Coronavirus pandemic leading to huge drop in air pollution

‘Largest scale experiment ever’ shows what is possible as satellite images reveal marked fall in global nitrogen dioxide levels

Pollution levels in China in 2019, left, and 2020. Photograph: Guardian Visuals / ESA satellite data

The coronavirus pandemic is shutting down industrial activity and temporarily slashing air pollution levels around the world, satellite imagery from the European Space Agency shows.

One expert said the sudden shift represented the “largest scale experiment ever” in terms of the reduction of industrial emissions.

Readings from ESA’s Sentinel-5P satellite show that over the past six weeks, levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over cities and industrial clusters in Asia and Europe were markedly lower than in the same period last year.

Nitrogen dioxide is produced from car engines, power plants and other industrial processes and is thought to exacerbate respiratory illnesses such as asthma.

While not a greenhouse gas itself, the pollutant originates from the same activities and industrial sectors that are responsible for a large share of the world’s carbon emissions and that drive global heating.

Paul Monks, professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester, predicted there will be important lessons to learn. “We are now, inadvertently, conducting the largest-scale experiment ever seen,” he said. “Are we looking at what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy? Not to denigrate the loss of life, but this might give us some hope from something terrible. To see what can be achieved.”

Monks, the former chair of the UK government’s science advisory committee on air quality, said that a reduction in air pollution could bring some health benefits, though they were unlikely to offset loss of life from the disease.

“It seems entirely probable that a reduction in air pollution will be beneficial to people in susceptible categories, for example some asthma sufferers,” he said. “It could reduce the spread of disease. A high level of air pollution exacerbates viral uptake because it inflames and lowers immunity.” Agriculture could also get a boost because pollution stunts plant growth, he added.

The World Health Organization describes NO2 as “a toxic gas which causes significant inflammation of the airways” at concentrations above 200 micrograms per cubic metre. Pollution particles may also be a vector for pathogens, as well as exacerbating existing health problems. The WHO is now investigating whether airborne pollution particles may be a vector that spreads Covid-19 and makes it more virulent. MORE

Coastal First Nations Great Bear Initiative

Creating a Marine Protected Area Network for the Northern Shelf Bioregion

CFN-GBI commissioned this film to tell the story of our work with the governments of Canada and British Columbia to establish a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to help secure the health of the Northern Shelf Bioregion of the Pacific Coast.

The MPA network for the Northern Shelf Bioregion is anticipated to be in place by mid-2021.

Watch the full video:

SOURCE

We Can’t Go Home Again

Robin Sears writes that we are facing a challenging future:

Now we see the emergence of heroes and misfits. Beach partygoers versus nurses working 18-hour shifts. Most media are trying to celebrate the heroes more, while also castigating the selfish. The world’s most famous cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, has launched a campaign to bring art and music from ordinary citizens to the world. It has already produced thousands of uplifting moments (#songsofcomfort). Choir masters and artists are stepping up with similar projects offering respite from another bleak day.

Next will come a peak in recrimination and criticism of the speed, effectiveness, fairness and impact of government responses and the stupidity of some chiselling corporations. The unreachable embassy, the collapsing phone banks, those airlines and credit card companies treating their clients cruelly.

We’ve made a fairly good start. But we are really going to be tested:

Our health system is being tested as never before. Those who hold it together need to know how much we respect and honour them for their heroic struggles not to allow it to collapse.

But a bigger challenge lies just over the horizon: taking the steps to prevent a repeat pandemic.

Changing the way we live will be part of that. China has inflicted three medical crises on the world in less than two decades. The world has every right now to say, “Stop the bizarre and unacceptable practice of hunting, selling in open markets and eating toxic wild animals. Now.”

Greenhouse gas emissions have collapsed in the hardest-hit countries. Maybe we can find ways of avoiding the 2009 5 per cent bump up we hit on recovery. Corporations that replace carbon-based systems with green technology should receive more support than those who don’t.

It is much easier to declare bankruptcy than to fight back from it. It easier to build a wall than a bridge. But ongoing barriers to trade and community will only lengthen the social and economic pain. Some of the emergency measures now rolling out should be assessed in a few months for what worked and what should stay. Why not have a guarantee of sick pay for every worker? Why not have a form of EI for the millions of Canadians who are self-employed?

Lots of questions. We should take them seriously — because the world has changed, and we can’t go home again. SOURCE

RELATED:

Coronavirus is a historic trigger event — and it needs a movement to respond

A new app would say if you’ve crossed paths with someone who is infected

Private Kit: Safe Paths shares information about your movements in a privacy-preserving way—and could let health officials tackle coronavirus hot spots.

People crossing a street.

JACEK DYLAG / UNSPLASH

The news: An app that tracks where you have been and who you have crossed paths with—and then shares this personal data with other users in a privacy-preserving way—could help curb the spread of Covid-19, says Ramesh Raskar at the MIT Media Lab, who leads the team behind it. Called Private Kit: Safe Paths, the free and open-source app was developed by people at MIT and Harvard, as well as software engineers at companies such as Facebook and Uber, who worked on it in their free time.  

This story is part of our coverage of the coronavirus/Covid-19 outbreakall of which is available for free. You can also sign up for our coronavirus newsletter.

Privacy concerns: The World Health Organization has called for aggressive measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. These require not only identifying and isolating infected individuals but also identifying people they have been in contact with and where they have been, so that those people can be tested and the locations disinfected. In some countries, such as China, this data has been pulled from people’s phones and processed by the government. But this kind of government surveillance would be a hard sell in more democratic countries like the US or UK. People with Covid-19 have also faced social stigma, which is another reason to keep identifying information private.

How it works: Private Kit: Safe Paths gets around privacy concerns by sharing encrypted location data between phones in the network in such a way that it does not go through a central authority. This lets users see if they may have come in contact with someone carrying the coronavirus—if that person has shared that information—without knowing who it might be. A person using the app who tests positive can also choose to share location data with health officials, who can then make it public. 

Raskar thinks that a fine-grained tracking approach, which would allow specific locations to be closed off and disinfected, is better than blanket shutdowns, which are socially and economically disruptive. 

Will it make a difference? Only if enough people use it, which is why Raskar and the MIT team want to get the word out. Pinpointing coronavirus hot spots seems to have proved effective in places like South Korea, where testing stations are set up outside buildings that people with the virus have visited. But incomplete information could also lead to a false sense of security, if the app leads users to believe that certain places are safe when they aren’t. The app will only alert you to where the virus has been, not where it’s going.  SOURCE

Oil-Sands Workers Brace for ‘Hellish’ Outbreak in Remote Camps

(Bloomberg) — As if the market crash threating their jobs wasn’t stressful enough, workers in Canada’s oil-sands are bracing for the coronavirus to upend life in the remote camps where they’re lodged.

One suspected case among them is already haunting roughnecks who fly in from across Canada and live for weeks on end in barracks-like facilities built in the boreal forests and marshes of northern Alberta, which houses the world’s third-largest crude reserve. Civeo Corp., a Houston-based company that provides lodging for workers in the Fort McMurray area near oil-sands mines, on Friday said one of its guests “has symptoms consistent with COVID-19, has been tested and we are awaiting results.”

A widespread infection afflicting a workforce that grapples with long hours of physical labor in punishing cold would also be a blow to producers already reeling from the fallout of the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. It would disrupt what’s set to be the industry’s heaviest maintenance season in five years. Thousands of temporary workers will be needed as producers like Suncor Energy Inc. and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. shut equipment for repairs.

Anxieties already are running high among workers, who often have their own rooms but share restrooms and cafeterias, providing many opportunities for the virus to go around.

“Most of the discussions in the lunchroom are based on what’s going on with the virus, what’s going on medically, what’s going on financially, how bad are the markets down?” said a 43-year-old who lives in Albian Village Camp, which houses workers for a Canadian Natural oil-sands mine. He asked not to be named for fear of losing work at the site. “Are we going to get stuck here? Are there going to be flights home? Will we have jobs to come back to?”

Albian Village is adding hand-sanitizing stations, prepackaging workers’ food instead of letting them serve themselves buffet-style, and spacing out the cafeteria tables, the worker there said.

ESS Support Services Worldwide, which runs that camp, didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment. Canadian Natural said in an e-mailed statement that it has implemented precautionary measures across its camps and will continue to strengthen them at the advice of public health officials.

In Civeo’s camp, where the suspected case was reported, anyone who has traveled internationally won’t be allowed in the facilities for 14 days after a return, sanitizing measures are being enhance and screening and quarantining procedures are being implemented.

Workers also are afraid that if they’re infected, they’d face weeks quarantined in their rooms, which the worker estimates are only around 200 square feet, or roughly 20 square meters.

“These rooms are pretty small,” he said. “It’s not like being at home. If you get quarantined here, it would be pretty hellish.”

Workers have also watched warily as governments have implemented increasingly stringent travel restrictions, threatening their ability to get home. The Albian worker would be able to drive 14 hours to his home in British Columbia in the event of a total shutdown of Canada’s air transportation, but his coworkers who live 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) away in Canada’s Atlantic provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia wouldn’t be so lucky.

According to a 2018 census, there were 74 temporary workers’ dwellings in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, the sprawling northern Alberta region that houses the oil sands deposits. The region’s so-called shadow population of temporary residents who live outside of the municipality but who are employed in the region for at least 30 days a year was 33,000, according to that census.

Suncor, Canada’s largest integrated oil company, is working with the companies that run its camps on a variety of safety measures, said Erin Rees, a company spokeswoman. Camps are conducing more frequent and deeper cleaning of high touch-point areas like door handles, posting security outside of cafeterias to make sure everyone uses hand sanitizer before entering and switching cafeterias from self-serve to full service style so that fewer people come into contact with the food, she said.

While the worker in Albian Village said the camp operators are doing everything they reasonably can to protect workers, they might ultimately be fighting a losing battle.

“If it’s coming in, it’s coming in,” he said. “There’s no stopping it once it’s here.” SOURCE

Company set to crank out ventilators, awaiting final go-ahead from Ottawa

In rush to avoid nightmare scenario unfolding in Italian hospitals, world scrambles to make breathing machines

In Italy, where the health system has been overwhelmed by a surge of COVID-19 cases, a patient in a biocontainment unit is carried on a stretcher from an ambulance in Rome on March 17. Other countries, including Canada, are rushing to build more medical equipment to respond to the virus. (Alessandra Tarantino/The Associated Press)

A Canadian company says it can ramp up production within days of potential life-saving ventilators, once it gets final instructions from the federal government.

Countries are scrambling to avoid the nightmarish scenario unfolding in Italy, where doctors are grappling with which patients to save because there aren’t enough breathing machines to serve all the critically ill victims gasping for air.

The Toronto-based medical supplies company has a letter of intent from the federal government to purchase machines and says it can drastically scale up production once it receives one critical detail:

How many machines does the government want?

Thornhill Medical says its production plans hinge on the answer to that question — such as what kind of manufacturing partner might be required, and how financing might work.

Workers build a temporary hallway to the COVID-19 testing centre at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto on March 19. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

 

Once that’s settled, production can immediately start, said company president Lesley Gouldie.

“We would be manufacturing this weekend if we knew what the order was,” said Gouldie, whose company’s MOVES SLC machine is like a portable intensive-care unit with a ventilator.

“We can’t initiate scaling until we know what we have to scale to.”

‘We’ll do whatever it takes’

Those details should be released imminently, one federal official said. The federal government has been consulting with the provinces in assessing requirements.

Depending on the size of the order, Gouldie said the company can either retain the property rights and sub-contract production to a manufacturer, or transfer the technology in exchange for payments or royalties.

One thing she’s adamant about is the company can meet the demand.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to rapidly scale up,” she said. “Manufacturing capability is not going to be the limiting factor.”

What’s not clear, yet, is how many of these machines actually Canada needs. One study says Ontario risks running out within weeks.

The federal government estimates there are about 5,000 ventilators in the country; that’s the figure put forward at a news conference Saturday by Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, Dr. Howard Njoo.

The federal government has expressed an interest in buying these machines, the MOVES SLC, from its Toronto-based manufacturer to use as ventilators during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company says it’s ready to ramp up production, but is awaiting specifics from Ottawa. (Thornhill Medical)

He said that depending on the trajectory of the virus Canada might need anywhere from “1,000, to 3,000, or 5,000.”

For the sake of comparison, in one of the hardest-hit countries so far, on Saturday Italy had 2,857 patients reported in intensive care for COVID-19.

‘This is a war. Treat it like a war’

Closer to home, panic is mounting. In New York State, the governor says his state needs 30,000 ventilators and only has 5,000 to 6,000.

The U.S. Army is discussing plans to turn New York City’s empty hotels into intensive-care facilities as cases skyrocket.

“This is a war. Treat it like a war,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told CNN, urging the U.S. government to use wartime measures under the Defense Production Act.

“Say to the manufacturers in this country, ‘I need you to build these pieces of equipment quickly.’ … This is going to be the matter of life and death for people.”

It’s happened before.

During the Second World War, car companies stopped building cars.

Instead, they churned out planes, engines, and cannons. Ford had plants in five U.S. states producing military supplies; Chrysler alone had two-dozen factories building everything from tanks and plane engines to anti-aircraft cannons.

In Canada, factories that usually made bicycles and hockey skates churned out gun parts; a soda-fountain company made tank parts.

Amid the current crisis, auto companies in different countries, from Ferrari, to Ford, to Canadian parts makers, are discussing possible roles in producing medical supplies.

Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo says the country probably has 5,000 ventilators and may need anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Flavio Volpe, head of Canada’s Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, said he was inundated with calls last week from members keen on getting involved.

He said 16 companies expressed interest early in the week, when auto-production lines were still running; by the end of the week, with most production shuttered by the pandemic, he said he got 50 more inquiries in a single day.

“I wish we could take every call — I can’t,” said Volpe, who said he first discussed the idea in a conversation last weekend with officials in the Ontario and federal governments.

He said that if auto companies get the engineering specifications for a product, and a list of suppliers, they could, within weeks, be churning out gear on a scale unimaginable for medical-supply companies.

“[The medical industry’s] scale is less than one per cent of our scale,” he said, suggesting that companies could, within weeks, be supplying anything from ventilators to protective gear for doctors, such as masks.

Ottawa company ready to make test kits

The ventilator company, Thornhill, said it’s open to new partnerships: “We’re an innovative company. … We’re more than happy to explore innovative solutions,” Gouldie said.

It’s currently in talks with a manufacturer from another industry — not a car company, but one that has experience producing medical supplies.

She said any manufacturer would need to demonstrate an ability to comply with the strict regulatory requirements of her industry and be up to the ISO 13485 standard that applies to medical devices.

Amid a dire shortage of medical supplies, an Italian Red Cross member watches as a box of products, including respirators and masks donated by a Chinese team of experts, is taken out of a plane at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. (Handout via Reuters)

Her company isn’t the only one awaiting a purchase order from the federal government any day now.

A company identified by the federal government as a potential maker of COVID-19 test kits says it hopes to get production rolling within several weeks.

Paul Lem, the founder of Spartan Bioscience in Ottawa, said it would take one week to produce an experimental version and another week to get the results validated. The company could start mass-production after approval from Health Canada, he said.

His company makes machines the size of a coffee cup that take in single-use cartridges for DNA tests.

He said it can be used to test for COVID-19 but needs two things: financing to scale up and instructions from government.

“[Tell us] how many do you need,” Lem said.

“Then we can get going.” SOURCE

If You Care Beans About the Planet

What you eat has real implications for the climate and your health

Beans are superstatrs of nutrition. But if you cook them properly (it’s not a bog deal) they can provide the  centerpiece  of a healthy diet. The New York Times shows you how.

How to Cook Beans

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Easy, forgiving, healthy and economical, beans are a home cook’s secret weapon. Yes, canned beans are convenient, but knowing how to cook dried beans gives you flexibility, and makes for a far more delicious meal. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about preparing beans and some of their relatives in the legume family, including lentils and split peas, both on the stove and in the pressure- or slow-cooker.

Before You Start

  1. Check for a date on the beans; freshness matters. Dried beans last up to two years, but are best cooked within a year of harvest. Always rinse beans before cooking, and check for stray rocks, twigs and leaves.
  2. Leave substantial time for bean soaking (either overnight or using our shortcut method) and cooking. If you are short on time, choose lentils or adzuki beans, which cook quickly and don’t need soaking.
  3. To add more flavor, consider cooking your beans in stock or broth instead of water (and see our chapter on seasonings for more ideas).

Choosing Your Bean

There are dozens of varieties of beans, but these are the ones you’re most likely to encounter. Use this list to figure out what to buy when you want them to fall apart into a soup or dal (lentils, flageolet and split peas), or hold their shape for salads (adzuki, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, cranberry and kidney). As a general rule, 1 cup dried beans makes about 3 cups cooked.

Craig Lee for The New York Times

  1. Above, from left: cranberry beans, lentils, black beans, chickpeas, red kidney beans, split peas, pinto beans and cannellini beans.Adzuki: These small, scarlet beans cook quickly, with a sweet flavor. They’re often used in Japanese bean paste desserts, but are versatile enough for salads, soups and stews.

    Black: Also known as turtle beans, these full-flavored beans are classic in Latin American cooking, usually for soups and stews.

    Black-eyed peas: These small earthy-flavored beans, also known as crowder peas and cowpeas, are particularly cherished in Southern cooking.

    Cannellini: These mild, starchy white beans are often used in soups and stews, particularly in Italian cooking.

    Chickpeas: These nutty-tasting legumes, also known as garbanzo beans, are used all the globe in many guises: soups, stews, dips and even fried or roasted as a snack.

    Cranberry: These red-and-brown speckled beans have a rich, toasty flavor. They hold their shape well for salads, soups and stews.

    Fava: Dried favas, also known as broad beans, have a very strong, meaty flavor and a somewhat thick skin. Beloved in Middle Eastern cuisine, they are made into soups, stews and salads.

    Flageolet: These are a creamy, smooth, pale green-to-white-hued bean from France with a thin skin. They work well for soups and purées.

    Great Northern: These large white beans with a firm texture and gentle, nutty flavor are great for stews and soups.

    Kidney: These large red beans are often used in salads and chili. Some people find them particularly hard to digest, but soaking and rinsing before cooking can help, as does using a pressure cooker.

    Lentils: There are several varieties of these tiny legumes, ranging from shiny black beluga lentils, which remain nicely intact for salads, to orange-hued “red” lentils, which collapse into a thick purée when simmered. In between, there are brown lentils (good all-purpose lentils) and more expensive French green lentils, also called Puy lentils, which take a bit longer to cook and have a nice sweet flavor. All lentils are relatively quick-cooking and don’t need any presoaking.

    Lima: Large white dried lima beans take on a velvety, creamy texture after simmering, and hold their shape well.

    Navy: These small white beans have a nutty flavor, and cook more quickly than other white beans. They are the traditional choice for Boston baked beans. Like red kidney beans, they can be easier to digest if you soak and rinse before cooking.

    Pinto: These are small brownish-pink beans frequently used in Mexican and other Latin American cooking, particularly for refried beans, stews and chili.

    Split peas: Green or yellow split peas are small legumes often used in soups, and in the case of the yellow ones, Indian dals. They do not need to be soaked before cooking.

Soaking

Soaking your beans helps them cook faster and more evenly, and it can also make them easier to digest. If you add salt to the soaking water (in other words, make a brine), your beans will cook even faster; the salt helps break down their skins. Here are a few methods; choose the one that best fits your schedule. And keep in mind that you never need to soak legumes like lentils or split peas.

Craig Lee for The New York Times

  1. OVERNIGHT SOAKING

    To soak beans the traditional way, cover them with water by 2 inches, add 2 tablespoons coarse kosher salt (or 1 tablespoon fine salt) per pound of beans, and let them soak for at least 4 hours or up to 12 hours. Drain them and rinse before using.

  2. QUICK SOAKING

    Another option is quick-soaking, which allows you to make a pot of beans within a few hours flat without sacrificing flavor or texture. Put the beans in a pot on the stove, cover with water by two inches, add salt if you like, and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and let them soak for an hour. Drain, rinse and proceed with your recipe.

  3. OR, DON’T SOAK AT ALL

    Here’s a secret you may not know: You don’t actually have to soak your beans at all. Just add them to your pot and plan on cooking your recipe for another hour or two beyond the usual cooking time. Keep an eye on the level of liquid, adding more water, broth or stock if the pot looks dry. There should always be liquid covering your beans as they cook.

Seasoning

You can simmer beans and other legumes in nothing but plain water with salt and get great results. But before you start cooking, take a minute to add the herbs, spices, stock and aromatics that make beans even better. Even a humble onion and a bay leaf works wonders.

  • Consider cooking your beans in stock instead of water. Vegetable, chicken or beef stock will add a rich depth of flavor; consider chicken stock for cannellini beans, or vegetable stock for lentils. If you use stock, you may want to adjust the amount of salt you add to your beans.If you decide to add meat to your pot, put it in at the beginning of cooking. Bacon and ham (or a ham bone) will add wonderful smokiness that pairs deliciously with pinto, cranberry or white beans. After the beans have finished cooking, remove the meat, chop it up and add it back to the pot.

Cooking

You’ve soaked your beans (or maybe not) and they’re ready for some heat. Simmering them on the stove is the time-honored method, and we’ll tell you how to do it. But you can also cook them in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker — whatever you prefer.

 

Craig Lee for The New York Times

  1. STOVETOP METHOD

    Place your beans in your pot and cover them with at least 2 inches of water, and turn the heat to low. Stir them gently and occasionally, never letting them hit a strong boil; this can burst their skins and make them mushy or unevenly cooked. Depending upon the variety, dried beans will cook quickly (about 15 minutes for red lentils) or slowly (up to 3 to 4 hours for unsoaked chickpeas or lima beans).

  2. SLOW-COOKER METHOD

    To use a slow cooker, cover your beans with 2 inches of water or broth and salt to taste, and toss any aromatics you like into the pot. Set your machine to the low setting and cook until the beans are done, usually 3 to 6 hours. If you are cooking kidney beans, you need to boil them on the stove for 10 minutes first before adding them to the slow cooker. This makes them much more digestible.

  3. PRESSURE-COOKER METHOD

    To cook beans in a pressure cooker, place your soaked or unsoaked beans with enough water to cover by 2 inches into the pressure cooker. Add salt, any aromatics you like, and a tablespoon of neutral oil to help keep the foam from clogging the vent. Make sure not to exceed the maximum fill line for your brand of pressure cooker. This is usually around the halfway mark for beans. Cook at high pressure for anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes for small beans such as black-eyed peas, lentils and split peas, to up to 35 to 40 minutes for larger beans such as chickpeas. Soaked beans will cook more quickly than unsoaked beans.

Testing for Doneness

How do you know when your beans are ready to eat? Read on for the signs that it’s time to taste — and don’t toss that cooking liquid.

GIF

Craig Lee for The New York Times

  1. To make sure your beans are cooked thoroughly, scoop up a couple of beans and blow on them. The skin should curl and wrinkle. Then taste. They are done when they’re tender and cooked through to the center (but not mushy). Let them cool in their cooking liquid.A tip: Don’t throw out your bean cooking liquid, that tasty pot liquor. Salt it if need be, and save it. It’s basically a rich vegetarian stock that freezes well for up to six months; use it as you would any other chicken or vegetable stock.

Simple Pinto Beans

  • YIELD4 to 6 servings
  • TIME2 hours, plus soaking time
Save to Recipe Box

Evan Sung for The New York Times

The Insanity of Making Sick People Work

Coronavirus is putting extra burdens on workers, from health professionals to low-paid cleaning staff at the front line of combating infection. Yet many of these same workers don’t even have the right to sick pay – meaning they’ll feel compelled to work even if it risks spreading the virus.

After the evacuation of its coronavirus-hit passengers, the Princess Diamond cruise ship needed thorough cleaning. An Australian contractor won the tender and duly sent its cleaners a text message offering a “great opportunity” for a week’s work. The workers in question were school cleaners, inexperienced in dealing with such hazardous conditions. But given their low wages, the promised $5,000 to $6,000 for a week was bound to appeal.

Fortunately, the United Workers Union wasn’t ready to stand for management’s careless attitude. They held protests at company headquarters and urged cleaners not to accept the job. The working hours and working conditions remained anything but transparent – and the cleaners hadn’t received specific training. The workers hadn’t even been screened for their own preexisting health conditions, which could have left them particularly vulnerable.

This dispute over the Princess Diamond encapsulated a big problem with how media usually present the coronavirus crisis. There’s been lots of coverage about how governments and businesses have sought to cope with the outbreak. Rather less attention is paid to how it is reshaping the world of work – and the burden placed on workers themselves. But it really is making a difference, and not only for health professionals.

From low-wage service workers to delivery drivers in Wuhan keeping a quarantined population fed, it is workers who are having to deal with the effects of the crisis – and who are often put in most danger. Indeed, cleaners and janitors will, in many cases, be the first line of defense against the spread of the virus. This strikingly illustrates how absurd it is that they often count among the worst-paid workers.

Faced with this situation – and mounting changes to how even the lowest-wage jobs operate – we shouldn’t just treat coronavirus as some sort of natural disaster. It urgently poses the need for unions to organize to protect workers’ safety – and make sure that those on the front line have both the remuneration they deserve and the protections they need.

“Presenteeism” Is Dangerous

Bosses will always decry absenteeism among their workers. However, in times of coronavirus, we should be more worried about the opposite – “presenteeism,” by those who ought to be resting or getting medical treatment but who feel forced to show up for work.

Take food service workers, who often earn so little that missing a day’s work will leave them in the lurch. As one Twitter user commented, if such workers don’t have sick pay, they’ll continue showing up – possibly meaning they’ll help spread the virus. Only 46 percent of service workers received sick-leave benefits in 2017, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Britain, meanwhile, paid sick days often start after the third day missed. Nonetheless, the pub chain JD Wetherspoon – which counts more than 45,000 employees – has said that it will treat coronavirus like any other illness, meaning that ill workers who stay at home for fear of spreading the virus will be left out of pocket. The pub chain’s part-time workforce will be hit particularly hard – workers in Britain are only entitled to sick pay at all if they earn at least £118 a week.

In China, the scene of the first mass outbreak, private-sector companies have cut workers’ wages or delayed payments. In many cases, workers have been forced to use their vacation days and prepare for unpaid leave. At Apple supplier Foxconn, workers are returning to work on a third of their wages after returning from quarantine. Restaurant workers, meanwhile, find themselves unemployed as clients stay away.

Some employers are making changes. London’s Financial Times is advising white-collar professionals on the etiquette of working at home, and argues that the much-vaunted advent of remote working, outside the office, is finally becoming a reality. Traditional businesses are now moving toward smart and agile working, once exclusively performed in Silicon Valley and the tech industry, in order to prevent their employees from catching the virus and losing more working days. Oil company Chevron has asked its 300-odd London-based staff to work from home.

But these white-collar workers moving to remote working will make a tiny impact on the overall spread of the pandemic, for millions of service and manufacturing workers need to be present at the workplace to perform their jobs. Have workers turn up to work sick, and you risk infecting customers and clients; have them stay at home, and you might have to shut down your business altogether.

The problem is, the culture of “presenteeism” places the burden of the decision on workers – often meaning they’ll turn up to work when they should be staying home. The balance of forces in the workplace – the tyranny of the boss and the worker’s need for wages – thus imposes an irrational decision that endangers society as a whole. If showing up regardless counts as “loyalty to your job,” it’s not actually any good for your coworkers – or for customers.

The Jobs, They Are A-Changing

Yet not only white-collar work cultures are changing. It is also changing workers’ job content – and what our employment looks like. This is particularly the case for those who work in industries that might contribute to disease prevention, such as cleaners and healthcare workers; medical staff that can remedy the worst effects of the virus; as well as others who could potentially spread it.

In Nigeria, where the first coronavirus patient was identified this weekend, security guards are being mobilized to distribute sanitizer to people entering buildings. Using some of the lowest-paid workers to prevent an outbreak ought to go hand in hand with added benefits for risky work and, indeed, the right to sick leave so that they can actually do their job effectively. Sadly, this is far from necessarily the case – with the most under-pressure workers instead burdened with more responsibilities but not more remuneration.

This was brought to my attention at a recent museum visit in Brussels, where museum staff ended up having to sanitize visitors’ audio guides. While this seems like a small task, workers rarely receive adequate training for these impromptu tasks that suddenly become part of their job. Even more rarely are they paid anything extra for these additional tasks: it’s all just “part of the job,” bosses insist. Anyone working in these customer-facing service jobs knows only too well how such little tasks and activities quickly pile up to become unmanageable. This is especially the case as sickness exacerbates staff shortages.

In the cleaning industry, coronavirus is intensifying the work regimen, with the introduction of standardized work processes. These are set by standardization bodies dominated by companies that will often codify their own working methods to gain a competitive advantage in the market. But workers don’t have any say in these standards – nor is it scientifically proven that these standards actually produce better outcomes.

Healthcare workers tasked with remedying the situation are no better off. A whistleblower at the US Department of Health and Human Services has revealed that the department didn’t equip workers with sufficient protective gear. The lack of protective gear is only getting worse, as the general population is bulk-buying face masks. Thus, even the US Surgeon General has asked the public to refrain from buying the masks, so that healthcare professionals who actually need them can contain the coronavirus and treat workers without getting infected themselves.

The Chinese outbreak strikingly illustrates how overburdening hospital workers undermines the entire effort to combat the virus. Here, more than 3,000 Chinese healthcare workers have caught the coronavirus, with eight having died. In one case, a patient admitted to a hospital in Wuhan infected at least ten medical workers. The shortage of medical supplies, the increasingly high number of patients, and the high communicability of the virus twinned with stress, long hours, and understaffed hospitals are creating a vicious cycle for those who are meant to manage the crisis.

As coronavirus travels from country to country, there’s little doubt that more workers are going to be responsible for dealing with its effects. What remains in doubt is if this extra burden will mean more remuneration, additional training and improved occupational health and safety. But all this is imperative if those on the front lines are going to be able to maintain basic dignity at work – and do the job they’re meant to be doing.

The End of the Gig Economy?

Workers in the gig economy are at particularly high risk of catching the virus – yet they have among the lowest workplace protections. In China and elsewhere, food delivery drivers might be at the forefront of keeping self-quarantined people fed. Yet they have no knowledge of whether the person ordering food is sick or not.

While tourism is slowing down, service workers who come into regular contact with tourists have been catching coronavirus, with sometimes deadly consequences. In Taiwan, a taxi driver who had picked up passengers from mainland China and Hong Kong died in February. As tourism has slowed, cab drivers in Thailand have had their livelihoods destroyed as their daily wages have fallen from $30 to $10 a day.

Those who feel ill have often resorted to using taxis or ridesharing apps rather than calling ambulances. In London, a coronavirus patient didn’t call an ambulance when she fell ill but instead took an Uber to the closest emergency room, where she walked through the door and presented herself to reception staff. It was a short ride, and the driver didn’t catch the virus. However, these stories highlight the dangers that gig workers are exposed to.

Independent contractors working in the gig economy have no right to sick leave or healthcare benefits. The Washington Post has reported that drivers have been scrubbing their cars. Of course, these drivers are not being paid for the time spent on cleaning. Unlike Lyft, Uber sent their drivers an in-app message detailing precautions they should be taking. This only underlines the reality that they are its employees – and should be treated as such.

The employment models of these companies, and their algorithmic management and control over workers, are unsustainable in times of coronavirus. The lack of transparency or basic workers’ rights – with employers doing nothing to protect workers against the spread of the virus – is meanwhile contributing to anti-Asian racism, as some drivers refuse to pick up Asian-looking passengers.

Workers’ Demands, Unions’ Responses

At present, it looks like coronavirus will continue to exacerbate existing labor-market inequalities. But the labor movement shouldn’t let employers off the hook, as if they were just victims of the situation. Companies should be providing protective gear, offering more working from home, and providing additional paid sick days and healthcare benefits.

Britain’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) is leading by example, as it argues for a change to sick pay. For the TUC, workers below the current £118-a-week threshold should be given sick pay – starting from the first day they fall ill. Such a legal change would benefit nearly 2 million workers. On March 3, prime minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that statutory sick pay (£94.25 a week) would be extended to the first day off, but he refused to answer Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s question on whether this would apply to part-timers.

Meanwhile, airport security workers at Frankfurt Airport in Germany have demanded that they be allowed to wear face masks. While face masks don’t necessarily stop the virus from spreading, unions certainly should be demanding increased health and safety measures for workers on the front line.

Moreover, unions could demand more days of “home office” or remote working – a popular demand among today’s workforce. While there are issues with working from at home, such as effectively working longer hours, this would particularly benefit women workers – who are more likely to have to balance caring for their children and/or parents.

Without doubt, the coronavirus crisis is bound to bring many changes to the world of work. But, as with any crisis, the question is who is going to foot the bill. For working people, one option is fatalism – just accepting bosses’ claims that dealing with this is now “part of the job.” Or, we can insist that employers take responsibility – and implement the changes needed to keep us and the general public safe. SOURCE

A universal basic income could help counter COVID-19’s economic damage

If we’re considering radical and fast action in medical terms, we should also consider it in economic terms

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to the media during a news conference outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on March 18, outlining the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 and the economic turmoil the virus is creating. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“Be fast and have no regrets.”

That was the defining quote from the March 13 COVID-19 briefing at the World Health Organization, spoken by Dr. Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization (WHO) executive director of health emergencies. “Speed trumps perfection,” he added. “The greatest error is not to move.”

It’s a piece of advice that is worthy of consideration not just in the health policies Canada is putting forward to combat the effects of coronavirus, but in economic policy as well.

If we are to consider radical and fast action in medical terms, we should also consider radical and fast action in economic terms: a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

The basic idea behind UBI is exactly what is says on the tin: regular, government-funded cash payments for citizens, with either no restrictions or minimal requirements on who can access it. We’ve recently seen Basic Income programs for segments of the population, like with Ontario’s 2018 Basic Income project for 4,000 low- or no-income individuals, but UBI would, in theory, be cash payments for all.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced an $83 billion response package for Canadians and businesses to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, including wage subsidies and income supports. 2:17

UBI has been a topic of debate for years in Canada, but if there was ever a crisis that showed its benefits, it is the impact of COVID-19 as people find themselves out of work and wondering how they’ll pay their bills.

In a 2019 Gallup poll of 10,000 Canadians, 75 per cent of us already favoured some kind of UBI. That was up from 56 per cent in a 2016 Angus Reid poll.

What gives many pause is the thought of paying higher taxes to support a UBI, and that it might remove the incentive for people to work and maintain high productivity. In that same Gallup poll, only 49 per cent of respondents said they would support increasing their taxes to pay for UBI. In the Angus Reid poll, 63 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that “guaranteed income programs discourage people from working.”

With regards to cost, a 2018 Parliamentary Budget Office report found that a national UBI plan modelled on the then-Liberal government of Ontario’s proposed plan would cost approximately $76 billion annually. With a reduction in government-funded programs that currently replicate benefits covered by UBI, such as employment insurance and subsidized housing, the cost would actually end up closer to $43 billion.

This lesser number also doesn’t factor in two other major savings. Firstly, that key costs to government directly related to poverty would be reduced or eliminated, including health care and social assistance costs. And secondly, that the newfound purchasing power of vulnerable people would feed back into government revenues and create economic stimulus.

Meanwhile, a 2017 report on inequities in health care and basic incomes points to a made-in-Canada UBI, the 1970s Manitoba Mincome experiment, as proof of a dramatic health care savings of 8.5 per cent. Consider that statistic in the lens of coronavirus, as we voluntarily self-isolate, quarantine, and prohibit gatherings, all in the interest of reducing the burden on our health system.

Small businesses forced to shutter during the COVID-19 pandemic are watching closely for how the federal government’s $82 billion aid package will provide for them. 2:00

Now consider the latter complaint: that UBI would make us complacent, lazy workers.

There’s not yet any hard data on unemployment stemming from coronavirus, but it’s not unreasonable to say there are considerable numbers of people who are not working right now, and more will likely join them. In this type of environment, UBI would be at worst a lateral move, and at its best would save people from falling through the social safety net and dragging at an economic recovery.

With governments already backpedalling on promises to slash health care, it’s readily apparent that the key to harm reduction is in fact an expansion of the government safety net, not a reduction.

The Trudeau government’s $82-billion relief plan, which was announced on March 18, is a step in the right direction. However, it leans heavily on tax deferrals and credits, and as such fails to reach the end-goal of reducing burdens on the system during a crisis rather than after.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau outlines the details of the government’s $82B financial aid package, aimed at helping Canadians and businesses during the COVID-19 crisis.  20:48

UBI as a safety net would be a proactive measure, instead of a reactive one. When we compare costs of $43-billion (or less, when the economic benefits are tallied) annually vs. one-time injections of $82-billion, it becomes all the more apparent that we can make this work.

It’s impossible to say with any certainty if an existing UBI would have completely solved the current problems of our most economically vulnerable, but it is possible to say it would likely have meant less social and economic harm than what is now being experienced due to coronavirus.

Fast introduction of a UBI could help Canadian society weather this crisis. No single policy is perfection, but just as the WHO’s good doctor Ryan said, when it comes to crisis situations, speed trumps perfection.