2020 was not all doom and gloom: 8 positive takeaways from the past year
From peace in the Middle East to the rise of telemedicine, Calcalist reporters highlight the positive aspects of the historic year and technology’s key role in them
By Doron Peskin
The agreement to normalize ties with the UAE was received with a chuckle amongst most Israelis. We were always taught that “Peace is made with enemies,” and not with a state with whom we never really had an issue with. Moreover, the flood of tourists that escaped the pandemic to a magical world with no facemasks or disinfectant gels, only luxury malls, fancy cars, and lots of barbecue only deepened the sense that we didn’t sign a peace agreement so much as a deal with a country that is essentially an all-inclusive resort. This, however, is nothing but background noises that distract from the essence, which is that the agreement with the Emiratis actually constitutes a historic change whose significance to Israel is immense, both from a geopolitical standpoint and an economic one. Together with the agreements it signed with Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, Israel has officially and openly become an integral and legitimate actor in the region, making it an important factor in the Arab world’s ability to cope with the rising regional security threat posed by Iran. A de-facto new Middle East.
Promises of a new Middle East date back to the 1990s, but they never materialized, because the previous peace agreements, with Egypt and Jordan, that were based on exchanging land and dividing up resources, were mainly meant to end security tensions. The regimes themselves never encouraged cooperation with Israel on the civilian level and took no actions to promote acceptance of Israel and Israeli people. It was a ”cold peace.” Meanwhile, the recent string of agreements— for the very reason that they didn’t follow decades of conflict and animosity—arose from the deep desire to cooperate on all levels, not just the political or security levels. With all due respect to Jordan and Egypt, their financial clout on the regional and global arena, doesn’t near that of the UAE.
The United Arab Emirates is the second largest economy in the Arab world and a global hub for trade, logistics, finances, renewable energy, healthcare and technology. As such, it opens Israeli entrepreneurs to new markets that have traditionally been hostile to Israel, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan. The Jebel Ali Port in Dubai, one of the 10 most important ports in the world, as well as the adjacent free zone have become the entrance and exit points of goods to and from Asia. For Israeli manufacturers operating out of Jebel Ali will provide convenient access to a market of 1.4 billion consumers— mostly Muslims who had up to now avoided open connections to the Israeli market. And it’s not just about the economy—in the long term these Muslim states’ connection to Israeli products and knowledge can have an important psychological impact on their sentiment towards the Jewish state.
The agreements also open the door to a range of opportunities in the life science sector. In recent years Emiratis have been investing heavily in research and development, which when combined with Israeli know-how can achieve critical breakthroughs in the fields of renewable energies, healthcare, agriculture, and sustainability.
In order for that vision to become a reality, Israelis too have to rid themselves of their old-fashioned notions and realize that the Gulf States are far more than luxury hotels. If until now it was natural for the Israeli business community to look to the west, the new agreements indicate that there is a world of potential in the east.
2. The world learned how to join forces: A vaccine for a new disease was developed in less than a year
By Ariel Greisas
The past few years haven’t been kind to the concept of globalization. Donald Trump rode the backlash to it all the way to the White House and then embarked on a trade war with China, dumped the Paris Accords, picked fights with NATO and in general tried to reduce the U.S.’s global engagement to a bare minimum. The UK Brexit, despite its challenges to the local economy won the referendum and survived all the obstacles before finally being signed in recent days. Hatred of foreigners and nationalist fears have increased in many countries in the wake of immigration waves from Africa to Europe and from Central America to the north. And as if all that weren’t enough, along came Covid-19 and supposedly hammered in the final nail in globalization’s coffin. If in the past it would have taken a pandemic months or even years to spread from the place of origin to the rest of the world, by virtue of globalization, coronavirus transformed from being a localized problem in China to a global medical catastrophe.
However, as 2020 progressed, globalization began to fight back and proved its supreme value: It may have been responsible for the spread of the virus, but it will also be the cause of its eradication, hopefully very soon, by virtue of unprecedented cooperation between scientists and leaders around the planet.
If prior to 2020 each country preferred to play its cards close to its chest, Covid-19 forced them all to tear down the barriers of knowledge, paving the way for the rapid development of vaccines and tests. Scientists all over the world were able to share their findings and insights with each other and progress at a much faster rate than we are used to. Even a closed off country like China had to share information.
In the past, it took 10 or even 15 years to develop a vaccine for a new disease, while this time it took less than a year. Technologies that had already been developed and are now commonplace helped sequence the virus’s genome and provide an understanding of what an eventual vaccine would look like. Other technologies, including those developed in recent years, helped develop the mRNA vaccine used by the two leading vaccine manufacturers, Pfizer and Moderna. National funding at an unprecedented scale enabled the development and production of a vaccine long before it was fully tested, without the producers having to worry about costs. And in the end, once the vaccine was ready, it didn’t remain the sole possession of the country it was made in, but instead it was distributed all around the globe. Even if some problems are discovered down the line (such as, the allergic reactions that it caused in a tiny portion of recipients), thanks to globalization, we will know about them and find ways to cope.
True, globalization is not a perfect solution: it is largely responsible for the creation of gaps between the wealthy and satiated first world and the struggling third world. And the Covid-19 vaccine will only deepen the gap as countries with money and international stature can afford to purchase the expensive vaccine at full cost while others will have to wait patiently, perhaps even as late as 2022.
It’s also undeniable that globalization, powered by social media contributed to the rejection of vaccines and fake science news in general, including previously unimagined conspiracy theories from flat earth to 5G antennas spreading Covid-19.
And still the bottom line is extremely positive—globalization transformed the whole world into one giant laboratory and doing so helped renew faith in science’s ability to save humanity. The world’s ability to rise above economic, ethnic, and political rivalries to reach a fast and good solution to the pandemic proved once again that only international cooperation can answer the world’s biggest and toughest problems. This is not a trivial matter. The climate crisis is already here and its devastating effects are only getting worse. In order to ensure the world that our children will inherit, we must quickly act on the lessons we learned from Covid-19.
3. Telemedicine took a leap forwards: You no longer have to leave your home to receive treatment
By Viki Auslender
Surprisingly, the hi-tech nation, which prides itself on its technological exports to the world, was late in adopting the benefits of digital healthcare. Until a year ago, the most you could ask for in terms of online services was a sick day authorization or a prescription renewal. The idea of an iPad on a stick rolling through hospital hallways and providing treatment seemed cold and detached and virtual consultations with physicians were— if at all considered—seen as an inferior form of healthcare from an anonymous doctor. All that changed when the pandemic broke out, when access to medical centers was barred whether due to patients fearing to expose themselves to the virus or the comprehensive ban on patient visitation. It was the moment that remote healthcare became the warmest, most human and most compassionate that progress could offer.
Today, thanks to telemedicine, patients can meet with a specialist from their home using a secure chat room, receive a second opinion — even in the evening hours, conduct urine tests via an app, order lab tests on their phones and get drugs delivered straight to their homes.
Doctors can now make use of virtual tools that can gather a patient’s medical records and history prior to a consultation and thus shorten the treatment and waiting times. Clalit Health Services, Israel’s largest HMO, offers its clients to lease the Israeli-made TytoCare home diagnosis device, which allows them to carry out tests, such as heart, lung, throat, ears and skin tests that would ordinarily have required a visit to a clinic.
Digital healthcare is not yet being used as a direct diagnosis tool, but it offers the health system tools to enable doctors to sift through the concerned patients and differentiate between the light cases that would be better off staying at home and those that require urgent hospital care.
Virtual healthcare became a lifeline to help ‘flatten the curve’ during the Covid-19 pandemic, for both the patients who otherwise may not have received the necessary treatment and for the hospitals, which would have wasted precious resources on sorting through the patients as well as subjecting their staff to risk of infection. It may have taken a global pandemic to get there, but Israel’s telemedicine sector has finally caught up with the rest of the world.
4. Closing the socioeconomic gap begins in school: 150,000 underprivileged families received computers from the Ministry of Education
By Shahar Ilan
Great revolutions sometimes take shape through modest and earthly means, and mostly without anyone planning for them. Access to a computer is one such example. Covid-19 forced education to shift to Zoom and expanded the gaps between students in a day. Many of them didn’t have the means or the ability to sit in front of a computer and study on their own, meaning that the strong became stronger and the weak became even weaker. Masses of children who lacked a home computer or access to the internet were left far behind.
In October, the Ministry of Education took on a major operation of distributing 150,000 laptops to underprivileged families. Nearly every day, Education Minister Yoav Galant moonlighted as a deliveryman and personally brought the computers to where they were needed. It’s ok to criticize him for insisting on getting his picture taken at every stop, but you also have to credit him for carrying out one of the most important social revolutions to take place in Israel in recent years. Distributing the computers will enable the children not only to close the gaps, but to truly broaden their horizons. Picture your own children coping with daily challenges without the ability to search for information on the web, use Office programs or communicate with friends via social media.
Access to a computer and the internet is a fundamental tool in closing social gaps, but as any social activist knows, the battle is never over. Even the most advanced equipment that the ministry hands out will be worn out and obsolete within a number of years. If the ministry is smart and dedicates NIS 250 million a year to update the equipment, the coronavirus will have left behind a legacy of valuable social change that offers underprivileged children a ticket into the world at large.
5. No more turning a blind eye: the social networks started taking responsibility for the poison they spread
By Ruta Kupfer
“The algorithm” has become the go-to scapegoat in recent years — the same amorphous mechanism that manages activities on social media. Russian hackers use it to take advantage of Facebook to sway the results of the U.S. Presidential elections, and everyday citizens are transformed into terrorists fueled by conspiracy theories fed to them by YouTube. Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk claim that their platforms are neutral and it's only the extremist users “who take advantage of the algorithm” — an argument that’s meant to ward off any demands that they provide oversight over the content they display, censor it, or at least cease from spreading it. But where the Russian hackers failed, Donald Trump succeeded, even if it was completely against his will.
In May of this year, Twitter for the first time added a disclaimer to a tweet by the U.S. President, in which he claimed that mailing-in voting was exposed to fraud. The social media network added a comment saying the tweet was “potentially misleading” and referred followers to a link that contained fact-checked information that countered the president’s claim.
This month, Facebook and Twitter added another unprecedented correction to a tweet after the President said that he won the elections by a landslide. The networks added a prominent pink comment that made it clear that “Elections officials have certified Joe Biden as the winner of the U.S. Presidential election.”
True, this recent taking on of responsibility is likely not due to the networks’ owners growing up, but rather due to not having a choice: primarily because of legislators’ increasing demands and secondly due to the acts of violence being carried out while using the platforms — like in the case of the new Zealand terror attack in March 2019 being broadcast on Facebook Live—which severely harm their brand. Things are so bad that even their employees are refusing to keep silent: this year it was revealed that YouTube executives ignored warnings by employees of problematic content being aired and Facebook employees went on strike over their company permitting the posting of harmful content and fake news.
Despite all that, the step the networks took—small and forced upon them as it was--was a significant one in the overall battle for the truth. At a time when traditional media is on a steep decline, having social networks side with the truth is vital. Their support aided in the victory of the vaccines over Covid-19 deniers and the victory of Biden’s rationality over Trump’s lies. Even a small disclaimer can produce a major revolution.
6. Soon we will reach the moon: the vision of commercial space flight blasted off
By Udi Etsion
A luxurious spa on the Moon or a vacation on Mars? The day that such dreams will be realized is not that far off anymore. The past year saw the race to commercial space flight make substantial gains. On May 31st, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule docked at the International Space Station, completing what was the first space flight carried out by a private company, manned by two civilian (albeit NASA graduates) astronauts. In doing so, it also closed an embarrassing nine year gap, after the grounding of the U.S. Shuttle Missions, during which NASA was forced to rely on Russia to take astronauts into space.
SpaceX, which is currently in talks to raise $92 billion, promises a revolution in the field of space launches, which until it came on to the scene relied on the principles and inventions of Dr. Wernher von Braun, a former Nazi rocket scientist who after World War II granted the U.S. victory in the space race. Boeing and Lockheed, just like the Chinese and the Russians, kept on doing exactly what von Braun and his team had taught NASA to do, until SpaceX came along and proved that it was possible to build a launch vehicle that is partially reusable, in which the first stage lands without burning up in the atmosphere. significantly reducing the cost of space travel.
Next year SpaceX is scheduled to launch its Starship Rocket into orbit, whose every launch is set to cost a mere $2 million — nearly nothing compared to the $500 million price tag that accompanies every shuttle launch. The cost of sending one kilogram of cargo into low orbit is meant to drop to only $10, compared to tens of thousands that it costs now, something that will dramatically decrease the cost of using satellites, flying to the Moon, and eventually to Mars.
Nation States opened the gates. Now it is private companies’ time to take to the stars, establish commercial tourism activity, mine for resources, and initiate production in zero gravity. Christopher Columnbus arrived in America sponsored by the Queen of Spain and local Merchants, Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon courtesy of the U.S. government, and if the governments of the world don’t hurry up to fund the next breakthrough, it is entirely possible that the first person to step on Mars, will be launched on a private mission with a Coca-Cola logo on their spacesuit.
True, not everything is going perfectly. On December 9th, SN8, SpaceX’s starship prototype crashed upon landing, so the experimental stage is still far from over. And even after it is, space tourism will still be reserved for millionaires for the next decade. But still, you can’t help but get a sense that the moon is getting closer: Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will soon start offering a taste of spaceflight, approaching the edge of the atmosphere and experiencing weightlessness at the cost of roughly $200,000. Larger scale space tourism — at relatively reasonable costs of tens of thousands of dollars for a vacation— are likely to start in around 2040, when launch costs will enable the construction of larger commercial space stations. It is still many years away, but still far less than the time that passed between Columbus’s arrival in America and the advent of cheap flights to celebrate New Year’s Eve in New York.
8. No longer an exclusive club: young people are flocking to the stock market
By Sophie Shulman
The Covid-19 crisis repeatedly brought about results that flew in the face of all predictions. Crises drop the stock market? This year is ending with historic spikes. Crises balance out social gaps? At the end of the Covid-19 year the rich were wealthier than ever, in large part thanks to government funded ‘helicopter money’ that somehow dropped it disproportionately over wealthy areas. But one positive surprise outcome that took place in the capital market is that a massive number of new investors got into stock trading.
The new arrivals are mostly millennials who up until now avoided the stock market in part because it was seen by them as a capitalistic game for grownups that contradicted their principals of sharing, and also because as children, many of them saw their parents suffer as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. However, Covid-19 saw them shuttered indoors, bored, and flipping through apps on their devices in a search for new hobbies. They had almost no choice but to stumble upon Robinhood and its like— simple and accessible apps to trade with.
Contrary to all predictions and when the market was at its most volatile, the Millennials found out that the shared economy and technology are great and that not only can you enjoy them, but you can also profit from them. 2020 is ending at a record of public participation in the stock market, from a historic level of 10-15% up to 20%. Even if a single year can't erase the gaps, the dominant presence of the new generation of investors — who showed itself to be sophisticated, buying in on the downturn and not on a FOMO-induced uptick— may eventually balance out socioeconomic disparity. The heavy hitters and institutional investors may still dominate, but now the young people are setting some of the tone.
8. Emerging from darkness into the light: Israel’s green energy sector got a substantial boost
By Lior Gutman
When it comes to renewable energy, Israel lags far behind the rest of the world. Over the past decade, while the world battled global warming by shifting to green energy, primarily solar and wind, Israelis were stuck battling over natural gas drilling — an energy source that is cheaper and less polluting than coal, but still polluting. The rate of electricity produced from renewable sources in Israel stands at only 7%, below the government’s goal of 10% and far below the international average of 17%. But despite all that, there are reasons to be optimistic, because this year there was a real revolution in the field— what the politicians failed at doing, was accomplished due to the Chinese market.
The rising global demand for solar facilities caused the Chinese to substantially increase their manufacturing volumes in turn leading to a 90% drop in prices. As a result, producing energy from the sun became the cheapest method available. In July, the Electricity Authority issued its first tender to establish solar facilities to produce electricity priced at 25% less than that produced by the Electric Company’s natural gas powered plants. The major novelty was that the plants include the capacity to store electricity using lithium-ion batteries, enabling them to supply electricity around the clock and not just during daylight hours.
The tender was hailed as a success and the solar fields now being constructed are set to triple the percentage of renewable energy sourced electricity to reach 20% within four years. The Ministry of Finance was encouraged by the new prices and in November finally issued a tender for a giant 3,000-dunam (750 acre) solar field to be built outside of Dimona in the Negev Desert.
With all due respect to the natural gas revolution, the future rests in solar energy — spelling a win for the environment, the race to energy independence and the battle over the cost of living.