Uplifting COVID-19 stories

I want to share with you some uplifting stories that put a smile on my face in this troubling time. I hope they will do yours as well.

A landlord in Wisconsin reduced April’s rent to $100 for his tenants

KETV-TV
Source: ketv

How Czech Republic got everyone to wear masks

Pandemic creates an inflection point

There is no need to talk about the havoc that this pandemic has brought on to our society. Everybody in the world should all feel it now. Terrible as it is, the pandemic presents an opportunity for us to look at the issues that we overlook in normal times

Paid sick leave

The US is one of the only few, if not the only country, where citizens don’t get paid sick leave. When there is a risk of a wide-spreading pandemic, the lack of this benefit forces workers to go to work even though they may be sick; which increases the threat of a spread. After this catastrophe blows over, perhaps it is time for us to bring this issue to the national spotlight and to pressure lawmakers into taking actions

Stock buybacks and corporate bailouts

The fact that corporations are asking for a big bailout after years of continuous stock repurchases and lucrative executive compensation is inexcusable and intolerable. While there is a case to be made that bailouts chop off a body part to save the body and corporations should be forced to return the money once healthy again, it doesn’t make it right the fact that tax payers’ money is used to bail out companies whose failure to prepare for a macroeconomic risk is the executives’.

Regulations over gig economy

For months, gig economy companies such as Lyft and Uber have fought regulations that would require them to treat workers as employees. What that means is that workers would be entitled to healthcare insurance, paid leave and other benefits that white-collar workers usually enjoy. Some folks I saw on Twitter, most from Silicon Valley, even blasted the regulations. However, a study by The Hustle may change perspectives on this. According to The Hustle, 57% of the surveyed drivers would still drive because that’s the only way to make ends meet. Some are not even making enough to pay for their rented vehicle. Furthermore, the lack of health insurance means that they and their family are vulnerable than ever. In light of this crisis and the impact on gig economy workers, is asking for a well-designed regulation to protect workers too much to ask?

Source: The Hustle

Healthcare system

The lack of tests in the US, compared to what is going on in other countries, is seriously shocking. Ask any American and it’s very likely that you will get told that the US has the most advanced healthcare system in the world. That’s true…for rich people and for very sophisticated treatments. However, when it comes to healthcare for ordinary folks and normal ailments, there is a lot to be desired for in the US. The country had disappointingly managed to fail to deliver a universal healthcare solution even before the pandemic broke. Now, the case cannot be made even more pressing. Recently, it’s reported that a woman was hit with a $35,000 bill for COVID-19 treatments and tests. How was that acceptable? It could happen and bankrupt any of the middle class Americans, or, worse, paycheck-to-paycheck folks.

Work from home

This one is polarizing. Proponents of WFH must be ecstatic to make their case when essentially everybody is required to work remotely now. On the other hand, some will experience cabin-fever, frustration and the drop in productivity. Personally, I prefer going to the office. I prefer meeting my colleagues face-to-face and have a setting that helps me focus on my work more than my comfortable home.

Furthermore, WFH presents an opportunity to test a company’s infrastructure. For most of last week, my colleagues and I experienced a laggy and slow connection. Even though home internet bandwidth can contribute to the issue, it’s undoubtedly our company’s network being not set up for a spike in traffic. Additionally, mass remote working can change how managers keep staff productive and keep track of their work.

Personal finance and change in lifestyle

Many of us now face, if you haven’t already, layoff or a drop in salary as companies are downsizing to survive the pandemic. Income may dry up, but the bills will still be there. Without a fund for a rainy day like we are going through, a financial struggle or bankruptcy is likely. The 11-year bull market since the 2009 crisis which many didn’t experience makes folks become complacent. After this COVID-19 disaster, it’s a great time to ponder hard decisions and establish sensible personal finance practices.

This is a scary and confusing time. But what happens in the next few months will be very interesting as decisions are to be made.

The time of crisis

In good times and when the sea is calm, everyone can sail the ship. Not everybody can when the sea is rough.

The last few weeks has been nothing, but extremely challenging. Uncertainty and fear take hold of our society. Stock markets suffer beating after beating, dragging along with it our 401k or saving with no signs of the plunge abating. Lives are disrupted or, worse, lost.

In times like this, we need leadership, starting with looking the truth in the face. Germany’s Chancellor honestly told everyone that 70% of the German population would be affected. Whether the citizens approve of the German’s government’s reaction to the crisis is another matter. Nonetheless, at least the head of the state didn’t lie or mislead its citizens. Another example is Dr Fauci. He admitted that the US’s healthcare setup was inadequate to handle the mass testing at the moment. That’s the honesty we need. No spinning. No lies. No misleading information. No claiming that we have nothing to worry about when the crisis is upon our door.

If you watched the series Chernobyl on HBO (if you haven’t, I highly recommend it since we are staying at home anyway), the nuclear disaster could have been prevented. However, lies and denial led to one of the worst catastrophes in humans’ history.

From the enterprise perspective, some CEOs and companies took little time in setting an example and helping out. Aaron Levie and Box are an example:

Or Zoom and its CEO:

Or from a Chinese that wants to help out fellow human-beings, despite the difference in nationalities

On the other hand, there are companies whose behavior in crises like this is highly questionable and deserves scrutiny. Take Whole Foods as an example:

On Wednesday, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey sent out an email to grocery store employees with a list of benefits and options for those who fall sick during the coronavirus pandemic. Among his six suggestions was an option for employees to “donate” their paid time off (PTO) to coworkers facing medical emergencies.

“Team Members who have a medical emergency or death in their immediate family can receive donated PTO hours,” Mackey wrote in an email reviewed by Motherboard, “not only from Team Members in their own location, but also from Team Members across the country.”

In that same email, Whole Foods also said that it will offer unlimited, unpaid time off during the month of March and two weeks of paid time off for workers who test positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus—a policy announced this week for all Amazon employees and contractors that has also been adopted by tech companies like Uber, Lyft, and Instacart.

Source: Vice

I believe that eventually we’ll come out of this and get back to where we were a few months ago. At the end of the day, this is not the first disaster humanity has faced in the last hundreds or thousands of years and we’re still here, more advanced than ever. The issue is whether we’ll be more prepared for the next disaster. Since 9/11, we haven’t had a similar incident like that, but we have had SARS, Ebola and Swine Flu and look how prepared we have been for Coronavirus.

This is a golden time for true leaders to show their worth as well as for us to know who are not.

Some more readings on Covid-19

It is important to stay informed of what is going on with this pandemic. Having perspectives stemming from what happens in other countries helps understand the extent of the problem that we are dealing with here in America. I compiled below what I came across. It goes without saying that I am not benefiting personally from any of this and that you should take everything you read with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, I believe it is helpful so that’s why I share them.

Some personal anecdotes on what happens on the ground in the US

Colorado changes policy for drive-up COVID-19 testing facility

What is happening in Italy

Italian doctor at heart of illness shares chilling coronavirus thoughts

What is going on in Korea

Special Report: Italy and South Korea virus outbreaks reveal disparity in deaths and tactics

South Korea reports more recoveries than coronavirus cases for the first time

What is going on in China

Other resources at a16z

Coronavirus Resources & Readings

WHO guide on how to make your own hand sanitizer

CDC’s recommendations on prevention of Coronavirus and the current confusion

It was reported this afternoon that Nebraska had the first COVID-19 case of the state. Specifically, a 36-year-old woman living in Omaha, the city where I am residing, was infected after returning from UK. It’s definitely not the news with which anyone in Omaha wants to start the weekend.

I left my office early to stock up my doomsday supplies. To be clear, I wasn’t panicking. I wasn’t wearing a mask out on the streets or a protective gear. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared.

While on the shopping trip, I noticed that alcohol-based hand sanitizers were in short supply. I couldn’t find any at Bakers or Walmart, but hand soap is still available and at a cheap price (even less than $1). What makes hand sanitizers such a hot commodity? Why isn’t hand soap as sought after?

It may be because alcohol-based hand sanitizers are included in the recommendation by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the message is inaccurately transmitted verbally or through social media. In fact, here is verbatim what the CDC recommends on their website:

Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth

Stay home when you are sick

Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash

Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe

CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19. Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to  others. The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty

Source: CDC

Reading the recommendations by CDC, I couldn’t help but notice that there is some misleading and confusing advice floating around online. Firstly, it’s not like you shouldn’t touch your face at all. The CDC clearly singles out which parts of your face should be left alone. Secondly, masks should be worn by sick people only. The high demand for masks from healthy folks is quite baffling. Lastly and this brings us back to the observation I had today, hand soap should work as long as you remember to get up and visit the restroom frequently. Instead of paying $10 or more for hand sanitizers, perhaps hand soap and water?

Experts said, per ProPublica, that hand sanitizers that have less than 60% alcohol may not work against Coronavirus.

Some useful information on Coronavirus

Like almost millions of people on Earth, I have been occupied by the development of the Coronavirus around the world and the potential outbreak here in the US. There is no shortage of coverage and information regarding the pandemic. The challenge is to verify information. Given our limited time every day, the pace at which the developments take place and the inaccuracy of reports spread out by some authority, it’s exceedingly difficult to feel 100% confident in the information received, at least personally for me. Nonetheless, I’d like to share a highly helpful blog post by Elad, which contains a great summary of the virus and other resources for reference, and a report by WHO China.

Here are a few highlights for those of you who are lazy enough not to read either.

The reported death rate has hovered around 2% but may in reality be 0.2% to 1% depending on country and healthcare system. Many estimates tend indicate an overall expected mortality rate of ~0.5% globally.  The current existing fatality rate is biased upwards by Wuhan cases dominating the mix (which are closer to a 3-4% death rate and make up most cases). It is possible the virus is being undertested for in China / rest of world driving the real death rate down (as many more people are infected than is reported).

Source: Elad Blog

In many epidemics disease course follows two waves. In wave one, an initial infection happens followed by governments tightening movements, shutting schools, and in general decreasing the spread of the diseases. Controls are eventually relaxed (people need to work, kids need to go to school etc.) and then a few months later a second wave of the disease hits and infects a subset of the people who were not infected in the first wave. Eventually, enough people get sick, develop antibodies, and there is a strong enough herd immunity in the population to decrease future out breaks in size.

Source: Elad Blog
Source: Elad Blog

COVID-19 is transmitted via droplets and fomites during close unprotected contact between an infector and infectee. Airborne spread has not been reported for COVID-19 and it is not believed to be a major driver of transmission based on available evidence; however, it can be envisaged if certain aerosol-generating procedures are conducted in health care facilities. Fecal shedding has been demonstrated from some patients, and viable virus has been identified in a limited number of case reports. However, the fecal-oral route does not appear to be a driver of COVID-19 transmission; its role and significance for COVID-19 remains to be determined.

Source: WHO China

Typical signs and symptoms include: fever (87.9%), dry cough (67.7%), fatigue (38.1%), sputum production (33.4%), shortness of breath (18.6%), sore throat (13.9%), headache (13.6%), myalgia or arthralgia (14.8%), chills (11.4%), nausea or vomiting (5.0%), nasal congestion (4.8%), diarrhea (3.7%), and hemoptysis (0.9%), and conjunctival congestion (0.8%).

Individuals at highest risk for severe disease and death include people aged over 60 years and those with underlying conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease and cancer. Disease in children appears to be relatively rare and mild with approximately 2.4% of the total reported cases reported amongst individuals aged under 19 years. A very small proportion of those aged under 19 years have developed severe (2.5%) or critical disease (0.2%)

Source: WHO China
Source: WHO China

As opposed to Influenza A(H1N1)pdm09, pregnant women do not appear to be at higher risk of severe disease. In an investigation of 147 pregnant women (64 confirmed, 82 suspected and 1 asymptomatic), 8% had severe disease and 1% were critical.

There is a global rush for masks, hand hygiene products and other personal protective equipment. The relative importance of non-pharmaceutical control measures including masks, hand hygiene, and social distancing require further research to quantify their impact. 

Source: WHO China

Also, the Minister of Health of Singapore shares details on the virus in layman’s terms

2020 has been an absolute disaster so far in my opinion. Hundreds died from the virus and millions more are in danger. Economy is badly affected. Lives are seriously disrupted. My hope is that things will look brighter shortly in the near future.

Beware while filing taxes with Turbo Tax

Tax season is here. Millions of folks in the US have filed taxes or are going to and I suspect that thousands will use Turbo Tax’s services like myself. If you qualify for free file programs, check this website out from Turbo tax or this list of other services from the IRS. The reason why I called out this version of Turbo Tax is that I couldn’t find it from their main website.

If you have any income, be it interest, capital gain or dividends from your stock portfolio, chances are that you’ll pay at least $80 ($40 for Federal tax and $40 for State tax) to use an upgrade service from Turbo Tax. The “free” version on Turbo Tax doesn’t cover it at all. In fact, they design their website in a way that tricks users into paying more buy labeling the “free” version (I don’t believe you can access the free version on Turbo Tax main site) “Not Now” as you can see below

Source: Propublica

It’s bad enough that the company uses color effect to trick users. They also label it manipulatively so that users are discouraged to pick an option that screams “Not now”. Worst, that is not the only trick Turbo Tax has to get more from your wallet. Upon finishing your tax filing, you will be prompted to pay for the service fees by either using a credit card or paying with tax refund. After minutes or probably hours of preparing all the documents and information, a taxpayer is likely tired and likes to finish up so quickly that he or she won’t notice that using tax refund to pay Turbo Tax will result in a $40 fee

turbotax pay refund fee
Source: Mighty Taxes

PLEASE DO YOURSELF A FAVOR AND PAY WITH A CREDIT CARD

I came across an alternative that I personally will try next year: Credit Karma. The service claims that its free version covers dividends and capital gains, supports federal & state taxes and can import tax returns, even when you filed taxes with a different preparer.