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The CARES Act passed in March set aside an additional $600 per week in unemployment insurance (UI) as a financial cushion for the tens millions of Americans who would soon lose their jobs during the pandemic.
Americans receive the extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits on top of their state benefits. But that extra $600 benefit recedes at the end of July unless the federal government extends it.
That means millions of Americans are about to take a $600 weekly—$2,400 per month—cut in pay. That financial blow to unemployed American’s finances comes as the unemployment rate sits at 13.3%, and 59% of CEOs tell Fortune they’ve implemented hiring freezes since the onset of the pandemic. Despite an improving economy, it’s still a terrible time to be looking for work.
Here’s what jobless Americans need to know before the $600 federal unemployment bonus ends in July.
When will I get my final $600 federal unemployment bonus?
The $600 benefit is available for weeks ending on or before July 31, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That means the last week jobless Americans are eligible for the benefit is the week ending Saturday, July 25.
That comes as a surprise to many jobless Americans: Several states’ websites had incorrectly listed the week of July 31 as the final week of the benefit. Some states, including New York, have since corrected that error.
I’m still waiting on my claim, can I get back-paid the $600 weekly bonuses?
Will there be an extension of the extra $600 in unemployment?
In May, Democrats in the House included an extension of the benefits through January 2021 in the $3 trillion relief package they approved. But that bill is opposed by Senate Republicans. And it is looking unlikely an extension will get passed before the end of July.
Many on the political left see extending the unemployment bonus as critical to keeping families and the economy stable through the pandemic. Meanwhile, many business leaders and conservative representatives point to a paper from University of Chicago researchers that finds 7 in 10 jobless Americans are receiving more in unemployment benefits than they did while working. They claim these generous benefits will deter workers from returning to jobs and slowdown the recovery.
How many Americans are going to lose the $600 federal unemployment checks?
As of Thursday, 19.5 million Americans are still on the unemployment rolls. While that is down 5.4 million from the 24.9 million peak during the week of May 9, it still means tens of millions of Americans are about to lose $600 per week in earnings.
What Pandemic Unemployment Assistance provisions remain past July?
Though the additional $600 in weekly unemployment benefits is slated to expire at the end of July, other provisions of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance will remain through the end of the year. That includes the expansion of who is eligible for UI, like part-timers and independent contractors, and the extension to 39 weeks of benefits for anyone who is added to the unemployment rolls before the end of the year.
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Thousands of gig workers employed by app-based delivery or ride-hailing services in India want those platforms to stop forcing them to install a controversial government-backed coronavirus contact tracing app.
The app, called Aarogya Setu, requires constant access to GPS and Bluetooth data, and has drawn criticism from around the world for enabling state surveillance.
Although the Indian government hasn’t made the app legally mandatory, the country’s citizens have often found that they’ve had no choice but to install it for things like taking flights and trains, visiting pharmacies and malls, and accessing ATMs. Last month, Noida, a city on the outskirts of India’s capital, New Delhi, threatened people who didn’t have the app installed with jail time.
Despite this, private companies with millions of dollars in venture funding — including apps for food delivery, like Zomato and Swiggy, and ride-hailing, like Ola, which are powered by thousands of gig workers across the country — have made it mandatory for workers to install the app if they want to make a living off those platforms.
“Most gig workers in India who work for app-based tech platforms as delivery men in cities are semiliterate migrants from small towns around the country who do not understand the privacy concerns around contact tracing apps,” Shaik Salauddin, national general secretary of the Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT), a union that represents more than 35,000 gig workers across 16 cities in the country, told BuzzFeed News. “The tech platforms that they work for are exploiting this by making it mandatory for them to install this app.”
Earlier this month, the IFAT asked India’s largest services for food delivery and ride-hailing, including Zomato, Swiggy, Ola, and Dunzo, to allow gig workers to do their jobs without having the contact tracing app on their phones, a rule that the platforms imposed shortly after the national government launched Aarogya Setu in early April.
“Nobody in any company has listened to us so far,” said Salauddin.
An Uber spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that although the company has “advised” drivers to download the app, it was not mandatory yet. The spokesperson declined to comment on whether Uber would enforce it in the future.
“Apps like Aarogya Setu play a key role in keeping a check on the status of the zones affected by COVID within their vicinity. It also helps them to keep a daily check on their health status and guides them to proceed for work upon receiving a green status. Hence, we have made the use of the app mandatory for them,” a Swiggy spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Zomato and Ola did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment. Dunzo declined to comment.
Millions of Indians have spent the last few months locked indoors because of a strict nationwide coronavirus lockdown. Although orders are down compared to normal, people have been relying on thousands of gig workers for deliveries of food, groceries, medicines, and other essentials. Gig workers were deemed “essential” by most states during India’s nationwide lockdown and were one of the few people allowed to do their jobs during the last few months. Platforms have used them as a part of promotions and public relations, hailing them as “superheroes” who are providing critical services to a nation of 1.3 billion people. A Swiggy spokesperson called delivery people working for its platform “Hunger Saviours continuing to deliver food to those in need” in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
But in reality, many gig workers say they have been treated apathetically. They have demanded that their employers provide personal protective equipment like masks, gloves, and sanitizers, and they have complained about being forced to put in longer hours to make ends meet thanks to plummeting demand for food delivery from customers worried about getting infected through takeout containers. Some companies like Swiggy say that they provide gig workers with masks “on a regular basis” and reimburse them for sanitizers.
Now, they say that being asked to install a contact tracing app steeped in the controversy around privacy and surveillance is the final straw.
“Nine out of ten workers who work for delivery apps in the country are not very literate. They don’t understand English, and they don’t understand privacy concerns. They care about making a living,” Dharmendra Vaishnav, president of the Indian Delivery Lions Association, a union of more than 5,000 gig workers in the state of Rajasthan, told BuzzFeed News. “But there are some of us who are a little more aware of the controversies. We read newspapers, we’re on social media, and we know what people are saying about this app. That’s enough reason to push back.”
The IFAT’s recent statement against Aarogya Setu is a part of an ongoing pushback from gig workers in the country against what they see as a coercive step by the platforms. Last month, a group of 37 organizations in India including a handful of labor unions sent a letter to the prime minister’s office as well as to federal IT and labor ministries, urging them to consider the impact of the app on the “privacy, autonomy and dignity of workers.” Later that month, India’s government softened its stance on mandating that private employees have the app installed and said that workplaces should simply try their best to ensure employee compliance.
But nothing changed for gig workers, whose companies continue to require them to have the app installed on their phones.
These workers, experts say, are particularly vulnerable.
“Platform workers haven’t been able to push back against being required to install this app because doing so would mean no work,” said Kaveri Medappa, a PhD scholar at the University of Sussex who is researching issues faced by blue-collar delivery workers of the tech platforms that power India’s modern gig economy. “There is an extremely unequal power relation at play here. Workers have to simply accept arbitrary conditions imposed by these platforms because there’s no choice.”
None of the platforms require customers to have Aarogya Setu installed to use their services. “It’s glaring how almost all of the ‘safety measures’ devised by these platforms keep only the customer in mind and not the workers,” Medappa said.
Other experts, like Vinay Sreenivasa, a researcher at the Alternative Law Forum, a legal organization in Bangalore that works on issues of social justice, think that making gig workers install the contact tracing app is about optics. Most food delivery apps in India, for instance, now prominently display a banner saying that the delivery worker who picked up an order has Aarogya Setu installed on their device. “Who are these companies trying to protect?” Sreenivasa asked. “Their workers or their customers? They just want to show customers that they have made all delivery workers install the app.”
Grocery giant Albertsons had big plans to go public in 2015, in what would have marked one of the year’s biggest IPOs. But the grocery giant backed out of its plans, put off by a turbulent retail sector.
Today, as Albertsons and its competitors navigate a global pandemic, the 2015 retail landscape looks tame by comparison. “We are operating in industry that is transforming so rapidly,” says CEO Vivek Sankaran, who joined the company in April 2019 from PepsiCo.
But this time around, the uncertainty and tumult didn’t stop Albertsons from debuting on Friday on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker ACI. The IPO ended up being relatively disappointing for the retailer: The company priced its shares at $16, below the $18 to $20 range it had previously been seeking. (The company’s shares closed at $15.45, down nearly 3.5%.) The second-largest grocery chain in the U.S. behind Kroger is backed by private equity firm Cerberus, which invested in 2006 and has been looking to exit.
In the last few months, Sankaran has overseen an explosion of the company’s online business as consumers radically change the way they shop. In April, for example, the company reported that its e-commerce sales that month were up 374% over the previous year.
Fortune spoke with Sankaran about Albertson’s IPO and how COVID-19 has impacted the company, which runs more than 2,000 stores under its eponymous brand as well as the likes of Vons, Jewel-Osco, Acme, and Safeway. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity:
Fortune: The company initially announced its intention to go public in 2015. Why the delay, and why move forward now?
Sankaran: It didn’t work out in 2015. At that time, we brought Albertsons and Safeway together, so the company has spent the last several years getting that integration right, and modernizing the company—putting technology in every aspect of it. There’s been a lot of work to strengthen the company and to get everything right from the governance aspects so we’re ready to be a public company. We felt we were ready from a business and performance standpoint. And surprisingly after a few turbulent weeks, the markets seem to be ready.
You ended up pricing below your target range. What happened?
It’s so difficult to predict what’s happening in the stock market. There’s so much volatility. Some of our investors have been with us for 15 years, so we’ve got to monetize some of that. And we are long-term oriented. We want investors to stay with us for that kind of duration to create value.
How has COVID-19 changed your strategy?
COVID has accelerated our strategy. We pride ourselves on our fresh assortment—our meat and seafood, all of the prepared foods we have behind the counter, the depth and variety of what we provide in our stores. That was always the case. When you’re cooking at home that becomes even more important. You open your refrigerator five days after you went to the grocery store, you want that cucumber to be firm and that’s the advantage we have. Our e-commerce business is growing rapidly. We have so much more headroom there.
What is the role of the physical store going forward?
Your question may come from this notion that everyone is going to buy online, and you may not need a store. I don’t think that’s a reality. It’s not a reality in countries where online has been around for a long time that have even higher density than America.
Also, recognize that a store, at the end of the day, is just another point of inventory. There’s service, there’s ambiance. But it’s also good inventory close to your home for us to bring it to you, or for you to pick it up. So we’re using our stores as a nice foundation for the omnichannel business.
What have been the hurdles with e-commerce?
It’s in the early stages of its evolution—not only for us, but for the industry as a whole. We’re all trying to learn how to meet customer expectations, frankly how to change customers’ expectations. It’s such a dynamic environment, and I think that’s what you have to accept if you want to be in the e-commerce business. You’re always piloting, always trying new things and investing behind it. It’s a big part of our growth agenda. The piece that’s been the most gratifying and somewhat surprising is the amount of new business when you open up e-commerce.
How have customers been shopping differently? What do you view as permanent and what’s just a blip?
Nothing is ever permanent. That’s a dangerous mindset to get into. They’re all coming to the stores less often but buying more when they come to the store. There are two things driving that one. One is safety, or the perception of safety. And the second, is they’re cooking more at home. They’re buying a lot more fresh, baking more at home. More cookies at home, they’re drinking more at home.
People, I think, are enjoying the time they have at home with families. I think some of that will stick. People are rediscovering that, by the way, we can get a lot of work done without having to commute two ways and spend those hours. As these things stick, at-home consumption sticks. It’s hard for me to imagine that all of this just goes away and people jump back to restaurants and their old way of life in an instant.
Are people stocking up to the same extent? Do you view that as an indicator of where we are in terms of a recovery?
People stocking up was more in the months of March and April. We’re starting to see a lot more steadiness. People are engaging more in produce and fresh products, and the supply chains have come along nicely to support that.
What’s been the biggest challenge in making sure your employees are safe?
It’s my No. 1 priority. I spend time on that every day, on keeping our associates and customers safe, and being there for our communities. We are always learning and innovating on how to keep people most safe.
In the early days, we couldn’t get sanitizer. One of our colleagues ended up getting sanitizer in bulk drums and we converted one of our beverage plants to get it into bottles to get it to our stores. Now those things are stabilized. It’s not so much a supply problem. At this point, my message to people is: You start thinking you can relax, but you simply cannot relax when it comes to COVID.
Where are we in terms of recovery?
It’s really unfortunate to see cases spiking up again in this country. I don’t think we’re anywhere at a place where we can declare victory or let alone seeing a path to victory over the virus. That’s how I see it.
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A Florida woman and 15 of her friends have reportedly tested positive with the coronavirus after a night out at a bar in Jacksonville Beach.
“Welp, Florida opened back up & my ass should’ve stayed tf home this past weekend cause I just tested positive for the damn COVID,” she wrote on Facebook last week. “#IKnowBetter #MyFault #WearYourMasksPeople”
The woman, Erika Crisp, told local news station News4Jax that she and her friends have been “doing everything the right way,” being careful to socially distance and staying inside for months. The only common denominator between the group, she said, is one night out earlier this month after bars and restaurants began reopening in the state.
“And then the first night we go out, Murphy’s Law, I guess,” she told the station.
Crisp, 40, is a healthcare worker and said the group was not wearing masks, something she regrets.
“I think we were careless and we went out into a public place when we should not have,” she told the news station. “I think we had a whole ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality. The state opens back up and said everybody was fine, so we took advantage of that.”
The bar Crisp and her friends went to, Lynch’s Irish Pub, closed voluntarily last Friday for cleaning after learning one customer had tested positive. They also tested their employees, and seven workers tested positive as well.
“It literally spread like wildfire,” the bar’s general manager Keith Doherty, who is also a member of the Jacksonville Beach city council, told News4Jax. The bar reopened Tuesday morning, and Doherty said they plan to check customer and staff temperatures at the door. Other bars in the area closed Sunday after customers tested positive.
But Crisp wrote on Facebook that she thinks it was probably an asymptomatic person unknowingly spreading the virus. She also said that 20 other people she didn’t know who went to the bar have messaged her saying they have now also tested positive.
“It’s the common denominator from a bunch of strangers. And no, we did NOT bar hop. It was the ONLY bar my group of people went to & it was the only time I saw them,” she wrote.
Crisp also posted that she should’ve been more cautious, and that she loves the bar and doesn’t want to damage its reputation.
“I encourage everyone to be considerate of others. We’re not out to hurt anyone or damage an establishment’s reputation. We have no agenda or motive,” she wrote. “These are crap times so be kind.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Duval County Department of Health spokesperson Samantha Epstein said they are conducting “an extensive epidemiological investigation in conjunction with the CDC to identify individuals who may have had close contact with the virus,” as they do with all positive cases in the state.
She added that there is “no direct correlation between bars reopening and a rise in positive cases. We have not seen any outbreaks at local bars, other than that specific location in Jacksonville Beach.”
Neither Crisp nor Lynch’s Irish Pub responded to interview requests from BuzzFeed News. The county department of health also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Florida was one of the first states in the country to begin reopening, but cases have continued to rise. On Tuesday, the state reported a record-high 2,783 new cases of COVID-19.
On Tuesday, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said that although much of the state is in Phase 2 of reopening, Miami is pausing the process because of concerns about the increased spread.
“Now is not a time to let your guard down, that’s the predominant message. If we continue on this trajectory we’re gonna be put in a situation where we’re gonna have to make tough choices,” he said, according to the local NBC station. “We’re not going backwards as of yet, but we’re kind of sounding the alarm.”
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Late Thursday, the Trump administration doubled down on its stance that the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare, should be struck down in its entirety by the Supreme Court. And should SCOTUS heed the logic, it could have significant consequences for Americans in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, including the possibility that health insurers would be able to consider COVID-19 a preexisting condition and hike how much patients have to pay.
“No further analysis is necessary; once the individual mandate and the guaranteed-issue and community-rating provisions are invalidated, the remainder of the ACA cannot survive,” wrote solicitor general Noel Francisco, who argues cases on behalf of the government in front of the Supreme Court.
“Some survivors will experience lasting health impacts—like lung scarring and heart damage,” said Biden on Thursday. “And if Donald Trump prevails in court, insurers would be allowed to strip away coverage or jack up premiums simply because of their battle with the coronavirus.”
The Affordable Care Act is a wide-ranging law that encompasses far more than individual insurance marketplaces where customers can buy subsidized coverage. It mandates that people up to the age of 26 can remain on their parents’ insurance; through Medicaid expansion, the law has extended coverage for tens of millions of low-income people (one study by the Economic Policy Institute suggests close to 30 million people would be stripped of health coverage were the ACA nixed); and, critically, it bars insurers from hiking prices for someone with a preexisting condition.
That could have outsize effects for COVID-positive patients and beyond.
“If preexisting conditions were excluded from coverage, nearly all people with these conditions would see increased out-of-pocket costs,” according to the nonpartisan Commonwealth Fund think tank. “Average out-of-pocket costs for those with cancer or diabetes would triple, while costs for arthritis, asthma, and hypertension care would rise by 27% to 39%. Some individuals would see much larger increases.”
It’s less clear exactly how much insurers would hike up rates for a patient with the coronavirus, given the novelty of this disease. But since hospitalized patients can rack up big medical bills even under Obamacare, the price tag could very well skyrocket. Uninsured patients have already seen tens of thousands of dollars in COVID-related medical bills in recent months. If the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act in its entirety later this year, even insured patients may face exorbitant costs without the health law’s antidiscrimination measures for those with preexisting conditions.
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Each June, Apple puts on a glitzy stage show attended by thousands of people and watched by millions more around the world. It’s the company’s flagship conference for developers, where it gives a sneak peek at new versions of the software that powers your shiny Apple toys — the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV, and its laptops and desktops.
But this year, nobody attended in person. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Apple streamed it exclusively online for the first time in more than 30 years.
Here at the biggest things that were announced.
1) You’ll be able to run iPhone and iPad apps on your Mac.
CEO Tim Cook announced that some of Apple’s laptops and desktops will be powered by the company’s own chips instead of running Intel processors as they have been for the last 15 years.
This means that in the future, Apple will use the same chips that power its iPhones, iPad, and the Apple Watch to power Macs. Some of these devices, like the iPhone and the iPad, are more powerful than Apple’s existing laptops, so its computers will be faster, thinner, lighter, and more energy-efficient.
But it also means Apple’s laptops and desktops will finally be able to run iPhone and iPad apps without developers having to rebuild them from scratch.
Apple will release its first Mac with its own chips by the end of the year and is already working with Microsoft and Adobe to make sure popular Mac apps like Office and Creative Cloud run smoothly.
2) The Apple Watch will track your sleep.
A new version of WatchOS, the software that powers your Apple Watch, is coming in the fall. One big new addition is that it will let your Watch track your sleep — something that popular fitness trackers like the Fitbit already can do.
After installing the update, simply wear your Apple Watch to bed and set it to wake you up either with an alarm or a tap on your wrist. When you wake up, you’ll be able to see how long you slept right on the device or on your iPhone.
3) The Apple Watch will monitor your handwashing.
Since we’re living through a pandemic, the Apple Watch will now detect when you wash your hands, starting a small, bubbly timer to count down the 20 seconds you’re supposed to soap them up to kill germs. If you stop before, it will alert you. When your hands are sufficiently clean, it will reward you with a tiny tap on the wrist.
4) Your smart doorbell will recognize who is at your door.
Do you own a smart doorbell camera that works with Apple’s HomeKit? (Check your user manual if you don’t know.) When iOS 14 is released in the fall, your internet-connected doorbell will be able to zap that feed directly to your Apple TV.
The facial recognition won’t work on everyone. You’ll have to approve certain faces in photos stored on your iPhone to let your smart doorbell recognize who’s at the door and inform you when they show up.
5) Your default browser and email app can be whatever you want them to be.
iOS 14 will finally let you switch out the iPhone and iPad’s default browser (Safari) and the default email app (Mail) for any other browser or email app you want.
Apple didn’t actually announce this in its presentation today, but eagle-eyed reporters spotted the feature in one of the slides in the keynote.
The timing is important. Apple is facing increased scrutiny from antitrust bodies around the world for allegedly monopolistic practices on the App Store. Allowing users to set non-Apple apps as defaults could be useful to take some of the heat off.
While plenty of economists are busy debating the shape of an eventual economic recovery, there’s still the small matter of the second quarter to get through first. And while everyone agrees U.S. GDP is in for a historic drop, there’s still a wide variety of opinions about just how big that drop will be.
One widely watched gauge is the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow tracker, a mathematical model that feeds in new economic data as it is released, and tries to factor in how it will move the overall GDP figure for an upcoming quarter. And as of Thursday June 25, the GDPNow’s estimate for second-quarter GDP was a stunning –46.6%.
However by Friday that had improved somewhat, to –39.5%, based on better than expected consumer spending data. The next GDPNow update will be released on Wednesday July 1.
The tracker does come with a significant caveat. As a note on the site reads, “GDPNow is not an official forecast of the Atlanta Fed. Rather, it is best viewed as a running estimate of real GDP growth based on available data for the current measured quarter. In particular, it does not capture the impact of COVID-19 beyond its impact on GDP source data and relevant economic reports that have already been released.”
Elsewhere on Wall Street, forecasts for the second quarter have careened wildly, ranging from merely terrible to downright catastrophic. Goldman Sachs’s latest prediction is around –33% for the quarter, while the New York Fed’s Nowcast (a similarly real-time GDP tracker) has actually raised its second-quarter estimates to around –16.3%.
While the revised estimates from both the Atlanta Fed and the New York Fed (as well as the improving data) suggest there is light at the end of the tunnel, the second quarter could prove a deep hole to dig out of.
“The good news [is] that we are starting to grow again. The bad news is that we’re starting from an awfully deep hole” that will take a long time to recover from, UBS Global Wealth Management senior economist Brian Rose recently told Fortune.
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund’s chief economist Gita Gopinath said at a press briefing on Wednesday, “We are definitely not out of the woods.” The IMF lowered full-year GDP estimates for the U.S., and Gopinath noted, “This is a crisis like no other and will have a recovery like no other.”
One thing’s for sure: Whatever the actual GDP number is, it will certainly make history.
More must-read finance coverage from Fortune:
Why black-owned businesses were hit the hardest by the pandemic
George Floyd protests force Britain to reckon with its role in slavery, leading some companies to pay reparations
This influential crypto CEO warns that hyperinflation will be “the next big problem”
Looking to invest in companies that care about equality? This NAACP-backed ETF may be the answer
6 reasons Boeing’s financial picture may be brighter than most assume
Editors’ note:This story has been updated to more clearly attribute phrasing from work previously published in Type Investigations, HuffPost, and Pacific Standard.
On May 14, Italian politician Sara Cunial uploaded a video to her Facebook profile calling former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates a criminal and demanding he be tried for crimes against humanity.
It was a speech she made in the Italian Parliament in early May, in which Cunial, who represents a district in northern Italy, claimed Gates was developing a vaccine for COVID-19 to enslave the world’s population.
“The real goal of all of this is total control,” Cunial said, “absolute domination of human beings, transformed into guinea pigs and slaves, violating sovereignty and free will. All this thanks to tricks disguised as political compromises.
Cunial’s speech has been viewed on her page over 500,000 times and shared 30,000 times, and it’s been uploaded to countless other pages on Facebook and YouTube channels. Despite Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers marking the video “partly false,” one version of it has been watched almost 1 million times.
Cunial is wrong about Gates using a vaccine for COVID-19 to commit genocide — but she is far from alone in believing it.
The online campaign against him encompasses a myriad of alternate realities created by anxious and isolated social media users, including debunkedclaims about 5G cellular technology, anti-vaccination rhetoric, QAnon content, and the conspiracy theory du jour, like the idea that sunlight can kill the coronavirus. And it’s not just limited to the fringe: According to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll released Friday, 44% of Republicans in the US believe that Gates plans to use a COVID-19 vaccination as a way to implant microchips in people and monitor their movements.
“We’re concerned about the conspiracy theories being spread online and the damage they could cause to public health,” Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told BuzzFeed News. “At a time like this, when the world is facing an unprecedented health and economic crisis, it’s distressing that there are people spreading misinformation when we should all be looking for ways to collaborate and save lives. Right now, one of the best things we can do to stop the spread of COVID-19 is spread the facts.”
There’s little chance Gates will be arrested by the Italian government — he lives in Washington state, for one — but the backlash against him reflects a very real and dangerous refusal to accept a COVID-19 vaccine if one were to become available. Even before the pandemic, between 10% and 22% of people in countries across Europe didn’t trust that vaccines were safe.
The paranoia around the former Microsoft CEO has been building for months, festering in Facebook Groups and YouTube comment sections. Here’s how the conspiracy theorists, panicked and ignorant people, and technology platforms that allowed the hoaxes to grow turned Bill Gates into the villain of the coronavirus pandemic.
The most popular version of the rumor stems from a tabloid in Ghana, as Kathryn Joyce, an investigative journalist with Type Investigations documented in a groundbreaking series of stories on the roots of the Gates population control conspiracies in HuffPost and Pacific Standard.
As Joyce reports in HuffPost, “In 2010, a former staffer with a government health initiative in Ghana made a shocking claim: a project partially funded by the Gates Foundation had tested the contraceptive Depo-Provera on unsuspecting villagers in the remote region of Navrongo, as part of an illicit ‘population experiment.'”
The staffer, Mame-Yaa Bosumtwi, “was the Ghanian-born, U.S.-educated communications officer for another Gates-funded initiative by the Ghanaian government and Columbia University to use mobile phones to improve health care access for rural women and children,” according to Joyce. Bosumtwi had clashed with another team member, James Phillips, a demographer at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health; when her contract was not renewed, she took her professional gripes with Phillips to the Ghanaian press and filed a lawsuit against Columbia for millions of dollars in damages.
After the lawsuit was dismissed, Bosumtwi went back to the press with a much more shocking claim: Without evidence, she said that Phillips’s project in rural Ghana had experimented with Depo-Provera on women as a test run for a broader population control campaign. Patients had been abused. Some had died.
Wanted posters with Phillips’s face sprouted across the country. Protesters mobilized outside Columbia’s research center in Navrongo. Ghanaian health officials called her claims libel, and community leaders and women from the rural area condemned them as false. But death threats escalated so badly that two members of Phillips’s team had to be evacuated across the border to Burkina Faso.
As Type Investigations’ Joyce revealed, while Bosumtwi’s allegations of Gates-funded genocide were spreading throughout Ghana, “in 2011, a U.S. women’s rights group called the Rebecca Project for Human Rights published a report, ‘Non-Consensual Research in Africa: The Outsourcing of Tuskegee,’ outlining what it claimed were a series of unethical medical experiments undertaken by U.S. researchers in Africa.” The report claimed, without evidence, that unethical medical experiments had been undertaken by US researchers in Africa — focusing on Phillips. “Researchers allegedly injected thousands of impoverished and illiterate Ghanaian women with a Pfizer contraceptive, Depo-Provera, and administered other unidentified oral contraceptives during human research experiments to reduce population and modify health care,” the report read.
The report was written by Kwame Fosu, the Rebecca Project’s chief financial officer and policy director. But Fosu left out a key detail — that he was the father of Bosumtwi’s child. Although that connection might have undermined his credibility if it were made public, in 2013 Fosu released a second report, titled “Depo-Provera: Deadly Reproductive Violence Against Women.” The report, as Joyce documented in Pacific Standard, claimed there was “a massive conspiracy involving international organizations, including the Gates Foundation, USAID, the United Nations Population Fund, and Pfizer, to push a dangerous contraceptive on poor black women.”
“Melinda Gates announces her four-billion dollar contraceptive strategy featuring Depo-Provera as the optimum choice for women of color,” Fosu wrote. “These beautiful females, oblivious that they are being insidiously exploited as diversionary cynical props to mask Gates’ egregious intent, are in an unprecedented Depo-Provera campaign with serious racist implications to prevent their very births.”
In the US, Fosu’s white papers circulated among right-wing groups that claimed “abortion was a form of black genocide.” And they had an impact within Africa as well. In 2014, Joyce wrote, Zimbabwe’s registrar general, Tobaiwa Mudede, “warned women to avoid modern contraceptives because they caused cancer and were a Western ploy to limit African population growth.” That same year in Kenya, Joyce also reported, “all 27 members of the nation’s Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that a WHO/UNICEF campaign to administer neonatal tetanus vaccines to women of childbearing age was really ‘a disguised population control programme.'”
In the years that followed, the allegations of a Gates Foundation–led black genocide in Africa may have subsided, but the conspiracy theory that Gates could be using vaccines to depopulate the planet has stuck around.
At their core, these conspiracy theories revolve around the idea that Gates is using his wealth to control the planet. As old as baseless claims that the Illuminati or the Freemasons control the world and as new as the digital revolution, they blend imaginary concerns about the hidden masters of the world and basic misunderstandings of science.
Named for the Microsoft cofounder and his wife, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was launched in 2000 and is the largest private foundation in the world. In 2008, Gates transitioned out of his role with Microsoft to give himself more time to its programs and grants, which primarily focus on enhancing healthcare, reducing extreme poverty, and expanding educational opportunities and access to information technology.
While it’s completely false to say the Gates Foundation is trying to depopulate the planet, the work the foundation does is in fact influenced by overpopulation concerns popularized in the ’60s and ’70s. Gates himself has publicly acknowledged several times over the last decade his debt to the work of biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, whose 1968 book The Population Bomb brought the concept of global overpopulation into the public consciousness and was mentioned in the Gates Foundation’s annual letter in 2012.
Gates wrote about Ehrlich again in 2013, calling him “the country’s, and perhaps the world’s, most prominent environmental Cassandra” and lauding his work, even if the foundation’s cofounder concluded it was too fatalistic:
“We know now that Ehrlich was extremely wrong and that following his scientific certainties would have been terrible for the poor.”
So while Gates is not spending his retirement trying to commit eugenics on a global scale and is in fact actively opposed to the wing of the environmentalist movement that advocates for such a thing, it’s a connection that has been hard to shake. Spend enough time in online fever swamps and you’ll start seeing the same words over and over again — “Bill Gates,” “population control” — skipping right over the fact that Gates is against the idea.
Gates has remained a popular target for those with attenuated ties to reality. In 2016, Infowars connected him to a conspiracy theory that Zika fever could be a bioweapon. In 2018, Infowars wrote that Gates was “indirectly responsible for both Ebola and Zika outbreaks” and was planning a global pandemic known as “Disease X.” The same year, conspiracy theory site NewsPunch published an article with the headline “Bill Gates Admits ‘Vaccines Are Best Way to Depopulate,’” which went viral enough for fact-checking site Snopes to debunk it. Conspiracies about Gates have proliferated on Facebook and YouTube as well. In January 2019, a now-debunked and –deleted article from Transcend International, a nonprofit media outlet, went viral, claiming Gates believed vaccines were too dangerous to give to his own children.
These claims have often taken a political valence: In 2018, footage leaked of Gates mocking President Donald Trump for not knowing the difference between HPV and HIV. But beyond partisanship, Gates — with his tech-made money and philanthropic efforts to improve public health — has become an avatar of populist rage at those who possess technical fluency, an elite education, and well-stamped passports.
The first rumor connecting Gates to COVID-19 was spread at the very beginning of the outbreak by QAnon YouTuber Jordan Sather. In January, when the virus was still localized in Wuhan, China, Sather claimed that the novel coronavirus was a “new fad disease” that had been “planned” by Gates.
The QAnon community believes Trump is waging a secret war against a deep state, secret messages about which are leaked out on anonymous online message boards like 8chan by an insider with “Q-level” security clearance. Gates and other wealthy liberals like George Soros are believed to be part of a global cabal of Satanists who secretly control the world.
The crux of Sather’s conspiracy hinged on a 2015 patent filed by the Pirbright Institute in Surrey, England, which covered the development of a weakened form of a coronavirus that could be used as a vaccine to prevent respiratory diseases in birds and other animals. This is a standard way that vaccines are made, for everything from the flu to polio.
As the virus spread out of China, hoaxes about Gates did as well, with social media companies only attempting to limit their reach weeks after they began. Melanie Smith, a cyberintelligence analyst at Graphika, a network analysis company, told BuzzFeed News: “I think social media platforms only really stepped up to the plate to deal with coronavirus disinfo in March.”
In the early months of the outbreak, Smith said, many mainstream users were exposed to seriously fringe ideas, including one that falsely claimed that Gates was depopulating the planet. “Gates has created a vaccine and it will be tested in African countries before it’s tested anywhere else,” she said, explaining the conspiracy theory.
Regardless of how Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have battled conspiratorial content about COVID-19, it wasn’t enough. By April, Gates had become the main target.
In April, the “black genocide” narrative was reignited, reports Joyce. Diamond and Silk, pro-Trump influencers and former Fox News personalities, declared they would never take a COVID-19 vaccine created by Gates because he had used African people as “guinea pigs.” Conservative commentator Candace Owens tweeted the same month that “vaccine-criminal Bill Gates” had used “African & Indian tribal children to experiment w/ non-FDA approved drug vaccines.”
That same month, a now-deleted YouTube video full of misinformation about Gates, titled “Dr. SHIVA Ayyadurai, MIT PhD Crushes Dr. Fauci Exposes Birx, Clintons, Bill Gates, And The W.H.O” was watched more than 6 million times, with close to half a million shares on Facebook. At the same time, many explicitly anti–Bill Gates groups formed on Facebook, the biggest of which was “Collective Action Against Bill Gates. We Wont Be Vaccinated!!” According to social metrics site CrowdTangle, its 100,000-plus members regularly post some of the most-shared content on the platform about the former Microsoft CEO. “This is the shit eating grin Bill has on whenever talking about the coronavirus,” one recent post read.
A petition calling for Gates’ arrest was posted on the White House’s page for citizen queries on April 10. As of Friday, it had 572,723 signatures.
A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that many groups featuring anti-vax content have a pop-up warning when a user joins them, warning them of harmful misinformation.
“Anyone who searches for and joins a group related to COVID-19 or vaccines is then directed to accurate information from health organizations,” the spokesperson said. “Additionally, we are working to remove these types of groups from the recommendations we show people.”
In early May, as Cameron Wilson reported, “a little over 100 people met on the steps of the state Parliament building in Melbourne, Australia, and began chanting ‘arrest Bill Gates’. … One speaker, Fanos Panayides, is the founder of an extremely active Facebook group called 99% unite Main Group ‘it’s us or them’ that has rapidly become one of the biggest hubs of resistance against Australia’s coronavirus response. … Since it was started on April 8, the group has grown to more than 37,000 members who have made more than 900,000 posts, comments and reactions, according to social media analytics site Crowdtangle.”
Conspiracy theories have also appeared on Indian social media. Drawing on a false claim that dates back to at least 2014, Health Impact News, a pseudoscience website that promotes conspiracy theories about 5G and vaccines, claimed on May 19 that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had been sued and “put on trial” before the Supreme Court of India regarding the deaths and injuries caused by trials of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine. One version of the claim featured a photo of Gates and Dr. Anthony Fauci together with text that read, “Well, well, well, Globalist population control Bill Gates shortly after his trip to India with Dr. Fauci.”
Although there was in reality no lawsuit, there really was a study in India funded by the Gates Foundation. In 2010, the trials, conducted by the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, was canceled after local media reported that seven girls had died after taking part in it. Investigations carried out by the Indian government determined that the deaths were unrelated to the vaccine.
So when Cunial stood up in the Italian Parliament last week and demanded Gates be arrested for “crimes against humanity,” it wasn’t random. It was a crossover win for the COVID-19 conspiracy theorists. Amid heckles and jeers, Cunial called upon other Parliament members to defy any plans for a compulsory vaccination against COVID-19.
Cunial is a former member of the Five Star Movement (M5S), an antiestablishment party that won the most seats in Italy’s 2018 general election. Her Facebook page is full of anti-vax, anti-5G, and COVID-19 misinformation. She’s also a supporter of the ID2020 microchip theory: the belief that the ID2020 Alliance, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for digital IDs for undocumented people and refugees, is working with Gates to build a surveillance state with tracking devices in the COVID-19 vaccine.
She’s far from the only anti-vaxxer among the M5S or its former members. The party campaigned on objections to vaccinations. Observers of Italian politics have argued that vaccine skepticism is one of the central tenets of what M5S stands for.
Two versions of Cunial’s speech were removed on Thursday by YouTube after they were flagged by BuzzFeed News. YouTube spokesperson Farshad Shadloo said the videos violated the site’s policies around medical misinformation.
“We’re committed to providing timely and helpful information at this critical time, including raising authoritative content, reducing the spread of harmful misinformation, and showing information panels, using CDC data, to help combat misinformation,” Shadloo said. “We have clear policies against COVID misinformation, and we quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged to us.”
A scan of the YouTube comments about Cunial will make you wonder how to untangle the confusion. A report from RT about Cunial’s speech was shared on Tuesday to “X22 Report [Geopolitical],” one of the larger QAnon Facebook Groups.
“Ironically fact checker blocked this earlier on me. … It’s literally what they say. It’s ridiculous,” one user wrote, referring to the fact that Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers have flagged several versions of Cunial’s video as “partly misleading.”
“The fact checker and Politifact is owned by Gates and Soros, so you won’t know the truth,” another commenter erroneously replied, going on to call down a curse on them in ornate language: “But hell be their homes and what they fear the most on earth be their torment 1000 times over for eternity.” ●
This story has been updated to add credit to Kathryn Joyce’s series of stories on the conspiracy theories linking Bill Gates to population control efforts in Africa.
Welcome to The Broadside, a careers newsletter. Here’s what to expect in this issue.
Broadside writer Kristine Gill offers advice from career experts on how you can stay on track for that raise or promotion, even if you’re working remotely amid COVID. Then, scroll on for job opportunities from Amazon, HBO Max, Wellpath, and more.
Millions of Americans forced to work from home during the pandemic aren’t just faced with Wi-Fi problems and Zoom fatigue; many of them also worried that their careers would stagnate and they’d miss upcoming promotions and raises while the world hit pause.
I was heartened to hear that, for at least a few newly remote workers, that wasn’t the case. I spoke to bosses and employees who managed to give out raises and promotions these past couple of months, and they have advice on how you can do the same—during a pandemic and otherwise.
Don’t give up hope.
When Raquel Cona learned she’d be working remotely for her Midtown Manhattan PR firm back in March, one of her first concerns was about her upcoming promotion.
“I knew I was on track, given how long I’ve been at the company, my experience, but my six-month review for the year would have been in April and it was TBD due to COVID,” she said. “So I just didn’t know if it was going to be on the table.”
By April, her bosses had kept their promise. And rather than having the formal review, Cona got a phone call saying she was getting the promotion.
“It really was awesome,” she said. “They were sending a message to say they care about the hard work I was doing. They felt it was important to just do it then and make sure I felt like I was being valued.”
How’d Cona manage it? She worked longer hours so her PR clients knew she was still on hand, and she spent more time checking in with her staff during morning calls. Cona was happy to do a few hours of extra work here and there, knowing the remote situation was temporary and hoping she could use the situation to prove her adaptability and drive to the higher-ups.
“I was working longer hours, but also showing my employers that I’m ready to do and I’m available to put in all the work,” she said. “I think it really set me apart and geared me up for the promotion.”
Sarah Murphy, Head of Marketing at Scurri, an e-commerce software company, was promoted during the lockdown from her position as Marketing Manager, even after recently returning from maternity leave.
She took much of the advice experts have given when she made the shift to remote work: She created a home office space, established a daily routine and tried to find a good separation between work and home life to maintain sanity. And she was sure to stay in communication with her boss to make sure everyone knew she was still on track despite these new challenges.
Still, Murphy believes the most important thing that set her apart was the same thing that sets all great employees apart: the quality of her work.
“Visibility is important, but the work you are delivering will speak for itself, so focus on your output rather than people’s perception of you working from home,” Murphy says.
Work the reduced face-time to your favor.
If you’re the type who likes to be seated at your desk and sipping your second cup of coffee by the time the boss rolls in, you might miss the perceived boost from those daily, visible reminders of your stellar work ethic. When you’re working remotely, those things don’t matter.
“For all productive people, congratulations. This is a terrific opportunity to showcase your productivity in a way that doesn’t rely on face time, kissing up to the boss or any other nonproductive corporate activity,” says Marc Cendella, founder and CEO of Ladders. [Note: Fortune partners with Ladders to include the job listings shared below.] “None of the stuff that doesn’t matter, matters in an all-remote environment. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing that day, doesn’t matter what the boss says at the water cooler, doesn’t matter if you like her blouse or his shoes. It’s really just focused on your work, so take advantage of that.”
What’s important now is to make whatever communication you have with your boss count, whether it’s a daily morning call or a weekly Zoom meeting, Cendella says. Find a way to point out your successes on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual scale. If you have to, ask to schedule these check-ins formally on your boss’s calendar.
Casey Paul, a Digitial Marketing Manager at Kaizen Agency in London, managed to earn her promotion even after two months of remote work this year. Key to her success were regular check-ins with her boss. The check-ins allowed her to show she was meeting her existing goals.
“I also utilized the time to ask my CEO about how the business expectations and goals may have changed due to COVID,” she said.
Doing the same could help you to demonstrate a previously unseen knack for working during a crisis or adapting to extreme circumstances. If you’re able to finish a project you’ve been putting off or take an online training course to up your game, Paul recommends it.
“Building your skill set during this time is invaluable and showcasing that will also highlight your value as an employee,” she says.
Stay on track with your goals.
Cendella says your annual one-on-one meeting with your boss is like a contract. When you meet those goals and document them, you can demonstrate your value and still stay on track for any promotions or raises you were up for.
“Too many people think the one-on-one is their boss’s way of snooping and check in on them,” he says. “Really it’s your way to get ahead. That is your tool, that is your weapon, it’s your updraft, the wind at your back that pushes your sails forward.”
During remote work check-ins, be sure to reference those goals by providing proof of your work. The best way to do that is with numbers.
“There is no job on the planet that is not reduceable to numbers, other than mothering,” Cendella says. So figure out a way to measure time spent on individual tasks, number of engagements on social media posts, hits on blogs, increases in sales, or contacts with customers, whatever your position might entail.
And while metrics work, there are still advantages to traditional methods of “showing up,” says Amelia Green-Vamos, a Career Trends Expert at Glassdoor.
“Even minor tactics like turning on your video during virtual meetings, providing additional perspective on email threads and delivering timely status reports to your manager can go a long way in terms of communicating your value and growth in order to be considered for future promotions,” she says.
Ask for a promotion or raise anyway.
Say your company has had layoffs or furloughs, or pay cuts or dire company-wide emails warning of financial hardship in the coming months. You can still ask for those promotions and raises, Cendella says. The worst that can happen is that you’re told no.
If you’re worried COVID has frozen job opportunities, you’re wrong. You might benefit from Glassdoor’s ‘Hiring Surge’ tool, which helps clarify which employers are still actively hiring during COVID-19.
Laura Eboa Songue managed to get her new role as an international communication and marketing consultant at United Nations Development Programme during lockdown. She had her interview remotely, and sealed the deal via email after some back-and-forth negotiations.
“I even had technical difficulties due to internet issues,” she says. “It was a bit challenging and embarrassing. Glad I made it through.”
If your company has been explicit about a hiring freeze or holds on raises and promotions, don’t call 2020 a wash.
“If you’re not currently able to level up at your company, then set your own goals,” Green-Vamos says. “What new skills do you want to gain by the end of Summer 2020? Perhaps you’d like to set one virtual coffee chat per month, join an online webinar, take a new course on Skillshare or something else. Don’t forget that you have the power to continue growing even if your company is currently on pause.”
Don’t overthink it, if you’re the boss.
Aaron Bolzle is the executive director of Tulsa Remote, a program in Oklahoma that pays remote workers $10,000 to relocate to their city of choice while continuing work at their respective companies. He has advice for employers as they look to make offers, give promotions and evaluate employee productivity during the pandemic.
“There’s a natural tendency when team go remote to micromanage and to want to have proof of the work that’s being done,” he says.
When considering employees for promotions, don’t let the fact that you’re now remote affect your opinion of their job performance. Bolzle says if you’re having trouble trusting your employees while they work from home, you should also be worried about the work they do in your physical office.
“It really comes down to hiring good people, empowering them to do their jobs and then letting them do it,” he says. As Murphy said earlier: The work will speak for itself.
Editors’ note:This story has been updated to more clearly attribute phrasing from work previously published in CNBC and Vice.
I ruined the mood in a family group chat last week. Someone shared a meme that read, “This #Coronavirus is turning me into a democrat. I’m staying at home, not working, complaining about everything, and waiting for a check from the government.”
Another family member used the yearly death rate of the flu to dismiss concerns over the coronavirus. Then someone else argued that millions of people die around the world every year in car accidents. “Will cars be banned,” they snarkily asked.
I tried not to react emotionally, but it’s hard to keep your cool after weeks of trying to convince older relatives every day to stay inside and socially distance. “We’re currently at half as many American coronavirus deaths as the number of people who died on 9/11,” I replied, using the only statistic I’ve found that communicates the kind of world-changing loss that this pandemic will cause. “If Dr. Fauci’s projections are correct, it will be the equivalent of 30–60 9/11s.”
The chat went quiet for a while after that.
The numbers I was referring to have quickly gone out of date — they’re much higher now. But comparing this pandemic to other mass casualty, world-shaping events is the only way I know to make them resonate.
As of this week, more than 5,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus — more than the 2,977 who died on September 11, 2001. More than any other event in my life, 9/11 changed the world: inspiring national security policies like the Patriot Act, jump-starting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — the latter of which has become the longest-running war in US history — and leading to the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Department of Homeland Security, effectively militarizing the United States’ borders and immigration services.
On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, optimistically, if we continue practicing social distancing, between 100,000 and 200,000 Americans would die of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Projections are always bounded by inaccuracies (and there have been plenty in the past few months) — but if Fauci were correct, the death toll would be as if there were a 9/11 attack every day for the next two to three months.
My grandmother was born in 1928; she spent the first 10 years of her life living through the Great Depression in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and the last five years of her life hoarding food until it rotted in her fridge and pantry. The trauma never left. Neither will the trauma of thousands upon thousands of deaths once it’s safe to leave our homes. When we emerge, we will be different people in a different world.
“The Authoritarian Creep”
If China’s claim to have won supremacy over the virus is to be believed, the country was able to make up for a botched early response by mobilizing its vast and intricate surveillance infrastructure to carry out an authoritarian crackdown, the terrifying scale of which is only matched by the terrifying fear among Western liberals that it was necessary.
Payment apps like Alipay and WeChat installed software to track users’ movements. China’s state-run telecom color-coded users’ phones in red, green, and yellow, based on their risk of possible infection — which were then checked by guards at train stations. Those who broke quarantine were reported to the police. Chinese social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat were heavily censored to quell conspiracy theories and rumors.
Those efforts may be working. The country is reporting that its case numbers are decreasing, and it has banned virtually all foreigners from entering the country as it attempts to return to normal without a second spike.
Yet it’s hard to know exactly how real the claims are that China has flattened its curve. Three US officials told Bloomberg on Wednesday that the US intelligence community had concluded China’s numbers are actually much higher than what’s been reported.
But with the US and Europe struggling to contain the outbreak, analysts have started asking whether China will emerge from this pandemic as the new global superpower. Jeremy Lee Wallace, a Cornell professor and leader of the university’s China’s Cities research group, told BuzzFeed News the country is definitely attempting to position itself as a new global leader amid the pandemic.
“[China] styled itself a leader in climate change and international trade following the election of Donald Trump and is proudly boasting of its successes in fighting COVID-19,” Wallace said. “Whether it will work depends on the outcomes in other countries and how those outcomes are perceived.”
Presenting itself as a responsible custodian is now central to the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda strategy. Chinese diplomats and state media outlets are sparring directly with President Donald Trump’s own ad hoc online army on platforms like Twitter and YouTube, criticizing the US for its inability to mitigate the damage of the outbreak.
Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire cofounder of the multinational tech company Alibaba Group, recently tweeted two photos of medical supplies being loaded onto a China Cargo Airlines flight. “The first shipment of masks and coronavirus test kits to the US is taking off from Shanghai. All the best to our friends in America,” Ma wrote.
According to the Jack Ma Foundation, the shipment contained 500,000 testing kits and 1 million masks. Ma’s foundations have already claimed to have shipped 1.8 million masks and 100,000 test kits to other heavily affected countries.
Chinese state media is very aware it’s a Chinese billionaire shipping tests and masks around the world, not an American one. “China has shared its experience, but many Western countries are just not willing to follow. When the pandemic is over, these countries will find that it was not China that had led to the severe conditions in the US and Europe, but their own wrong judgments and choices,” the Global Times wrote Wednesday.
David Jacobson, professor of global business strategy at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business and a visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told BuzzFeed News he worries China’s test-and-mask diplomacy could fall apart, citing reports of European countries sending back faulty equipment.
“In the world of the Communist Party state propaganda, which is probably the most powerful arm right now because it’s trying to globally set the narrative of how China’s viewed, they’re saying, ‘We’re here to help, we learned all these lessons, and we’re here to help the world.’” he said.
Jacobson said he’s optimistic that countries will see through the spin. “The world is seeing the sham,” he said. “If the tests don’t work, test diplomacy doesn’t work.”
But it’s not just in an ascendant China — an authoritarian COVID-19 creep is on the rise everywhere.
NPR called semi-authoritarian city-state Singapore a “coronavirus model.” The country flattened its curve by setting up early proactive measures like a virus-fighting task force, strict hospital and home quarantines, and a ban on large gatherings. It also used a technique called contact tracing, building a movement log of the infected through surveillance footage, digital signatures left by ATM card withdrawals or credit card payments, and a Bluetooth-tracking smartphone app called TraceTogether.
The European Union now has its first dictatorship. On Monday, the Hungarian Parliament passed a bill giving Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the right to rule by decree indefinitely, establishing a COVID-19 state of emergency without a time limit, suspending both Parliament and elections, and instituting prison time for spreading “fake news” or rumors.
Countries like Israel, Italy, and Austria are working with their telecommunications networks to use anonymized location data to track people in infection hot spots and monitor if citizens are breaking stay-in-place orders. Russia is using its massive 170,000-camera facial recognition system to catch people who violate quarantine and self-isolation. Hong Kong has deployed electronic bracelets for those who test positive for the virus. Turkmenistan’s state-controlled media outlets are no longer allowed to use the word “coronavirus,” and it has been removed from health information brochures.
India has been particularly aggressive about containing the pandemic and tracking the infected. The country has experimented with stamping people who have been infected with ink that doesn’t wash off for weeks. The Indian central government is seeking a ruling from the country’s Supreme Court that would force all media outlets to receive approval to print, publish, or telecast content about COVID-19. And in the country’s southern state of Karnataka, quarantined people are now required to download an app on their phones, through which they must take and send a selfie — which includes GPS coordinates in its metadata — every hour to government officials.
US companies like Facebook and Google are discussing how to track infection hot spots using anonymized location data, while American leaders are asking if the coronavirus is the kind of emergency that requires setting aside privacy and civil liberties.
“A Greater Depression”
The immediate effects of the pandemic — postponed weddings, canceled vacations, empty supermarket shelves, sinking housing prices, salary cuts, layoffs — suggest no one will come out of this period without losing something. But we are only at the beginning.
Predicting how bad things will get economically is difficult. A viral outbreak of this scale has only happened once before in the industrialized world: the 1918 influenza pandemic that hit the world in two seasonal waves, killing 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the US. That pandemic occurred during World War I, which makes it hard to compare to now, even setting aside all the other changes in the past century.
But according to a 2007 research paper on the economic effects of the 1918 pandemic, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the economic effects of the outbreak only lasted for a short time.
“Many businesses, especially those in the service and entertainment industries, suffered double-digit losses in revenue,” the paper read. “Society as a whole recovered from the 1918 influenza quickly, but individuals who were affected by the influenza had their lives changed forever. Given our highly mobile and connected society, any future influenza pandemic is likely to be more severe in its reach, and perhaps in its virulence.”
While the 1918 pandemic isn’t a perfect comparison to the modern coronavirus pandemic, Kevin Kruse, a history professor at Princeton University, told BuzzFeed News that last century’s outbreak exacerbated national problems that were already building up.
“The 1918 flu was part of a broader wave of disruptions and crises that rocked America. The spike in unemployment and inflation after World War I, the 1919 ‘bloody summer’ of race riots, major labor strikes that fall, the First Red Scare that winter,” Kruse said. “There was such a national sense of unease and uncertainty.”
Two months into this current outbreak, massive layoffs have started, American industries have demanded bailouts, and unemployment rates have surged. Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis are projecting total employment reductions of 47 million — an unemployment rate of 32.1%.
According to Forbes, every sector of the American economy is shrinking: Hotel chain Marriott International is furloughing tens of thousands of workers, Landry’s, the parent company of Del Frisco’s and Bubba Gump Shrimp, laid off 40,000 workers. Air Canada plans to lay off 5,100 members of its cabin crew. Shoe retailer DSW put 80% of its workers on a temporary unpaid leave of absence.
The US news industry’s advertising spending is in free fall. Digital outlets like BuzzFeed and Vice have already announced salary cuts, and the mass media company Gannett — which owns titles like USA Today, the Arizona Republic, and the Des Moines Register — announced many staffers will be furloughed for five days a month through June.
The news media may receive low-interest loans, but airlines will receive nearly $60 billion in financial assistance as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which Trump signed into law last Friday, but there are already questions from industry leaders about whether that’s enough to keep the industry aloft.
Luigi Zingales, a finance professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and cohost of the podcast Capitalisn’t, told BuzzFeed News that we don’t know yet how effective the CARES Act will be but added it wasn’t targeted at the right industries.
“I see this as purely an electoral move, which is not justified from an economic point of view,” he said. “The goal of the package is to redistribute and preserve the existing production capacity of the US economy.”
He said one immediate issue is that no one knows how it will help gig workers, which make up about 7% of the country’s total employment. “My understanding is basically nobody knows,” he said. “Imagine I work as a cab driver and through this program I get paid my regular wage, but I work as an Uber driver and I get nothing.”
American workers are already reacting to this economic downturn, striking and protesting. More fundamentally, the way we understand labor and class in this country is changing more than it has since the Great Depression.
People are shown in social-distancing boxes at a temporary homeless shelter set up in a parking lot in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Rooms for patients are set up at Jacob Javits Convention Center, which is being used as a temporary hospital.
Liao Pan/China News Service via Getty Images
“A Divided America”
On Monday, a group of workers walked off the job at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island. An Amazon employee named Chris Smalls claimed the company fired him after he led a protest against its safety conditions. On Tuesday, Whole Foods Market workers held a “sick-out.” According to CNBC, “members of the Industrial Division of Communication Workers of America protested Monday at the company’s aviation facility in Lynn, Massachusetts, as well as its headquarters in Boston,” to demand the company use manufacturing resources to build ventilators.
Health care workers are protesting as well. Nurses across the country have begun to protest the shortages of personal protective equipment, which they say are putting their lives at risk. National Nurses United held a rally in front of Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland earlier this month. Last Saturday, more than two dozen nurses protested in front of Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx.
And the fact that major American cities, including New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and St. Louis, have temporarily banned evictions hasn’t quelled the rumblings of a nationwide rent strike. Rent Strike 2020, the activist organization leading the push, is demanding a two-month freeze on the collection of rent, residential mortgages, and utility bills “to allow working families to do what is necessary to prepare for the difficult social measures required to flatten the outbreak curve,” the organization’s website reads.
Peter Gowan, a researcher and resident fellow at the Democracy Collaborative’s Next System Project, told BuzzFeed News that many Americans are learning that a lot of the economic policies they were told couldn’t be done following the 2008 financial crisis are actually possible.
“You were seeing people say it’s impossible to think about giving cash payments to everyone, it’s impossible to increase unemployment benefits, that it’s impossible to have the government tell companies what they need to be producing,” Gowan said. “But now you’re seeing the Democratic Party and parts of the Republican Party telling President Trump that he needs to use the Defense Production Act to increase the production of ventilators.”
But it’s not just strikes and protests; TikTok videos demonstrating Mark Zuckerberg’s coronavirus donation — $25 million — compared to his total wealth — $55.1 billion — and the immediate public disgust at actor Gal Gadot’s star-studded “Imagine” video reveal how quickly the pandemic has torn open the seams of American class consciousness.
“I hope that in the coming months and years that we’ll see a revitalized labor movement,” Gowan said. “I hope the left, and people in general, internalize that a lot of the things you’re told are rules are actually just norms created for the preservation of property and the rights of capital.”
Even though the way Americans think about the structure of their society and the value of labor is changing quickly, there are still two outbreaks in the US: One is a minor inconvenience suffered by the rich, who can abandon heavily affected urban areas for second homes, escape to “virus-free” retreats, and all seem to be getting tests.
And there is a second outbreak, where delivery drivers and retail employees work under the constant threat of infection, where nurses have to use bleach to clean and reuse face masks, and where parking lots in Las Vegas are turned into homeless shelters, complete with spray-painted social distancing markers.
Things are even worse for the incarcerated. At the Cook County Jail in Chicago, 134 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 this week. According to one legal organization’s analysis, coronavirus infections in New York City’s largest jail have skyrocketed to nearly 10 times the rate of the city’s residents. We are teetering dangerously close to a viral bomb going off inside ICE detention centers. A medical worker and a detainee have both tested positive for COVID-19 at a New Jersey facility earlier this month; last week, three unaccompanied immigrant children in the custody of a US refugee agency in New York tested positive for the virus.
On Sunday, Trump walked back his Easter deadline for turning the economy back on, but the recent push to go back to work — pandemic or not — is still being trumpeted by prominent Republicans and right-wing media. As Trump continues prioritizing the market over human lives, his administration’s Lord of the Fliesapproach has left the country’s governors scrambling to fill in the gaps left by a impotent federal government — a grim fulfillment of writer James Fallows’ prediction last year that America would soon be heading toward the disintegration that marked the end of the Roman Empire.
Conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists are experimenting with how to use the coronavirus to their advantage. The QAnon movement and many other misinformation communities, like 5G truthers and anti-vaxxers have have been more active, latching on to the pandemic as proof of their paranoid worldviews.
Tom Kawczynski, a white nationalist in Maine, is hosting a daily Coronavirus Central podcast that has been in Apple’s top 20 podcasts under the “Health & Fitness” category since the outbreak began. As Vice reported, last week, an international white supremacist group called the Hundred-Handers created a “Twitter account claiming to be the regional arm of climate change activist group Extinction Rebellion [and it] tweeted photos of an apparent postering campaign promoting the coronavirus as a natural ‘cure’ to the human ‘disease.'”
We will exit this pandemic with a new understanding of how both our government and society work. Formerly fringe ideas on the left like universal basic income or universal health care are now household terms, online misinformation and disinformation are no longer abstract concepts but constant presences in our group chats, and malicious ideologies like ecofascism are taking root.
We will need new stories, but it’s unclear who will tell them and how.
Every sector of the entertainment industry is on pause. HBO has halted production on the third seasons of Succession and Barry. Music festivals like the Governors Ball and Coachella have been canceled. The 2020 South by Southwest conference and festivals have been canceled. Musicians like Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, Haim, and Sam Smith have delayed their album releases, hoping to release them and tour again once it’s safe.
Which means we’ll likely see a deluge of prepandemic content next fall and winter. It will feel strange. Many critics have already pointed out that TV shows and movies filmed before the outbreak carry an unintentional nostalgia for a world full of crowds, busy restaurants, and public displays of affection. Already, films shot a year ago feel as dated as movies where a character runs through a pre-9/11 airport empty of metal detectors and TSA agents.
More interesting are the kinds of entertainment that are flourishing right now. Movies like Sonic the Hedgehog, DC’s Birds of Prey, and the Ben Affleck sports drama The Way Back are all getting early releases on video-on-demand platforms. Streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ are seeing huge audience spikes. Musicians Sufjan Stevens and Dua Lipa have dropped albums during the quarantine. Many more artists are livestreaming regular concerts for bored fans, trapped at home.
Josh Gondelman, stand-up comedian and co–executive producer and writer for Showtime’s late-night show Desus & Mero, told BuzzFeed News that retooling the show to air remotely was a big change, especially because its two hosts are self-isolating in different states — Daniel “Desus Nice” Baker in New York, Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez in New Jersey. They recently interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci via a three-way video conference.
Gondelman said that so far the pandemic hasn’t inspired anything new for the show creatively, but the new production workflow is a lot stronger than it was before. “I guess it would be the same if they lived four blocks apart. But ‘two different states’ is a more fun quote! We’re getting into a rhythm now,” he said.
“This whole situation has felt so unexpected and destabilizing that I’d hate to make some proclamation and have it be like…180 degrees off,” he said about predicting what the show — or the entertainment industry — will look like after the pandemic. “I guess one surefire thing would be: People will continue to see [actor] Judy Greer onscreen and think, Wow! She’s great in everything!”
But our concept of what visual entertainment looks like has been transformed almost overnight, whether it’s Stephen Colbert performing a monologue from his bathtub or the Backstreet Boys performing “I Want It That Way” from the five members’ individual homes. A cat can jump into a Skype interview on CNBC. Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato can casually talk about probably hooking up during one of Cyrus’s daily Instagram Lives. Andrew Lloyd Webber can sit at his piano and takes song requests from Twitter.
Robert J. Thompson, trustee professor of television and popular culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse, told BuzzFeed News there’s no precedent for how this pandemic has shifted the entertainment world.
“[The 1918 pandemic] was an era of the phonograph and the silent film,” he said. “We were just moving into the period of potentially live-in-the-home technology.”
Thompson said the previous pandemic didn’t have any technology or emergent media to compare with what we’re seeing now. We’re in uncharted territory. None of the media trends we’re embracing in quarantine were born during the crisis, he said, but it will accelerate them.
“In terms of the way in which we use technology for information and entertainment, it’s going to be a big jump forward,” Thompson said. “To believe that once we’re given the go-ahead to go outside that everything is going to go back to normal, I think that’s an incorrect assumption.”
In the short span of a little less than two months, pop culture has changed shape. No longer well lit and sleekly produced, the content we want now resembles the videos on the one app that has fared better than any other during this crisis — the short-form video app TikTok. The platform, owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based tech company, has long been central to China’s soft power, and it’s now the defining app of this era. It’s become a near-infinite repository of COVID-19 content, including memes from self-isolated teenagers, handwashing dance challenges, and doctors and nurses using it to share outbreak updates.
But what’s happening to our entertainment is only reflecting what is happening to the way society works now: We have moved online, and it is hard to imagine going back.
“We Live Online Now”
Right now, for one of the first times in modern history, huge swaths of the Earth’s population are being told to stay indoors. Workers who can conduct business remotely are. Group videoconferencing platforms like Zoom and Houseparty have blossomed. We spend our days switching back and forth between different inboxes, emails, family group chats, Slack messages, WhatsApp groups, and Instagram DMs — the bad screen and the good screen are now the same screen. There is a strong possibility we will not suddenly revert back to full offices when the world turns back on.
Christopher McKnight Nichols, history professor and director of the Center for the Humanities at Oregon State University, told BuzzFeed News that the 1918 pandemic’s biggest impact on American media was how seriously the press began to take public trust following the outbreak.
“The lessons learned were largely about [news] coverage when the federal government is suppressing honest, open speech,” Nichols said. “There were rampant false cures and treatments peddled by large firms as well as those who could best be understood as charlatans. Attempting to crack down on advertising of some of this false medicine was a result.”
This wave of mistrust is happening now as well. Except — contrary to the countless pieces fretting about an end to globalization, which cite the general breakdown in the rule-based global order and the deteriorating relationship between the US and China — we’re combating misinformation on a global scale we’ve never seen before.
As the pandemic left China, an unverified video of a Chinese nurse overreporting the virus’s death toll spread from Chinese messaging platform WeChat to Twitter, where it was subtitled in English and then shared in huge numbers on YouTube. The same hoax about helicopters being used to disinfect cities was spotted in Italy, the Netherlands, the US, Turkey, and Argentina by fact-checkers. (While in Mumbai, workers really were being sprayed with an unknown chemical disinfectant.) Twitter’s US-based moderation team took down two of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s tweets on Sunday for promoting the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which Trump has touted as a possible COVID-19 cure.
By removing the ability to meet in person, by shuttering traditional entertainment, and because we are facing an increasingly undeniable and inescapable existential terror, the internet has become a global monoculture. But it’s not all hoaxes and conspiracy theories. The two most viral songs about the coronavirus outbreak are from Vietnam and the Dominican Republic.
We go online to commiserate about whatever’s on Netflix (even if it’s a seven-part docuseries about a gay zookeeper who was arrested for murder-for-hire) or argue with each other about whether New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is hot (or has nipple piercings). This is not totally different to how we lived before — except there’s nothing else now.
Our leaders have struggled to properly mitigate this crisis: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially planned to build herd immunity at the cost of millions of lives, Trump downplayed the outbreak, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ignored social distancing policies to publicly hug the mother of Mexico’s most infamous drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a total lockdown of the country, which resulted in a heartbreaking and dangerous mass exodus of migrant workers walking hundreds of miles home.
On Good Morning Britain earlier this month, Piers Morgan compared the coronavirus to World War I.
“You’re not having to fight anybody. You’re not having to risk your life being gunned down on trenches,” the host shouted at the camera, raging against Britons who refused to socially distance. “You’re being asked to just go home sit there and do this, just watch telly.”
It’s true, bombs aren’t dropping. Trenches aren’t being summited. But the comparison doesn’t reflect the anxious mundanity of watching quiet and invisible slow-motion tragedy play out every second across our phone screens. But we also don’t really know where we’re going.
The world of the 1918 pandemic — of silent films and phonographs — is so different to ours now that we cannot use it as a guide for how we will change. Nor can we use something like 9/11 to imagine the trauma and what it will do to us. The systems we use to govern our world, already strained, may not survive.
Our trust has been eviscerated. The only thing we’ve been able to count on through all of this is the pure networking power of the internet. Locally, individually, we are using it to quickly change the way we live to face the crisis. Governors are providing their constituents with emotional and much-needed daily livestreams. Teenagers are having proms on Zoom. DJs are throwing dance parties on Instagram. 3D printer hobbyists are learning how to make medical-grade masks.
The main lesson in all this is that we have an infinite capacity to connect with one another in the dark. Even if it’s as simple as sharing a funny video with your family group chat.
After I acted like a jerk in my family group chat, there was a bit of a back-and-forth about how bad things will get. We were collectively worried about whether my cousins working at Mass General would be safe. We talked about how our grandparents would have handled this if they were still alive. And then someone dropped in a tweet with a supercut of Italian mayors yelling at their citizens for breaking quarantine.
The tweet read, “the world needs Italian Mayors to sort the world out not passionless journos & clueless academics.” I have to admit, if only for a little bit, I felt better. ●