Comparing Israel's Three Lockdowns: Have the Ends Justified the Means?

The sense of emergency during the first lockdown was replaced by distrust of government officials during the second. The third has been marked by another spike and defiance by the ultra-Orthodox community

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Tel Aviv's King George Street during Israel's first coronavirus lockdown, April 2020.
Tel Aviv's King George Street during Israel's first coronavirus lockdown, April 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

On April 8 a strict lockdown, the so-called Passover lockdown, was imposed in Israel, a month and a half after the country’s first coronavirus patient had been discovered. As with so many countries around the world, it was the first time that so much of the economy had been shut down.

The following months saw two more lockdowns in a bid to cut the  infection chains. Although a few months separated one closure from the next, each was marked by different circumstances and public sentiment. The following is what the first two weeks of each lockdown looked like.

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Lockdown 1: Buying time

The figures on April 8 raised fears of a swift, uncontrollable spread. The number of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases had reached 400, with 6 percent of people testing positive in the 7,500 tests that day.

The hospitals contained 740 coronavirus patients, 147 of them seriously ill and 122 on ventilators. The number of overall confirmed carriers was 9,500, almost as high as the number of new cases in a single day this month.

The empty Ayalon Highway during Israel's first coronavirus lockdown, Tel Aviv, April 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Around 30,000 police officers,1,400 soldiers and 300 inspectors were tasked with imposing the lockdown around the country. Israelis had to remain 100 meters from their homes, and on April 12, mask-wearing was made obligatory every time they went outside.

Most people complied with the regulations amid the emergency atmosphere. The Health Ministry’s announcement that the lockdown would buy Israel time also played a role.

The first turning point happened on April 17: The number of people recovering daily topped the number of people contracting the disease. On that day, 224 people came down with COVID-19, while 308 people recovered. The trend continued and on April 19 the government started lifting the restrictions.

Two weeks after the lockdown began, the overall number of coronavirus patients reached 13,500 and the number of daily new cases began to decline to about 200 for every 12,000 tests. Some 540 patients were in the hospital, about 140 of them in serious condition.

On May 4 the general lockdown ended. Israel then emerged gradually from restrictions for schools, public transportation, businesses, restaurants, bars and hotels. In May the number of patients continued to dwindle to dozens daily, hospital coronavirus wards started closing down and Israel entered a kind of euphoria.

Many people expected the summer to end the pandemic, as has happened with other coronaviruses. So Israel didn’t use the respite to hone its contact-tracing prowess and other procedures and goals.

In June, it turned out that Israel was suffering a renewed outbreak. In the last third of the month, the number of daily new patients was topping 500; by the beginning of July it was over 1,000.

Protesters outside the Knesset during Israel's second coronavirus lockdown, October 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Lockdown 2: Protests and 1,500 in hospitals

On September 18, Rosh Hashanah eve, the second lockdown began and lasted three weeks. Israelis were now in a totally different state of mind: frustration, deeper skepticism and a lack of confidence in the government and health professionals. And whether protesters could demonstrate outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem became a major issue.

In the five months since the first lockdown, the government changed the decision-making process; the politicians pushed aside the medical experts. Health Ministry officials and the new coronavirus czar found themselves in a confrontation with the coronavirus cabinet, the cabinet and the Knesset.

By the second lockdown Israel had an organized testing system and plans to impose lockdowns based on the situation in different cities and neighborhoods. The authorities had wider leeway to impose or lift restrictions, but political pressure – for example, by the ultra-Orthodox community on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – held sway.

On the eve of the second lockdown, the number of total cases was 218,000. The number of daily tests was about 60,000, with some 13 percent testing positive. On that day, some 7,500 new carriers were found. Around 1,380 patients were in the hospital, 692 of them in serious condition – a 60 percent increase within a month. The number of dead had reached 1,387.

By October 9, the number of daily new cases had fallen to around 3,500, about 8 percent of the number of tests. But there were 1,524 patients in the hospital, 860 of them in serious condition.

This time the Health Ministry prepared a nine-stage exit plan, which was shortened immediately, and on October 18 Israel started to emerge from the lockdown.

In the first weeks it seemed the closure had succeeded beyond expectations; the number of daily new cases stabilized below 600 and the number of seriously ill patients fell to 300 at the beginning of November. But after suggestions to apply interim stages were rejected or carried out late, the path to a third lockdown was paved.

Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv during Israel's third lockdown, January 21, 2021.Credit: Moti Milrod

Lockdown 3: Variants and vaccinations

On January 8 the third lockdown went into effect, a tighter version of a looser closure that began on December 27, when schools and preschools were allowed to remain open.

This time the disease spread through the ultra-Orthodox community particularly fast; the Haredim currently account for more than 30 percent of Israel’s daily new cases, even though they make up only around 12 percent of the country’s population.

With Haredi schools operating as usual, along with mass events indoors, the so-called R number – the number of people each patient infects – in the ultra-Orthodox community reached 1.74 in mid-December.

Also, in the past three months more than 4,000 coronavirus carriers entered Israel, plus there are now new variants: the British, South African and Brazilian. In about half of the recent infections, the much more contagious British variant has been to blame. This is one possible reason for Israel’s still-high infection rate, even after two weeks of lockdown and a month into the vaccination drive.

The number of confirmed daily cases on January 8 was 7,500 and the number of daily tests topped 120,000, with more than 6 percent testing positive. All told, 3,596 people had died. Some 1,800 coronavirus patients were in the hospital, 896 of them seriously ill. The R number was 1.25.

This month there have been a few days of daily new cases around 10,000. Currently, some 1,900 coronavirus patients are in the hospital, 1,128 in serious condition. As of Friday, the number of dead was 4,245.

Also, there are more than 83,000 coronavirus carriers in the country at the moment. This week the government extended the lockdown to January 31.

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