Amazon is building a laboratory to test COVID-19. Is this a good thing?


  • In an April 9 blog article, Amazon announced that it was building a COVID-19 test lab for employees.
  • Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told Business Insider that the logic was sound. But he is concerned that Amazon may end up competing with state governments over limited test resources.
  • Employees have told Business Insider that they would prefer Amazon to focus on short-term deliverables, including better compensation.
  • Visit the Business Insider home page for more stories.

Amazon is doing very well, especially since the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, with sales to self-quarantined customers expected to increase by a third since the same period last year. But the online retailer also faced a public relations nightmare, announcing every day – leaked to the press – another warehouse or delivery station with a crate of COVID-19.

The workers told Business Insider they were afraid, despite the company’s efforts to promote social distancing and start looking for signs of fever among employees at the start of each shift. In a facility outside of Philadelphia, more than a dozen people left work, “panicking,” a source there, after automatically learning that another colleague had been infected.

Amazon’s latest initiative, aimed at reassuring employees and consumers, was announced in a blog post on April 9. “If everyone, including people without symptoms, could be tested regularly, it would make a huge difference in how we all fight this virus,” the company said. This will require “collective action” and to this end: “we have started to develop incremental testing capabilities”, to assemble parts for his own laboratory.

“We do not know how far we will go in the allotted time,” said the company, lowering expectations, “but we think it is worth a try and we are ready to share everything we learn with them.” others ”.

The tests are good, but should Amazon do it?

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, understands why Amazon is doing this, telling Business Insider that the logic is sound.

“I don’t know if it’s a public relations stunt, obviously,” said Jha, “but I’m very much in favor of an all-in-one approach to increasing our testing capacity. And being able to test all of its employees would go a long way in ensuring their safety.

It’s just that it’s not really Amazon’s job to do this, as the company points out, and attempting to do so could increase competition for scarce resources while raising thorny moral questions.

“One of the things I worry about is: will they start trying to compete for reagents, swabs and all the rest of it, with the state governments that are also trying to build their infrastructure? Jha commented.

“I am also not sure that it is super useful for every private company to build a test infrastructure for their own employees,” he said. “This raises a different set of issues, like sick people who don’t work at Amazon can’t get tested, but healthy people who work at Amazon can get tested.” “

In short, Amazon is not wrong to emphasize the power of testing – Jha thinks that with ubiquitous swabs, social distancing measures may well be relaxed by the summer – but that’s not not the right player. It is the government, particularly the federal government, that should strive to build the capacity to test everyone, Amazon employees and others.

Workers have other priorities

Amazon did not respond to a request for details about its initiative, such as a date when first workers could get tested. But some of its employees, past and present, told Business Insider what they thought about it.

An employee who recently resigned for security reasons said the initiative was laudable as an idea. But, “To me, it’s more like a long-term project. It’s good that they want to help, but I don’t know how viable it will be. It would be more helpful, they said, to “disinfect any surface that people might touch more regularly, let alone close it if necessary.”

It is a sentiment echoed by other workers: to focus more on the short term – not on the shot on the moon.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, “should focus on the current issues,” said an employee. This would mean ensuring that social distress measures are effectively enforced and that all employees receive adequate protective equipment, including masks and gloves – something that has been improved, but it is not not the case, everywhere and anytime, right now.

“We are all frustrated that he is doing all of these things and not focusing on the workers,” said the employee. Part of the reason is that people show up to work at Amazon: money. The company increased overtime and increased hourly wages by $ 2 during the pandemic. But why not $ 5, like during the Christmas rush? “Dedicated workers like me get fucked up. “

Another worker said, “Bezos has said it will hire 100,000 new workers. This, they argued, suggests a greater interest in moving products. “If he seriously wanted to protect his staff,” said the employee, “he would reduce [it] as much as possible and start delivering only the critical items. “

“Our lives are not worth the risk, so someone can order a t-shirt or a new toaster,” they said.

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