A look at some of Big Tech’s Covid-19 relief efforts

23 Mar 2020571 Views

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Image: © wolterke/Stock.adobe.com

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As the number of Covid-19 cases increases in the US, we look at some of the efforts that tech giants are making to mitigate the crisis.

As of today (23 March), there are 227,772 active cases of Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, around the world, including 35,418 cases in the US.

With cases now confirmed in every US state, some of the biggest names in tech, including Tesla, Apple and Microsoft, are turning their attention to how they can help slow the spread of the virus in their home country and further afield.

Tesla

At the start of this month, Tesla CEO Elon Musk – who, as noted by CNBC, does not have any background in medicine or virology – remarked: “The coronavirus panic is dumb.” At the time, Musk had lost about $6.7bn in a market sell-off that was fuelled by coronavirus fears.

Since then, stronger public distancing measures have been put in place in many parts of the US, including tech-focused cities San Francisco and Seattle. Last week, San Francisco implemented a shelter-in-place order, encouraging millions to stay at home and only leave the house for essential needs.

As the virus spreads in the US, Musk said that his companies SpaceX and Tesla are “working on” ventilators that are needed to treat severe cases of Covid-19.

On Friday (20 March), Musk tweeted: “Yes, we’re working on ventilators, even though I think they probably won’t be needed.”

A blue car plugged into a charging port with the Tesla logo on it.

A Tesla Model 3 charging. Image: © Aleksei Potov/Stock.adobe.com

This is despite temporary closures of Tesla’s car manufacturing plant in Fremont, California, and its solar panel factory in Buffalo, New York.

The company said: “Despite taking all known health precautions, continued operations in certain locations has caused challenges for our employees, their families and our suppliers. As such, we have decided to temporarily suspend product.”

Like other teams shifting focus to work on solutions to the global ventilator shortage, Musk faces the obstacles of FDA approval and receiving assistance from certified medical professionals. According to TechCrunch, other automakers such as GM, Volkswagen and Ford have entered discussions to look at whether they can develop ventilators.

Additionally, Musk is reported to have delivered masks, gowns and other personal protection equipment to a health facility at UCLA.

Face masks

On Saturday (21 March), Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted that the tech giant plans to donate millions of masks to healthcare professionals in Europe and the US to assist efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

“Our teams at Apple have been working to help source supplies for healthcare providers fighting Covid-19,” he wrote. “We’re donating millions of masks for health professionals in the US and Europe. To every one of the heroes on the front lines, we thank you.”

The announcement confirmed a comment made at a White House press briefing by US vice-president Mike Pence, who said: “The president and I literally heard directly from Apple that they’re donating 2m industrial masks to this effort around the country and working with our administration to distribute those.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also said that his company was donating an emergency reserve of 720,000 masks and is sourcing more masks to donate.

Meanwhile, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told employees that “masks remain in short supply globally”. He said that the company has “placed purchase orders for millions of face masks” to give employees and contractors who cannot work from home, “but very few of these orders have been filled.”

Microsoft

As well as developing the Bing coronavirus tracker, Microsoft has also created a new chatbot service for the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), offering US citizens an online assessment if they are unsure whether or not to seek medical care.

Running on Microsoft Azure, the chatbot is owned and maintained by the CDC, which said that it does not share any personal information that users enter into the bot with Microsoft.

Microsoft has also donated to a Seattle relief fund alongside Amazon and other businesses based in Seattle. In mid-March, Bill Gates announced that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was partnering with Wellcome and Mastercard to set up a $125m fund for finding treatments for Covid-19.

Other relief efforts

Facebook also announced that it was committing $20m to the CDC, World Health Organization and United Nations Foundation, while Apple announced a $15m relief fund and plans to allow customers to skip the March payment on their Apple Cards without incurring interest.

Google committed $50m to the global Covid-19 response, and has complied with requests from the EU to reduce the streaming quality on YouTube to protect European internet infrastructure.

A similar measure was taken by Netflix. The TV and movie streaming platform also launched a $100m coronavirus relief fund for creatives whose jobs have been affected by the pandemic. Netflix is offering $15m to non-profits providing emergency relief to out-of-work cast and crew in countries where the company has major productions.

Ted Sarandos, Netflix chief content officer, said: “The Covid-19 crisis is devastating for many industries, including the creative community.

“Almost all television and film production has now ceased globally – leaving hundreds of thousands of crew and cast without jobs. These include electricians, carpenters and drivers, many of whom are paid hourly wages and work on a project-to-project basis.

“This community has supported Netflix through the good times, and we want to help them through these hard times, especially while governments are still figuring out what economic support they will provide.”

Kelly Earley is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com