Lessons from the Pandemic

We went on a shopping expedition yesterday. Masked up, we walked to the supermarket and pharmacy and then returned home by way of the greengrocer. We made a special stop at a small market that was said to have eggs. There was a long line in front; but we got our eggs. Although I couldn’t tell for sure, I believe that these eggs were among those airlifted in from Portugal and Ukraine to meet the demand at Pesach time.

Israel still produces a lot of eggs, and this particular shortage was probably caused by hoarding by people who were afraid that the disruption caused by the coronavirus would prevent them from getting eggs for Pesach.

Eggs really aren’t a problem. We produce them, we can import them from multiple sources, and in the final analysis, we can live without them. Yes, even at Pesach, if we had to. In case you are wondering, there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of toilet paper, at least in Rehovot.

But what about other things? “Hi-tech” is supposedly the jewel in the crown of Israel’s economy, and semiconductors – microprocessors and countless types of simpler devices – are the building blocks of electronic devices. There are numerous semiconductor companies operating and headquartered in Israel, but – with the exception of Intel, which has manufacturing facilities for advanced microprocessors in Kiryat Gat – as far as I can tell, none of them actually make their products here. Chip designs created here are sent to “fabs” – fabricators – in East Asia, India, and elsewhere where they are manufactured. Other components that are necessary for building electronic devices are all manufactured elsewhere. Indeed, it is normal for a device to be designed in one country, assembled in another from parts made in still other countries, and then marketed worldwide.

Rice is apparently something that Israelis eat a lot of, but it is all imported. Israel exports irrigation systems that make it possible to grow rice with far less water than by traditional methods, but apparently we don’t use them at home. Ptitim, the tiny chunks of pasta that are so popular here, sometimes called “Israeli couscous” although they are not couscous, were developed by the Osem company as a rice substitute at the request of David Ben Gurion in the 1950s. During the first decade of Israel’s existence, not enough food was produced internally for all the immigrants – refugees from the Holocaust and Jews forced to leave Arab countries. In addition, there was little foreign currency available for imports like rice. Ptitim are cheap and easy to make.

There are numerous other products and raw materials that are essential to our daily lives or for our economy to function that must be imported. And we’ve developed complex systems that make this possible. But suppose these systems stopped functioning.

The coronavirus outbreak has made me think about this possibility. Suddenly we’ve noticed that things needed to respond to the epidemic, like protective equipment, diagnostic supplies, and ventilators, were not manufactured domestically. Drugs and ingredients for them come from overseas, often from only one country, usually China. Just-in-time manufacturing and inventory procedures mean that it’s difficult for the system to deal with a sudden spike in demand. Worldwide competition drives prices sky-high.

Israel made use of its Defense Ministry and even the Mossad spy agency to locate and procure urgently needed equipment. Defense facilities are now manufacturing ventilators locally. Thanks to this, and if current models are correct, Israeli doctors will not face the decisions their counterparts in northern Italy had to, in which they must choose which patient will get the ventilator that will allow him or her to live, while another is left to die. If we’re lucky.

But our highly leveraged technological civilization is not out of the woods yet. There is room for significant skepticism about the numbers of dead and sick coming from China. Economic and political instability there are not out of the question. In addition, some have predicted a deep worldwide economic depression caused by the pandemic and the lockdowns. If this comes about, and especially if it is accompanied by political instability – wars, revolutions, and the collapse of states – it could be enough to break some of the weak links in the chain that makes up the global economy. I could imagine widespread food insecurity in countries that until now have been considered highly developed.

Of course this could all be what my wife calls my “3 AM paranoia.” Maybe the coronavirus will quickly burn itself out, and economies around the world will recover quickly. Maybe the Chinese are telling the truth, or maybe they do have 21 million dead and it doesn’t matter. But whether or not this particular crisis is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, or if mankind wriggles out of this one only to be impaled upon the next (I love mixing metaphors), there are lessons to be learned for the people who make policy decisions for the nations of the world.

It is not possible for a nation the size of Israel to be self-sufficient in all things (although one like the US could be). But every nation should strive to be able to grow enough food to sustain its population. The trend toward agricultural monocultures is worrying. In other areas too, self-sufficiency should be a goal. Medical supplies are one. And many countries, including the US, are dependent on China. If something were to happen to China, or if the Chinese were to decide to deliberately act against countries it sees as enemies, it’s easy to imagine the result.

There are other reasons to worry about single sources for critical items. In 2007, Chinese manufacturers sold adulterated food ingredients to pet food manufacturers in the US and elsewhere, causing numerous animals to die. A year later, the same dangerous substance turned up in milk and baby formula, killing six infants in China.

A different kind of “adulteration” affects computer chips. In 2015, a Chinese subcontractor producing server motherboards for an American company secretly added an additional chip to them, one that would allow a hacker to bypass security in any network containing a machine with this board in it. The company’s servers were in use in American warships, drone operation centers, and more. In this instance, the trick was discovered. But it is even possible to modify a standard chip to include a “back door” on its own silicon. Such a hack would be much harder to detect.

The Chinese company Huawei makes 4G and now 5G equipment for cellular phone and data networks. US security officials claim (Huawei denies it) that there is a “back door” in this equipment which makes it possible for Huawei, and of course the Chinese government, to intercept traffic on networks using this equipment.

All this points to the risks in depending on outside suppliers for critical items, whether they be food or computer chips. We should diversify our agriculture and our manufacturing. Self-sufficiency is a worthwhile goal, even if it can only be attained partially. The coronavirus pandemic should be a warning that the worldwide system is not as stable or trustworthy as we have assumed. If we get through this relatively unscathed, we may not be so lucky next time.

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One Response to Lessons from the Pandemic

  1. Sidney Orr says:

    …very interesting speculations….yes, what comes next,
    and what a world under constant (?) threat from virii will be like,
    is the question…upheaval in social-norms,
    and gatherings of all types…. at a minimum…..it all makes
    one’s head hurt…

    Our local green-grocer par excellance, Trader Joes,
    has had the best logistics of any, hereabouts… but still
    is limiting egg-purchases….go figure!

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