Israelis Are Flouting the Coronavirus Rules and Still Enjoying a Flat Curve

The country is still cruising relatively safely on the last drops of fuel provided by an early lockdown policy

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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People in Tel Aviv, April 28, 2020.
People in Tel Aviv, April 28, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Based on all the statistics, our situation is not bad. The coronavirus curve in Israel hasn’t totally bottomed out, but it has definitely flattened. On the eve of Independence Day, the number of Israelis who had recovered from the virus exceeded, for the first time, the number of those who are ill. Since the beginning of the week the daily rate of new infections has averaged less than 200. The rise in the number of daily tests has stopped, but that actually happened this week because of a drop in demand: Apparently fewer people are feeling sick and asking to be tested.

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Over the past few weeks there has been an argument in the cabinet over what statistics would permit a speedy return to partial routine. The lenient scenario held that restrictions could continue to be eased as long as the number of new cases daily remained below 300, and the number of seriously ill and ventilated patients also remained below that.

Since we seem to have a comfortable margin from that figure, more restrictions are likely to be lifted. The Education Ministry is planning to reopen preschools and grades 1 to 3 next week by dividing the classes into shifts to avoid crowding. At the same time, the superfluous restriction limiting sports activities to 500 meters from home will be lifted.

The big question is how less public caution about the social distancing guidelines (keeping one’s distance, leaving home only when necessary, wearing masks) could affect the rate of new infections. Anyone who went outside this past week noticed that the streets are increasingly crowded, and anyone active on social media saw photos of gatherings that violated the Health Ministry’s instructions. The results of these trends will be felt in the coming weeks.

On the other hand, there is hope that the restrictions still in place, like the ban on mass events and the partial staffing of workplaces, can still prevent a national outbreak of the type experienced here in the second half of March.

If the virus spreads less rapidly when it’s hot and humid, as some scientists theorize, that could also help prevent another outbreak. In the background, though, there are still localized risks: hot spots in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh and the increasing rate of infection in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the inability to get quick test results and trace the chains of infection make it hard to quickly identify and treat new hot spots.

The bottom line is that Israel is still cruising relatively safely on the last drops of fuel provided by correct decisions made during the first weeks of the crisis. But even though two months have passed, the management of the crisis remains impulsive and confused. The government’s objectives are not clear and are not being explained quickly enough to the public.

The economic assistance plan in particular is being drawn up slowly and is generating a wave of criticism for its bias toward large employers at the expense of the self-employed, whose businesses have suffered a severe blow. In general, it seems the formulation of an exit strategy began too late and has proceeded too slowly. The prime minister’s people have long insisted that this is a unique crisis that requires close monitoring and frequent changes.

Public losing faith

Another critical problem is that the public is losing confidence in the government’s handling of matters. The insistence on blocking bereaved families from visiting their relatives’ graves on Memorial Day is an example. It was good to read that the police stationed at the cemetery entrances were sensitive and allowed those few parents who came anyway to go to the graves. But closing military cemeteries Tuesday while allowing stores to open was grating.

It may never be possible to decide the dispute over whether all the restrictions imposed were really necessary, even at a later stage, when we have more data about the virus in Israel. While the doomsday scenarios woven by the Health Ministry in March did not prove out, the concern was real, because the health system seemed to have little wiggle room, particularly with regard to ventilators.

At the same time, the frightening comparisons to Italy, which has a much older population than Israel and where three generations often live in the same home, were also out of place. People are becoming lax in observing the guidelines not just because they’re tired of them, but because they have doubts about their necessity. The dire warnings turned out to be empty, state leaders were caught violating the very regulations they were preaching to the rest of us, and some of the restrictions looked exaggerated and illogical.

Added to this was the ongoing lack of transparency and clarity. Instead of the explanations being given by one person who could earn the public’s trust, they were divided haphazardly among the prime minister, the Health Ministry director-general and several leading ministry officials. Now, as the government reopens the economy, the question of whether it was paralyzed for nothing will be paramount as the depth of the economic crisis in Israel becomes clearer.

Tower of strength

In the Nofim Tower assisted-living facility in Jerusalem, where the coronavirus hit hard early on, they are slowly trying to get back into routine. On March 10 the place emerged as the first assisted living facility hit with an outbreak, though there were later outcroppings in scores of similar places. Dozens of residents and staff members fell ill; five residents died. Only after a lengthy struggle did the state do coronavirus testing for everyone, a policy that it is implementing far too late in similar facilities.

For a month, Nofim was on total lockdown; residents were instructed not even to leave their apartments. After no new cases were found there, they were allowed to host one other resident for the Seder night. A week ago, some other things were permitted: Residents can stroll on the narrow path in the compound’s garden (“the corona path,” residents call it), and in the same place they are allowed to meet with family members who coordinate their visit in advance. During one such visit after the lengthy separation, one was impressed by the residents’ positive and determined spirits, despite the recent hardships.

Nofim is run by a private association owned by the residents. During this turbulent time, the ship was steered by Zvika Levy, chairman of the residents council, assisted by the managers of the facility and their employees. Just by reading the emails he sent to residents during the crisis, decisions that were made and the encouragement offered, one could learn a lesson in real leadership during difficult times.

If the state had been a bit more attentive to the elderly, perhaps it would have invited someone like Levy to light a beacon at Tuesday night’s Independence Day ceremony. For Culture Minister Miri Regev it was apparently more important to give this honor to Tzipi Shavit, to celebrate artificial unity and make more flattering gestures to the prime minister and his wife. Someone like Levy, a true patriot, (and from the way he talks, I’m guessing he has a military past) would have just messed up her party.

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