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Israeli Cabinet Shows How Not to Defeat a Pandemic

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Prime Minister Netanyahu speaking to the press at the Knesset.
Prime Minister Netanyahu speaking to the press at the Knesset, Dec. 2, 2020.Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90

It would face stiff competition, but when historical research is done on how Israel addressed the coronavirus pandemic, “How Not to Defeat a Pandemic” would be a fitting title to describe the coronavirus cabinet’s decision on Monday to impose a nighttime curfew.

Its decision to impose a nationwide nightime curfew beginning on Wednesday for three weeks while at the same time not again restricting commercial activity is akin to trying to put out a fire with one hand while pouring gasoline on the flames with the other.

On Tuesday evening the government backtracked on its peculiar decision to impose the curfew, whose prospects of succeeding in curbing infection rates had seemed low since the measure was first presented.

More than anything else, the decision to impose the curfew and later apparently rolling back the move reflect the problems that have been afflicting the coronavirus cabinet and the entire cabinet of ministers in their handling of the pandemic for a long time: their hesitation to deal with specific sectors of the population where the spread of the virus is the greatest and the resulting ease with which liberties are denied the country’s population as a whole. Sometimes it’s as if the government has almost been on automatic pilot: The entire population will bear the brunt of new restrictions and surely they already know why.

It was hard watching Monday evening’s television news shows without staring in disbelief. Reporters spoke about the nighttime curfew as if it were a routine development. Movement would be restricted beginning in the evening, although no decision had yet been made about what time it would go into effect. There would be restrictions on travel beyond a certain distance from home and additional steps could also not be ruled out.

The main rationale for the decision was an effort to curb Hanukkah festivities among Jewish Israelis and then Christian observance of Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, which some Jews also celebrate. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to show that something is being done to address the increasing daily rate of new coronavirus cases.

Tel Aviv's Levinsky market, Dec. 2, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

On Tuesday it had already become clear that legal obstacles, among others, would impede the implementation of the decision. Against this backdrop the government meeting slated for Tuesday was canceled, as well as restrictions on movement. Imposing a limited nighttime curfew will probably be considered next.

Also on the agenda will be imposing restrictions in Jewish communities during Hanukah as well as in localities with a significant Christian population over Christmas. Restrictions on schools and trade in cities with high infection rates might also be approved.   

One could have assumed that the entire plan would collapse like a house of cards. The public rightly doesn’t understand the justification from a medical standpoint of a nighttime curfew. How do you explain barring people from being out in the open air at night when they are allowed to crowd into shopping malls the rest of the day?

In fact, a clear majority of experts – doctors, scientists and even top Health Ministry officials – have said in recent days that this won’t lead to a considerable drop in cases. The police, who are already overstretched and exhausted from a year of issuing fines and quelling protests, will also have a hard time enforcing such a policy. Just consider what’s been happening at roadblocks leading out of some of the so-called red towns, where the incidence of the virus is the highest. The checkpoints do little more than create traffic jams that are a nuisance for motorists who wind up finding alternate routes to their destinations.

When the first lockdown was imposed in March, Israel was in panic mode. The health system, whose resources had been eroded for years, was unprepared for the challenge and the government feared that unless a lockdown was imposed, the hospitals would collapse under the strain. In September, when the second lockdown was imposed against the backdrop of 15 times the number of cases (due in part to increased testing), it was again claimed that there was no alternative to a nationwide lockdown – which did in fact gradually curb the number of carriers of the virus and the rate at which tests came back positive.

Now it’s been less than two months since the second lockdown was lifted and large portions of the economy are still at a standstill, and again there’s panic. The prospect of the health care system collapsing is still remote. The number of COVID-19 cases is indeed increasing and can be expected to lead to a subsequent increase in the number of seriously ill patients.

But at the moment, the number of seriously ill patients is about a third of the capacity that the hospitals say they can handle, and some hospital directors believe the country’s hospitals can actually handle 1,300 to 1,500 serious patients rather than the 800 to 900 figure that was was issued earlier.

The northern Israeli Arab town of Arara, Dec. 2, 2020.Credit: Amir Levy

What’s in store in the near future is not difficult to foresee. The substitutes for the nighttime curfew, which will be approved in the coming days, will turn out to be a failure.

The government will attempt several other useless steps and within a few weeks the prime minister will sternly inform the nation that every effort had been made but there is no alternative to a third lockdown. He will undoubtedly add that at least we are taking the step ahead of Europe and that leaders from around the world are calling to consult.

This entire debate, however, ignores the actual centers of infection in the current wave. For about two months, it has been clear that the Arab community has had at least twice the incidence of the virus as the rest of the population and that Arab communities top the list of red towns.

In prior rounds, focused efforts were made in cooperation with local governments to curb the spread of the virus. This time there has been no such success, and the virus is now spreading into neighboring Jewish towns, as a result of the commercial and employment ties between them.

Arriving air passengers

At the same time, it has been obvious that the pandemic has been poorly handled at Ben-Gurion International Airport. The experts have said that the fact that testing has not been compulsory for arriving passengers and that the required quarantine of passengers coming from countries with high rates of infection has not been enforced has contributed to the renewed upsurge of the virus in Israel.

Flights from Turkey have been a major factor in the jump, as had already been spotted two months ago. The coronavirus cabinet thought just this week to deal with the issue and to require testing of any arriving passenger who commits to quarantine at home.

The United Arab Emirates may soon be added to the list of countries where the incidence of the virus is high, this after direct air service has been established with the UAE, but with the Israeli government and Israeli television preoccupied with encouraging Israelis to visit the UAE, it’s doubtful the government will impose strict quarantine and testing restrictions on passengers returning from there.

In general, there is no enforcement to speak of. There has been little in the way of punishment of schools (mainly ultra-Orthodox ones) that have reopened in violation of the law or against organizers of mass events and weddings (primarily but not exclusively in the Arab community).

In the absence of such steps, the easy solution is a nighttime curfew.

Vaccines on the way

These depressing developments shouldn’t obscure the historic significance of another event this week. The United Kingdom has become the first country to get a vaccination program off the ground after the Pfizer vaccine passed the country’s approval process. It’s happening in record time, less than a year after the first report of the virus from China.

Israel isn’t far behind. A total of four million doses of the Pfizer vaccine are due to arrive in Israel towards the end of December. The Pfizer vaccine requires two injections three weeks apart.

A small initial shipment of vaccine is slated to arrive in Israel late this week. If the Moderna vaccine is also approved for use, millions of doses of its vaccine will arrive in January. At that point, millions of Israelis (about 4 million, according to estimates) will be able to be vaccinated by the end of March.

Electoral considerations

Prime Minister Netanyahu understands well that Israel’s salvation does not lie in the current handling of the crisis. He’s placing his bets on a rapid vaccination campaign and has recently been applying major pressure on the health care system to expedite the vaccination program. He has been angered by what he has seen as bureaucratic obstacles that some of the professionals have placed in the way.

There appears to also be a political connection here. If we are heading towards another round of Knesset elections in March, a major vaccination program would demonstrate to the electorate that the government is close to beating this health crisis, which would then permit the country to be gradually extricated from its economic distress.

But for that to happen, Israelis have to be persuaded to get vaccinated, despite apprehensions about the new vaccine. It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu will set a personal example and be the first to be vaccinated. So far, he hasn’t said.

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