Israel Planning Restrictions on Visits and Travel for 35,000 Wards of the State

NGOs criticize the renewable proposal to stop visits to, and leaves from government institutions for 21 days as part of measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus

Or Kashti
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An old people's home in Tel Aviv, March 11, 2020.
An old people's home in Tel Aviv, March 11, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Or Kashti

The Ministry of Social Services is planning to impose restrictions on excursions from or visits to institutions under its jurisdiction – facilities that house 35,000 elderly people, people with disabilities and at-risk minors taken out of their family homes.

According to a legal memorandum published Sunday, the ministry will prohibit or restrict meetings with family members at these institutions or at home out of concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. The plan calls for a 21-day closure, but this may be extended. According to government sources familiar with the details, the law gives extensive and disproportionate authority to the minister. The public was given a shorter than customary period of 12 hours to respond to the proposed legislation.

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According to the memorandum, the minister will be able to impose prohibitions related to leaving a residence to meet or stay with families, as well as restrictions on visitors. This refers to homes for the elderly that are owned by the ministry, as well as hostels for people with disabilities or for at-risk minors.

According to a source, the intention was to begin with 2,000 children in foster care, but this was soon expanded to include anyone living in institutions run by the ministry. The main reason for the closure, sources say, is shortages in manpower, as have recently been reported. As more personnel have contracted the virus, the number of caregivers going into quarantine has risen.

In explanations attached to the memorandum, it was noted that preventive isolation requires a significant increase in manpower, which is currently unrealistic. Recruiting people to work in these institutions is difficult under normal circumstances and much more so these days. Another source said that there are ways of dealing with manpower shortages, but that this was not the reason for deciding on a closure.

The memorandum says that the reasons for the new restrictions lie in the nature of operations in these institutions, the number of tenants and their proximity to one another and to staff members, which enhance the chances of being infected. Going on leave increases the chances of exposure, with only very limited abilities of placing anyone who returns in isolation.

“The restrictions are meant to protect the health and lives of all residents, allowing the continued normal operation of these institutions,” says the proposed legislation.

Na’ama Lerner, from Bizchut, which advocates for the disabled, criticized the memorandum, saying it exploits the need to protect the general population and current fears to impose isolation, severing ties with communities and families. She added that there is a disregard for the right of disadvantaged groups to maintain ties with their families, and to keep their freedom of movement and equality with the rest of the population.

According to Dror Nissan, who has a child in one of these institutions, this is a “draconian ordinance, a sweeping and exceedingly difficult one. My son can’t understand the meaning of the separation that’s been imposed on him. There should be no problem in taking our temperature or in letting one parent meet his child for 15 minutes a week, close to the hostel. Meeting a family member is an important part of maintaining the health of people living in institutions. One could have found other ways of contending with this problem before taking such brutal measures.”

Magen David Adom staff outside the Nofim assisted living facility in Jerusalem after conducting tests on all 170 of its residents, March 26, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Attorneys Vered Bar from Bizchut and Maskit Bendel from the Association of Civil Rights in Israel filed their comments on the proposed legislation Monday, saying that it is group-targeted and discriminates against disadvantaged populations, while the rest of the country operates under other regulations. They add that “the harm to the rights of the elderly, to people with disabilities or to children at risk is seen as beneficial to their health, but other, less harmful steps were not taken. The ministry must first undertake less harmful steps, such as better protection for staff members or devising individually-tailored plans for each institution, limiting movement of staff between residents, family visits with barriers or in the open air, and more.”

Bizchut and ACRI say, “The ministry has attempted a stealth snap move, giving the minister sweeping authority that will infringe on the rights of the most disadvantaged groups, for a renewable 21-day period subject to his sole consideration. Stopping visits will seriously harm the health and well-being of some of the residents of these institutions, not allowing external agencies to monitor their condition. More reasonable solutions could have been found even under current conditions.”

The Social Services Ministry says, “The memorandum is meant to bring about a change in visiting policies to protect the health of all residents and avoid infection as much as possible. Residents are encouraged to stay in touch with families through digital means.”

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