March 15, 2022

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Supply line shortages have ravaged the economy, hiked inflation and led to supply chain shortages. For example, Ford now says it will ship its Explorer SUVs to dealerships even though they are missing some parts. The dealerships need vehicles and Ford does not have the computer chips it needs to complete the assembly of rear-seat heater controls.

Multiply that across a zillion other industries and wrap your head around the notion that a new wave of interruptions may be unfolding this week.

China has a strict zero-COVID-19 policy that responds aggressively to new COVID-19 cases. That includes lockdowns of millions of people, widespread testing and factory shutdowns.

The Chinese government is forbidding 24 million people living in the province of Jilin from leaving. The lockdown will also apply to the southern cities of Shenzhen (17.5 million) and Dongguan (10 million). In all, 54 million people in China will be in COVID-19 lockdowns by midweek. Keep in mind, that is the response to 1,437 cases across dozens of cities while on Sunday, the U.S. recorded more than 7,000 new cases.

Beyond concerns about how the virus might spread, the lockdowns will stop the production of everything from Toyota cars to Apple iPhones.

Politico explores the impact of all of this:

Shenzhen is the headquarters of many top Chinese companies, including internet giant Tencent and telecom company Huawei. It’s also the home of major R&D and manufacturing facilities for companies like South Korean titan Samsung, German tech company Siemens, American hard-drive producer Western Digital and Taiwan’s Foxconn, which makes iPhones and other consumer electronics for Apple.

Paul Triolo, the technology policy and China lead at consulting firm Albright Stonebridge Group, said the output of these companies’ factories “could be partially or wholly curtailed” by the citywide shutdown, with the impact “rippling through supply chains.”

Shenzhen is not just home to manufacturing, it is also the home to the world’s third-largest port. Shipping and logistics websites warn that a shutdown of longer than one week could spell big shipping problems just as we saw after Chinese ports closed in May and June last year.

Freightwaves, a shipping insider news site, reports:

The issue is that trade and manufacturing take people. If workers cannot leave their houses, nothing can get made or transported. Shenzhen and Shanghai are the country’s major electronic manufacturing hubs.

Ports need trucks and warehouses open in order to move trade out of the port.

Trucks outside of Shenzhen are unable to enter the city and cross-border shipments from Shenzhen to Hong Kong are not going anywhere unless they are considered “essential.”

Shipping websites are reporting that container cargo ships are already backing up in Chinese ports. Already sky-high freight rates are likely to go even higher, according to shipping experts.

The Loadstar, which tracks shipping logistics, reports:

Analyst Lars Jensen, of Vespucci Maritime, said: “It should be kept in mind that when Yantian was shut down due to Covid last year, the disruptive impact on cargo flows was roughly twice the size of the blockage of the Suez Canal.”

Supply chain problems contribute to foreign jobs returning to America

Journalists, this is a time to talk to manufacturers in your community about how supply chain issues interrupt their work. One interesting take on the story is how some U.S. manufacturers are benefitting from the unreliability of foreign suppliers.

Here is a list of hundreds of companies (and where they are located) that have moved jobs from abroad. The list includes everything from a small towel company in Georgia to a call center that moved to Booneville, Mississippi, and an agriculture equipment assembly line that moved 100 jobs from France to Minnesota. The list also includes a metal lid company that moved to China and just moved back to Pennsylvania to solve supply chain problems.

The word that is catching on is “reshoring,” meaning bringing foreign jobs back to the U.S. to avoid shipping interruptions. The best guess is something like a quarter of a million jobs came back to the U.S. in 2021. Ohio, Arizona and Tennessee were big beneficiaries.

(Reshoring Initiative)

Most of the jobs that “reshored” in 2021 seem to be coming from South Korea, but the data from China could be underreported.

(Reshoring Initiative)

The rising COVID cases in Europe and beyond

New COVID-19 cases are rising well beyond China. In fact, they are rising sharply in some places. Hong Kong’s COVID-19 death rate is 35 per 1 million people, which is more than twice the rate of death that the U.S. marked at the height of the pandemic here, even though our vaccination rates are roughly equal.

And look at this data, which includes last week’s calculations:

(Our World in Data)

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said COVID-19 reached a “critical” level as infections rose to a record high there this week. Germany plans to lift most restrictions this weekend.

Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist, says the rising cases in Europe may have many ingredients, but some of this is, for now, guesswork. Here are some of her hypotheses for this uptick:

Countries are opening and people are really wanting to put COVID behind them (regardless of whether the virus is ready for that). For example, in the U.K., all mitigation measures have been removed, including self-isolation.

There has been chatter that the war in Ukraine may impact COVID transmission in Europe. In the past, war has increased the prevalence of infectious diseases, so this is possible. But, Poland, who has received the most refugees, hasn’t had an uptick in cases.

Some have hypothesized waning of vaccination protection. However, cases in the U.K., for example, are increasing across each age group. Given that vaccines were rolled out by age, if vaccines were waning, we would only see this uptick among those who were vaccinated first.

But Dr. Jetelina says it is likely that the main reason for the increase is the variant’s infectiousness and — as we know too well in the U.S. — even people who are vaccinated may become infected, although they are much less likely to get severely ill or die.

If you are looking for a bright spot in Europe, look at the United Kingdom, where COVID-19 is now about as severe as the flu across all age groups.

High gasoline prices lead thieves to tap your tanks

Here come gasoline thieves to suck the fuel out of your car’s tank. It is hard to know if the cases have risen a lot or if we a just paying more attention to the reports, but from Los Angeles to Atlanta, I am seeing these stories surface about people punching holes in gas tanks.

You might wonder why they don’t siphon gas the old-fashioned way. These days, vehicles have rollover valves that prevent gas from being siphoned out. These valves’ primary purpose is to keep your vehicle’s fuel system from building up a vacuum and pressure. The valve also provides a method of controlled escape for gasoline vapors during the refueling process. And the valves also slow fuel leaks in a crash.

Here is a quick video explaining why you can’t just stick a hose into a tank.

The real cost of gas tank tampering is not just the cost of the fuel you lose. A new gasoline tank can cost a thousand to a couple of thousand bucks. If somebody drills a hole into the tank you will have no choice but to replace it, not repair it.

Gas stations demand prepayment to prevent drive-off thefts

Gas prices are displayed at a gas station Friday, March 11, 2022, in Long Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

CNN reports:

“The increasing costs of fuel has dramatically increased the number of drive-offs we are experiencing,” Britton Gas and Grocery said. “We have tried to avoid this for many years but can’t cover the costs of gas theft any longer.”

In Houston, a gas station said one guy parked over the underground fuel tanks and stole a thousand gallons of diesel fuel.

The first case of deer-to-human COVID?

National Geographic reports:

A white-tailed deer in Canada likely infected a human with coronavirus, according to new research. The case, reported in a preprint journal, would be the first known instance of a COVID-19 spillover from a white-tailed deer—a common species throughout North America—into another species.

There are several caveats to this report. One is that the study has not been peer-reviewed. The other is it is one case and, while that is worthy of an alert, it is not a cause for alarm.

A battle over who governs the internet?

This is not something that deserves to send you into a full-blown tizzy yet, but it is something to be alert to. First, some background. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers coordinates the internet’s address system and other technical operations. The nonprofit does not control content, but it does try to keep some order, so your internet address does not walk on top of mine.

There is another agency you likely have not heard of called the International Telecommunication Union, or ITU. It is a communications agency affiliated with the United Nations.

China and Russia say the ITU should be doing the work that ICANN does and former Russian government worker Rashid Ismailov is running for secretary-general of the ITU. The U.S. has a candidate in the running too, Doreen Bogdan-Martin.

Conventional wisdom among people who know about such things is that the Russian invasion of Ukraine increases Bogdan-Martin’s chances of being chosen.

Axios has more depth on this issue and the Lowy Institute’s website, The Interpreter, has a particularly ominous view of what the election of the Russian candidate could mean to the future of the internet.

The election is in September. Each UN member state has one vote.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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