Coronavirus News Roundup

From Daily World wire services

Facebook removes 2.5 million posts selling masks, COVID-19 kits

Facebook Inc. said it has removed 2.5 million posts since March 1 offering masks, sanitizers, cleaning wipes and Covid-19 test kits, in an attempt to prevent users from price-gouging or selling counterfeit and dangerous products.

To do it, the social media company relied on the same image-recognition technology it uses to remove sales of guns and drugs. Facebook has had to quickly train its artificial intelligence to handle an increase in coronavirus content that violates company policies, including hundreds of thousands of posts removed for displaying information that could lead to physical harm, like encouraging users to drink bleach as a cure.

The coronavirus statistics released Tuesday are the latest addendum to the company’s twice-yearly report about enforcement to combat the dark side of the way its platforms are used. With each report, Facebook becomes more reliant on computer solutions to human problems. The company has about 15,000 content moderators working around the world, some of whom can’t work from the office as a protection against the spread of the virus. Between October 2019 and March 2020, about 90% of the content Facebook removed was found first by the software, not user reports, the company said.

Facebook said in the first quarter of 2020, it removed 1.7 billion fake accounts, 39.5 million instances of adult nudity and 7.9 million posts touting illegal drugs.

One-fourth of California workers could lose jobs, governor says

SAN JOSE, Calif. — An unemployment rate that has “skyrocketed” could leave one-fourth of California’s workforce without jobs —akin to the rates during the Great Depression —Gov. Gavin Newsom warned Monday in a forbidding assessment about how the coronavirus has wrecked the state’s once booming economy.

“Unemployment numbers” in California “will be north of 20 percent,” Newsom said during a regular briefing to discuss the state’s war against the deadly bug. The state’s Employment Development Department is due to release the latest official unemployment rate for California on May 22.

California has received a jaw-dropping 4.5 million unemployment claims since mid-March when state and local government agencies began to impose business shutdowns and other mandates in a quest to combat the coronavirus, the governor said.

The 4.5 million in unemployment claims represent 23.3% of the current California workforce of 19.3 million. It’s likely that at least some of those who filed claims have since returned to work or found a new job.

“Unemployment has skyrocketed in this state,” Newsom said.

The governor also warned that 20% might not represent the worst of it for the unemployment rate.

“Getting closer to 22, 23, 24, 25 (percent),” the governor said, is “very likely.”

At the nadir of the Great Depression in 1933, the nation’s unemployment rate reached 24.9 percent.

Fed presidents warn business failures may create lasting damage

Federal Reserve officials warned the virus outbreak and a partial shutdown of the U.S. economy would result in a decline in the current quarter of historic proportions and risk the potential of massive bankruptcies that could create a lasting scar.

“You will get business failures on a grand scale and you will be taking risks that you would go into depression” if shutdowns persist, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard said in a video speech from that city Tuesday. Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari warned of a “gradual, muted recovery” from the outbreak, while Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan said the economy will need more fiscal stimulus if the jobless rate continues to rise.

Fed officials in mid-March cut interest rates to near zero and have unveiled unprecedented lending programs to cushion the blow from the pandemic. Even so, economic output may plunge by about 40% in the current quarter, Bullard warned, adding the government orders to keep businesses closed are unsustainable.

The decline will be “a staggering figure and way beyond anything experienced in the post-war era in the U.S.,” Bullard said to the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum. “We cannot hit the pause button for very long in major economies around the world, certainly not in the U.S. There’s a 90-day limit or shelf life on this policy, maybe 120 days shelf life.”

While shutting down the economy was appropriate in the early days as the U.S. managed the crisis, there now needs to be a shift to mitigating risks just as the country manages risks from terrorism or auto accidents, Bullard said.

“You will get too many business failures and really do lasting damage” without businesses resuming, he said. With a more focused approach, the U.S. could get a solid rebound that would be mathematically a record starting in the third quarter, he said.

Kashkari, in a virtual event, suggested any recovery will be slow with consumers and businesses continuing to be held back by health care concerns.

“We’re not going to fix our economy until we get our hands around the virus,” he said. “We might just have this uneven crawling back up to more of a normal economy.”

All three presidents said negative interest rates are unlikely to be a tool the Fed would rely on anytime soon, with Bullard citing the experience of their use in Europe and Japan. Asset purchases are a more likely tool, Bullard said.

Speaking on CNN International, Kaplan said that if the U.S. reaches the Fed’s expected peak unemployment rate of about 20% and if the figure is about 10% by year-end, “there may well need to be more fiscal stimulus in order to boost economic growth.”

Virus spreading near U.S. meat plants at twice the national rate

Coronavirus spread at more than twice the national rate in U.S. counties with major meatpacking plants during the first week after President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing that they be reopened.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases jumped 40% during the week following the order in counties with major beef or pork slaughterhouses, compared with a 19% rise nationally, according to an analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The counties accounted for 10% of new confirmed cases from April 28 to May 5 while representing just 7.5% of the U.S. population.

Infections climbed even faster where slaughterhouses were outside major population centers, and may have a greater impact. The disparity underscores the extent to which the areas around meat processors — many located in rural regions far away from initial hot spots — have become epicenters of the virus. The data doesn’t address other types of industrial facilities that may be in those counties.

The situation worsened in the first week after Trump’s April 28 executive order despite temporary closures at many meat plants.

The Trump administration has pressed to reopen meatpacking plants after a series of shutdowns due to the pandemic dramatically reduced slaughter capacity, sending pork and beef prices surging while farmers with no place to sell hogs began culling herds at huge financial losses.

More than half of workers at some American meat processing facilities tested positive for the virus. At least 30 meatpacking workers have died of coronavirus and more than 10,000 have been infected or exposed, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents food processing workers.

At least 30 meatpacking plants have closed at some point in the past two months, according to the May 8 statement by the union.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Friday that 14 major meat processing facilities were reopening. The department asked all meat processors to come up with plans to meet safety guidelines for the industry released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Putin’s spokesman gets virus as Russia rises to No. 2

With Russia overtaking Spain to record the world’s second-highest number of coronavirus infections, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman became the latest top official to fall ill with the deadly disease.

Dmitry Peskov told Interfax on Tuesday he is receiving treatment for the virus. He joins Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and the country’s construction and culture ministers as diagnosed with COVID-19. Peskov, traditionally the official with the closest day-to-day access to Putin, said in a text message he last met the president in person over a month ago. Putin has been conducting government business mostly via video-conferences from his residence outside Moscow.

Putin on Monday announced an end to national stay-at-home restrictions but the move is unlikely to give businesses in the capital and other major cities a rapid boost.

In Moscow, business leaders see little chance of escaping restrictions that have hammered their activities. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said last week that the measures must remain until at least May 31 because the pathogen is still spreading, Putin’s decision shifted responsibility to regional leaders for deciding the pace of easing, shielding him from potential criticism of those who maintain them.

Despite the lockdowns, Russia has reported at least 10,000 new daily infections for the past 10 days, lifting its total to 232,243 and second only to the U.S. At the same time, Russia has one of the world’s lowest mortality rates with COVID-19 listed as the cause of death in only 2,116 cases, leading critics to claim that the government is withholding data.