse despite being ordered days earlier to quarantine at home for 14 days after a coworker with whom he had been in contact tested positive for the disease. Smalls has denied violating social distancing warnings, and believes he was fired in retaliation for speaking out against working conditions and leading the walkout. In the meeting notes that leaked to the press, Zapolsky implied that Amazon should use Smalls to help quash unionization efforts in its warehouse network. “We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why [Smalls’s] conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety,” Zapolsky wrote in the notes, according to Vice News. “Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” Disputes over Amazon’s pandemic policies have spurred some activist labor groups to encourage organized walkouts, which have now taken place at three Amazon facilities in the past two weeks. Amazon has long fought unionization efforts, which have shown some signs of gaining steam over the past year. The company often cites its pay and benefits programs, which stack up well against competitors, in dismissing the need for unionization. But employee complaints have focused on a punishing pace of work at its facilities. Data from some Amazon facilities has also shown injury report rates far above industry norms, which Amazon has said is a result of the company being more aggressive than its peers in recording injuries. “At this time, unionization is likely the single biggest threat to the business model,” a former Amazon executive told Recode, referring to the company’s handling of Smalls. Amazon employees who spoke directly to Recode on Friday were dismayed by both the alleged plan to attack Smalls and what some believe were racist overtones in Zapolsky’s comments. “It’s absolutely disgusting that they would talk about a coworker like that,” one current Amazon corporate employee told Recode. “I highly doubt they would have used those words if he was a white employee.” Zapolsky, the Amazon executive, is white, while Smalls is black. Another employee told Recode, “I assume convos like that take place, but I was surprised by the obvious racial subtext and by the silencing in the company.” Amazon spokesperson Dan Perlet said in a statement that any suggestion that Zapolsky’s comments were related to race was “not accurate” and that “Mr. Zapolsky didn’t even know the race of the person at the time he made his comments.” His intent is only part of the issue, though, according to another Amazon employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal matters. “It’s not so much what he intended, it’s how it’s interpreted,” the employee told Recode. “And that’s where there seems to be tone-deafness [and] lack of awareness about how our actions and words are viewed outside the company. The risk is if we continue down this path, we will have marched through a one-way door that we can’t go back through.” This employee was referencing a term made popular by Bezos in his 2015 annual letter to Amazon stockholders, in which he described “one-way doors” as decisions that “are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible” and that “must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation.” “If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side,” Bezos added, “you can’t get back to where you were before.” Recode also spoke to an employee who believed Amazon’s reason for firing Smalls and thus supported it “because he put the health and safety of my colleagues at risk.” “I know that this pandemic is a top priority for senior leadership and I am thankful for their care and attention to keep employees and customers safe,” the employee wrote in a message to Recode. “However,” he added, “I don’t like hearing the language used by the executive team to describe this employee. Leaders earn trust when they treat others respectfully.” When Vice News broke the news of Zapolsky’s comments, Amazon issued a quasi-apology attributed to Zapolsky that read, “My comments were personal and emotional. I was frustrated and upset that an Amazon employee would endanger the health and safety of other Amazonians by repeatedly returning to the premises after having been warned to quarantine himself after exposure to virus Covid-19. I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.” At a time when the pandemic has thrust Amazon even further into the spotlight than usual, discord is the last thing the company needs. But the internal backlash among corporate employees over the past few days is an indication of a bubbling animosity in some corners of the company. In some of the emails and group chats viewed by Recode, the rank and file discussed the possibility of airing their displeasure publicly. Some referred to Amazon’s famed leadership principles. One of them reads, in part: “Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion.”

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posted 5 days ago on re/code
Few cars occupy the Arroyo Seco Parkway toward downtown Los Angeles during rush hour on April 2, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. | AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill The Trump administration apparently wants states to take care of themselves before bugging the federal government. The Strategic National Stockpile, which is a relatively obscure office in the federal government that manages the country’s emergency medical supplies, exists to respond to a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. As the United States faces hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 cases, a widespread shortage of medical supplies is reaching a critical point. States lacking essential equipment like ventilators and masks need relief quickly. But as President Trump struggles to coordinate a cohesive response to the pandemic and fights with state governors over how these supplies will be distributed, the stockpile is becoming a source of controversy. It’s also starting to run out of supplies. That’s why Senior advisor to the president Jared Kushner prompted controversy when he made a rare public appearance at the April 2 coronavirus task force briefing and commented on the federal stockpile. When asked about states’ needs for supplies, Kushner said that the stockpile was “supposed to be our stockpile.” The president’s son-in-law added, “It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.” Then, the following morning, the Strategic National Stockpile website had been changed to de-emphasize its commitment to helping states and to downplay the size of its inventory. This particular description online now refers to the federal stockpile as “a short-term stopgap buffer.” Part of this new definition of the Strategic National Stockpile does reside in the general vicinity of reality. The stockpile is running low. The Trump administration admits it. And no, this is not the states’ fault. But it’s not entirely clear what will happen when it’s emptied out. What is the Strategic National Stockpile anyway? The United States’ Strategic National Stockpile, like its nuclear arsenal, is something the US hoped it would never need to use. Formed in 1999 as anxiety over Y2K mounted, this federal stockpile was designed to prevent an interruption to hospital supply chains, if all the computers ended up melting down on New Years Eve. That never happened, but because biological attacks were becoming a growing threat, the US government outfitted the stockpile in the interest of national security. If a bioweapon struck an American city, for example, officials could quickly access vaccines and antitoxins to fight back against nerve agents or diseases like small pox. These biological countermeasures still exist and are stored in six warehouses located in strategic, undisclosed locations across the country, where they are maintained by a staff of about 200. The exact inventory of the Strategic National Stockpile is classified, though journalists have reported that it contains over 1,000 categories of drugs and medical items worth about $8 billion. In the 20 years since the stockpile was established, it was first mobilized after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that followed. Later, the US government deployed it in response various major hurricanes, as well as the H1N1 pandemic, during which the stockpile sent flu medication to all 50 states. Since then, the Strategic National Stockpile has been preparing for the next outbreak, though it obviously didn’t know when or what it would be. With an annual budget of about $600 million, the stockpile has maintained a large supply of personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, face shields, and surgical gowns, as well as medical equipment like the ventilators that hospitals so urgently need now to treat Covid-19 patients. A significant challenge is that many of these items have a shelf life. “Part of stockpiling is not just accruing the necessary equipment, but also maintaining it and replacing it as needed,” Andrew Lakoff, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California who studies health preparedness, told Recode. “So it’s sort of an ongoing, indefinite process that takes a lot of resources that may or may not prove to be necessary.” Centers for Disease Control (CDC) A woman stands on transport-ready containers at a US Strategic National Stockpile warehouse. While the Strategic National Stockpile was originally part of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Trump Administration moved it to a different part of the Health and Human Services Department in 2018. At the time, this concerned certain experts and lawmakers, who worried that the move could disrupt the delicate process of managing the stockpile. As The Washington Post reported at the time, some even worried then that the Trump administration’s plan would “politicize decision-making about products bought for the stockpile.” It’s important to note that the mission of the Strategic National Stockpile is ultimately of limited scope. As spelled out in the law that established it, the federal stockpile is intended “to provide for and optimize the emergency health security of the United States.” The word “emergency” does a lot of work in that sentence. Richard Branson, a respiratory care specialist and professor at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center who advises the federal government on ventilator supplies, explained to Recode that the federal stockpile was designed to meet initial needs in a crisis, until industry could ramp up production. Because ventilators are such specialized pieces of equipment with parts sourced from all over the world, quickly manufacturing more is a uniquely difficult challenge. “This is the first time in 20 years ventilators from the stockpile have been used,” Branson told Recode. “If last year, you had known that fact and there were 80,000 ventilators in the stockpile that had never been deployed, you would be asking me why this money was wasted while people went without healthcare.” But there aren’t actually 80,000 ventilators in the federal stockpile. As of early March, the Strategic National Stockpile only had 16,600 ventilators. It has even fewer now: On April 3, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) told Recode that the federal government has just 9,800 ventilators available. There are 9,054 remaining in the Strategic National Stockpile, and the Department of Defense has 900. New York governor Andrew Cuomo said that just his state, which is the epicenter of the pandemic, will need as many as 37,000 ventilators at the peak of the outbreak. After waiting for relief from the Trump administration, Cuomo ultimately enlisted the National Guard to relocate ventilators from upstate facilities to New York City. As far as the rest of the country’s concerned, it’s safe the say that the Strategic National Stockpile isn’t even close to meeting the overall demand that’s expected during the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s Like Being on eBay With 50 Other States” Besides ventilators, the Strategic National Stockpile is running low on other urgently needed supplies as well. On April 1, the Washington Post reported that the federal stockpile’s stock of personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, was almost depleted. A Department of Homeland Security official told the paper that the stockpile was only “designed to respond to a handful of cities,” pointing to a global shortage of these products. And experts and lawmakers are concerned that the Trump administration’s uneven distribution of supplies is driven by political goals. In early March, when Washington State requested 233,000 N95 respirators and 200,000 surgical masks, the Strategic National Supply sent them less than half that amount. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maine also said they received fractions of what they requested from the federal government. But on March 10, after Washington’s request, Florida asked for 430,000 surgical masks, 180,000 N95 respirators, and other equipment. The full order arrived three days later. One anonymous official told The Washington Post, “The president knows Florida is so important for his reelection… He pays close attention to what Florida wants.” Trump’s brazen behavior isn’t going unnoticed. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said that in the distribution of medical supplies there should be “no favoritism in terms of political allies, no discrimination against states or governors based on lack of presidential flattery.” Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado sent a letter to the Health and Human Services inspector general requesting an investigation into the Strategic National Stockpile’s supply of ventilators. Gardner told Politico that “any kind of mismanagement or abuse needs to be rooted out and those responsible held accountable.” And Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont called the state of the stockpile “disturbing.” Win McNamee/Getty Images Senior White House Advisor Jared Kushner and President Donald Trump speak in the press briefing room with members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force on April 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. After President Trump declared a national emergency over the novel coronavirus crisis on March 13, he told states to order their own medical supplies, kicking off a process that has led to governors entering bidding wars with each other and even with the federal government over essential goods like ventilators and N95 masks. “It’s like being on eBay with 50 other states, bidding on a ventilator,” Gov. Cuomo said in a daily press briefing at the end of March. “What we’re seeing now is a sort of competition on the open market among states trying get ahold of stuff that the stockpile doesn’t have enough of — or is running out of,” said Lakoff, the USC professor. “Everyone’s scrambling to try to figure out how to get ahold of this stuff.” What happens when the stockpile is emptied We don’t really know what happens when the Strategic National Stockpile runs out of essential supplies. But we might learn soon enough. “FEMA planning assumptions for COVID-19 pandemic response acknowledged that the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) alone could not fulfill all requirements at the state and tribal level,” a FEMA spokesperson told Recode. “Therefore, the federal government will exhaust all means to identify and attain medical and other supplies needed to combat the virus.” The agency added that it would meet additional demand through the private sector or the Pentagon. This effort includes a public-private partnership called Project Airbridge which will include 20 flights transporting supplies from Asia to various cities in the United States in early April. FEMA says these flights are transporting masks, gloves, goggles, and surgical gowns, all of which go first to medical distributors and then to hospitals and health care facilities. President Trump has also invoked the Defense Production Act to order GM to begin producing ventilators and 3M to produce more N95 masks domestically, as well as ordering 3M to cease exports of these products. (3M, for what it’s worth, has warned that ceasing exports will actually make the mask shortage in the US worse.) Meanwhile, private corporations and everyday Americans have been making an enormous effort to fill in the gaps that the government has failed to close. Elon Musk has promised that his companies, Tesla and Space X, will start building ventilators. Hobbyists are coming up with new designs for cheap breathing machines that can be built out of simple materials. Automotive parts factories have changed their workflows to start producing face shields and other supplies, and a movement of people sewing face masks out of leftover fabric is taking the country by storm. Put quaintly, everybody is doing their best. The federal government, on the other hand, seems to be getting worse at dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. After spending the first two months of the year denying the severity of the coronavirus outbreak, it’s now clear that the Trump Administration has settled on deflecting blame and settling into the posture of unaccountability. As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias puts it, the “federal government, led by Donald Trump, has essentially abdicated its traditional role of spearheading a coordinated response.” Coming up with a response, it seems, is the states’ problem. This is what makes the shifting role of the Strategic National Stockpile so frustrating for so many people right now. Before Kushner’s appearance at the coronavirus task force briefing, the stockpile’s website said the “Strategic National Stockpile is the nation’s largest supply of life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out.” The following morning it read, “The Strategic National Stockpile’s role is to supplement state and local supplies during public health emergencies.” So that stockpile that was designed to help the entire nation in an emergency is now a backup plan. Also, it’s basically gone. What Kushner said about the federal government not being there to help out with supplies? Unfortunately, that’s true. The states are on their own, and that reality is starting to sink in.

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posted 5 days ago on re/code
Los Angeles Times As millions of respirators keep surfacing, health care workers say they need more. For health care workers, the N95 mask is an invaluable line of defense against the novel coronavirus. These highly protective respirators can keep doctors and nurses from getting infected by patients, but the world is quickly running out of them. While countries around the world scramble to find stockpiles of N95s and manufacture more of the much-coveted masks, it’s unclear how this shortage will resolve itself. The situation in the United States is increasingly dire. On April 2, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to compel 3M, one of the only companies that manufacturers N95 masks in the US, to ramp up production. Many, including Democratic presidential primary candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, had pushed the White House to use the DPA more aggressively to deal with medical supplies shortages. The president later said in a tweet that 3M “will have a big price to pay” for exporting masks. 3M pushed back against Trump’s threats. In a Friday statement, the company emphasized that it had gained approval to import 10 million masks from its facilities in China. 3M also warned about the White House’s request to end its exports of N95 respirators, citing “humanitarian implications of ceasing respirator supplies to health care workers in Canada and Latin America.” If other countries retaliated by not sharing supplies, 3M argued, the US could soon end up with fewer masks than it had before the DPA order. Despite global production ramping up, the US shortage of N95 masks is so great that companies, unions, and even average people have been scrambling to fill the need by searching for stockpiles of existing masks and seeking out alternative suppliers. Another problem is that many of these respirators, including those made by 3M, are ending up in a somewhat lawless gray market, where they’re subject to hoarding and price-gouging. Accordingly, federal authorities are hard at work tracking down stashes of this desperately needed personal protective equipment and redistributing what they find to health care worker. In another move to increase the supply of respirators, the Food and Drug Administration has also lifted restrictions on importing KN95 masks, which are similar — though not identical — to N95 masks, and are certified by China, according to BuzzFeed. In New York, now the epicenter of Covid-19 cases in the US, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for New York and American companies to transition to making N95 masks, among other medical supplies, if they're able. “It is unbelievable to me that in New York State, in the United States of America, we can’t make these materials, and that we are all shopping China to try to get these materials, and we’re all competing against each other,” he said during a Friday press conference. Referring to an N95 mask, he said: “It can’t be that we can’t make these.” So while discoveries of hundreds of thousands — and even millions — of masks might sound like good news, the everlasting shortage also draws attention to a supply chain that’s been riddled with mismanagement and misinformation. The situation also raises the question of why companies, unions, and average people have taken it upon themselves to find masks for health care workers, as well as why the federal government didn’t do more sooner to get masks into the hands of people who need them most. What makes N95 masks so hard to find Certified N95 respirators are special. Unlike a conventional surgical mask, N95 masks are built so that 95 percent of very small airborne particles can’t get through. These masks also need to be approved by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and, depending on the type, the Food and Drug Administration. In order to fulfill those requirements, N95 masks must be constructed so that they seal tightly around one’s mouth and nose, unlike surgical or cloth masks which are loose-fitting. The United States is now confronted with a shortage of N95 masks for a number of reasons. The masks themselves are difficult to make, in part because they require specialized equipment to meet stringent regulatory standards. Many of the companies that can make the masks are also in China. That supply chain wasn’t prepared for a pandemic, especially one that originated in the same country where many of these masks are produced. And as the novel coronavirus spread throughout China, the country’s government bought its domestically produced masks, ensuring they weren’t exported. That’s made the gap between supply and demand in the US much larger. In the absence of a pandemic, the US has typically not produced enough of these N95 masks to meet the needs of its own workers. 3M and Prestige Ameritech are the two primary companies that do end-to-end production of medical-grade N95 masks in the US, and both are both ramping up production. Another American company, Honeywell, recently started producing N95 masks at its Rhode Island and Phoenix facilities. Still, these three companies won’t solve our mask shortage. China News Service via Getty Images By the end of March, work had resumed in many of the factories in China where N95 masks are produced. Now that China appears to have slowed its own Covid-19 outbreak, overseas shipments of protective equipment are starting up again. Even if China exported the same number of masks that it did before the novel coronavirus outbreak, the US would still need a lot more since it’s now combating the highest number of confirmed cases of any country in the world. The US is also competing with many other countries eager to get hold of more N95 masks. So front-line health care workers are sounding the alarm that there simply aren’t enough N95 face masks to keep themselves and their patients safe. A March survey conducted by the health care company Premier found that a shortage of N95 masks was hospitals’ top concern, and that many hospitals had less than 10 days’ worth of supplies. Facing limited supply, nurses have been forced to reuse masks and are turning to cloth and conventional surgical masks, which are not as protective. The struggle to equip health care workers with proper protection has left some looking toward the US government for help. So far, many are frustrated by a lack of preparation in the face of the coronavirus crisis and the government’s failure at ensuring that masks and other essential medical equipment get routed to hospitals and other places where it’s most needed. The Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that the country will need 3.5 billion masks over the course of tackling the pandemic. Disparate sources in private industry are showing up to help. Why companies keep discovering N95 masks in stockpiles Many companies and organizations are purchasing masks for the specific purpose of donating them to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. However, others are offering up N95 masks that were being kept in storage. Reasons vary as to why so many companies have these high-end respirators stashed away in warehouses. Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, recently said that Facebook was donating 720,000 N95 masks that were purchased following the wildfires in California last year. He added that the company was “also working on sourcing millions more to donate.” Currently, California emergency regulations require that when air quality worsens by a significant amount, workplaces must take steps to ensure their workers have respiratory protection, like N95 masks, if other adjustments can’t be made. The change in regulation came following the catastrophic 2018 California wildfires. The same regulation suggests that a good number of other California employers also have N95 masks on hand. But wildfires aren’t the only reason companies have N95 masks in storage. Goldman Sachs donated some 600,000 masks after buying them during past public health crises, like the H1N1 pandemic. The National Cathedral similarly kept a stockpile of more than 7,000 N95 masks because of concerns about the avian flu and recently donated 5,000 of them to Washington, DC-area hospitals. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Intel told Recode that it is donating 1 million items of personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, from its “factory stock and emergency supplies.” The list of sources for N95 masks keeps growing as officials keep seeking them out. A construction company in Columbus, Ohio, handed over its supply to local health officials, while some Habitat for Humanity workers in Atlanta gave nearly 1,500 N95 masks to their county health department. Both groups keep the masks for their everyday operations. Some masks have even come from the trash. A Maryland recycling company had saved 36,000 N95 masks that someone had previously tried to throw out. Now, those masks are being donated to health care workers. There are also cases of discovered masks with more mysterious origins. For instance, the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) announced last week that it located a whopping 39 million respirators that could be sold to health care workers. But the union has thus far declined to name the distributor that had these masks, apparently out of concern that the company would be overwhelmed, and at least one hospital association appeared to walk away from the deal. It’s also unclear exactly where some major N95 donations from corporations are coming from. Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted in late March that his company had “sourced, procured, and is donating” 10 million masks, though it’s not immediately clear why the company had access to so many masks. The day before Cook’s tweet, Vice President Pence said in a press conference that Apple would be donating 9 million N95 masks from its “storehouses.” Still, Apple would not comment on why the company had these masks in supply. When N95 expiration dates matter and when they don’t Even though millions of N95 masks have reportedly surfaced in the past month, health care workers will need millions more in the coming months. And to some extent, all of these recently discovered masks are adding to feelings of confusion. One big question that keeps popping up: Which stockpiled N95 masks are still usable? “You can find small pockets of available supplies as people realize, ‘Oh, yeah, we do have a warehouse.’ It is nearly impossible to find a large quantity,” Soumi Saha, senior director of advocacy at Premier, told Recode. She added that many of these products are now expired. “When you start seeing millions behind some of these finds, you really have to do so with a level of caution.” These massive discoveries seem to be happening with some frequency. The most recently reported discovery happened in an Indiana warehouse, where government officials found nearly 1.5 million expired N95 masks. They had been part of the US Customs and Border Protection’s emergency supply, but according to the Washington Post, the Department of Homeland security is giving the masks to TSA workers instead of sending them to hospitals. It’s not clear whether the fact that the masks are expired played a role in how they’re being distributed. While 1.5 million masks sounds like a lot, that load is just a fraction of the 21 million N95 respirators the state of California found in its emergency stockpile a few weeks ago. The state says that all of the masks “are expired but are usable” under updated CDC guidelines. Indeed, at the end of February, the CDC reported that “certain N95 models beyond their manufacturer-designated shelf life will be protective.” The San Francisco Chronicle explains that the issue with the expired masks isn’t the respirator itself; the elastic band that holds the mask on the wearer’s face can degrade over time, preventing a tight seal. Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images Although they were readily available at stores like Home Depot earlier this year, N95 masks are now sold out virtually everywhere. One solution that could avoid the risk of using expired equipment might just be to keep reusing the disposable N95 respirators. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved an Ohio company’s disinfection system. This new machine can disinfect up to 80,000 N95 masks a day, though regulators are capping each device’s capacity at 10,000 masks. Why the gray market for N95 is complicating things At this point, it seems obvious that the question of how health care workers can get access to large numbers of functional N95 masks is complicated. It’s not always clear where the masks are coming from or whether they’re any good. “As the world scrambled to acquire [N95 masks] — for different reasons — it created a weird market dynamic between those who are looking to buy and those who are looking to provide,” Andrew Stroup, a co-founder of the medical equipment clearinghouse Project N95, told Recode. “That imbalance in the market happened, and then you saw a rise in secondary or open market individuals showing up saying they could supply it.” In other words, a gray market for N95 masks has emerged. As Vox recently reported, a growing number of individuals and organizations are raising money through websites like GoFundMe and working with suppliers in China to fill the gap in supply that the US government can’t or won’t properly address. These importers have to worry about not only expired N95 masks but also counterfeits and substandard products, which are increasingly being offered to US health care workers. The number and breadth of sellers has grown drastically in recent weeks, adding to the general state of confusion in this crisis. Now, a troublesome class of middlemen is in the N95 mask business, and hospitals might find themselves dealing with anyone from legitimate distributors to criminal counterfeit rings. Meanwhile, prices for masks have spiked from just around $1 per mask to as high as $7, $8, or even $9 a mask. Michael Einhorn, president of the medical supplier Dealmed, says that despite 3M’s promise not to raise prices during the pandemic, these so-called diverters still find a way to intervene and profit from the pandemic. Amazon has now effectively banned the sale of N95 masks to the public, and platforms like Facebook and Google have prohibited ads for Covid-19-related medical products (though that hasn’t necessarily stopped these ad from popping up). Meanwhile, through suspicious accounts on platforms like Instagram and Twitter, there appear to be unauthorized people advertising N95 masks, which may or may not be legitimate. Facebook, which owns Instagram, told Recode that it will remove “posts and accounts selling masks, hand sanitizer, surface disinfecting wipes, and Covid-19 test kits.” A Twitter spokesperson told Recode that several accounts that appeared to be selling N95 masks have been removed for violating the company’s rules regarding platform manipulation and spam. Instagram This Instagram post is advertising a KN95 mask, which is similar to but not the same as an N95 mask. “Diverters are people who are able to get ahold of a 3M product, either from another distributor or somehow they were able to siphon off the supply chain, and they hold onto it and flip it,” Einhorn told Recode. “3M has a major problem. We’re an authorized 3M dealer, and we haven’t gotten masks in months.” Einhorn added that philanthropists and companies looking to donate masks could end up buying from diverters on the gray market, and they might be “a little surprised to learn how expensive it is.” So what’s the federal government doing about this? The government’s Strategic National Stockpile, which has emergency supplies stored in secret locations around the country, contains millions of masks. Nevertheless, the Trump administration seems to be distributing medical supplies unevenly during this public health crisis. Michigan, whose governor has recently drawn the president’s ire, says that the 112,000 masks supplied by the federal government will still leave the state “in dire straits.” The governor of Florida, on the other hand, says his state has received everything it’s asked for. Not all states are getting what they’ve asked for. To address the shortage, the president has turned to the DPA, which enables him to force private companies to produce needed medical supplies during an emergency. He’d previously used the law to manufacture much-needed ventilators. Denying health care workers access to essential equipment inevitably raises questions about the Trump administration’s ability to manage a supply chain that’s been consumed by disruption, misinformation, and profiteering. “I think the bigger and more important story around this,” Steve Trossman, the SEIU-UHW director of public affairs, told Recode, “is where in God’s name is FEMA and the federal government, which has the ability to pull all of the strands of a chaotic and fractured supply system together and aggregate the large supply of PPE that seems to be out there, stabilize prices, figure out distribution, etc.?” Inevitably, the entire world needs many, many more N95 masks not only to keep health care workers safe but also to stop the spread of the coronavirus. As the search continues, US health workers might be forced to take whatever they can get. For some, that might mean the insufficient, loose-fitting cloth masks, even some that people are sewing at home. Some may just have to settle for face shields, which are now also being manufactured by volunteers. If the CDC does end up changing its policy and recommending that every American wear a mask in public, the shortage of N95 masks could very well worsen. So if you’re not a health care worker or someone with Covid-19, consider an alternative like a surgical or cloth mask. And if you happen to have any unused N95 masks, consider donating them to health care workers immediately. You could save someone’s life. Update, April 3, 12:45 pm ET: This post has been updated with new information about the N95 mask shortage, including that President Donald Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act to push 3M to make more masks, as well as the company’s response. Listen to The Weeds Hosts Jane Coaston, Dara Lind, and Matthew Yglesias on the evidence for mask wearing, and a totally non-coronavirus white paper. Subscribe to The Weeds wherever you go your podcasts, including: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

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posted 5 days ago on re/code
Rani Molla/Vox Unemployment rates, hiring, working from home — the pandemic is changing everything about the state of work. The novel coronavirus has led to unprecedented employment situation in America — one that’s only beginning to show up in the data. In an effort to combat the spread of Covid 19, cities and states around the country have called for many non-essential businesses to shutter or at least adjust their operations. The efforts have wreaked havoc on numerous industries, including food service, travel, and retail, among others. Hugely populous states including New York, California, and Illinois enacted “stay at home” measures last month that required many nonessential businesses to close and residents to limit their public interactions. But Florida, home to 21 million residents and the third-most populated state in the country, did not enact its own stay at home orders until April 3, an action that might have come too late to prevent a large outbreak. A number of other states, including Texas and South Carolina, have yet to close many businesses or mandate that people stay home. Numerous models suggest these actions are the key to lessening the stress on hospitals and flattening the curve. (Here’s a look at cases, tests, and deaths by state.) Since many cities and states didn’t enact work stoppages and stay at home orders until near the end of last month — and other localities have yet to do so — the full effects of coronavirus on jobs won’t likely show in the data until the coming weeks and months. What’s certain is those effects will be far-reaching and will change the way we work as we know it. Automation is likely to spike in this economic downturn, resulting in more robots and fewer jobs. Many jobs that had been done in offices are now being performed from living rooms around the country, as the work from home trend becomes a forced reality. And the gig economy has become more important — and dangerous — than ever, as more Americans rely on delivery people for their everyday needs. Here are six charts that begin to show the disruption to the labor economy. 1) The preliminary unemployment rate jumped to 4.4 percent The preliminary unemployment rate for March jumped to 4.4 percent and total nonfarm payroll employment fell by 701,000, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report data released Friday. For context, the February unemployment level was 3.5 percent, a longtime record low. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis had predicted last month that the unemployment rate could eventually reach 32 percent — higher than levels seen during the Great Depression. Note that the jobs report data are based on the pay period that includes the 12th day of the month, meaning that the pictures in this and the following chart are rosier than reality. A number of cities and states didn’t enact work stoppages and shelter in place directives until later in March, so those job losses will show up in later data. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-ffEg0");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-ffEg0");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() 2) Unemployment claims doubled the record, just a week after it was set Last week, the Department of Labor reported a record 3.3 million initial unemployment insurance claims in mid-March. That number shortly doubled, with 6.6 million initial jobless claims for the week ending March 28. For context, the unemployment insurance claims figure was 280,000 in the week ending March 14. As my Vox colleague Matthew Yglesias wrote, this number is “unprecedented” and “there’s little reason to believe that next week’s report will be any better,” noting that large states including Georgia and Florida are planning to adopt widespread shutdown policies that New York and the West Coast enacted last month. Christina Animashaun/Vox 3) Even those still employed are seeing reduced hours What doesn’t show up in the unemployment rate numbers is the extent to which cutbacks and reduced staffing have resulted in those still employed working fewer hours. According to Friday’s Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report, the average workweek for private sector workers declined slightly to 34.2 hours in March from 34.4 hours in February. Like the unemployment rate, these numbers are from the middle of March so don’t show the full extent of reduced hours. During the last recession, that number bottomed out at 33.7 hours per week. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-p2BNj");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-p2BNj");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() 4) Job listings are down substantially compared to previous years Job listings on Indeed, the largest US job hiring site by traffic, are another early indicator of the future job situation, and can precede more drastic measures like layoffs. On Indeed’s website, the number of US job listings have declined 20 percent compared to this time last year. As Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said of listings declines last month, which then were down around 7 percent, “Posting a job is a forward-looking glimpse of managers’ sense of a business’s prospects. This is a vote of no confidence.” !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-x4BxW");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-x4BxW");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() 5) Job hiring is down — but not in every industry As you might expect, hiring has taken a dive as well. LinkedIn estimates that hiring in the US was down 1.1 percent in March compared to a year ago and down 1.3 percent compared to February. LinkedIn calculates a hiring rate based on people who added a new employer and job to their profile as a share of total LinkedIn members. Declines for individual industries were much higher. Compared to February, there were hiring declines in every segment LinkedIn measured, with the biggest drops — more than 20 percent — in the recreation and travel as well as wellness and fitness industries. When looking at a year-over-year comparison, the picture is somewhat brighter, with increases in hiring for a handful of industries: corporate services, legal, public safety, and software and IT services. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-FY1CI");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-FY1CI");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() 6) For many office workers, working from home became the new working The trend of working from home has been growing incrementally for years. With mandatory work stoppages and orders to cease public gathering, that trend became reality for many office workers around the country. For nonessential businesses that rely on computers to complete their jobs, having employees work from home became the only way to continue conducting business. To get a sense of how coronavirus accentuated the trend, we looked at public company transcripts mentioning work from home. In April, there were 423 transcripts mentioning the topic — more than there were in the last decade combined — nearly all in conjunction with mentions of coronavirus. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-nKEEi");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-nKEEi");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() All of these data points are only early snapshots of the pandemic’s effect on the state of work in the US. The unemployment rate will likely jump much higher next month, when more state stay at home orders begin showing up in the data. In coming weeks, the US will also see more fully how these efforts drive unemployment claims and which states have suffered the worst. Hiring and job posting data from sources like Indeed and LinkedIn will continue to provide insight into what all this means for different industries. Meanwhile, gig economy workers, like those at Amazon and Instacart, will continue to fight for higher wages and safer conditions, as they try and work amid an increasingly dangerous situation. It will take months and even years to understand the full effects that coronavirus and its responses have on how we work.

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posted 6 days ago on re/code
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2018. | Alex Wong/Getty Images That’s not to say that the donation — one of tech’s largest gifts yet — won’t make an impact. Jeff Bezos is giving $100 million to help America’s hungry during the coronavirus crisis, a gift that is one of the largest by a tech leader in response to the pandemic. But it also comes amid mounting concerns about how Bezos is treating his employees in his day job as CEO of Amazon. Bezos announced on Thursday that he would be making the donation to Feeding America, a nonprofit that is serving as a clearinghouse to distribute money to food banks around the country. The gift is the nonprofit’s largest-ever single donation, Bezos’s third-biggest commitment to date, and is tied for the single-largest coronavirus commitment to date from tech philanthropists with the $100 million pledged by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gifts like these are significant and needed during a crisis like this. But billionaires’ philanthropy has increasingly come under fire as a distraction from valid criticisms of how these same billionaires earn their money. Bezos, for instance, has drawn scrutiny for not protecting warehouse and logistics workers enough from the coronavirus outbreak. The gift was announced around the same time Vice News reported that Bezos had sat in meetings where Amazon leadership sought ways to smear a worker who sounded the alarm bell about health and safety concerns at one of its biggest warehouses in Staten Island, New York. And still, even with that context and the positive PR it will engender, the donation could make a real difference. The $100 million “will enable us to provide more food to millions of our neighbors facing hardship during this crisis,” said Feeding America in a statement. “Countless lives will be changed because of his generosity.” Feeding America, one of the country’s biggest charities, runs a network of about 200 food banks. The fund it created to cope with the coronavirus — which originally had just $2.7 million in it — is distributing emergency supplies to food banks across the country. Just on Wednesday, the group predicted that food banks would need $1.4 billion more over the next six months to feed the hungry. “I want to support those on the front lines of our nation’s food banks and those who are relying on them,” Bezos said in an Instagram post announcing the donation (it’s where he seems to make all of his personal announcements these days). After years of criticism for his relatively stingy public philanthropic giving, Bezos has opened his wallet considerably over the last two years, announcing his three largest gifts to date. Now the world’s richest person, Bezos since 2018 has also pledged $2 billion for a new charitable effort focused on aiding homelessness and early-childhood education, along with a $10 billion climate-change fund earlier this year. Some critics of billionaire philanthropy are quick to point out that these are all very small percentages of Bezos’s net worth. It is indeed just 0.08 percent of his $120 billion in assets. But given that this is one of the largest coronavirus-related gifts yet, to be critical of the Bezos gift is to be critical of the size of all philanthropic donations amid a global crisis.

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posted 6 days ago on re/code
Boston Globe via Getty Images The online retailer will only allow hospitals and government organizations to purchase certain medical supplies. Amazon began banning the purchase of N95 and surgical masks by the general public on April 1, saying it would restrict the sale of those goods and other medical supplies to hospitals and government organizations combating the Covid-19 coronavirus. In a notice posted on a forum for Amazon sellers, the company said the ban would also include “facial shields, surgical gowns, surgical gloves, and large-volume sanitizers.” Hospitals and governments interested in purchasing these items through Amazon need to fill out a form to qualify, and Amazon said it would eliminate the commission it normally takes from sellers who sell these items during this time “to encourage our selling partners to make additional inventory of these products available at competitive prices to these customers with the greatest need.” The move is the latest drastic change Amazon has made to its business practices amid the global pandemic that has upended billions of lives and economies across the globe. Amazon has become a lifeline to essential goods during this time for millions of customers ordered to stay at home and those fearful of shopping in stores during the crisis. In mid-March, faced with merchandise shortages in the United States and Europe due to the pandemic, Amazon instituted sweeping changes on which products it will store and ship from its warehouses, in a move it said was aimed at keeping essential items in stock and speeding up orders. At the time, Amazon said it would be “temporarily prioritizing household staples, medical supplies, and other high-demand products coming into our fulfillment centers so that we can more quickly receive, restock and deliver these products to customers.” By “prioritizing,” Amazon meant it will no longer accept new shipments to its warehouses for discretionary items through at least April 5. During that time, Amazon will continue to sell all types of products on its websites, but sellers listing discretionary items will have to store and ship them on their own if they aren’t already in, or on their way to, an Amazon warehouse. The company said most of the products it was still accepting from third-party sellers and wholesale vendors fall into one of six categories: baby products, health and household, beauty and personal care, grocery, industrial and scientific, and pet supplies. The messages were sent to third-party sellers who store goods in Amazon warehouses through the Fulfillment by Amazon program, as well as wholesale vendors who sell goods directly to Amazon, which then resells those goods to customers. “We are seeing increased online shopping, and as a result, some products, such as household staples and medical supplies, are out of stock,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “We understand this is a change for our selling partners and appreciate their understanding as we temporarily prioritize these products for customers,” the spokesperson added. With governments across the globe recommending and even mandating that people stay inside during the pandemic, more shoppers are turning to Amazon to stock up rather than visiting brick-and-mortar stores. But the rush of shopping in select categories has meant frequent out-of-stock messages for items ranging from hand sanitizer and hand soap to face masks, as well as sellers taking advantage of low supply by attempting to price-gouge customers. This restriction on which items it will store in warehouses — coupled with Amazon’s announcement that it was hiring 100,000 warehouse workers to keep up with surging demand — highlights the level at which consumers are relying on online shopping during the pandemic. At the same time, it’s also a realization that even the endless digital aisles of Amazon’s Everything Store, and Amazon’s logistics prowess, were not built to fully sustain the change in consumer behavior that the pandemic has forced essentially overnight. On Amazon’s message board for third-party sellers, the warehouse news was greeted with panic. “Amazon just put tons of businesses out of business,” one seller wrote on Amazon’s forum. “Destroyed thousands of jobs amidst a crisis. Horrible joke. Absolute joke. No warning. Expect major lawsuits coming from sellers who now will go bankrupt.” “It is not doable,” another wrote. “Most of us do not have the infrastructure in place. We do not have the boxes or packing material to do this.” In the notice to sellers, the company said, “We understand this is a change to your business, and we did not take this decision lightly.” Others who make a living off of Amazon favored the warehouse decision. Will Tjernlund, CMO of Amazon seller consultancy Goat Consulting, said he believes many sellers already have enough inventory in Amazon warehouses to last until April 5 and that the move was the right one. “I am happy Amazon is focusing on fulfilling essential items over figuring how to ship couches or flatscreen TVs,” he said. Over the past few weeks, as the outbreak has spread from Asia to Europe to the US, Amazon has struggled to keep the most in-demand items in stock and to stop the price-gouging the shortages have caused. At times, two-packs of Purell hand sanitizer have been selling for hundreds of dollars, causing outrage from customers and politicians alike. In response, Amazon restricted who can sell certain in-demand items and said it pulled more than 500,000 high-priced listings and banned more than 2,000 sellers. Amazon has also struggled to make room for the in-demand stock it can get its hands on. Items marked as Prime-eligible are showing delivery dates that vary from a few days away to several weeks out; during normal times, Amazon Prime shipments typically take two days to arrive at most. Again, Amazon will still sell nonessential items that are already in their warehouses or on the way, or which sellers are willing to store and ship on their own. But for sellers who make a living by selling more discretionary goods on Amazon — and who planned to ship more to Amazon warehouses soon — they will need to make big changes. One option is to store and ship products on their own, directly to customers. The other is to try to quickly get approval to sell through other e-commerce marketplaces such as eBay or Wish. Updated, April 2, 11:15 am ET: This post was updated to include new details about Amazon’s restrictions on selling certain medical supplies to the general public.

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posted 6 days ago on re/code
Vox Organizations like the WHO could prevent domain spoofing, but many don’t On March 18, an email went out from the World Health Organization soliciting donations for its Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund, to support WHO’s work tracking and treating the novel coronavirus. The sender address was “[email protected],” and who.int is the real domain name of the organization. But the email is a scam. It was not sent from the WHO, but from an impersonator looking to profit off our tendency toward generosity during a global crisis. Fortunately, the attacker revealed themselves by asking for donations in bitcoin. Sophos Labs A scam email spoofing the WHO’s domain. This is just one of many fake emails that have spoofed the WHO’s domain name during the coronavirus pandemic. Some are addressed from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, and carry attachments that can install malware on the victim’s device. Others announce a coronavirus cure that you can read all about in the attachment. They each appear to be sent from a who.int email address. If it seems like it shouldn’t be this easy to impersonate a leading global health institution, you’re right. As we outline in the video at the top of this post, there is a way for organizations and companies to prevent spoofing of their domain, but the WHO hasn’t done it. “One of the things that a lot of NGOs and nonprofits don’t necessarily understand is that email is a very open protocol by design,” said Ryan Kalember, who leads cybersecurity strategy at Proofpoint. That “open protocol” means that the email transmission system itself doesn’t verify the identity of senders. Instead, senders and receivers have had to organize voluntary authentication methods: Domain owners can adopt an ID system, and email providers can check for for those IDs. But participation has not been universal on both sides. “There are just so many organizations that don’t authenticate their mail. So if you are interested in tricking someone, that becomes an incredibly useful vector to do so,” said Kalember. There are three main pieces of jargon to learn when it comes to email authentication systems. There’s SPF (Sender Policy Framework), through which a domain owner can specify that legitimate emails always come from a certain set of IP addresses. There’s DKIM (Domain Keys Identified Mail), which relies on a unique signature to verify senders. And then there’s DMARC, which builds on SPF and DKIM by specifying how the receiving email service should treat messages that fail those tests (do nothing, send to spam, or reject the message altogether). It also provides a feedback system so that domain-owners can learn about messages passing or failing checks from their domain. Setting a strong DMARC policy is the surest way to prevent domain spoofing, and all major email providers like Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo, will check incoming emails against a DMARC record. A spoofed WHO email in a Yahoo Inbox. The WHO has enabled SPF but there is no DMARC record for who.int as of April 1, 2020. “The SPF record is a good thing to have, but without a corresponding DMARC policy, it won’t unfortunately result in spoofed messages being blocked,” Kalember said. Sure enough, we ran some experiments with help from Dylan Tweney at Valimail, an email cybersecurity company, and easily placed a spoofed who.int email into our Yahoo inbox. Outlook and Gmail caught it in their spam filters, the last line of defense. We also tried spoofing voxmedia.com and cdc.gov, and neither reached an inbox. Both have strong DMARC policies in place. A test email from a fake WHO address in our Yahoo inbox. A study conducted in 2018 by researchers at Virginia Tech similarly found that their experimental phishing email “penetrated email providers that perform full authentications when spoofing sender domains that do not have a strict reject DMARC policy.” Unfortunately, it’s extremely common for domains to lack a strict reject DMARC policy. WHO is joined by whitehouse.gov, defense.gov, redcross.org, unicef.org, and the health agencies of Washington, California, Italy, South Korea, and Spain, among many others. According to a recent report by Valimail, more and more domains are setting DMARC records, but less than 15 percent of those with a DMARC record actually have a “reject” policy to prevent spoofed emails from being delivered. “The current situation is that not everybody is doing it. So essentially the problem is that you cannot punish other people for not doing it. You cannot just block their emails automatically because you will not receive legitimate emails from them,” said Gang Wang, professor of computer science at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Wang and his colleagues interviewed email administrators in 2018 to investigate the low adoption rates of the authentication systems and found that “email administrators believe the current protocol adoption lacks the crucial mass due to the protocol defects, weak incentives, and practical deployment challenges.” The authentication systems can be difficult to configure for organizations that allow many third-party vendors to send emails, or that use forwarding and email lists. If DMARC is not set up carefully, legitimate emails might not get through, which may weigh heavily in the cost-benefit calculation for organizations. According to one of Wang’s survey respondents: “Strict enforcement requires identifying all the legitimate sources of email using a return address domain. Large, decentralized organizations (e.g. many large universities), will often have organizational units which acquire third-party services involving email, like email marketing tools, without telling central IT. Figuring all this out and putting policies and procedures in place to prevent it is more work than many admins have time for.” The benefit of protecting unknown victims from potential fake emails marked with your domain name may be less obvious than the costs, in everyday contexts. But right now, as cyber criminals deploy coronavirus lures en masse and we’re all desperate for information from authorities, the benefits seem much more clear. The WHO did not respond to our request for comment. You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. And join the Open Sourced Reporting Network to help us report on the real consequences of data, privacy, algorithms, and AI. Open Sourced is made possible by the Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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posted 6 days ago on re/code
Your boss may be looking over your virtual shoulder right now. | Zac Freeland/Vox Software that monitors remote employees is seeing a sales boom. It’s a scenario that perhaps millions of employees across the US have experienced: Because of the coronavirus pandemic, your office closes up shop and your boss sends you home with a company laptop and the hope that you can get the same amount of work done remotely that you did when you were in the office. But some bosses don’t have to hope. They’ve installed tracking software on those computers to supervise their employees at home as well as — if not better than — they do in the office. Meanwhile, you may have no idea that your employer is virtually looking over your shoulder. Employee monitoring software comes in many forms. It could be something as simple as Slack giving your boss access to your private messages or as complex as dedicated programs that monitor how many minutes you spend using Slack (also Facebook, YouTube, and, of course, your actual job). Some programs allow the employee to self-report time spent on various tasks and others can record it for them. Some take screenshots of an employee’s monitor at random intervals, while others record every single key they press. Some employee monitoring features are so subtle you might not know they’re there. Videoconferencing software Zoom, for example, allows hosts using its paid service to turn on something called “attention tracking.” This feature lets them see if meeting attendees navigate away from the app for longer than 30 seconds during a meeting — a good indication that they’re looking at something else. It can’t see what they are looking at instead, and it can only be activated when the host is in screensharing mode. Zoom told Recode the feature is really meant for training purposes, when it’s important to know that people are actively watching a presentation. Because attention tracking can be turned on without attendees’ knowledge (and because many people didn’t know the option existed until it was widely publicized with a headline that may have made the feature seem more invasive that it is), many Zoom users felt like they were being spied on. Zoom’s mounting privacy issues haven’t helped matters. Employee tracking software has been around for years, but with so many more people working from home and many workplaces concerned that they won’t be as productive in their living rooms as they were in the office, some employers are turning to activity monitoring programs for the first time — as are their employees, whether they like it or not. Companies can pick and choose which monitoring features they want to enable. Some employers use these programs to prevent or detect theft — a valid and understandable concern, especially in certain industries. But others see them as a way to make sure employees are staying on task and not wasting time on Facebook, apparently not trusting their workers to do so unsupervised. For workers, it can feel like an invasion of privacy that breeds resentment. “My manager knows every single damn thing I do” Jane (who requested that neither she nor her employer be named for fear of retribution) is a contractor for a translation agency based in Australia. Her employer tracks remote workers using a program called TeamViewer, which mirrors everything from an employee’s laptop onto their desktop computer, which is still in the office. Jane’s manager is in the office, too, so he can see, in real time, everything his employees are doing by looking at their desktop monitors. “My manager knows every single damn thing I do,” Jane told Recode. “I barely get to stand up and stretch, as opposed to when I am physically in the office. I feel like I have to constantly be in front of the computer and work because if not, either the TeamViewer logs me out for being idle, or my manager randomly sends a check-in email that I must reply to promptly.” Jane’s office had this system in place for remote workers well before the pandemic, but the countless new members of the remote workforce might be encountering them for the first time, according to several activity monitoring software makers. ActivTrak, Time Doctor, Teramind, and Hubstaff all told Recode that they’ve seen significantly more interest in their product from new and returning customers during the coronavirus work-from-home boom. Time Doctor, which co-founder Liam Martin told Recode he likes to think of as a “Fitbit for work,” has had a “significant uptick” in business, with more leads in a week than the entire last quarter. Teramind reported a triple-digit percentage increase in new leads since the pandemic began. HubStaff said unique visits are up 72 percent in the last three weeks compared to the previous period, and it has added hundreds of trial customers and subscribers, along with adding hundreds of licenses for existing subscribers. ActivTrak has seen a threefold increase in sales requests and license increases from existing customers ranging from 50 to 800 in March, as companies scale up their remote workforce from some employees to all of them. “We’re hosting informational webinars, detailed product tutorials, and posting tons of educational content around the clock in response to an overwhelming increase in demand from companies,” Rita Selvaggi, CEO of ActivTrak, told Recode. The people behind these applications realize that workers may not be thrilled about being required to use tracking software, so they encourage employers to use them thoughtfully and transparently. “Time tracking is always something that people don’t like to do, but we’ve focused our feature set on what makes the individual employee more productive while still giving the employer the piece of mind as to what is being done inside of the company,” Martin said. “Our software focuses on active time tracking rather than something that runs subversively in the background, and all data we collect is given specifically to the employee to improve their productivity.” Teramind’s vice president of research and development, Isaac Kohen, says it’s important for employers to consider their employees’ privacy along with what they hope to get out of monitoring them. “If you ignore employees’ right to privacy, you will risk legal ramifications, not to mention cultural rifts, loss of trust, and many other issues that will outweigh any security benefits you can achieve,” Kohen told Recode. “It can cause employees to feel spied on or untrusted, two things that can erode a flourishing company culture. But it doesn’t have to be this way.” Giving employees control is best for everyone When the pandemic hit, “John’s” employer (John did not want to be named nor reveal his workplace for fear of retribution) was reluctant to let its employees work from home. It eventually did so under one condition: They had to log their hours in a time-tracking program. “They said you have to use it, and were pretty forceful about it,” John told Recode. After a week of accounting for every minute of his workday, John sees positives and negatives. A software developer, his job often involves switching between several different tasks in a short period of time. Logging his activities on such a granular scale can be a pain and take up time he could spend doing his actual job. John also doesn’t think the time logs give proper context for job-adjacent activities that are necessary to accomplish a task. “You’ve got to call it this person and talk to them and get ideas, or you need to browse the internet for a while to research a topic,” John said. “On paper, it looks like maybe you’re wasting time. But it’s critical to getting the job done well.” John also understands why management would want there to be some accountability for workers that it suddenly can’t directly oversee. He likes that his job had enough trust in him and his co-workers to let them manually log their activities — rather than installing a program that does so automatically. “If it wasn’t self-reported, I think I would feel weirder about it,” he said. “Especially since a lot of us use personal devices for our work. I’d be like, ‘I’m not gonna install your nanny cam.’” Mac Quartarone, an industrial/organizational psychologist, said employees’ response to monitoring programs often depends on the organizational trust their company has built up with them. “If you have a lot of trust, then you probably expect that the organization is just trying to do the right thing,” Quartarone told Recode. “If you don’t have a lot of trust, then you’re going to assume that they’re trying to fire you or trying to find people that they need to fire.” In the case of this pandemic, where employees are essentially forced to work from home, introducing tracking software to make sure they’re getting that work done might seem like a punishment for something they had no control over in the first place. Quartarone also warns that the long-term ramifications of using tracking software during this crisis “could be damaging the sense of organizational justice and trust among your employees. And that will live on.” Quartarone recommends that employers give workers as much autonomy as possible and be transparent about what they’re tracking and why — as John’s employer did. “If done right, it could really be a positive thing for employees that could outweigh the downside,” Quartarone said. “But I think if it’s done wrong, then the downside will vastly overshadow any positives.” In the end, while Jane resents being monitored so closely by her boss, she also acknowledges that she gets more work done because of it. “My employers realize I can be given more work now that they can monitor my screen directly,” she said. For some employers, that’s the only thing that matters. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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posted 7 days ago on re/code
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images Donations alone won’t be enough to address the respirator shortage. For health care workers, the N95 mask is an invaluable line of defense against the novel coronavirus. These highly protective respirators can keep doctors and nurses from getting infected by their patients, but the world is quickly running out of them. While global production is ramping up, the shortage of N95 masks is so great that companies, unions, and even average people are scrambling to fill the need. And now, after a number of fortuitous events, millions of N95 masks are appearing in mysterious or unexpected places. The latest discovery comes from the Service Employees International Union’s medical workers division (SEIU-UHW). After an extensive search, the union found a distributor with a supply of 39 million respirators that it plans to sell to hospitals nationwide. The situation is more complicated than connecting a buyer and a seller, though. The SEIU has refused to name the distributor, apparently out of concern that the company would be overwhelmed, and one of the hospitals that considered buying the N95 masks through the union seems to have walked away from the deal. “This is the Wild West,” SEIU-UHW president Dave Regan told the Washington Post. “There are a lot of good actors and a lot of shady actors.” It’s great news that more N95 masks are being unearthed. Improving access to personal protective equipment (PPE) stands to save the lives of health care workers treating patients with Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers recommending that everyone cover their faces in public, the N95 shortage could become even more severe as more people seek out the precious respirators. While discoveries of thousands or millions of lifesaving masks are good news in a pandemic, they also draw attention to a supply chain that’s been badly mismanaged. The situation also raises the question of why unions, banks, tech companies, and others have taken it upon themselves to find masks for health care workers. Shouldn’t the federal government be dealing with this? What makes N95 masks so hard to find Certified N95 respirators are special. Unlike a conventional surgical mask, N95 masks are built so that 95 percent of very small airborne particles can’t get through. These masks also need to be approved by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and, depending on the type, the Food and Drug Administration. In order to fulfill those requirements, N95 masks must be constructed so that they tightly seal around one’s mouth and nose, unlike surgical or cloth masks which are loose-fitting. The United States is now confronted with a shortage of N95 masks for a number of reasons. The masks themselves are difficult to make, in part because they require specialized equipment to meet stringent regulatory standards. Many of the companies that can make the masks are also in China. That supply chain wasn’t prepared for a pandemic, especially one that originated in the same country where many of these masks are produced. And as the novel coronavirus spread throughout China, the country’s government bought its domestically produced masks, ensuring they weren’t exported. That’s made the gap between supply and demand in the US much larger. In the absence of a pandemic, the US has typically not produced enough of these N95 masks to meet the needs of its own workers. Prestige Ameritech and 3M are the two primary companies that do end-to-end production of medical-grade N95 masks in the US, and both are both ramping up production. Another American company, Honeywell, recently started producing N95 masks at its Rhode Island and Phoenix facilities. Still, these three companies won’t solve our mask shortage. China News Service via Getty Images By the end of March, work had resumed in many of the factories in China where N95 masks are produced. Now that China appears to have slowed its own Covid-19 outbreak, overseas shipments of protective equipment are starting up again. Even if China exported the same number of masks that it did before the novel coronavirus outbreak, the US would still need a lot more since it’s now combating the highest number of confirmed cases of any country in the world. The US is also competing with many other countries eager to get hold of more N95 masks. So front-line health care workers are sounding the alarm that there simply aren’t enough N95 face masks to keep themselves and their patients safe. A March survey conducted by the health care company Premier found that a shortage of N95 masks was hospitals’ top concern, and that many hospitals had less than 10 days worth of supplies. Facing limited supply, nurses have been forced to reuse masks and are turning to cloth and conventional surgical masks, which are not as protective. The struggle to equip health care workers with proper protection has left some looking toward the US government for help. So far, many are frustrated by a lack of preparation in the face of the coronavirus crisis and the government’s failure at ensuring that masks and other essential medical equipment get routed to hospitals and other places where it’s most needed. The Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that the country will need 3.5 billion masks over the course of tackling the pandemic. Disparate sources in the private industry are showing up to help. Why companies keep discovering N95 masks in stockpiles Many companies and organizations are purchasing masks for the specific purpose of donating them to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. However, others are offering up N95 masks that were being kept in storage. Reasons vary as to why so many companies have these high-end respirators stashed away in warehouses. Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, recently said that Facebook was donating 720,000 N95 masks that were purchased following the wildfires in California last year. He added that the company was “also working on sourcing millions more to donate.” Currently, California emergency regulations require that when air quality worsens by a significant amount, workplaces must take steps to ensure their workers have respiratory protection, like N95 masks, if other adjustments can’t be made. The change in regulation came following the catastrophic 2018 California wildfires. The same regulation suggests that a good number of other California employers also have N95 masks on hand. But wildfires aren’t the only reason companies have N95 masks in storage. Goldman Sachs donated some 600,000 masks after buying them during past public health crises, like the H1N1 pandemic. The National Cathedral similarly kept a stockpile of more than 7,000 N95 masks because of concerns about the avian flu and recently donated 5,000 of them to local Washington, DC-area hospitals. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Intel told Recode that it is donating 1 million items of personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, from its “factory stock and emergency supplies.” The list of sources for N95 masks keeps growing as officials keep seeking them out. A construction company in Columbus, Ohio, handed over its supply to local health officials, while some Habitat for Humanity workers in Atlanta gave nearly 1,500 N95 masks to their county health department. Both groups keep the masks for their everyday operations. Some masks have even come from the trash. A Maryland recycling company had saved 36,000 N95 masks that someone had previously tried to throw out. Now, those masks are being donated to health care workers. Then there are more cases of discovered masks with mysterious origins, much like the SEIU’s huge stockpile. For instance, one major N95 donation has come from Apple. The company’s CEO Tim Cook tweeted that his company had “sourced, procured, and is donating” 10 million masks, though it’s not immediately clear why the company had access to so many masks. Vice President Pence had said earlier last week that Apple would be donating 9 million N95 masks from its “storehouses.” Still, Apple would not comment on why the company had these masks in supply. When N95 expiration dates matter and when they don’t Even though millions of N95 masks have reportedly surfaced this month, health care workers will need millions more in the coming months. And to some extent, all of these recently discovered masks are adding to feelings of confusion. One big question that keeps popping up: Which stockpiled N95 masks are still usable? “You can find small pockets of available supplies as people realize, ‘Oh yeah, we do have a warehouse.’ It is nearly impossible to find a large quantity,” Soumi Saha, senior director of advocacy at Premier, told Recode. She added that many of these products are now expired. “When you start seeing millions behind some of these finds, you really have to do so with a level of caution.” These massive discoveries seem to be happening with some frequency. The most recently reported discovery happened in an Indiana warehouse, where government officials found nearly 1.5 million expired N95 masks. They had been part of the US Customs and Border Patrol’s emergency supply, but according to the Washington Post, the Department of Homeland security is giving the masks to TSA workers instead of sending them to hospitals. It’s not clear whether the fact that the masks are expired played a role in how they’re being distributed. While 1.5 million masks sounds like a lot, that load is just a fraction of the 21 million N95 respirators the state of California found in its emergency stockpile a few weeks ago. The state says that all of the masks “are expired but are usable” under updated CDC guidelines. Indeed, at the end of February, the CDC reported that “certain N95 models beyond their manufacturer-designated shelf life will be protective.” The San Francisco Chronicle explains that the issue with the expired masks isn’t the respirator itself; the elastic band that holds the mask on the wearer’s face can degrade over time, preventing a tight seal. One solution that could avoid the risk of using expired equipment might just be to keep reusing the disposable N95 respirators. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved an Ohio company’s disinfection system. This new machine can disinfect up to 80,000 N95 masks a day, though regulators are capping each device’s capacity at 10,000 masks. Why the gray market for N95 is complicating things At this point, it seems obvious that the question of how health care workers can get access to large numbers of functional N95 masks is complicated. It’s not always clear where the masks are coming from or whether they’re any good. “As the world scrambled to acquire [N95 masks] — for different reasons — it created a weird market dynamic between those who are looking to buy and those who are looking to provide,” Andrew Stroup, a co-founder of the medical equipment clearinghouse Project N95, told Recode. “That imbalance in the market happened, and then you saw a rise in secondary or open market individuals showing up saying they could supply it.” In other words, a gray market for N95 masks has emerged. As The Goods recently reported, a growing number of individuals and organizations are raising money through websites like GoFundMe and working with suppliers in China to fill the gap in supply that the US government can’t or won’t properly address. These importers not only have to worry about expired N95 masks but also counterfeits and substandard products, which are increasingly being offered to US health care workers. Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images Although they were readily available at stores like Home Depot earlier this year, N95 masks are now sold out virtually everywhere. The number and breadth of sellers has grown drastically in recent weeks, adding to the general state of confusion in this crisis. Now, a troublesome class of middlemen is in the N95 mask business, and hospitals might find themselves dealing with anyone from legitimate distributors to criminal counterfeit rings. Meanwhile, prices for masks have spiked from just around $1 per mask to as high as $7, $8, or even $9 a mask. Michael Einhorn, president of the medical supplier Dealmed, says that despite 3M’s promise not to raise prices during the pandemic, these so-called diverters still find a way to intervene and profit from the pandemic. “Diverters are people who are able to get ahold of a 3M product, either from another distributor or somehow they were able to siphon off the supply chain, and they hold onto it and flip it,” Einhorn told Recode. “3M has a major problem. We’re an authorized 3M dealer, and we haven’t gotten masks in months.” Einhorn added that philanthropists and companies looking to donate masks could end up buying from diverters on the gray market, and they might be “a little surprised to learn how expensive it is.” So what’s the federal government doing about this? The government’s Strategic National Stockpile, which has emergency supplies stored in secret locations around the country, contains millions of masks. Nevertheless, the Trump administration seems to be distributing medical supplies unevenly during this public health crisis. Michigan, whose governor has recently drawn the president’s ire, says that the 112,000 masks supplied by the federal government will still leave the state “in dire straits.” The governor of Florida, on the other hand, says his state has received everything it’s asked for. Not all states are getting what they’ve asked for. Many, including Democratic presidential primary candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, have urged the White House to use the Defense Production Act (DPA) to produce N95 masks and other supplies. The president recently used the DPA, which enables him to force private companies to produce needed medical supplies during an emergency, to manufacture much-needed ventilators. Denying health care workers access to essential equipment inevitably raises questions about the Trump administration’s ability to manage a supply chain that’s been consumed by disruption, misinformation, and profiteering. “I think the bigger and more important story around this,” Steve Trossman, the SEIU-UHW director of public affairs, told Recode, “is where in God’s name is FEMA and the federal government, which has the ability to pull all of the strands of a chaotic and fractured supply system together and aggregate the large supply of PPE that seems to be out there, stabilize prices, figure out distribution, etc.?” Inevitably, the entire world needs many, many more N95 masks not only to keep health care workers safe but also to stop the spread of coronavirus. As the search continues, US health workers might be forced to take whatever they can get. For some, that might mean the insufficient, loose-fitting cloth masks, even some that people are sewing at home. Some may just have to settle for face shields, which are now also being manufactured by volunteers. If the CDC does end up changing its policy and recommending that every American wear a mask in public, the shortage of N95 masks could very well worsen. So, if you’re not a health care worker or someone suffering from Covid-19, consider an alternative like a surgical or a cloth mask. And if you happen to have any unused N95 masks, consider donating them to health care workers immediately. You could save someone’s life.

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posted 7 days ago on re/code
One of the few groups of people still required to be out on the streets every day during the pandemic? Postal workers. | Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images More people than ever are shopping online — and to meet their needs, postal workers are taking big risks. In rain, heat, or dark, postal work is an essential service that’s playing an important role as regions in the US and around the world go on lockdown to try to slow the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. People across the US are relying on the USPS — and to meet their needs, post office workers are taking big risks. While more and more people are being instructed to stay home and most nonessential retail stores have closed, post offices have remained open and mail carriers are continuing to deliver mail and packages to residences. Online sales of consumer packaged goods rose 91 percent year over year in the US during the week ending March 14, according to Nielsen, and that data doesn’t even capture what’s happened as more US metro areas have issued stay-at-home orders in the weeks since. While the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said there is currently no evidence of the virus spreading through the mail or packages, at least one study has found that the novel coronavirus can remain on surfaces such as cardboard and plastic for at least a day, and sometimes more. Translation: This is a fast-moving situation that carries a lot of unknowns both for anyone receiving mail and packages, but also for those handling them. What we do know is that leaving your house at all and interacting with people in post offices, mail sortation centers, and on door-to-door postal carrier routes can increase the risk of contracting the virus. On top of this, some postal workers have said that they’ve been pressured to work despite having coronavirus symptoms. Across the world, the pandemic has tested economies and the supply chains that power them, from manufacturers trying to keep up with the demand for hand soap and toilet paper to the delivery drivers transporting those goods the final miles to customer doors. For the United States Postal Service (USPS), the agency and its workers find themselves in an especially precarious position. The service, on one side, is a federal agency required to serve residents no matter how remote the locale. At the same time, it’s competing with private shipping carriers like FedEx, UPS, and its frenemy, Amazon, which both relies on the USPS for Sunday delivery while at the same time aggressively ramping up its own Amazon delivery network. Not surprisingly, the postal service ran nearly $9 billion in the red in its 2019 fiscal year, as modest package delivery volume increases could not make up for decreasing volume in first-class mail. And the pandemic is expected to make things worse: USPS officials have warned that the crisis could lead to a “rapid drop in mail volumes and a significant loss in needed revenues.” What is it like for postal employees working through this pandemic and how has the pandemic changed — perhaps in lasting ways — how people use the mail service? Recode spoke to a postmaster who runs a mid-sized post office in the northeastern US to find out. The 30-year veteran of the USPS asked for anonymity to talk to the press because they are not authorized to do so. We obliged. Are you and your carriers scared at all of working through this? And if so, why are you all still coming to work? We are all worried; I wouldn’t say scared. To be honest, we are all worried for our families more so than ourselves. We are all coming to work because we serve the public. Yeah, we don’t like delivering stupid crap, but in this time if we can deliver anything that puts a smile on someone’s face, God bless them! Believe me, none of us are working right now because we have to. People can say what they want about the post office, but they have told us: “If for any reason you don’t want to work” — stress, etc. — “take the time off.” Do you get paid if you want to take off because of stress or being concerned? If you have [accumulated] sick leave or personal leave you would get paid. If you test positive, you would get paid. If [it’s] stress and you used up all your leave, then [you’d be] just [Family and Medical Leave Act] protected, but no pay. I have over a year of sick leave saved and 19 weeks of personal time, so personally I could be out until almost until July 4, 2022, on stress or anxiety. But the USPS is taking good care of us. I do have a carrier, not tested, but [who] had contact with someone who just tested positive this weekend; we gave him the 14 days off paid, even though he has zero leave saved. He wanted to work but we said stay home, we’ll pay you, but follow the 14 days just in case. What precautions are you taking when interacting with customers inside the post office? Has customer traffic slowed at all and what kinds of things are customers still visiting the post office for? I’ve installed sneeze guards. Like most places that are still open ... [we’ve added an] ”x” [on] the floor every six feet. Customer traffic has slowed but not as much as you would think. We actually had a customer come in telling me he was self-quarantined! I told him if he was, he wouldn’t be in here. He said, “Well, I’m still going to run my regular errands, I’m just not having people over.” People are still express mailing toilet paper; we had a customer express mail it at a cost of $155 for six rolls. But then we have customers coming in just to ask if we are open, or if we are closing. Most people just want to get out of their house. That is why [the pandemic] isn’t going to go away anytime soon; people don’t really seem to be taking it seriously. [US federal guidelines for the pandemic include urging people who feel sick and all senior citizens and those with serious underlying health conditions to stay home. But many cities and states have implemented even stricter rules, including “shelter in place” orders, which typically require all people to stay home at all times, except to get food or medicine or to work at jobs deemed by local governments to be essential.] What do you think customers still should and shouldn’t be going to their local post office for? We can sell stamps by mail; you can forward your mail, hold your mail, change your address online — yet we have many people coming in every day for those services. Mailing a package is all you should be coming in for, unless you have a post office box. We can even pick up your mail and packages at your house or business! [You can schedule mail or package pickup here.] What trends, if any, are you seeing in the online shopping orders your carriers are delivering? Essential goods? Nonessential goods? Can you give some examples? I would say 80 percent nonessentials. I was disgusted with that last week, but, as this goes on, I would rather have people order silly things online rather than going [to a store] and possibly giving or receiving the virus. But, yeah, seeing chair covers, Razor scooters, bathroom shelves, hemorrhoid cream, potato chips, cases of energy drinks — just a lot of nonessentials coming through. What types of items do you think people should and shouldn’t be ordering online right now, if any? I know since we last emailed it has gotten crazier and more restrictive, so anything anybody wants, I would say just order it [instead of going to a store]. Let’s keep the public safe. What do you want to get across to post office customers and online shoppers that they don’t seem to understand right now? Stay at home means stay at home. I have a sweet old lady that has come in every day for one stamp. We keep telling her, “Just buy a book [of stamps],” but she says she likes coming in and has nothing else to do anyway. There have been reports of carriers being told to come to work despite flu-like symptoms unless they have either positive test results or doctor notes. What guidance are you getting on this from USPS HQ and what are you telling your carriers if they don’t feel well? The USPS is doing great — at least where I am — telling us if anyone feels sick or even stressed, tell[ing] them to stay home and report when better. Anyone that tests positive is to stay out the 14 days and will be paid. I don’t know about other [regions], but ours is really pro employees right now, more than ever in my 30-plus years with the service. [While this postmaster has positive words for USPS management, more than 80,000 people have signed a petition urging USPS leadership to take further steps to address worker concerns, such as time-and-a-half hazard pay and pausing direct delivery to facilities such as nursing homes.] What cleaning or personal care supplies has USPS HQ made available to your office and your carriers? Is it enough? What are your carriers doing to protect themselves (and potentially customers)? Cleaning supplies are running low. My office has enough for a few weeks and we are getting some hand sanitizer from a local distillery. We have gloves and masks available. I am getting an infrared thermometer Monday to take employees’ temperatures, but that is out of my own pocket. Many postmasters up here are buying and building our own sneeze guards for the retail window, as HQ isn’t supplying them. The main reason it isn’t enough is that the public isn’t taking [social distancing] serious[ly]. We have customers coming in just to hang out because nothing else is open and they just want to get out of the house. What would you want to get across to USPS HQ that you haven’t been able to or fear saying? We all wish the retail window [for post offices] would shrink hours to protect exposure, but so far that is falling on deaf ears. Going to a five-day delivery week, or possibly delivering packages seven days (as we are currently doing) and “mail” every other day is an option we would like to see in the field as well, as that would decrease exposure for both employees and customers. HQ and [administrative] staff are working from home so there is a slight disconnect. How much coordination is there overall between USPS and each post office on issues surrounding Covid-19? What guidelines are being given, if any? Every office receives CDC guidelines and Covid-19 communications daily, but we really lean on neighboring offices for resources. What long-term impact, if any, will this pandemic have on your post office and how it and your carriers work? I see sneeze guards being a way of life for all retail [stores], supermarkets, [and] gas stations from now on. Better personal hygiene. Maybe those and other things we learn will help us against future viruses. What, if anything, do you think the government should be doing differently than it is today? Listen to the health experts and stay locked down. If we open up too early, the economy will only be worse.

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posted 8 days ago on re/code
Amazon employees who work at a Staten Island distribution facility walked out of work on March 30 to protest what they fear are unsafe working conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images A Staten Island warehouse is still open despite allegations that workers there have Covid-19. New York City’s Commission on Human Rights will launch an investigation into Amazon for firing a worker who organized a protest this week over fears of a coronavirus outbreak at the Staten Island warehouse where he worked. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the investigation on Tuesday. The former employee in question, Chris Smalls, recently organized a walkout of about 50 people at a fulfillment center in Staten Island to protest the company’s decision to keep the facility open despite allegations that several associates have been infected with Covid-19. Smalls and other employees demanded that Amazon shut down the facility for a minimum of two weeks and provide workers with better health protections from the coronavirus. Amazon said it fired Smalls for showing up to work after being in contact with a colleague who was diagnosed with Covid-19 and being asked to stay at home. But Smalls alleged to Recode that Amazon fired him because of his activism. “The allegation is, because he spoke up for the safety of his fellow workers, he was fired. I have ordered the city’s Commission on Human Rights to investigate Amazon immediately to determine if that’s true,” said de Blasio at a press conference on Tuesday. “If so, that would be a violation of our city human rights law. We would act on it immediately.” Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The mayor’s announcement comes as grocery, delivery, and shipping workers at companies like Amazon, Instacart, and Whole Foods (which is owned by Amazon), have been protesting their working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. These workers say there is an urgent need for companies to better protect employees from getting sick by providing benefits like more paid time off, sanitation equipment, and hazard wages. Their fears are especially acute in New York, which has become the US epicenter of the outbreak, and where the Staten Island facility — one of Amazon’s busiest fulfillment centers in the US — is located. On Monday night, New York State Attorney General Letitia James called Amazon’s firing of Smalls “disgraceful” and urged the National Labor Relations Board to investigate the company. While Amazon has denied any retaliation in its firing of Smalls, the new investigation is drawing further attention to the concerns of blue-collar workers who are keeping US supply chains running and providing essential goods and services during the pandemic. Amazon told ABC News that it terminated Smalls after he ignored multiple warnings to stay at home under quarantine after being in contact with a colleague who had tested positive for Covid-19. Smalls denied this, telling Recode that his manager told him to self-quarantine on Saturday and that he hasn’t been inside the Staten Island facility since — only outside the building in the parking lot to protest on Monday, where he says he tried to stay 6 feet away from other people. “I didn’t violate any safety protocols, and I have nothing to hide,” Smalls told Recode. “If I should be quarantined, the whole entire department of at least 400 people should be quarantined. This was a direct target to silence me.” He told Recode that he plans to take legal action against the company for what he believes is wrongful termination. It will be up to New York City government officials to determine what really happened here, but the mayor’s announcement is a sign that the labor practices of companies like Amazon are going to face mounting scrutiny as their employees keep showing up to work during the pandemic.

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posted 8 days ago on re/code
Automated delivery bots are already working in the small town of Milton Keynes, England. | Leon Neal/Getty Images All economic downturns increase automation. This one will be worse. The novel coronavirus pandemic is certainly not good for the labor market. Recent weeks have seen unemployment claims surge to record levels as businesses and entire industries shutter in order to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. As a result, the economy has plummeted, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 down more than 20 percent from their February highs. While social distancing measures may be temporary, this economic downturn’s effect on the labor market will have long-lasting effects. In a joint post with his colleagues, Mark Muro, a senior fellow and policy director at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, recently wrote, “any coronavirus-related recession is likely to bring about a spike in labor-replacing automation.” Economic downturns, he argues, bring about increased levels of automation, which is already an existential threat to many jobs. And a coronavirus recession, due to its breadth and scale, could cause even more automation. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Rani Molla It feels counterintuitive to me that automation would spike in an economic downturn, because automation is expensive, at least in the short term. Why do you expect the rate of automation to increase? Mark Muro It might seem that in hard times, in a downturn, human labor would be cheaper and therefore automation would go down. But in fact, it’s the opposite. What happens is that, because of the crisis of the bottom line and a crash in revenue, humans become relatively more expensive compared to automation. So a firm that might have been thinking about automating is under a whole lot of pressure to do that, especially in the first two years of a new downturn. And that’s what a lot of research over the last few recessions has shown. People are relatively more expensive, including with their benefits. Meanwhile, you can restructure your business using new technology that increases productivity. So the typical move is to replace less-skilled workers with a fewer number of more-skilled workers or retain higher-skilled workers but then to bring in new technology. The other thing is that new technology, meaning automation but also enterprise software, is no longer nearly as expensive as it was a decade ago, say around the financial crisis. The cost curve has been declining. We think there’s a lot of new high-quality technology on the shelves waiting for deployment, including a more “turnkey” standard offering, often from the big tech companies. So I think a lot has happened to sharpen what was already a highly visible dynamic in the last turndown, the financial crisis. “What can be automated, likely will be” Rani Molla And machines don’t get sick or stay home when there’s a pandemic. Mark Muro Right. Viruses may be transferred from one to another, but it’s not the same kind of virus. Rani Molla So what exactly has the research shown? Mark Muro Nir Jaimovich and Henry Siu found that, in three recessions over the last 30 years, 88 percent of job loss took place in routine highly automatable occupations. And that was essentially all of the jobs lost in the crises. So, these crises have historically inordinately been visited on workers whose work actually was automatable. Another finding by Brad Hershbein and Lisa Kahn of the University of Rochester looked at something like 100 million online job postings and found that firms in the hardest-hit metros were steadily replacing workers who performed automatable routine tasks with this mix of tech, yes, but also more skilled workers. So there’s a kind of sorting that occurs: you get more automation but also upskilling, both of which will be tough for already jittery workers. Rani Molla What makes this economic downturn different than the last recession? Mark Muro The thing that is different this time is that all that I’ve said about already less educated, lower-skilled workers is beginning to apply more to middle-skill and even higher-skill professional and white-collar work, which may become more susceptible given the improvement of things like AI. Our recent research has shown that AI is disproportionally utilized in white collar, middle management, or upper management areas. It’s also used by line workers and in administrative functions. So it could be that all of this use of telecommuting technologies and communication gear may be pointing to the readiness for more wholesale reorganization of offices that may well put more pressure on not just workers in more routine, traditionally automatable occupations, but more professional ones, I think, are very real possibility. I think the big takeaway here is that downturns drive more, not less, dislocation through automation. And all bets are off about how that will work through this cycle, where the event is huge and there may be more ready to go automation, AI, or remote work platforms. Rani Molla What jobs were automated after the last recession? Mark Muro The initial event had a lot to do with finance, but it was tied up with a substantial crisis in the auto and manufacturing sector. Those were kind of the poster children of the financial crisis, and I think we do have a different picture of the most affected sectors this time. Rani Molla So what will be most affected this time? Mark Muro Food service and accommodations have already been under a lot of pressure, including through the kind of kiosk ordering. But also the middle-skill administrative positions and offices have been under a lot of pressure. And then, of course, manufacturing has been at the forefront for 30 years. For those who think that manufacturing is as automated as it can be, we still see very high exposures there, and I think the kind of suite of AI susceptible middle management occupations — whether it’s bookkeeping, financial analysis, even things like software development — may see pressure. “We’re not just losing a job-rich decade, we’re likely diving back into a period of tech-driven structural change” Rani Molla Can you spell out what it means to be susceptible to automation or AI? Mark Muro Given existing technologies, a total of about 36 million jobs in multiple categories and industries and occupations could be replaced by machines. Now, that doesn’t mean they will. But that gives us a sense of the size of the exposed jobs. It’s not a huge share of the whole economy, but it’s a substantial number of people obviously. That means their work is relatively predictable — or what’s called routine — and therefore susceptible to replacement, either by robotics or office software, for instance. Rani Molla Which jobs are safe? Mark Muro Health, education, government — those will be under relatively less pressure in some ways, at least of immediate layoffs. But we may also see moves to remote learning, for instance, in education changing the mix of workers or government under fiscal pressure, needing to bring in new technology. I think this episode seems broader. It will likely touch all kinds of occupations, but there’s no doubt that direct face-to-face interactions for personal health, for instance, will probably be pretty safe. But there will be the need to reduce some of them, so I think that becomes difficult too. Rani Molla Your research has also found that automation will increase existing inequality in the United States. How so? Mark Muro Because the exposure to automation is shaped heavily by the industries in which particular occupations are situated, we have all kinds of variation across the board. Because the gender or ethnic mix of a particular occupation or industry varies, we see extreme variation there. You have clear vulnerability of younger workers who may be more concentrated in food service or accommodations — jobs that have always been a driver of exposure to automation and that, clearly, is in the forefront under social distancing. Men are a bit more exposed because of their involvement in the fulfillment and trucking sector, which is showing hiring now because of the huge shift to ecommerce. But it’s also a highly automatable area. So we look for a lot of flux in that area. Then Latinos and black Americans are also in heavily exposed industries and occupations, whether it’s again food service or mid-level office work. So this plays out across all of these occupational mixes. The pandemic pressure then will have its own patterns, but these exposure levels are pretty well known. This doesn’t mean that the jobs will necessarily go away, but it’s a mapping of the shape of exposure and where the pressure may be. Rani Molla The fact that this is a global event means it could have an even broader impact than a typical recession. Is that right? Mark Muro The scale of the event is largely going to multiply or compound the overall tendency for automation to surge during downturns. We know the cyclical pattern is a historical fact. The sheer scale of this event is going to exacerbate that. You have to think that what can be automated, likely will be now, given that we’ve had a lot of inertia through the good times. The good times aren’t the time when the pressure is applied. Now, the pressure will be felt by business organizations. And with more technology having arrived and being on its way, I think we will see more pressure, not just in the standard kinds of automation that we’ve seen in the past, whether robotics and factories or kiosk-ordering in restaurants. Retail with cashierless checkouts, such as the Amazon Go stores, may spread. Then I do think we will see more and greater use of AI in the middle class and professional workplace in offices. I think that we’re going to see much more automation than we have even in recent downturns. Rani Molla What will the work landscape look like after this? Mark Muro The potential scale of this event isn’t just going to bring an end to the plentiful supply of jobs we’ve had. It’s also going to bring, because of this automation link, a new round of much more structural change again, in both what the demand for skills is and what the labor market looks like. So we’re not just losing a job-rich decade, we’re likely diving back into a period of tech-driven structural change. That’s going add complications for workers, and it’s going to really, really ratchet up the anxiety that I think people feel. Because it’s not like there’s going to be a return to the same normal. There’s likely going to be the insertion of new technological platforms that will change and really alter what normal is.

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posted 8 days ago on re/code
Zoom lets you stay in touch while social distancing, but it has issues. | PA Images via Getty Images Zoom’s best month could also be its worst. Zoom, the videoconferencing app that’s dominating our coronavirus-created work, school, and social lives, is more popular than ever. With this popularity has come a wave of scrutiny, and Zoom’s new users have been joined by a lawsuit, a letter from a state attorney general, and accusations of shady privacy practices. On Monday, Zoom found itself the recipient of not just a letter from New York Attorney General Letitia James but also a class action lawsuit, both over privacy issues that have been brewing since even before the coronavirus existed but which gained momentum once seemingly everyone began using it. How lax security brought us “Zoombombing” Zoom was released in 2013 and steadily climbed the videoconferencing app ranks, becoming one of the most popular business apps out there for the last several years. When the pandemic hit, forcing millions of workers and students to work remotely and friends and family members to interact virtually, many of them turned to Zoom. It is currently the most popular Apple and Android app in the world, and its stock price has more than doubled since late January — an especially impressive rise considering the stock market crash that also occurred during this time. Leading up to the pandemic, Zoom suffered from several security issues, including a well-publicized vulnerability that could force Mac users that have (or ever had) Zoom installed on their device to join Zoom meetings with their cameras automatically activated. In January, cybersecurity firm Check Point found a way that a hacker could easily generate active meeting ID numbers, which they could then use to join meetings if the meetings weren’t password protected. Zoom instituted a number of changes to help fix the issue, but Check Point’s recommendation that meetings must be password protected was not. So now we have “Zoombombing,” where public Zoom meetings are joined by a troll who broadcasts things like porn and Nazi imagery to the rest of the room. Public Zoom events that have been targeted must shut down to stop the broadcast. There are ways to mitigate this, such as password protecting meetings or limiting the screensharing setting to the meeting host. But the fact that it is so easy for anyone to join and then disrupt a public Zoom meeting at all indicates that Zoom’s developers didn’t anticipate the ways those meetings could be disrupted in the first place — something that anyone who has used the internet before really should have foreseen. James, the New York Attorney General, sent Zoom a letter on Monday saying her office was “concerned” that Zoom’s security practices weren’t enough to handle its sudden boom in users, and it wanted to know what, if any, measures the company was taking to improve them. The New York Attorney General’s office also wanted to know what data the app collects about its users and why, and how it was following legal requirements to get consent from minor users. Why Zoom’s privacy problems probably won’t ruin your day Some of Zoom’s other recent sources of controversy, namely those related to privacy concerns, may have been blown out of proportion. When its “attention tracking” feature was highlighted, many thought it allowed Zoom meeting hosts to secretly monitor their participants’ activities. The truth is less sensational: attention tracking can be turned on by the meeting host without participants’ knowledge. This can certainly feel like a privacy invasion. But Zoom told Recode that the feature is only enabled when the host is in screensharing mode, and it only tells the host which participants haven’t had its app in focus for 30 seconds or more. In other words, a meeting host can’t monitor everything the participants are doing on their computers — just when they stop looking at Zoom for a while. Another recent dustup followed a Vice report last week that Zoom’s iOS app sends data back to Facebook through a software development kit, or SDK. (SDKs are packages of tools that developers use to build apps, and it’s very common for apps to have third-party SDKs that transmit information back to those third parties.) Facebook’s SDKs are some of the most popular in the world, mobile app intelligence service Apptopia told Recode, with at least a million apps using its most popular social SDK and at least half a million apps using its login SDK. The login SDK enables users to log in to Zoom through their Facebook accounts, and in Zoom’s case, it also sent basic device information back to Facebook, including the device’s model, app version, and cellphone service carrier. It’s hard to know what Facebook was doing with this data. Cybersecurity company Bitdefender did find it unusual that the SDK sent this data back to Facebook even if the user didn’t log in through Facebook (or have a Facebook account at all). It did not tell Facebook which meetings the user joined or what was said in them. Zoom claimed it didn’t realize this information was being sent to Facebook and removed the SDK after Vice’s report. A class action lawsuit was filed several days later accusing Zoom of collecting and disclosing information about its users without properly notifying them. The trouble doesn’t end there. On Tuesday, the Intercept reported that Zoom inaccurately claims that meetings can be “end-to-end encrypted.” In true end-to-end encrypted services like WhatsApp and Signal, the message content is encrypted even from the service provider. Zoom’s video chats can be seen by Zoom, although according to the Intercept, text chats in those meetings are truly end-to-end encrypted. What’s Zoom’s problem? With its vaguely worded privacy policies and misleading marketing materials, Zoom’s real overarching issue seems to be a lack of transparency. Combine that with an apparent lack of forethought about how video meetings with insufficient privacy protections — both on the back and the front end — could be exploited by hackers or trolls. This entire scenario becomes especially problematic considering the growing number of students that Zoom eagerly recruits for the platform. It all seems like a bad publicity time bomb that went off as soon as Zoom became an essential piece of pandemic software and people started really looking more closely at how the service worked. It remains to be seen just how damaging these reports will be. Some schools are already backing off using Zoom. Public schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, for example, announced on Monday night that they “can no longer use Zoom” for video calls. Then again, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, currently quarantined after contracting coronavirus, hosted a cabinet meeting over a (password protected) Zoom call today. Perhaps Zoom is just too popular and necessary to fail now. Or maybe its problems are just beginning. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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posted 8 days ago on re/code
Spencer Platt / Getty Images Anything helps, yes. But there’s a limit to even a billion dollars in donations: “Can’t make payroll on ad credits.” Tech giants over just the last week have announced more than $1 billion in relief for those harmed by the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, promising some money but mostly everything from credits for ads to free video conferencing software. But old hands in the tech philanthropy space say that these announcements can often be quite misleading — and that the headline figures can oversell the impact that these gifts make. That’s especially important, nonprofit leaders say, because what the destitute truly need is cold, hard cash. To be sure, any help offered by corporations at a time when the social safety net seems to be crumbling is a boost to those in need. Many Americans right now are dependent on the generosity of companies and their products and philanthropists and their grants, and so any corporate giving helps. Plus, companies likely cannot donate as much in cash as they can in product. The two biggest charitable gifts across the entire globe in response to Covid-19, according to one ranking, have come from Google and Cisco, which donated $800 million and $220 million, respectively. Despite those huge numbers, veterans of the space say some games with how this is all computed can be played. And this lack of clarity can obfuscate the fact that the neediest aren’t being as well-served by tech companies as they could be, critics say. It is easy to gloss over the details and draw a snap, gushing judgment when you see references to hundreds of millions of dollars. But for people that are living on life’s edge, this isn’t some academic question. “Can’t make payroll on ad credits,” quipped Chuck Brown, an adviser to Bay Area nonprofits. “You’re just giving them a coupon to use their services and entrench their platforms into your nonprofit. It’s clearly a huge benefit for them — where if you truly supported the nonprofit sector, you would put cash on hand and you would give them zero restrictions.” The main way that headline figures are inflated is through “in-kind” donations, or the gifting of resources that the company already has. In-kind gifts made up 93 percent of Cisco’s commitment and the entirety of Google’s donation. Akhtar Badshah, who oversaw corporate philanthropy at Microsoft for a decade, said that made the big numbers that companies parade “meaningless.” “If a nonprofit has no money, there is no amount of ad dollars that will help them at this point,” he said. “I think it’s great that Cisco is giving these credits or Google is giving these credits or anybody that is doing in-kind donations to the nonprofit community or any community. But I feel that this is really the time where a lot of these companies can afford the cash that needs to go out, and I think that’s what needs to happen.” Badshah went so far as to say that the contributions of TikTok, which announced it would give away $10 million in cash, would be “far more valuable” than those of Cisco, which claimed a headline donation that is over 20 times as large (Cisco did set aside $8 million in cash). How companies come up with the “size” of the donation It’s not as though tech companies are alone in the shading and vagueness in some of these announcements. The third-biggest gift from an American company came via scandal-tarred Wells Fargo, which issued a press release saying its foundation was “accelerating” $175 million in planned giving over the next three months. But only $55 million of that is in additional funds — the other $120 million was repurposed from other planned giving. Silicon Valley corporate philanthropists describe in frank terms how some perverse incentives can lead to inflated figures: The PR value and tax deductions are correlated with the size of the claimed gift. There is often an ambition to one-up the size of the announcement offered by a rival. And there is limited transparency and accountability in this work — it is hard for outsiders to independently verify the followthrough on commitments, for instance — allowing many companies to claim whatever they’d like. “Most organizations are trying to show you the largest number possible,” said Sonal Shah, a former philanthropy executive at Google and Goldman Sachs. “The wording is very carefully crafted.” How the companies estimate the value of the product that they donate is one way in which the figures can be inflated. Companies are supposed to apply a so-called “fair market value” on the inventory. But people who do this professionally say there is ample wiggle room in making that decision — the cost to the company to produce the product is much less than the company would sell it for, for instance — with one corporate philanthropy expert at tech companies saying that they would often assign the “highest defendable amount.” Cisco didn’t return requests for comment on how they valued the $210 million price tag they placed on their WebEx and Security services, which they are now offering for free. Ad credit values have their own games, too. Google pledged $340 million in a balance that small businesses can use at any time in 2020. That’s relatively straightforward as this is revenue that Google is forgoing, although corporate philanthropy experts pointed out that this carries some assumption that the companies would ordinarily buy those ads. The “ad grants” to international groups like the WHO are helpful, but Google is likely forgoing minimal revenue since these agencies are not typically large advertisers. And one-quarter of Google’s $800 million is in low-interest loans, providing needed help for sure, but that’s also money that would be repaid. A Google spokesperson told Recode that they focused on ad credits and loans intentionally, as the company is “designing the interventions around what the need is.” But Shah, the former Google exec, said she was critical of Google and other Silicon Valley companies for prioritizing the wrong things: “What companies need is cash. They don’t need credits.” How well-meaning companies could do all of this better This goes beyond inside-baseball accounting gimmicks. There are real nonprofits and businesses that could use money today. And they’re being disserved when they’re given video conferencing and advertising credits that rank way down on the priority list, experts say, which, again, don’t cover payroll. Silicon Valley philanthropy veterans counter that this isn’t a one-to-one tradeoff. It isn’t as though Google would be cutting an $800 million check for Covid-19 relief if it didn’t give the ad credits and loans (though it certainly is one of the few companies that could, given its $100 billion cash reserve). After all, it is “cheaper” for the company to give away a resource that it owns and has in infinite supply. There’s also a new trend for companies not to give cash and to provide support in a medium that aligns with a corporate mission. But there is a way to thread this needle. The largest US tech company that appears to have given direct cash is Netflix, which set aside $100 million to pay people working on Netflix productions, along with donations to arts nonprofits. (Facebook also committed $100 million for small businesses in a mix of ad credits and cash grants.) Netflix could be a model — especially because the company paid it to support people in the creative community, fitting with the trend. And certainly, the half-dozen Silicon Valley philanthropists who spoke with Recode all agreed that the companies could do more than they are doing now, especially given the goodwill that these announcements engender, which could be useful to the tech giants on the other side of the crisis. Liba Wenig Rubenstein, who oversaw social impact at Tumblr, said companies’ attempts were “admirable” — but that shouldn’t let them off the hook. “We need to not simply say, ‘That’s a big number. That company is good,’ or overlook everything that we’ve been critical of them for,” Rubenstein said. “Any company that wants to stand up and beat its chest has to be prepared to back it up.”

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posted 8 days ago on re/code
Hospital equipment being set up an emergency field hospital in New York City’s Central Park on March 30. | Stephanie Keith/Getty Images How hospitals decide which Covid-19 patients to prioritize when resources are scarce. With medical experts and politicians now predicting that coronavirus cases will dramatically exceed the capacities of hospitals across America, doctors and nurses face the prospect of picking which patients to prioritize for treatment. Though the term “triage” may conjure images of rough battlefield medicine and crude estimates of patients’ survival odds, excruciating decisions on whom to treat already confront doctors in some places and will likely soon be necessary in America. In Italy, infections have skyrocketed so quickly that its fatalities have surpassed China’s, where the outbreak started, and doctors are already weighing whom to treat as sick patients overwhelm the hospital system. The published guidelines for an Italian intensive care unit noted that it may become necessary to establish an age limit for access to intensive care. Doctors are reportedly weeping in the hallways as they decide which patients to save. “If you have a 99-year-old male or a female patient, that’s a patient with a lot of diseases. And you have [a] young kid that need[s] to be intubated and you only have one ventilator, I mean, you’re not going to ... toss the coin,” a surgeon and oncologist in Rome named Carlo Vitelli told NPR last week. The United States is likely not far behind, with the confirmed case count already above Italy’s, and the country may soon experience an equally severe scarcity crisis. In New York City, health care workers are reporting that their resources are or will soon be overwhelmed. “These decisions run counter to everything that we stand for and are incredibly painful,” tweeted Meredith Case, an internal medicine resident at Columbia/New York-Presbyterian Hospital, on March 25. “Our ICU is completely full with intubated Covid patients. … We are rapidly moving to expand capacity. We are nearly out of PPE. I anticipate we will begin rationing today.” Guidelines for rationing scarce resources differ by state, though many assign rankings based on a patient’s odds of both short-term and long-term survival. The federal government has not yet released official recommendations for the Covid-19 pandemic. But difficult moral questions about how to allocate scarce medical resources have received extensive consideration from both philosophers and doctors, and it’s been the subject of rigorous academic study among bioethicists. After Hurricane Katrina, professors at Stanford University developed a widely used framework to guide medical decision-making in situations of resource scarcity, such as pandemics and natural disasters. In an influential 2009 article in The Lancet, Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, and two co-authors gave a systemic analysis of moral principles of allocation and how doctors can use them. Some researchers have even developed mathematical models to help decide whom to treat first. As the coronavirus sweeps across America, these ethical principles will collide with the messy realities of limited medical resources in dramatic ways. Despite the best efforts of philosophers and physicians, the results will inevitably be imperfect compromises that invite a thousand more questions on how to judge whose life is worth saving. Deciding whom to treat comes down to an ethical dilemma There are three theories of how to make ethical triage decisions, according to David Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics: egalitarianism, utilitarianism, and prioritarianism. Doctors and nurses aren’t philosophizing about these approaches as they make long rounds and rush to treat patients. Rather, these frameworks allow health care professionals to streamline decisions and focus on medical tasks, not be mired in moral questions or burdened by guilt after making hard decisions. “As much as possible, we want to move away from forcing clinicians to make bedside decisions and to have broader decision-making about these issues in advance,” said Magnus. Each theory has its own moral logic. Egalitarianism seeks to treat patients equally; using a lottery system to select vaccine recipients is one example. Utilitarianism aims to maximize total benefit, generally measured by the remaining life years — or expected remaining high-quality years — that decisions will save. If a 20-year-old and an 80-year-old both required a ventilator, treating the 20-year-old would likely maximize life years. In a choice between two people of the same age, the quality of life that each could expect upon recovery would become relevant. Prioritarianism, or the “rule of rescue,” treats the sickest people first; emergency rooms operate on this principle, for example, choosing to treat the gunshot wound victim before the person with a broken leg. “If you have a patient on a ventilator and they have to be taken off – that is probably the most horrible of all decisions for a doctor or nurse” Though each of these appeals to certain moral intuitions, they all have serious problems. To treat patients equally, for example, is also to treat them indiscriminately — because egalitarianism does not distinguish between the age of patients or the severity of their conditions, it can easily seem like an arbitrary or wasteful use of resources. Utilitarianism confronts the notorious difficulty of ranking quality of life and ignores the moral imperative of urgency. Imagine that the same medical resources could be used either to save one 75-year-old from coronavirus or perform a dozen hip replacements for 65-year-olds. While the latter might ultimately create more years of happy, healthy life, most would consider it the wrong choice, as the recent cancellations of elective surgeries around the country show. Meanwhile, a rule to prioritize the sickest patients first can clash with the goal of helping the greatest number possible: Lavishing extensive resources on a single patient with only a small chance of surviving could mean refusing treatment to multiple patients who are less sick but more likely to live if treated. While analyzing trade-offs among these principles is vexing in theory, making and implementing decisions in real time can be excruciatingly difficult. “If you have a patient on a ventilator and they have to be taken off — that is probably the most horrible of all decisions for a doctor or nurse,” said Emanuel. “Vaccines are not always life-and-death. But if someone who doesn’t have a ventilator is going to die, having to withdraw that person is incredibly psychologically traumatic, and this is likely to happen.” And the nature of medicine makes some ambiguities inevitable. There’s space for individual judgment, for instance, about what constitutes an urgent versus elective surgery, or when respiratory failure is irreversible. If an older patient with coronavirus and a short life expectancy required CPR, it could be difficult to decide whether saving the patient justified exposing health care workers to significant risk. In normal circumstances, many patients on ventilators in America have only a very small chance of survival, Magnus explained. Family members often insist on continued treatment even when loved ones will almost certainly not recover. “In our society, the ICU often becomes a place for grieving and prolonging the dying process. It’s not obvious that this is a good use of resources even in normal circumstances, but it’s just not going to be possible now,” he said. What makes one life more worth saving than another? The ethical dilemmas posed by the coronavirus are real-world examples of deep moral questions philosophers have studied for centuries. Princeton’s Peter Singer, probably the world’s most famous living utilitarian philosopher and a vocal proponent of effective altruism, told Vox, “There’s always a scarcity of resources in medicine, but situations like this make it particularly clear.” Singer said he favors a utilitarian approach that considers multiple factors: the life expectancy of patients, some types of adjustment for quality of life, and perhaps the patient’s ability to help others. He gave the example of a patient with severe dementia or terminal cancer with a six-month life expectancy as cases where it might be reasonable to prioritize other patients. Attempts to rank quality of life are controversial, particularly in cases of disability, but they are also already widely used. In the United Kingdom, quality-adjusted life year, or QALY, scores are a crucial factor in health care decision-making and are calculated by multiplying years of life by quality of life. If a given medical treatment would allow a patient one year with full quality of life, the patient would have a quality score of 1. If the same treatment would produce a year of life with only half of the normal quality of life, they would have a quality score of 0.5. Numerical scores might give the illusion of objectivity, but the complexities of actual life inevitably complicate such decisions. Mental health, family size, income, temperament, pain tolerance, and professional, personal, and relationship satisfaction — a vast array of factors that escape quantification still influence the quality of one’s life but are not accounted for in current equations. These are incredibly challenging and controversial decisions to make. In particular, people with disabilities have spoken up about their concerns that they will be left behind whenever triage decisions are made. “People with disabilities deserve to have equal access to scarce medical resources,” wrote the American Association of People With Disabilities in a letter to Congress, “and should not be subject to resource allocation discrimination when needs exceed supply...we believe that during this difficult period it is especially important to protect patients with disabilities from discrimination.” The Office for Civil Rights at the US Department of Health and Human Services has also announced that it is investigating states rationing plans to ensure that they are compliant with civil rights law. As Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project told the New York Times, “I deserve the same treatments as any patient. As a disabled person, I’ve been clawing my way into existence ever since I was born. I will not apologize for my needs.” “The only way to solve this is through massive social collaboration” For a utilitarian, prioritizing those who can benefit others is a defensible choice. “The classic case might be the Army doctor whose treatment is prioritized because he will be able to treat others,” Singer said. “I suppose in the current situation maybe it’s possible to make a case that certain doctors would be in a similar position, but of course you would want to be careful that you were not just prioritizing the health of your colleagues.” In fact, prioritizing medical workers is one of the suggestions made by Emanuel in an article recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine making recommendations for triage in the Covid-19 pandemic. But defining what constitutes a benefit to others is also difficult and controversial. Elizabeth Anderson, a MacArthur “genius” grant winner and philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, cautioned against thinking in too “ruthlessly consequentialist” a manner. “In strictly consequentialist terms, you might ask who are the most valuable workers, but actually, that’s not the right way to think about it,” she told Vox. “In reality, if the CEO of a major corporation had a heart attack, they are actually more replaceable than the parent of young children, who need specific individuals to be there for them and have a very personal relationship with their parents. It’s an argument for prioritizing caretakers,” she said. One factor that doctors and philosophers agree should not be relevant is the wealth of patients. But it’s also an undeniable reality of American health care that wealth improves quality of care. “It’s a huge flaw in the American system compared to any other affluent society,” Singer said. Emanuel imagined a scenario in which a scarce supply of coronavirus vaccines became available on the open market. “You don’t want a vaccine that only the rich can buy,” he said, adding that some form of random selection like a lottery would be preferable. “There is no moral framework in which wealth plays a role.” As the number of cases continues to spike, American health care workers will likely face agonizing decisions on how to ration care — and soon. That’s why for now, self-quarantining and social distancing are themselves moral decisions we can all make that can have significant impacts. “How bad the triage will be depends enormously on the behavior of ordinary people now,” Anderson said. “The only way to solve this is through massive social collaboration.” Taking collective action to decrease the scale of infections will ultimately reduce the suffering not only of patients but of nurses and doctors. “Triage is awful — it’s traumatizing,” said Anderson. “Doctors who have dedicated their careers to helping people now have to turn people away. It’s dreadful. It’s really on all of us to pull together so that we don’t force these horrible triage choices.” Nick Romeo is an author and journalist whose work has also appeared in the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, National Geographic, and more.

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posted 9 days ago on re/code
Vanessa Bain is one of many Instacart shoppers going on strike for better working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. | Nick Otto/Washington Post Why workers at Instacart, Whole Foods, and Amazon are walking off the job in protest. Workers for Instacart, one of the most popular US grocery delivery apps, went on strike Monday, demanding better pay and health protections as they risk exposing themselves to the coronavirus to deliver essentials to people on lockdown. Instacart and other grocery delivery workers are facing soaring demand — as much as 65 percent more compared to the same time last year across the top three services in the first week of March alone. But many of them say they feel increasingly unsafe doing their jobs because the companies they work for are not providing basic support, like giving them the time and supplies to wash their hands between shifts. Instacart shoppers’ complaints echo those of other workers: Around 50 Amazon workers at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, reportedly walked off the job on Monday in protest of the company’s decision to keep the facility open despite one of their colleagues being diagnosed with Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. And Whole Foods workers are planning a national “sickout” on Tuesday to call for better protections, such as free coronavirus testing for employees and paid leave for staffers under quarantine. “We are lacking things that are essential for our safety and the safety of our customers. We are potentially going to be vectors of this disease,” said Vanessa Bain, an Instacart shopper and leader of the group organizing the strike, Gig Workers Collective. Though we don’t have an exact number of strikers, and Instacart says the protest hasn’t reduced customer orders, these actions are effective in a different way: They’re drawing the attention of the public, and politicians, to the health risks that workers are taking to keep US supply chains running during a public health crisis. These workers had been pushing for better pay and basic benefits like health care long before the coronavirus pandemic, but now there’s a renewed sense of urgency around workers’ demands when their lives, and the lives of their customers, could depend on it. “I believe this is really a time for these companies to show leadership and show that they get it,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who represents a wide swath of Silicon Valley. “I think doing something dramatic like doubling wages for folks, for a few months, I think would be a great gesture.” Instacart has changed some of its policies in response to workers’ demands in the several weeks leading up to the strike. It began offering new worker benefits, such as providing 14 days of paid time off for shoppers who can prove they have been diagnosed with the coronavirus or placed under mandatory quarantine, as well as a new bonus based on shoppers’ performance. The company also announced plans on Friday to acquire and distribute hand sanitizer. Instacart told Recode that overall, its workforce has seen earnings increase by 40 percent in the past month compared to the month prior. When asked about the strike and workers’ concerns, a spokesperson for Instacart told Recode in a statement: In the last four weeks, Instacart has introduced more than 15 new product features, new health guidelines, new shopper bonuses, new sick leave policies, and new safety supplies, as well as pay for those affected by COVID-19. Our team has an unwavering commitment to safely serve our shoppers in the wake of COVID-19, and we’ll continue to share additional updates over the coming days, weeks and months ahead as we further support this important community. The company also said that it respects the rights of shoppers to provide feedback and voice concerns. Why exactly are workers striking? Instacart strikers want the company to take immediate action to reduce their risk of coronavirus exposure. Shoppers — whose work requires them to interact with grocery store clerks, customers, and other shoppers — are concerned about catching and spreading Covid-19. Workers are also concerned about touching surfaces such as plastic bags and food items that could be contaminated with the virus and then passing it on to customers. (Though it may be possible to contract the disease via contaminated surfaces, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the primary mode of spread is through person-to-person contact.) Workers say that if Instacart provided access to better hand-washing facilities between deliveries, gloves, and other preventive sanitation measures, that could help mitigate the risk. In order to mitigate these risks, they’re asking four things of Instacart: First, they want personal protective supplies at no cost to workers, such as hand sanitizer (which the company has started to distribute), disinfectant solutions and wipes, and soap. Second, they want hazard pay of an extra $5 per order; third, they want the default tip in the app to be set to at least 10 percent of customers’ total orders. And fourth, they’re pressing the company to grant 14 days of sick time to anyone who has been impacted by Covid-19 and provides a doctor’s note saying as much, or if they have a preexisting condition or are at high risk for facing complications from Covid-19. “I guarantee you, if you tell a customer, there’s a chance there’s a shopper who is handling your product and packaging your groceries has coronavirus, they would say, ‘no thank you.’” said Bain. What impact is the strike having? Since organizers aren’t counting how many people are participating in the strike, all we have are numbers from Instacart itself. And in a reflection of how many Americans are turning to the service during the pandemic, the company says business is doing just fine — even better than before — during this strike. “As it relates to today’s actions, we’ve seen absolutely no impact to Instacart’s operations,” a spokesperson for Instacart wrote in a statement. The company said that on Monday, it saw 40 percent more shoppers on the platform compared to the same day and time last week, and that over the past 72 hours, it sold more groceries than ever before. It also said that in the past week alone, 250,000 new people signed up to become Instacart full-service shoppers, and 50,000 of them have already started shopping on the platform. Regardless, the strike is raising awareness about worker issues in the gig economy. And Instacart’s new leave policy, which it enacted on March 10, is at least a start in addressing some of workers’ concerns. “We have to recognize the courage of these workers at Instacart and Amazon, who risk their own safety doing essential work that’s allowing us to have food for our family and our kids, and to have basic supplies,” Khanna told Recode. “While many of us are sheltering in place and working remotely, these workers are doing the essential services to keep our society functioning. So the least we can do is make sure they have safe conditions.” Khanna said he supports the strikers at Instacart in demanding more from their employers, and that he also sees a role for the government to help essential workers in the grocery and shipping industries. He said he is in discussions about proposing what he’s calling a “GI Bill” for essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic, such as emergency and health care workers, as well as people like Instacart shoppers and Amazon warehouse workers. The bill would have the government distribute special bonuses to these workers, among other benefits. Labor activists and other labor-friendly politicians such as Khanna have also called on gig economy companies such as Instacart, Uber, and Lyft to follow new legislation in California, AB 5, that was intended to compel companies to convert their contracted workforce to employees, entitling them to benefits such as health care and paid time off. Most companies have been largely ignoring the legislation, arguing that the new rules don’t apply to their workers. What will happen next Organizers of the Instacart strike have said that they will continue to strike until their demands are met in full. In the meantime, their action, especially in light of concurrent protests from workers at Amazon and other companies, is emphasizing more starkly than ever how the gig economy puts its workers in a precarious place, even as more people rely on their services. “I think that consumers are seeing how reliant they are on these particular workers and how essential in this pandemic their work is, so it’s a particularly powerful moment,” said Veena Dubal, a law professor at UC Hastings, who researches the gig economy. Instacart has positioned its workers as a community of “household heroes” — providing a critical service to Americans during a global crisis. It remains to be seen, though, if these workers can successfully negotiate for the better working conditions they’ve long been asking for — and not just during these unprecedentedly difficult times.

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posted 12 days ago on re/code
Rani Molla Companies to Wall Street: Remember those projections we gave you recently? Forget those, please. We know the coronavirus pandemic is bad. We know it is wreaking havoc on the world’s health and the world’s economy. Beyond that, we don’t really know that much. Especially when it comes to the crucial questions: Just how bad will it get? And how long will it take the world to recover? If you are a normal person, you may try to answer these questions by making something up, or pointing to something on the internet, or shrugging. But in corporate America, you do it another way. You tell Wall Street to ignore the projections you confidently made a couple months ago. And you replace those projections with ... nothing. That’s what big companies have been doing in droves since the beginning of March. This month, nearly 200 companies have told investors that they are withdrawing their guidance — the numbers they told them they would be hitting in the next few quarters of the year — via update sections of 8K filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission, where companies put new meaningful information for shareholders. It’s probably not a coincidence, by the way, that this chart looks an awful lot like the historical unemployment chart we saw earlier this week, after more than 3 million Americans said they had just lost their jobs: !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-lBvDm");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-lBvDm");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Like everything else about the pandemic, that number is a huge shift from normal affairs and even from past economic calamities, like the 2008 banking collapse. It also probably understates the case, since it doesn’t include companies like Apple, which hasn’t yet withdrawn its projections but did tell investors last month that it wasn’t going to hit the numbers it previously projected; or the New York Times, which told investors that its ad numbers were being hurt but that it thought — for now, at least — the rest of its projections were okay. If companies put the announcement in other sections of their 8Ks or used different language, it wouldn’t be included, either. The list of companies withdrawing their guidance does include big ones you’ve heard of, including Twitter, The Gap, iHeartMedia, and, not surprisingly, hotel companies like Hilton and Marriott as well as airlines like Delta and American. What all these companies appear to be struggling with is any comprehension of the current state of the world. Join the club! Here, for instance, is what executives at Viacom/CBS told investors today about the media conglomerate’s future: “Due to the evolving and uncertain nature of this situation, we are not able to estimate the full extent of the negative impact on ViacomCBS’ operating results, cash flows and financial position — including advertising and filmed entertainment revenues — particularly over the near to medium term.” If you, a normal person, were so inclined, you could use this opportunity to talk about the oddities of companies confidently making projections about their businesses under any circumstances, and then coming up with to-the-penny predictions about their earnings, which they then get rewarded for beating and punished for missing. But for now, let’s leave it here: We are in uncharted waters, and no one knows where we are going. Including some of the biggest companies and investors in the world. “One thing I know for certain,” Joseph Wolk, the chief financial officer of Johnson & Johnson told the Wall Street Journal, “is we’re going to be 100 percent precisely wrong.”

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posted 12 days ago on re/code
Mark Zuckerberg is making his biggest donation yet to tackle the coronavirus. | Facebook The $25 million gift is Zuckerberg’s biggest donation yet to tackle the coronavirus. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan are putting $25 million of their money behind an effort to develop therapeutic treatments for the Covid-19 coronavirus. It’s one of the biggest gifts yet from tech billionaires in response to the crisis. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropy run by the couple, is sinking the cash into an effort run by Zuckerberg’s mentor, Bill Gates, that is exploring new possible antiviral drugs that could protect people from the disease. The Gates Foundation organized the effort, called the “COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator” with a $50 million gift last month, and the donation from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative brings the total funding to $125 million. The donation is among the biggest single grants to an outside organization ever given by CZI, which was established in 2015. And the $25 million is one of the boldest ways in which the tech community is marshaling its resources to fight the global pandemic, a response that includes everything from charitable giving to venture capital investments and public commentary. CZI’s gift is the second biggest tech philanthropy donation for the coronavirus that has been publicly unveiled, falling short of only the Gates Foundation’s donation to the same therapeutics fund. Big Tech companies have announced larger commitments to help people cope with the economic consequences of the pandemic, but those have come off of their corporate balance sheets. Both Netflix and Facebook have unveiled separate $100 million funds to help the creative community and small businesses, respectively, although some of that money was through in-kind contributions, such as ad credits. Ditto for Cisco, which technically has unveiled the biggest philanthropic commitment in the world to date mostly to bolster the international response — $225 million — although 93% of that money was in “product.” The $25 million from Zuckerberg could help develop a drug for a virus that currently has no cure and lacks a vaccine, despite scientists’ urgent global effort to develop both. Philanthropists are hoping to either create and distribute a new treatment alongside pharmaceutical companies, or to repurpose an existing drug, even one that may already have regulatory approval. The goal, organizers say, is to find a treatment on a shorter time frame than the one that is needed to develop a vaccine, which could take years. “Right now, we can only treat the symptoms since there simply aren’t antiviral medications that can treat a range of conditions in the same way that antibiotics do for bacterial infections,” said Mark Suzman, the new head of the Gates Foundation, when he announced the new effort earlier this month. “This is where we believe we can help by partnering with private and philanthropic enterprises to lower the financial risk and technical barriers for biotech and pharmaceutical companies developing antivirals for COVID-19.” It’s not known what types of treatments exactly the Gates-Zuckerberg push will test. Some leaders in the tech community, such as Larry Ellison, have tried to push unproven drugs for treating Covid-19, such as chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, that have been used to treat malaria. Gates has said that his team has been studying these but had not yet made a determination. At a time when tech philanthropists and companies are scrambling to fill in for the government’s failures — offering up resources such as masks and testing kits — CZI’s role in developing possible treatments is actually fairly traditional. Silicon Valley has a long history of investigating new medical treatments, and Zuckerberg even set up an affiliated group in his charitable empire, called the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, to specifically explore possible pharmaceutical breakthroughs. So in an abnormal time, this feels refreshingly normal.

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