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Israel Reaches First Coronavirus Exit Point Without a Clear Policy

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Israelis watch the sunset across from the Tel Aviv promenade, April 18, 2020
Israelis watch the sunset across from the Tel Aviv promenade, April 18, 2020Credit: Moti Milrod

Did we for a moment think it would be different? Today, April 19, had been marked a few weeks ago as a target date in Israel’s fight against the coronavirus. The lockdown, whose rules changed frequently and which was usually not sweeping, somehow lasted throughout the Passover holiday. One could imagine that when the intermediate days of the holiday were over, and after another short “bridge” between the end of Passover and the weekend, Israeli nerves would be frayed. The long stay-at-home orders, the interruption in schooling and the increasing concerns over livelihood would all create the clear expectation that the government must make known its intentions to fight the virus on one hand and help the economy on the other.

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Too little of this is happening and none of it is happening at the necessary pace. On Saturday evening, heartbroken but breathing, the nation waited for the new directives about life after the lockdown. But the government was in less of a hurry. The new measures will take effect only on Monday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a statement to the public only at 9:15 P.M., before the cabinet meeting.

Netanyahu briefly announced the likely changes: A gradual reopening of workplaces to 30 percent capacity, reopening some stores under limited conditions, exercise in pairs, outdoor prayer services. After his announcement came the nighttime debate, where decisions can go this way or the other. Is the cabinet a rubber stamp for a policy Netanyahu determined ahead of time, or are decisions being made in keeping with the many pressures that come up at the late-night meetings, where conflicting interests of opposed bodies emerge?

Israel achieved quite a bit in the first weeks after the virus arrived here. It had a good starting point (a young population, one entry point into the country), the right policy on social distancing, high-level health care and an unusual level of cooperation by its citizens – all of these things have prevented a health care disaster so far. The joint effort left the health care system at a relatively safe distance from the breaking point that a few other Western countries experienced.

But a good many of these achievements could be wasted now. The government is confused and tardy with an organized strategy for dealing with the crisis as it reaches the first exit point that people are waiting for. Opinions are divided in accordance with the variety of teams that submitted their recommendations to the ministers: should it be 10, 100 or 300 new patients a day that reflect a situation under control, and would allow a significant return to economic activity?

Moreover, there is no database to rely on when making decisions. The rate of testing has finally gone up, but the process of obtaining results is still messy, slow and inefficient. There is no effective way to follow the chain of infection and quarantine. A lack of information along with political exigencies vis-a-vis the ultra-Orthodox prevent any real differentiation of communities with a high degree of infection. Except for a few cases (Bnei Brak, ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem, the Arab village of Deir al-Assad), there is a single approach to the whole country, although the “temperature map” of the disease shows that in a good many cities, the virus has been relatively contained.

The situation is far from “the safest place in the world from the coronavirus,” as Netanyahu and his sycophants insist is the case. The truth is that looking at the various Netanyahu governments over the past year and a half, it’s difficult to develop expectations. The prime minister has surrounded himself with people of little skill, whose main advantage is their shows of public support. The health minister, who disregarded the directives of his own ministry, caught the coronavirus and has since disappeared from the public eye. Coalition negotiations are devoted mainly to Netanyahu’s efforts to evade trial.

Recent days have seen a decline in people’s willingness to follow the government’s directives. After they discovered during Passover that the heads of the country were thumbing their noses at the regulations, quite a few Israelis made their own rules. The strategy of lifting restrictions is starting at a relatively good place: The rate of people on ventilators is low (about 1.3 percent of diagnosed patients) and mortality is low compared to European countries. But there is still a danger that overconfidence will lead people to disregard social distancing rules. This is a particularly relevant concern considering that Ramadan, which begins in about a week, could lead to a rapid and steep outbreak of the virus – and this might be discovered when it’s already too late.

Israeli holds sign in shape of the coronavirus with the word "dictatorship" in Hebrew, during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 16, 2020.Credit: AP/Oded Balilty

Three comments

No coronavirus czar: Despite the increasing support among senior civil servants to put someone in charge of the fight against the virus, under the prime minister, the chances of this happening are nil. Netanyahu, as he sees it, has met the first challenge he faced: fear of a collapse of the hospitals under a flood of seriously ill patients. In the first weeks, his and the Health Ministry’s main efforts focused on health care issues.

The edicts imposed on the public bought the system time and a safety buffer that prevented a scenario like the one in Italy, against which the Health Ministry warned in meetings in the second half of March. The health crisis is not over, of course, and it could still get out of control, but now comes the harder part: the economic response, which could take years. For this, too, the prime minister needs Kahol Lavan in the government, to share the blame. His anxiety over a committee of inquiry is still in the air.

The Education Ministry: School lessons are to resume on Sunday in the form of distance learning. The Education Ministry’s plan is ambitious but unrealistic. It requires hours and hours of participation from teachers and children from home. In families that have younger children, this requires active and continuous participation of one of the parents. In many other families, there are not enough computers or not enough internet coverage.

Meanwhile, the return to actual classrooms is delayed, also because of a lack of sufficiently reliable data on the extent of asymptomatic people and the extent of infection among children. Without a way to put at least some students back in schools before the school year ends in June, it will be very difficult to get the economy back on track.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews wearing protective masks walk by carrying bags of shopping in the religious Israeli city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on April 6, 2020.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Anonymous victims: In the first weeks of the crisis, the Israeli media reported on every single death from the coronavirus. That insistence created a somewhat morbid atmosphere in TV studios (with figures on illness and death continually updated) and reached rather absurd proportions with dramatic news announcements about a 98-year-old woman who died in a nursing care facility.

Over the past few days, the situation has reversed itself; perhaps because of the holidays, and perhaps because some of the deaths occurred in small facilities that don’t have an efficient and constant connection to the media. The result, in any case, is that we hardly know anything about those who have died: who they were, when they got sick, what happened in the last weeks of their lives. It’s true, every day many dozens of people die in hospitals across Israel from a variety of other causes, but the coronavirus is a national and global crisis. When decisions are being made about death and on end-of-life issues, we should also know who is paying the price – we must not make do with laconic announcements of the number of people who died the night before.

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