Analysis |

Coronavirus Is Starting to Take Its Toll on Israeli Solidarity

Israelis, who are sick of being imprisoned at home, want their lives back. The government cabinet is falling into line, and it's the country's elders who will pay the price

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
A woman and her great grandchildren stand during the annual siren marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Haifa, April 21, 2020.
A woman and her great grandchildren stand during the annual siren marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Haifa, April 21, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The pendulum has completed its swing. Only a few days ago we were dealing with horror scenarios, the number of respirators and frightening comparisons to Italy and Spain. Now the public is focused on how fast we can emerge from the closure, and on the scope of the economic aid the state will give to those who have suffered financially from the coronavirus crisis.

Ostensibly it was government ministers who were, at their own initiative, holding lengthy discussions on whether ritual baths can reopen, fertility treatments can resume or to permit fireworks on Independence Day. But in reality, it seems the change is moving from the bottom up. Israelis, who are sick of being imprisoned at home, want their lives back. It’s the cabinet that’s falling into line.

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The Health Ministry continues to defend those measures that only a week ago were considered decrees that Israelis had agreed to accept, even if unwillingly: a gradual return to work, wearing masks outdoors, maintaining a distance of two meters from one another. But life tends to constantly erode people’s acceptance. Even Wednesday’s headlines reflected a type of return to routine: political conflicts, the evacuation of an outpost near Nablus, a stabbing attack near Ramallah, a crane accident in Rishon Letzion, and a 74-year-old man who was killed when a powered parachute crashed into Lake Kinneret.

All this doesn’t mean, of course, that Israel is done with the coronavirus. During the coming days, as the restrictions are eased further and their observance weakens even more, we can expect an increase in the spread of the virus. But it seems that there is a process of acclimatization taking place. People have started to react to the daily count of the dead with almost a shrug of the shoulders, as long as there’s no exceptional information or personal story. The warnings about what we can expect sound hollow, worn out, even though the bodies are still piling up in Europe and the United States.

As the financial worries increase, they become the priority issue. The older population – not just the elderly, but those aged 65 or 67, who were only a moment ago at the height of their power and abilities – will begin to discover that they are being shoved into a corner, asked to hunker down in their homes so that the younger people can get on with their lives. The vaunted Israeli solidarity has its limits. Older people, like residents along the Gaza border and the Galilee panhandle before them, are going to find that they, too, are the periphery – socially if not geographically, who will have a hard time getting the government or the public’s attention. It remains to be seen what remains of all the government’s lovely promises after the ongoing failure in dealing with elder care facilities over the past six weeks.

Left behind

As part of the holiday decrees, the cabinet decided Wednesday to forbid leaving one’s own city on Memorial Day and Independence Day next week. In an extraordinary move that generated strong emotions, bereaved families were told that they could not visit their loved ones’ graves on Memorial Day eve or on the day itself. The desire to prevent gatherings that could spread infection is clear, but it’s doubtful that enough consideration was given to the families’ feelings, especially since during those same hours plenty of stores are going to be open.

A longer-term problem is expected in the Arab community during the month of Ramadan, which begins at the end of the week. The cabinet decided to close stores and businesses from the early evening and through the night, which are the hours during which people break their fasts, also to prevent gatherings and restrict the festive meals to nuclear families. A new group called “the crisis expert teams” has started to publish analyses of the social and economic consequences of the coronavirus. Prof. Nadav Davidovitch and Dr. Nihaya Daoud, experts on public health at Ben-Gurion University, are coordinating the health team’s work. The two told Haaretz that the state’s preparations for Ramadan are too little and too late.

Israelis demonstrate in front of the supreme court in Jerusalem, April 20, 2020.
Israelis demonstrate in front of the supreme court in Jerusalem, April 20, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

According to Daoud, “While the prime minister told the Israeli public that restrictions were being relaxed, Arab residents who, like everyone else, have been closed up at home for a month and a half, are being asked to observe restrictions in their towns. This is happening when the rate of infection in Arab communities is double what it is in the Jewish sector. Arab society has a high level of response to the instructions but there are also unique problems; a high proportion of families who need help from social services, the limited welfare budgets in the local authorities, the lack of enough public information. The state had a month to prepare, but everything’s happening at the last minute.”

Davidovitch said, “One cannot see the crisis only in terms of the struggle between preserving public health and protecting the economy. The steps that have been taken have an enormous influence on various issues, like mental health and unemployment. Some of the physicists and mathematicians who are advising the prime minister look at people as if they are atoms in a box. In Arab society, as in ultra-Orthodox society, there are a variety of problems, from patients’ fear to go to hotels during Ramadan to the lack of delivery services in Arab towns, which means people can’t get food.”

Preschoolers first

A team of experts from Tel Aviv University and the defense establishment submitted an opinion last week at the Health Ministry’s request, in which it recommended the reopening of day care centers and preschools (up to age 6), as the first major step in getting the labor force back to work. The team was headed by Dr. Dan Yamin and Prof. Irad Ben-Gal of the university’s engineering department.

The two, who are experts in the spread of disease (Yamin) and artificial intelligence (Ben-Gal), developed an epidemiological model to predict the spread of the coronavirus in Israel. The model combines detailed morbidity data based on considerable information from cell phone companies that testify to the public’s patterns of movement during the crisis. This team predicted the outbreaks in several Arab communities and ultra-Orthodox population centers at an early stage.

The team recommends that early-childhood care centers be opened, even though it could lead to hundreds or even thousands of additional infections a day, including many asymptomatic infections. The pair estimate that in a situation in which half of the labor force age 60 and younger goes back to work, there won’t be an extreme increase in the number of patients who will be seriously ill or need respirators.

According to the two researchers, since most young children do not live in the same house as those 65 and over, who are the primary risk group, the chance of older people becoming ill won’t increase much. What’s more, international coronavirus research has shown that when children of these ages get infected, the illness is mild and is often not felt at all. But if the preschools remain closed, and without significant illness in the summer, the virus could return with a deadly outbreak in the winter, during the same period as seasonal flu.

They are positing that returning preschool children to routine quickly will increase the number of people who develop natural immunity to the virus and help weaken the effective infection coefficient (the average number of people infected by every virus carrier) next winter. The team recommends that all preschoolers be returned to their routines, except in a few places where there were serious outbreaks, like in Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak and some areas of Jerusalem. Until the pace of infection stabilizes in those areas, the team does not recommend sending kids back to school.

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