Opinion

Israel’s Economy Will Pay Heavily for Bibi’s Lockdown Retreat

The government could have minimized the economic fallout of closure by focusing on the Haredim, but politics trumped the public interest

David Rosenberg
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Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Ronni Gamzu visiting the Shaarei Tzedek coronavirus "war-room"
Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Ronni Gamzu visiting the Shaarei Tzedek coronavirus "war-room", Aug. 6, 2020Credit: Emil Salman
David Rosenberg

“First, do no harm” is what the Hippocratic oath is said to require of doctors. In the age of the coronavirus that’s not an easy rule to follow.

Lockdowns are supposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but as Israel and the rest of the world learned early in the pandemic, they come at a high economic price. They have a cost for health as well, for instance depression, reluctance or inability to seek treatment for other conditions, and more.

So what’s a poor coronavirus czar like Prof. Ronni Gamzu supposed to do? Not only does the option of “do no harm” not exist but the fact is that nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, no one can say with any certainty what the least harmful solutions are. New Zealand imposed what may have been the world’s most draconian lockdowns and was able to contain COVID-19 (so far) but at a huge cost to the economy. Sweden took a more liberal attitude by making most social distancing voluntary, yet it not only suffered high mortality rates, its economy got slammed.

Israel is fortunate to have a czar like Gamzu with education and experience in medicine as well as business, a sort of one-man band when it comes to the expertise needed to contend with the pandemic. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the powers of a real czar. He reports to politicians like Interior Minister Arye Dery who have no relevant education at all and like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s ignoring the lessons of his relevant education for the sake of political expediency.

Gamzu’s plan, which was rejected Sunday night by the cabinet in favor of one that wouldn’t anger Netanyahu and Dery’s ultra-Orthodox base, had the advantage of doing relatively little harm economically, even if no one can say for sure it would have succeeded in rolling back the growing coronavirus threat in Israel.

Stage One of the Gamzu plan, which was the part that angered Dery and the Haredi political establishment and thus terrified Netanyahu, would have imposed a complete lockdown starting this week on eight to 10 cities with especially high COVID-19 infection rates, and restricted movement in other cities with relatively high infection rates.

There was as much economic logic as there was health calculation behind the plan. Many of the communities where COVID-19 infection rates are especially high are mainly ultra-Orthodox. Because Haredi employment rates are so low and so many families live off government allowances in good times and in bad, the hit to the Israeli economy by locking down their communities would have been far less than say by closing down Tel Aviv or Be’er Sheva.

By containing the contagion as much as possible, Stage One could have bought critical time to delay the move to Stage Two, another nationwide lockdown, to the High Holy Day period, when the rest of Israel – the part that works and pays taxes – would be taking time off for the succession of holidays that start with Rosh Hashanah and end with Simhat Torah.

That’s a three-week period when a lockdown would not have depressed economic activity by much because there is far less economic activity than usual anyhow – except for the hotel industry. It has enjoyed a surge of traffic because Israelis can’t vacation abroad, would have suffered a major blow. But no one has ever said that the war on the coronavirus can be fought without any casualties. Even if some would have been harmed more than others, the two-stage battle could have minimized the overall economic damage and that’s what policymakers should focus on.

Instead, Stage One is now a distant second-best plan to impose a nighttime curfew on 40 communities. It will less effective but won’t make the Haredim upset. Now the argument is over which 40 communities. No decision has been announced as of writing.

Dery may not know science but he does know politics, exploiting the lack of certainty over the efficacy of the Stage One lockdown to make his case that it should be skipped and that we should move to Stage Two. “No secular city would agree to pay such a price if there are no such expectations,” Dery said.

The hypocrisy is astounding. Dery is saying that the government shouldn’t impose a lockdown on his voters because it might not yield results but, yes, it can impose a lockdown nationwide, even though that may not yield results either. His oath seems to be first do no harm to my people. Second, if you’re going to do harm, do it to everyone even if the harm is going to be considerably greater. I may be interior minister for the State of Israel, but my real responsibility is to the Haredi world.

No one should be surprised by this. For decades ultra-orthodox Israel has lived off the labor of secular Israel, but it evinces little understanding of how the wealth is created and what must be done to ensure it. The fact is the burden is becoming too big to bear as the Haredi population grows, as the leadership’s denial isn’t limited to science and medicine but to economics as well. But their clout, as the lockdown affair illustrates, is as strong as ever.

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