2020 – A Year in Review

By Angus Gillespie

Where to begin? It’s implausible to succinctly ascertain. Where it will end? That is an even more dubious forward-thinking projection at this stage. While the Gregorian calendar year culminates on December 31, it’s all but assured the innumerable impediments unleashed in 2020 will be with us well into 2021 and perhaps extensively and/or extendedly beyond.

When the world rang in the New Year on Wednesday, January 1 to welcome 2020 nobody could have foreseen the widespread misery, unrest and decay that would soon be dumped at our global doorstep. The scope of the medical healthcare pandemic brought about by COVID-19 and the widespread economic collapse that ensued is something none of us have ever witnessed in our lifetimes. The last global pandemic of such magnitude was in 1918 where millions of people died worldwide due to what has commonly become known as the Spanish flu. It began in February, 1918 and was not officially declared over until more than two years later in April, 1920.

No region of Canada has been completely immune from the virus but, as one would expect, the more populated provinces – Ontario and Quebec – have been hardest hit by the pandemic from a healthcare and economic perspective but British Columbia and Alberta have also borne considerable pain. In fact, as of November 22 Alberta reported a new one-day record with 1,584 cases confirmed.

Pre-Pandemic

Before the pandemic took its dastardly position as unwavering headline news, there were other major events – both good and bad. In January the Australian wildfires continued to rage on with more than 50 million acres of land being burned leaving thousands of people displaced and 35 killed. Millions of animals also lost their natural habitat.

Also in the first month of the year, Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle – the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – announced they were stepping down as “senior royals” and commit to a new life in North America. Originally, it was believed Canada was destined to be their primary place of residence but it was soon decided California is the place they wanted to be – so they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly – Hills that is… swimming pools, movie stars. Okay, enough of that little ditty.

Murmurs of the impending coronavirus health crisis first seeped to the surface in late 2019 and it was on January 9 when the World Health Organization announced the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus could be traced to Wuhan, China. Within a matter of 60 days the novel coronavirus – named COVID-19, short for Coronavirus disease of 2019 – had spread to all corners of the globe with infections and deaths seemingly on the rise with each passing day.

Meanwhile, we don’t often think of sports in terms of business, but major league sports are just that – big, profitable business. Franchises in each league are worth hundreds of millions of dollars – if not billions in many instances. Star athletes serve as lauded ambassadors and spokespeople to sell merchandising products for the largest companies in the world. One such superstar was Kobe Bryant, who sadly was killed along with his young daughter and seven other people when their helicopter crashed in dense fog in a mountainous region of California on January 26.

We witnessed sports, with teams and leagues playing in bubbles and no fans in the stands. With billions of dollars in television money at stake the leagues managed to make it work, although it was a surreal environment such like we’ve never before witnessed. A return to live sports, even in confined environments, provided sense of much-needed normalcy for the public in being able to watch our favourite teams playing once again rather than watching 10-year-old movies or documentaries such as Tiger King on Netflix. It provided a temporary escape, which was better than no escape at all.

In early February the seemingly endless impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump finally came to an end. Although the Democratic-controlled House was frothing at the mouth for a conviction, the Republican-controlled Senate had no appetite for it, and so Trump was acquitted on charges that he asked Ukraine to investigate now President elect Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The partisanship on both sides hit levels never before seen in American politics. In the past they at least pretended to be unbiased. Not anymore. And that stance extends to much of the media, particularly cable network news on both sides of the spectrum.

Layoffs and Lockdowns

The real impact of the pandemic hit Canada in early March when the federal government, along with the provinces, announced lockdowns as a means of restricting passage of the virus. Almost immediately companies began laying-off workers. In no time at all there were millions of Canadians on the unemployment line.

In the U.S., political and cultural unrest intensified with the Black Lives Matter campaign and there were also rumours of Kim Jong Un’s death. He remained out of sight for several weeks before finally re-emerging in public apparently no worse for the wear.

After an incredibly slow start, Joe Biden wound up winning the Democratic nomination in June and just recently was victorious in a hotly-contested presidential election against Republican incumbent Donald Trump. Biden will officially take office on January 20, 2021. At this point Trump seems willing to admit that Biden will be taking over the White House but he continues to maintain the election was rigged. As of publication, Trump and his inner circle have not been able to provide any concrete proof of any voting irregularities or illegalities. Without tangible evidence of tampering it seems the battle for No.45 has been lost and he must step aside for No.46.

Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide is still being met with a great degree of skepticism in some circles. The billionaire American businessman and one-time friend of former presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump was at the centre of a number of sex scandals, many involving underage girls. The only other person who may now be able to shed light on how vast his criminal activity extended is his former girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell who is cooling her heels behind bars on multiple sex trafficking charges since her arrest in July.

No Summer Relief

There was a brief period of time in the summer when the Murder Hornets took at least part of the headlines away from COVID-19. The invasive insect, known as the Asian giant hornet, can grow as large as 5cm. While the insect can be somewhat frightening for people to think about, by far the most disturbing concern is the honeybee colonies are at risk of extinction due to the predator hornet. Bees pollinate our flowers and provide honey. It’s estimated about 75% of all the world’s flowering plants require pollinators to produce fruit. Many of those fruits would be gone without honeybees. By extension some animals that eat pollinated plants could have difficulty surviving without a regular food source, which in turn would impact on the human food supply.

For the first time in history an ounce of gold hit a value of $2,000 USD in early August. At that time, gold had gained 30% in value for the first eight months of the year due to ongoing economic uncertainty due to the global pandemic.

Towards the end of August the federal Conservatives selected Erin O’Toole to be their new leader, replacing Andrew Scheer. The 47-year-old O’Toole is the Member of Parliament representing Durham, just east of Toronto. He was first elected in a by-election on November 26, 2012.

We all remember that massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon in August. One of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, it was ignited by the accidental detonation of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, leaving nearly 200 people dead and thousands more injured and displaced from homes that were ruined. The blast was equivalent to about 10% of the explosive power of the Atomic bomb that the U.S. dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945.

Biden-Harris

It was also in the month of August when then Democratic nominee, and former vice president, Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris to be his running mate. With the election victory on November 3 Harris became the first ever female vice president in the 244-year history of the United States. Harris has a Canadian connection having attended the latter part of her high school years in Montreal while her mother worked at McGill University as a researcher and instructor. Harris and her mother lived in Montreal in the late 1970s and early 80s, with Kamala Harris graduating from Westmount high school in 1981.

Amazon Expansion

A bright spot in a rather gloomy economic climate was news from Amazon, which unveiled plans to hire 3,500 people in Ontario and British Columbia as part of the company’s ongoing expansion plans. It’s estimated about 3,000 of the jobs will be based in the Greater Vancouver Area with another 500 in the Greater Toronto Area.

The new corporate and tech jobs at Amazon will include software development engineers, user experience designers, speech scientists working to make Alexa smarter, cloud computing solutions architects, and sales and marketing executives.

Amazon already has a strong footprint here in Canada. There are also plans to build another three fulfillment centres in Hamilton, Ajax and Halifax, bringing the national total to 16.

Parliament Prorogued

The PM took a risky move in proroguing Parliament following the resignation of Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau in late August. Morneau was a direct casualty of the WE Charity scandal. Upon Morneau’s resignation Trudeau immediately selected Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland into the finance minister’s role, becoming the first woman ever tasked with the important portfolio. The halting of parliamentary proceedings was cynically viewed by the opposition as a way for Trudeau to try and lessen the heat on the WE scandal.

The move to shutter day-to-day government scheduling came a year when the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the government’s plans, not to mention finances, with a deficit projected to be somewhere in the vicinity of $400 billion.

Morneau really had no option other than to resign in the wake of the WE Charity student grant controversy. It’s also alleged Morneau stepped aside because he felt he was no longer receiving the support of the PM and other senior members of the Liberal government. It was essentially a firing without the spoken words. There were also reports that Trudeau reached out to former Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney for his advice on the delicate matter. Carney had served as the Bank of England Governor for seven years. Meanwhile, Morneau also opted to step away from his role as a Toronto MP and will not seek re-election.

Ruth Bader-Ginsburg

The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice and cultural icon Ruth Bader-Ginsburg in September at the age of 87 set off a storm of controversy between U.S. Republicans and Democrats over President Trump’s desire to quickly replace the late justice with his own hand-picked selection Amy Coney-Barrett.

While Trump was well within his legal and constitutional rights as president to quickly nominate a potential candidate and have it pushed through government even more quickly, it was met with immense disdain by the Democratic side, fearful that the nine-seat Supreme Court would be dominated 6-3 in the favour of Republicans.

Despite obvious biased political opinions drawn on party lines, Coney-Barrett was confirmed. President-elect Joe Biden had repeatedly refused to say whether he’ll ‘stack the Supreme Court’ but it seems like a distinct possibility as a means of evening out the balance of power in America’s top court.

Government Return

Canada’s 43rd Parliament began in September where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority Liberal government survived a confidence vote on its throne speech, thanks to support from Jagmeet Singh and the New Democrats.

The speech was approved by a vote of 177-152 in the House of Commons, with the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois voting against.

The NDP had already made it known they would support the Liberals. Failure to do so could have forced a federal election at a time when Canadians really don’t have an appetite for it, especially in light of all the lockdown procedures due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois were transparent in saying they would not support the Liberals’ mandate. But their support was irrelevant once the NDP managed to secure vital changes to legislation relating to benefits for workers who had been left jobless or underemployed by the economic climate.

For the millions of Canadians that received the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) since it was rolled out in March, they will now be transitioned over to a revamped and more streamlined Employment Insurance (EI) program. CERB officially ended on September 26.

Canadians who had been receiving CERB through Service Canada will automatically be transitioned over. Those who received CERB from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) website were required to transition to Service Canada. Canadians must self-report every two weeks and confirm that they remain unemployed but are available to work in order to qualify for benefits. Payments are at least $500 per week, which means $1,000 every two week reporting period, rather than the $2,000 over four weeks with CERB.

Canadians with 120 insurable hours of work in the last 52 weeks can apply and receive a taxable benefit at a rate of at least $500 per week, or $300 per week for extended parental benefits, for up to 26 weeks. The maximum EI cap, as of now, is $573 per week, assuming an annual salary that exceeded $54,200 on last year’s T4.

If some people do not qualify for EI, and still cannot work due to the pandemic, they may be eligible for three new temporary benefits. it will essentially boil down to how many hours the individual worked over the past year.

The changes to the EI program and the three new recovery benefits will be available to Canadians for one year.

Besides the main EI program, the other three are:

The Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), which is for self-employed individuals but still require financial support because so much of the economy is still shut down. Valued at $500 for 26 weeks, the benefit is only provided to workers who haven’t returned to work due to COVID-19 or who have seen their income drop by at least 50%.

The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) is a new initiative that provides $500 per week for up to two weeks for workers who are sick or who must self-isolate due to COVID-19.

The Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit (CRCB) is for those who are unable to work because they need to care for a child under the age of 12 or family member because schools and daycares are closed. The benefit is up to $500 per week for 26 weeks.

Automotive

All-in-all it was a very successful year for Unifor and its president Jerry Dias as the influential union managed to secure new contracts with Ford, Fiat-Chrysler and General Motors. In an age of growing uncertainty for the automotive industry, all three companies have each made firm commitments to evolving their product lines to support green initiatives and electric vehicles in this country.

Unifor members ratified a three-year agreement with General Motors of Canada. About 85% of the membership voted in favour of the contract, which, among other things, will mean a return of production to the Oshawa, Ontario assembly plant.

The entire deal between GM and Unifor covers 1,700 workers in St. Catharines, Woodstock and Oshawa as the automaker transitions into developing electric and autonomous vehicles.

The three-year contract includes a commitment of up to $1.3 billion at Oshawa as well as $109 million in St. Catharines to support added engine and transmission production and $500,000 in operations at the Woodstock Parts Distribution Centre.

Agreements made earlier this year between Unifor and Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles also included promises of billions in new investment in Canada so it’s definitely a credit to the strong negotiating abilities by Dias and his team.

The deal at Ford includes a $500 million commitment from the Canadian and Ontario governments as the automaker transitions to manufacture electric vehicles at its Oakville, Ontario plant by 2023 in what will be a $2 billion commitment by the automaker. It also means work on manufacturing engines for the electric cars at the Windsor, Ontario plant.

Unifor’s agreement with Fiat Chrysler covers its workers in Brampton, Etobicoke, Windsor, Mississauga, Montreal and Red Deer. Members voted 78% in favour of ratification of the three-year collective agreement.

“This agreement solidifies and builds on FCA’s footprint, with a game changing investment of up to $1.58 billion for a state-of-the-art platform to build both Plug–In Hybrid Vehicles and Battery Electric Vehicles, along with a $50 million investment to bring multiple derivatives of the Dodge Charger and Challenger to the Brampton plant where production of the Chrysler 300 is being extended,” says Dias.

The commitments secured by Unifor will serve to stabilize FCA’s operations in Canada and position this country as a global leader in the transition to zero emission vehicle production.

Fiat Chrysler forecasts the return of the third shift in Windsor by 2024, adding as many as 2,000 jobs along with $14 million investment at the Etobicoke Casting Plant, and a 22% increase in the hourly workforce.

Not to be outdone by the Big-3, Elon Musk and his electric and autonomous automobile maker Tesla introduced its largest program of new share sales as a public company. It’s expected that Tesla could raise $5 billion on Wall Street. The resources would go partly towards innovation and production and the rest would be earmarked to addressing intensifying debt pressures.

Musk and his executive team have aspirations to expand production at its existing factories while also looking to broaden its facilities into places such as Berlin, Germany and Austin, Texas.

It was also recently announced Tesla will soon launch a new line of automobiles, including a truck called the Tesla Semi as well as the Cybertruck.

Tesla now has a market capitalization approaching $470 billion, making it the most valuable automaker in the world. The company’s upward trend has also resulted in Musk’s personal fortune to balloon past $100 billion.

Energy

Cenovus Energy acquires Husky Energy in an all-stock transaction currently valued at $3.8 billion. The merged company will remain headquartered in Calgary.

Cenovus CEO Alex Pourbaix retains his leadership post while Husky CFO Jeff Hart keeps his title as well, taking the role of Pourbaix’s right-hand man with the new company.

The merger is largely a result of the ongoing COVID-19-global pandemic, which in turn has caused a large drop in crude oil prices with demand far lower than would traditionally be required.

John Turner

On September 18, the country lost a former prime minister when John Turner died at the age of 91. Canada’s 17th prime minister passed away surrounded by family members.

Turner’s time as head of the country was very brief. In fact, at 79 days his was the second-shortest in history. It was the summer of 1984 when he took over from Pierre Trudeau, who abruptly resigned from the position. With the Liberal government’s fortunes sagging badly Trudeau saw the writing on the wall and didn’t want to go through the public embarrassment of what would have been a certain humiliating election loss, so he retired from politics. It was evident the Canadian public wanted political change and as such Turner was essentially thrown in as the sacrificial lamb as the Liberals were in fact handed a resounding defeat at the hands of Brian Mulroney and the Conservatives. Only Charles Tupper held the country’s top job for less time than Turner – 68 days in 1896.

A career in federal politics started for Turner in the mid-1960s, initially serving in Trudeau’s government along with other young up and comers such as Jean Chretien, who also would go on to serve as prime minister.

Turner had challenged Trudeau for the Liberal leadership in 1967, finishing second. In those early days, political strategists within the Liberal party viewed Turner as the man who would lead the party for years after Trudeau’s tenure was done given that he was a decade Trudeau’s junior in age, but of course that never came to fruition and instead the likes of Chretien and Paul Martin would go on to have far more high-profile prime ministerial careers.

During his time as federal justice minister the government decriminalized homosexuality and he suspended civil liberties during the October Crisis in 1970. Turner was also the finance minister during a very tumultuous time as Ottawa struggled to control deficit spending and inflation during the oil crisis.

Turner retained his seat as a Member of Parliament in the House until 1993, but largely retreated from public life after stepping down as Liberal leader. In 1994, he was named a companion of the Order of Canada.

Broadcasting

Online streaming services such as Netflix, Spotify and Amazon Prime Video could be on the hook for more than $800 million on matters of Canadian content over the next three years if the federal government follows through on plans being proposed in a new legislative bill.

Proposed changes to the Broadcasting Act are meant to ensure the major online platforms pay their fair share as the traditional broadcasters have always had to do.

Alterations and updates to the Broadcasting Act would include a new section for “online undertakings,” which would be defined as regulations for transmitting programs over the internet.

The bill would grant the CRTC more widespread powers to control commercial online streaming services and early estimates peg the contributions from those online entities as reaching more than $800 million within the next few years.

Netflix reported revenues of $780 million in Canada in the first nine months of 2019, while the traditional television sector saw its revenues decline on an average of nearly 2% each year between 2014 and 2018.

Divided States of America

The political unrest in America has resulted in an exhaustive run of consternation in Canada and around the world. Not since the U.S. Civil War has the United States of America been so horribly divided right down the middle.

A sizeable portion of the mainstream media desperately attempted to downplay Trump’s significance or the enormity of his base, but that was made very evident when the votes were tallied. In the months leading up to the election, professional pollsters claimed their figures would be far more accurate in 2020 than they had been following their disastrous pre-election polling performance in 2016 when they had assured Hillary Clinton would easily defeat Trump in a landslide. But with advanced techniques and technology the pollsters assured everyone that the results this time would be on target. Wrong – again. The polls were embarrassingly askew and although Trump did not win this time around, the election turned out to be much closer than the talking heads on cable news networks and certain newspapers were repeatedly trumpeting from atop their nauseating soapboxes.

Eventual winner Joe Biden secured about 78 million votes; Trump finished with about 73 million votes. On a scale of that magnitude it reveals just how completely split the American public is regarding the route it should be taking now and in the future. In terms of electoral votes, Biden won 306 to Trump’s 232. At least 270 electoral votes are needed to win the presidency.

Vaccine Breakthrough

In November, just weeks after the U.S. election, Pfizer and now Moderna claimed they have developed a vaccine formula that is overwhelmingly effective in early clinical trials for defeating COVID-19. More testing is required on a wider spectrum of people, but it seems as if both companies are definitely making significant inroads towards what could be an approved vaccine solution for the coronavirus.

Moderna says its vaccine appears to be 95% effective, according to preliminary data; studies are ongoing. Pharmaceutical competitor Pfizer announced its own COVID-19 vaccine appeared similarly effective at about the 95% level. Both companies are now in the process of seeking permission to use their products for emergency cases in the United States.

As of publication, virus cases have moved beyond 12.5 million in the U.S. The pandemic virus has killed more than 1.4 million people worldwide, and about 270,000 of them in the U.S. To date, there have been more than 350,000 cases of COVID-19 here in Canada and more than 11,600 deaths connected to the virus.

Even if one or all of the vaccines prove effective, the rollout to the general public could still be months away. These vaccine solutions require people to get two shots, several weeks apart. Moderna expects to have about 20 million doses, earmarked for the U.S., by the end of December. Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech expect to have about 50 million doses worldwide over the same time period. A drawback to the Pfizer potential vaccine solution is that it must be refrigerated and stored at temperatures of about -70C. Needless to say, that could provide storage problems for many regions where such equipment may not be readily available.

About a week after Pfizer and Moderna announced their breakthroughs, AstraZeneca, in conjunction with Oxford University, claimed its vaccine has a 70% efficacy.

Several high-profile world leaders contracted COVID-19 starting back in March, and the way it impacted them was quite diverse. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was frighteningly ill and had to be hospitalized for several days. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and U.S. President Donald Trump were also impacted by hospitalizations, although Trump emerged from Walter Reed almost as quickly as he entered, claiming the virus did not have any serious effects on him and that he went to the hospital as a precautionary measure at the urging of close aides. His wife Melania Trump also had COVID-19 as did Donald Trump Jr. Both suffered from only minor symptoms.

The leaders of Poland, Belarus, Guatemala, Bolivia and quite a few others were also hit by the wretched novel coronavirus. In Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau’s wife Sophie Grégoire came down with it after a trip to the UK in March. By all accounts she was not adversely affected and recovered fully in short order. It was much the same experience for Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and former Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

Throughout the summer months the endless number of ambiguous and oftentimes conflicting set of rules set out by such international bodies as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control have only served to confuse and aggravate the general public. We’ve gone from having experts tell us masks were not necessary to then pivoting to them being somewhat necessary, then vital, and now back to unnecessary, at least according to some. If experts can’t agree with one another it’s virtually impossible for the general population to get onboard and pull in the same direction.

In certain regions of the country children are now home-schooled in many instances through a combination of a parent, a tutor or by virtual online classes. Other regions have reopened schools with social distancing rules in effect.

Confusion Abounds

Confusion, uncertainty and anger abound. At a time when restaurants, bars, fitness clubs and all other services deemed non-essential are forced to be shut down during lockdowns we can only hope the greater economic power will somehow survive a challenge such as we’ve never faced in history. No Christmas parades, no large celebrations, very few or no spectators allowed at sports or entertainment events. The mental and emotional strain on people not being able to live normal lives has been vastly understated and is something that needs to be urgently addressed. Many sports managed to return to action and crown champions, albeit in a different manner, and often in different months. Wimbledon was cancelled altogether but the other three major tennis grand slams were played. The Masters, normally an April event, was held in November. And the 2020 Summer Olympics are now scheduled to be the 2021 Summer Olympics.

A sore spot with many Canadians is that big-box chain stores such as Walmart, Best Buy and Costco are allowed to remain open with a steady supply of in-store customers but small businesses that sell many of the same products are not. Small businesses equipped for it can offer curbside service, which surveys reveal are exceedingly unpopular with consumers for a variety of reasons. Small business groups are demanding changes to the laws that will allow them to also be open to the public, and they’ve shown a willingness to do their part to maintain safe social distancing, such as allowing only a few customers in stores at a time. This would at least give them the opportunity to make sales for the upcoming Christmas holiday season and pay their bills.

If the status quo remains, a significant number of small and medium-sized businesses will likely be forced to permanently shut down by early 2021, if not sooner, unable to take the financial strain. How does it make any sense to have a small flower shop be shut down with the alternative being to see its loyal customers have to go and stand in a long line of people waiting to enter Walmart to make the same purchase? In fact, keeping the small enterprises open would help to promote social distancing. If you combine all of them together they can accommodate a significant portion of the population, which now has no choice but to stand in line like a herd of cattle awaiting entrance to the big-box store. The disjointed, peculiar and downright ridiculous unsubstantiated governing process needs to be reviewed and amended.

Conflicting guidelines from Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, who has on more than one occasion been at odds with other health professionals regarding proper procedures and protocols that should be followed. Tam, who went from no masks to any masks, to three-tier masks has quite frankly been all over the map. She and several provincial Medical Officers of Health have clearly been at odds over a number of protocols. Tam’s provincial counterpart in Ontario, Dr. David Williams, was quick to counter Tam’s notion that masks need to be three-tiered. He believes the two-ply masks work just as well. Who to believe? That’s a hard question to answer when the so-called experts can’t even agree with one another. Dr. Williams had been scheduled to retire in February but is expected to remain on through September, 2021 as a means of keeping continuity.

Meanwhile, throughout all the uncertainty and fear, who pays the biggest price? Most often it’s the little person. It’s the individual that once owned a small, successful electronics store but who is now working in the electronics department at Best Buy. Why? Because small business has either been deemed unessential or otherwise had the life slowly but surely choked out of it. That may not have been the intent – but it has been the result. As of now, it’s moving in a dangerous direction that has not been reversed. To say the future is uncertain would be about the most positive thing that can be said – and that’s not saying much.

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