Analysis: Will COVID-19 cause food shortages in the United States?

National Guard COVID-19The food supply chain in the United States has so far been able to endure the pressures caused by SARS-CoV-2. Grocery stores across the nation remain generally well-stocked, even if in some cases (like in Nevada and Arizona), the National Guard has been brought in to help with restocking. Shortages in certain types of foods, such as canned soup or pasta, are the result of unprecedented demand, rather than a breakdown in the food supply chain. Overall, therefore, there are no signs of systematic food shortages across the nation. However, disruptions —some of them severe— are likely to be experienced in the coming weeks.

COVID-19 IMPACT ON FARMS

Disruptions are likely to be felt first in the area of fresh produce, for two reasons. First, because large agricultural facilities are beginning to experience major shortages in personnel, as seasonal farmworkers —most of them from Central and South America— are unable to travel north due to the cessation of international travel in the Americas. Second, because —just like medical personnel across the country— agricultural workers are facing severe shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE), which is essential for keeping them healthy in a pandemic. Until now, major Q QuoteCOVID-19 outbreaks have been occurring in densely populated urban centers. But as the disease continues to spread, it is only a matter of time before the virus reaches rural farming areas and enters farms, which are the beginning of the food supply chain. Many automated agricultural facilities, such as grain and soybean operations in the American Midwest, do not require large numbers of human laborers, and will thus suffer little disruption from the spread of the pandemic. However, this is not the case with fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes or grapes, which require human pickers to extract them. The progression of the disease in rural regions of Florida and California, which produce over 20% of total US agricultural value, will be a critical factor. As an illustration, is worth pointing out that two farms in California supply over 85% of all carrots in the US market. If COVID-19 affects the production and distribution capacity of global producers of fresh fruits and vegetables, like the Florida-based Fresh Del Monte Produce, the ramifications are likely to be felt across the world for more than a year.

AGRICULTURAL DISRUPTIONS IN WESTERN EUROPE

Western Europe, which is ahead of the US in the spread of the disease, is already experiencing unprecedented disruptions in agricultural production. The closing of international borders has prevented millions of seasonal farmworkers from Eastern Europe, whom agricultural facilities in Western Europe rely on to pick fruits and vegetables each year, from traveling west. Italy and Britain havQ Quotee begun issuing calls for unemployed workers to form “land armies” and volunteer to pick produce in farms. The French government has called “for hairdressers, waiters, florists and others temporarily unable to work” due to the pandemic “to head to the nation’s fields and start picking”. And in Germany, the authorities have launched a website that solicits volunteers to work in farms across the nation. However, as only 16,000 have volunteered so far, the German government is now working on a plan to allow undocumented immigrants to make up the remaining 284,000 farmworkers that are needed to salvage this year’s crop.

DISRUPTION IN THE GLOBAL FOOD EXPORT SYSTEM

It is unrealistic to expect that these glitches will not eventually make their way to the US. Moreover, just like Western Europe, the US relies heavily on imported foods. The global nature of the pandemic is also beginning to cause major disruptions in food exports, as air and ship cargo dwindles dramatically. Already, the shortage of refrigerated containers used to transport meat and other food supplies from China to North America has prompted a drop in imports of over 25%. Meanwhile, India, which is the world’s largest exporter of rice, has completely halted exports due to logistical problems and labor shortages caused by the pandemic. The world’s second and third largest exporters of rice, Thailand and Vietnam, are likely to soon follow suit. Kazakhstan, which is among the world’s largest exporters of wheat flour, has now banned all exports of that product. Brazil, the largest exporter of coffee, sugar and soybeans in the world, has warned that it is facing an unprecedented shortage of farmworkers, truck drivers, and even spare parts for farm equipment. And Russia, which is the world’s largest exporter of wheat, has said that it will soon be forced to severely restrict exports for the same reasons as Brazil. These developments prompted the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to warn last week that food shortages, coupled with growing trade barriers between nations, “will create extreme volatility” in global food supply. Read more of this post

In historic first, US designates Russian white supremacist group as ‘global terrorists’

UkraineThe United States Department of State has designated a Russian white supremacist organization a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) group. This designation marks the first time in history that the US Department of State has formally applied the label of terrorist to a white supremacist organization.

The group in question is the Russian Imperial Movement, which is abbreviated as RID (РИД) in Russian or as RIM in English. It is a far-right nationalist group whose members are considered racially motivated violent extremists. The majority of its members are based mostly in St. Petersburg, which is also the base of the group’s armed wing, the Imperial Legion. Most active members of the Imperial Legion are believed to have served in the Russian military.

Although it has been in existence since the early 2000s, the RIM drew considerable attention to its political platform after 2014, when it began to train groups of volunteers who then joined Russian-backed separatist forces in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. The group has also trained neo-Nazi members of the Swedish Resistance Movement (SMR) who were later convicted of carrying out a string of bombings targeting immigrants in the Swedish city of Gothenburg.

The relationship between the RIM and the Russian government is believed to be adversarial. The RIM is openly critical of the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which it accuses of being too liberal and too lenient on immigration. However, the government in Moscow did not prevent —some argue it even facilitated— the group’s role in training Russian volunteers to join separatist forces in Donbass.

Members of the RIM have also traveled to the United States, but the extent of their interaction with American white supremacists is unknown. In January of this year it was reported that the leader of The Base, one of America’s most notorious neo-Nazi organizations, may be residing in Russia.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 07 April 2020 | Permalink

US spy agencies conclude China intentionally concealed COVID-19 data

Trump and XiThe United States Intelligence Community has concluded that the Chinese government intentionally withheld and even fabricated crucial data about infections and deaths from COVID-19, according to reports. Consequently, the official numbers relating to the novel coronavirus outbreak in China allegedly represent a considerable under-reporting of both total cases and total deaths.

This claim was published on Wednesday on the website of the American news agency Bloomberg. The news agency cited “three [anonymous] US officials” in its report. The officials said that a summary of the evidence against China had been communicated to the White House in a classified report. The classified report is believed to conclude that the official Chinese numbers about COVID-19 are “intentionally incomplete”.

The claims against China include the accusation that the government in Beijing repeatedly changed the methodology it used to record and track cases —for instance by excluding asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers from the list for several months. There are also claims that the number of deaths owing to the virus may be much higher than official statistics show. This could be especially true in the city of Wuhan, in China’s east-central Hubei province, where the novel coronavirus is believed to have originated.

The embassy of China in Washington DC and the White House did not respond to questions about Bloomberg’s report on Wednesday. However, a number of pro-government media executives in China expressed concern in a Business Insider report late on Wednesday that the White House would try to exploit the Bloomberg report in order to “divert attention” from its own failures in preventing a surge of COVID-19 in America. They also claimed that China mobilized its health sector in a far more effective way than the US has done so far.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 02 April 2020 | Permalink

US Department of Homeland Security operations center relocates due to COVID-19

DHSThe National Operations Center of the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is relocating to an emergency facility after a member of its staff tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The information was revealed on Monday by Yahoo News, which said it obtained the information in an internal DHS document.

The DHS National Operations Center facility is housed in the west campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital, a National Historic Landmark built in 1855, which is currently being redeveloped as the new headquarters of the DHS. It operates as the DHS’ main coordination hub for managing and sharing local- and national-level information relating to terrorist threats and other emergency incidents.

For a number of days now, the DHS has placed restrictions on access to the National Operations Center, in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19. However, according to Yahoo News, a member of staff who works at the National Operations Center facility has now been diagnosed with having the virus. The news website said it found the information in “an internal DHS document” that it obtained, which is dated March 30. The document is entitled “COVID-19 Placemat” and contains a daily amalgamation of data points relating to if and how various US government agencies have been affected by the pandemic.

Yahoo News said a DHS official confirmed that the National Operations Center would be relocating “to an alternate facility […] as a precaution”. In the meantime the St. Elizabeths Hospital facility would be cleaned and sanitized, said the official, and added that the relocation would “not impact operations”. The “COVID-19 Placemat” did not identify the emergency facility that the National Operations Center personnel will be relocating to, said Yahoo News. But the news website noted that all US government agencies have remote facilities for use in a national emergency, “ranging from nuclear attack to pandemic”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 March 2020 | Permalink

Saudi Arabia may be abusing global phone tracking system to spy on dissidents

Saudi TelecomThe government of Saudi Arabia may be exploiting a decades-old tracking system embedded in the global mobile telecommu- nications network in order to spy on its citizens as they travel abroad, a report suggests. The report was published on Sunday in the British broadsheet The Guardian, based on documents provided by an anonymous whistle-blower.

The alleged documents may implicate Saudi Arabia’s three largest cellular telecommuni- cations service providers, said The Guardian, namely Mobily, Zain and Saudi Telecom. The anonymous whistle-blower told the paper that these companies were “weaponizing mobile technologies”, allegedly under the direction of Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy, which is notorious for suppressing political dissent within and outside the oil kingdom.

The alleged method of surveillance relies on SS7, a decades-old feature of the global cellular telecommunications system, which allows cellular providers to provide service to mobile phone users as they travel internationally. The SS7 system allows a mobile phone registered in a specific country to be used from a different country, and its user to be charged for the service. But to do so with accuracy, the SS7 system enables the service provider to track the owner of the device being charged for the phone call. This is done through what is known in cellular telecommunications parlance as a Provide Subscriber Location, or PSL, request.

According to The Guardian, Saudi cellular telecommunications providers have been making “excessive use” of PSLs in recent years. This indicates possible attempts to track the physical movements of Saudi cell mobile phone users who are traveling to the United States, and possibly other countries. The paper said that millions of PSLs were filed by Saudi Arabia in a one-month period in November of 2019. There is no telling how long this alleged surveillance operation has been going on, and in how many countries.

The paper also said that Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from the US state of Oregon, who is a member of the Senate’s powerful Committee on Intelligence, has written to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about the privacy vulnerabilities of the SS7 system. However, the FCC has taken no action on the matter.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 March 2020 | Permalink

Trump administration considering mass expulsions of alleged Chinese spies

United States ChinaThe administration of United States President Donald Trump is considering the possibility of expelling from the country dozens of Chinese diplomats, journalists, and others, who are believed to be undercover spies. The expulsions relate to a spiraling information war between Washington and Beijing, which has erupted in recent weeks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this month, the Chinese government announced that it would expel 13 American journalists from three major newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Beijing also stipulated that all American news organizations operating in China had to provide its government with detailed information about their financial assets, employee structure and other organizational information. The journalists claimed that they were expelled for trying to report about the status of the COVID-19 pandemic inside China.

Around the same time, President Trump and senior members of his administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, began referring to the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, known as novel coronavirus) as “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus”. The term refers to the Chinese province where the virus is believed to have originated. President Trump claims that he decided to use the term “Chinese virus” in response to unsubstantiated claims by government officials in Beijing that the novel coronavirus was brought to China by members of the US military.

On Thursday The New York Times reported that the Trump administration was considering expelling from the US a large number of Chinese citizens who work as diplomats or journalists. In some cases, the White House is reportedly considering shutting down the bureaus of some Chinese media outlets in the US. According to a number of administration officials, many Chinese journalists based in the US are in reality undercover intelligence officers, who regularly report to the Ministry of State Security —China’s primary external intelligence agency. Some of these alleged undercover intelligence officers —known in the world of intelligence as ‘non-official cover’— are allegedly embedded with China Global Television Network, the foreign-language arm of the state-owned China Central Television (CCTV), according to some American officials.

On March 2, the Trump administration abruptly imposed quotas on the number of foreign citizens who are permitted to work for Chinese media organizations in the US. The Chinese media groups complied with the new directive in a timely manner, by recalling over 60 of their staff members to China. However, the White House now believes that a significant number of the 100 Chinese journalists who continue to operate in the US are undercover intelligence officers.

Meanwhile, on March 25, China’s English-language government-owned newspaper The Global Times raised eyebrows by repeating allegations that the novel coronavirus was brought to China by an American cyclist, who visited Wuhan in October of last year to compete in the Military World Games. Such allegations, which propagate the view that the novel coronavirus originated in the US, are quickly growing in popularity in Chinese social media platforms.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 March 2020 | Permalink

US military given ‘continuity of government’ standby orders for COVID-19 pandemic

PentagonFor the first time in the modern history of the United States, the Department of Defense has been given standby orders to ensure the “continuity of government”, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These extraordinary measures, which include evacuating White House officials to remote quarantined locations, and devolving the nation’s leadership to “second-tier officials”, were originally meant for the aftermath of a nuclear war.

However, according to Newsweek, “Above-Top Secret” contingency plans are now in place, in case the nation’s Constitutional power successors are incapacitated by the pandemic. Standby orders have been issued for a series of plans under the US Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which was created in response to the 9/11 attacks as a homeland defense military authority.

These operations are codenamed OCTAGON, FREEJACK and ZODIAC, said Newsweek, and include CONPLAN 3400 (homeland defense if the US itself is the battlefield), CONPLAN 3500 (defending civil authorities in an emergency), and CONPLAN 3600 (defending the National Capital Region from an attack). Newsweek added that the Defense Secretary, Mark T. Esper, has authorized NORTHCOM to “prepare to deploy” in support of these “potential extraordinary missions”. These include “the possibility of some form of martial law”, where military commanders would be given executive powers across the US until a new civilian leadership would emerge.

An added complication to these plans is that the military itself is vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic, which makes for “extraordinary circumstances”, said Newsweek. In recognition of this vulnerability, the Department of Defense has instituted unprecedented restrictions for off-base activities of military personnel. Having first banned overseas travel, the Pentagon is now keeping all uniformed personnel on or nearby military bases across the country and the world. Newsweek added that several other national security agencies are following the Pentagon’s contingency plans, and that continuity personnel at the White House are “readying [for an] evacuation”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 March 2020 | Permalink