Amazon is acting like an independent nation in its battle against the coronavirus

An Amazon worker in a face mask.
An Amazon worker in a face mask.
Image: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
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As pressure mounts on Amazon to keep its warehouses running smoothly and at maximum capacity while also addressing safety concerns from workers, the e-commerce giant has hatched plans to build its own Covid-19 testing facilities.

Amazon announced this past week it has started assembling equipment for its first testing lab. The company said it hopes developing “incremental” testing capabilities will help it monitor the health of its hundreds of thousands of workers, including those displaying no symptoms of the virus.

“Regular testing on a global scale across all industries would both help keep people safe and help get the economy back up and running,” the company wrote in a blog post. “Unfortunately, today we live in a world of scarcity where COVID-19 testing is heavily rationed.”

Amazon has pulled research scientists, program managers, and procurement specialists onto the testing project from their normal day jobs. The company said it hopes to start testing on small numbers of frontline workers soon. Reuters previously reported that Amazon was in touch with the CEOs of two coronavirus test makers about ways to screen its workers for Covid-19.

Comprehensive testing is a key weapon in the battle against the coronavirus, as health experts race to flatten the curve and quickly track and contain new outbreaks. Usually these testing efforts are the work of state and federal governments, but both testing capacity and materials have proven woefully inadequate amid a global pandemic.

That Amazon is taking such a key part of the coronavirus response into its own hands is a reminder of how the $1 trillion company can act like a nation unto itself. Its founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world and one of the most powerful. Amazon’s 2019 revenue was $281 billion (pdf), roughly equivalent to the estimated 2019 GDP of Pakistan. Amazon has more than 150 million paying Prime members around the world, making Prime nation the world’s ninth-most populated country.

Even Amazon’s considerable wealth and power haven’t protected it from the coronavirus. The company has been torn between keeping orders and deliveries moving and ensuring its employees are adequately protected amid serious shortages of personal protective equipment.

At last count, the coronavirus had spread to at least 50 of Amazon’s more than 500 US warehouses, the New York Times reported, endangering frontline workers as they struggle to keep up with the crush of demand for online orders. Amazon says it has enhanced cleaning, is distributing masks to employees and conducting on-site temperature checks, and is trialing measures like using “disinfectant fog” at a warehouse on Staten Island in New York City.

The company has tried to keep workers showing up by raising their hourly pay (by $2 per hour in the US and €2 per hour in many EU countries) and doubling hourly base pay for overtime hours. Amazon is also hiring 100,000 workers to improve surge capacity.

So far those measures have yet to reassure all frontline workers, some of whom have staged repeated walkouts over conditions they say leave them at risk of falling ill with Covid-19.