Analysis |

Israel Welcomes the New Year With a Heavy Heart and a Patchwork Lockdown

Israel's battle against the coronavirus seems like a lethal mix of mismanagement, chaos, the leadership's bad example and insufficient public cooperation

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
An officer checks a car during the lockdown of the Kiryat Shmuel neighborhood of Tiberias, September 10, 2020.
An officer checks a car during the lockdown of the Kiryat Shmuel neighborhood of Tiberias, September 10, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It’s with a heavy heart and serious forebodings that Israel will usher in the Jewish New Year, 5781, Friday evening. It will be accompanied by a second nationwide lockdown, the first such repeat in the Western world. The government is presenting the imposition of the lockdown – in the meantime for three weeks but with a reasonable likelihood of its extension – as a last resort. At this stage the Israeli battle against the coronavirus looks like a disheartening failure: a lethal combination of bad management, chaos, arrogance, zero personal example by the leadership and insufficient cooperation by the citizenry.

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It’s already clear that the lockdown this time will be a patchwork affair. In contrast to the first one last March, the state is not expecting a high level of mobilization by the public this time. Enforcement will be likewise. At the start of the crisis, the panic was at its height and was fanned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the media. The fear that Israel’s hospitals would buckle and collapse as they did in northern Italy and New York dictated the government’s moves, also persuading most of the public to stick to the guidelines.

More than half a year later, things look a bit different. The coronavirus has indeed spread to every section of the population and throughout the country – it seems as though every Israeli now knows someone who contracted COVID-19 – but the skepticism and the suspiciousness have only grown.

A contributing factor in this regard has been the irrelevance of the government’s decisions. The guidelines are complicated, frequently self-contradictory and constantly changing. With no real justification, they favor interest groups and, in particular, are heightening the tension between Haredim and the secular population, because of Netanyahu’s almost total capitulation to ultra-Orthodox demands during the period of the Jewish High Holy Days in the month of Tishrei (September-October).

For months, all the experts have been explaining that the paramount source of infection lies in crowded gatherings indoors, and that singing and loud talking in those spaces magnify the risk considerably. Now, in the second lockdown, a large number of the restrictions apply to less risky activity outdoors; the restrictions on synagogue attendance are relatively mild, and a good many Haredim are not hiding their intention to ignore them. This is not the way to build a wall, as the saying goes – or to build public mobilization or mutual confidence.

People wearing face masks against the spread of the coronavirus wait at a crosswalk in Jerusalem, days before the nationwide lockdown, September 13, 2020.
People wearing face masks against the spread of the coronavirus wait at a crosswalk in Jerusalem, days before the nationwide lockdown, September 13, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

One of the claims being voiced lately by supporters of Netanyahu is that the public bears collective responsibility for the situation. “We are all to blame,” President Ephraim Katzir said after the Yom Kippur War. Then, as now, this is an attempt to reduce the leadership’s responsibility for the failures. The spike in the incidence of the disease is indeed related to the fact that many population segments ignored the guidelines: mass weddings among the Arab population, but also crowded parties held by secular young people, entertainers and businesspeople.

Still, there are masses of Israelis who wear face masks in open spaces, even if they doubt their worth; who avoid gatherings; who left their elderly parents alone during the Seder last Passover and have not hugged them since March. The lax police enforcement of the directives, along with the tardiness and stinginess with which the government is acting to assist businesses and employees who were harmed by the economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis, are only fueling the anger.

Unreal expectations

In recent consultations, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (Likud) has complained that “they’re taking away my lockdown,” referring to the exceptions and the objections that accompany every restriction. The civil servants below him harbored fewer expectations. The hope this time is not to sharply curtail the morbidity rate, but at best for a slow and more gradual containment. Though infections are likely to occur in the course of prayers in synagogues, the danger will be reduced in the many institutions that will be shut down – preschools and schools, banquet halls and performances, hotels and restaurants.

However, there is still a dispute over the scale of the restrictions on commerce. The risk of infection in a store or in a shopping center in the open air is considered low, as long as the proprietors follow the rules and prevent crowding by the customers. The harm these places will suffer will be disproportionate and unjustified. Indeed, imposing a lockdown when the government’s expectations are so low raises questions about its genuine necessity. Would it not have been preferable to focus on a sweeping prevention of gatherings, stricter enforcement and the strengthening of the health system?

The surge in the number of confirmed carriers – to 5,000 and above per day this week – is connected to the uncontrolled opening of the education system on September 1, without sufficient care being paid to the preset division into smaller “capsules.” By means of chains of carriers, the infection in the schools finds its way to the most sensitive population groups: the elderly and those with underlying illnesses. The result is an increase in the number of the seriously ill in the hospitals.

As of Thursday morning, their number had risen to 550. That is getting dangerously close to the number set as the “incapacity bar” in the hospitals, namely a total of 800 seriously ill coronavirus patients. The team of experts from Hebrew University on Thursday expected a relatively sharp rise in the incidence of seriously ill patients in the coming week, owing in particular to the increase in the number of older people with the disease. The forecast of the army’s Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center is no more optimistic.

According to the descriptions provided by the hospital directors and medical staffs, the constantly rising stream of the sick, along with the need for ponderous protective measures for the staff who deal with the coronavirus patients, have greatly increased their workload. On the other hand, the scenarios currently being played out are still far from the horrific forecasts according to which the health system operated in the spring, which spoke about many thousands of patients on ventilators. The danger does not necessarily lie in a resounding collapse of the hospitals, but in a constantly mounting caseload that will adversely affect the hospitals’ ability to provide proper treatment for coronavirus and other illnesses. The result could be an increase in the coronavirus mortality rate in Israel, which so far has remained relatively low (0.6 percent of the total number of confirmed cases).

The revision of the protocols for dealing with coronavirus patients greatly reduced the need for ventilating machines as compared to the start of the crisis. The major bottleneck at present is bound up with training skilled teams to deal with the COVID-19 patients and with placing wards in a state of preparedness to receive additional patients. To this end, the Finance Ministry allocated resources to the deprived health system already several months ago. But the level of preparedness of the hospitals and of the community medicine provided by the health maintenance organizations is only being upgraded quite slowly. A more orderly and rapid deployment by the health system would have spared the economy and the public part of the immense financial and psychological damage entailed in a second lockdown.

Surfing the social networks these days stirs nostalgia for those innocent times when people were still arguing passionately about their attitude toward Netanyahu or toward U.S. President Donald Trump. The anxiety in the face of the virus, counterposed by the resistance to the tough restrictions imposed by U.S. states in combating it, are reflected in an emotional, polarized dialogue.

Nevertheless, occasionally an illuminating viewpoint is encountered. Here’s what Prof. Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute in University College London, and one of the most level-headed, judicious voices throughout the world crisis, tweeted last week: “I had never fully realized until now that the reason pandemic brought down so many empires and kingdoms in history wasn’t the death toll.” The explanation, as Balloux gleaned from the present crisis, lies in “the fear, the sense of doom, the irrationality and the disunion they unleashed.”

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