As of Thursday, the United States now has 81,578 cases of COVID-19 — more than than any other country in the world. The disaster is unfolding. New Jersey has formed a panel to make decisions about which patients will be granted one of the nation’s insufficient supply of ventilators, and which will be left to a likely death.
The almost unrelentingly bad news has at least managed to persuade a good number of Americans to stay home, flatten the curve of infection, and attempt to ride out this portion of our public-health crisis in relative safety. As a resident for the past decade, I felt a surge of civic pride watching this drone footage of the streets of San Francisco from earlier this week. Our streets are as they should be at this moment: all but deserted.
But the thing about locking yourself inside is that you are regularly confronted with the dilemma of how to acquire food and other essential supplies. You can go to a grocery store, and risk catching or spreading the disease, or you can order delivery. And for people in a variety of circumstances, delivery may be the best or only viable option.
And it’s for that reason that I’ve spent so much of this week thinking about Amazon. Not just because it’s the tech giant that has become synonymous with the rapid delivery of essential items — but also because, as a giant, Amazon would seem to be best equipped to handle both the severe spike in demand and the incredible logistical challenges of managing a workforce that itself may be at heightened risk of getting sick.
Amazon’s struggles, in other words, may portend worse things to come for the delivery economy at large. And the news this week suggests that Amazon is struggling mightily.
First, there are now daily stories about COVID-19 outbreaks in Amazon shipping facilities. On Wednesday, BuzzFeed’s Caroline O’Donovan reported that a fulfillment center in New Jersey was the latest of the company’s sites to have a worker diagnosed. “Other Amazon facilities with confirmed cases are in Kentucky, Staten Island, Queens, Connecticut, Florida, Texas, Michigan, Oklahoma, and California,” she wrote.
It’s not a scandal that a worker was diagnosed — COVID-19 is easily spread, and those affected often do not show symptoms for days after they become contagious. But workers are raising valid questions about Amazon’s duty to inform them of their colleagues’ illness. Here’s Josh Dzieza in The Verge:
Six workers at the sortation center DTW5 say they only learned of the case from coworkers or after McIntosh-Butler, frustrated with the lack of transparency, tipped off Local Four News, which received confirmation from Amazon Tuesday. In the information vacuum, they are left wondering whether they’ve been exposed and whether it’s safe to continue working. Last week, Johnson’s son, who has asthma, began having trouble breathing. This week, her daughter developed a dry cough. She hasn’t been able to get either tested, and she worries she was an unknowing vector for COVID-19. She decided to stay home, without pay, to care for her children and avoid potentially spreading the virus.
“They should have closed that building down and sanitized that whole building before they let us come in,” Johnson tells The Verge. “And they should have given everyone a robocall, because you never know if you bumped into that person in the bathroom or anything, because not only are you putting your life at risk, you’re putting the people that you come in contact with’s lives at stake.”
Workers are at least getting robocalls at affected Amazon-owned Whole Foods locations, Lauren Kaori Gurley reported at Vice. But the locations remain open, and workers can only get paid sick leave if they are diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in quarantine — prompting many workers who live paycheck to paycheck to come in to work sick, Gurley writes.
Senators are now asking good questions about Amazon worker safety. But the challenge of maintaining supply lines when delivery workers are getting sick will only grow more difficult.
Meanwhile, Amazon’s basic delivery service is overwhelmed. When I looked this afternoon, grocery deliveries were unavailable in San Francisco for today and tomorrow. Presumably they will be unavailable on Sunday as well, unless — like my colleague Jason Del Rey — I set my alarm clock for midnight and manage to nab one of the precious available slots. (Jason noted in a subsequent tweet that this tactic did not work for him.)
All of this is on top of delays for non-grocery goods until the end of April or later. (In a real thinking-face-emoji situation, Amazon-branded devices, such as the Kindle and the Echo, continue to ship immediately.)
Tim Wu highlights the danger here in an op-ed in the New York Times about what he calls “the touchless economy.”
Among the touchless economy’s key vulnerabilities are its delivery lines. We usually think about “supply lines” as the connections between producers and retailers — like the delivery of produce from farms to supermarkets. But the coronavirus shutdown has brought into special focus the role played by the warehouse workers at Amazon, the drivers for UPS, FedEx and the United States Post Office and the many delivery workers for local restaurants and grocery stores. These are the people who translate clicks into economic consequence.
Most of those jobs aren’t high paying, and they now have elevated risks of infection. Protests by Amazon warehouse workers in France and Italy may portend our future; there are reports of postal employees working in close quarters and of infected delivery workers pressured to remain on the job to meet demand. There’s a danger of infection spreading to entire companies and some (albeit relatively low) risk of infecting package recipients.
If the number of COVID-19 cases weren’t surging exponentially in the United States, I might have more confidence that the disruptions we’ve seen to Amazon’s service in the near term were were unlikely to worsen. As it is, though, I think we ought to consider the possibility that more cogs in our vital delivery networks may break in the coming weeks.
As Wu put it: “For now at least, the touchless economy is holding firm. But now is the right time to be thinking about its weak spots. Because if it falters, we could end up thinking of our current chaos as the good old days.”
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
⬆️Trending up: Airbnb launched a new initiative to provide housing to 100,000 medical workers and COVID-19 responders. If hosts can’t list their houses for free, the company is subsidizing the cost.
⬆️Trending up: WeChat’s Chinese parent company Tencent announced a $100 million coronavirus fund. The money will go toward medical supplies for hospitals and front-line healthcare workers.
⭐Americans are turning to crowdfunded campaigns on GoFundMe to cover coronavirus-related costs. But the amount of need — mainly coming from business that have been forced to shut down — means most campaigns aren’t meeting their goals. Nathaniel Popper and Taylor Lorenz at The New York Times have the story:
Organizers looking for visibility have begun to aggregate GoFundMes into Google documents and Twitter lists based on subcategory and geography. One Google Doc contains a list of more than 540 GoFundMe pages for Chicago businesses. Other documents focus on artists, and contractors in the technology sector.
As GoFundMe pages proliferate, however, some campaigns have an advantage.
One GoFundMe page created on Tuesday by Flexport, a logistics start-up, has already raised more than $3.3 million to distribute supplies to medical professionals. Its success can be traced at least in part to public support from celebrities including Edward Norton, Pharrell Williams and Kim Kardashian West, who have shared the GoFundMe link with their tens of millions of followers.
The internet is slowing down as more people spend more time online during the coronavirus pandemic. The stress on internet networks has slowed the speed of downloading websites and apps. Can confirm! (Cecilia Kang, Davey Alba and Adam Satariano / The New York Times)
An app in the UK called the C-19 COVID Symptom Tracker is asking people to self-report symptoms in an effort to gather more detail about where the virus is spreading. The app was downloaded 750,000 times in the first 24 hours when it launched. (Ingrid Lunden / TechCrunch)
Kickstarter is cracking down on projects that claim to provide cures or treatments for the novel coronavirus. The platform also doesn’t allow masks that claim to block the spread of the disease. (Kickstarter)
More people are turning to Patreon — a platform that allows fans to send direct payments to creators — as the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt the economy. Those who were already using the platform are seeing their earnings increase, the company said in a blog post. (Patreon)
Downloads of Zoom, Houseparty, and Discord have exploded since the coronavirus started to spread. (Chris O’Brien / VentureBeat)
A group of engineers are organizing renegade design projects over Slack to tackle common problems associated with the coronavirus pandemic. Already, one initiative has already delivered much-needed protective equipment to some hospitals. (Rebecca Heilweil / Recode)
Coronavirus isolation can be tough on the body and mind. Experts suggest exercising and creating as much routine as possible to stave off anxiety and depression. (Emma Grey Ellis / Wired)
Coronavirus isolation has led to a bread-baking boom. The number of people searching “bread” hit an all-time high this week, according to Google Trends. (Meghan McCarron / Eater)
Yoga studios and instructors have moved online to connect with clients and stay afloat amid the coronavirus pandemic. Yoga instructors say it’s a nice reprieve for students, giving them a chance to de-stress and maintain a degree of normalcy. (Jacob Kastrenakes / The Verge)
Here’s what kids have to say about remote learning on Zoom. Includes the phrase “I like to see my friends on Zoomy.” (Yasmin Tayag / OneZero)
Total cases in the US: 81,578
Total deaths in the US: 1,180
Reported cases in California: 3,786
Reported cases in New York: 37,258
Reported cases in Washington: 2,649
Content moderation during this pandemic is an exaggerated version of content moderation all the time: Platforms are balancing various interests when they write their rules, and they are making consequential choices about error preference when they enforce them. Platforms’ uncharacteristic (if still too limited) transparency around these choices in the context of the pandemic should be welcomed—but needs to be expanded on in the future. These kinds of choices should not be made in the shadows. Most importantly, platforms should be forced to earn the kudos they are getting for their handling of the pandemic by preserving data about what they are doing and opening it up for research instead of selective disclosure.
A group of 33 attorneys general are calling on Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Walmart and Craigslist to prevent price gouging on coronavirus-related products. They want the companies to be more proactive rather than “playing whack-a-mole.” I’m sorry but all content moderation is, on some level, whack-a-mole. (Lauren Feiner and Scott Zamost / CNBC)
Investors were accidentally buying shares in Zoom Technologies instead of Zoom Video Communications Inc., leading the Securities and Exchange Commission to suspend trading in Zoom Technologies. The company’s stock had more than tripled over the past five weeks. (Luke McGrath / Bloomberg)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
Those good tweets
Just in case you need it, here’s a dog doing yoga in Italian. You’re welcome. pic.twitter.com/zTKp3MbI8e— Amanda in Atlanta (@ATLnewsgirl) March 25, 2020
I now understand why retired people eat dinner so early.— Ashley Nicole Black (@ashleyn1cole) March 26, 2020
If there's a baby boom in 9 months, it'll consist entirely of first-born children.— Winston Chang (@winston_chang) March 24, 2020
it’s just like the flu. remember how every year around flu season the economy gets shut down and medical professionals take to social media to beg for supplies— ☕netw3rk (@netw3rk) March 26, 2020
My Quarantine Routine!— (@jazzemu_) March 26, 2020
this is just a general guide for myself based on my goals & what works for me! i’m allowing a lot flexibility with myself & not pressuring myself to complete everything. this is just to give me structure & a sense of control & stability. pic.twitter.com/TL3KJGB0y0