“No flight lands from Dubai without disorderly behavior. People refuse to be evacuated. They shout and curse, use expressions like ‘you’re racists’ and ‘you’re Nazis’ – sometimes they even throw chairs,” says Health Ministry attorney Hen Wandersman, head of the so-called exceptions committee at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
That’s the team tasked with stopping COVID-19 patients – some of them perhaps carrying a highly contagious new variant – from spreading the infection throughout the country.
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The Dubai route now accounts for most of Israel’s civilian traffic. Wherever Israelis are coming back from, they have a slim chance of success when requesting an exemption from hotel quarantine, whether at the airport or in the following days at the hotel run by the Home Front Command.
Throughout the crisis, Ben-Gurion has been considered a coronavirus vector. Despite the recommendation to quarantine after arriving from a “red” country, two-thirds of returnees from such countries have simply ignored quarantine altogether. Also, in Israel it is illegal to require someone to take a coronavirus test.
And of course now there are the new variants. On January 18, the authorities decided that Israelis returning from the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Zambia and Brazil will have to stay at a coronavirus hotel.
This news is turning Ben-Gurion into a daily display of ugly Israeliness. A flight from Dubai with 120 passengers might normally take 20 minutes to empty, but now could take more than three hours, Wandersman says.
“Some people refuse to be evacuated. There’s a negotiating team from the police that tries to convince them using ‘gentle’ means, without force or threats,” she says.
“Sometimes that helps, sometimes it doesn’t. People start to act out, to throw themselves on the floor, to start provocations. If it reaches verbal or physical violence they’ll be fined 5,000 shekels [$1,530] and will probably go home.”
According to the Health Ministry, between January 18 and January 26, 12 flights landed in Israel from countries for which a hotel quarantine is often mandatory. Nine were from Dubai, with 971 passengers, and three from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, with 249 passengers. Of the returnees from Dubai, 297 were released to home quarantine, as were 34 from Addis Ababa.
If the situation is so fraught when only a few countries are involved, one can only imagine the scene at the airport between December 23 and December 30, when wholesale quarantine at hotels was ordered for returnees from abroad.
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“About 60 to 70 percent of the passengers would go home. The police simply couldn’t cope with them at the airport and they were released... Passengers would break through barriers and throw chairs, and in some cases Yasam teams were brought in,” Wandersman says, referring to the riot police.
“We felt very threatened. In addition to the curses and threats, there were cases where passengers simply broke the plastic dividers, and we had to halt the committee’s operations.”
The exceptions committee may replace hotel quarantine with home quarantine based on a number of strict criteria, and in some cases based on panel members’ discretion. Conditions for receiving home quarantine include being over 70, being an unaccompanied minor, or having a significant dysfunction or being a wheelchair user. Or you have to be a pregnant women beyond the 20th week.
With families where only some members meet the criteria, the committee may split the family between home and hotel quarantine.
The first filtering is done by dozens of inspectors from the Population and Immigration Authority. After some returnees are released to home isolation, the rest get a chance to appeal to the committee.
“Everyone wants to go to the committee; it’s rare for anyone to give in and go to a hotel without first going to the committee,” Wandersman says.
Sometimes a passenger will get a reprieve by having sufficient medical proof or benefiting from an exceptional circumstance.
“When there’s something extreme that contradicts a stay at the hotel, we’ll release them; for example, oncology patients, patients with implants who are undergoing dialysis, very serious illnesses and dysfunction, proven mental health problems or people with post-traumatic stress disorder,” Wandersman says. “There are also humanitarian cases. For example, this week we released a woman whose sister recently committed suicide.”
The increasing number of virus variants makes hotel quarantine even more important. The small group of public servants without sufficient backing from the police is likely to be severely tested.