Israel's New Coronavirus Outbreak Demands Fast Action, but Not a Return to Lockdown

The government signaled that the pandemic was over, the public relaxed, and now coronavirus cases are rising. But the economy can't handle another closure

Amos Harel
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A drive-through coronavirus testing station in Jerusalem, May 30, 2020.
A drive-through coronavirus testing station in Jerusalem, May 30, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel

After the first round of the coronavirus was dealt with relatively successfully, Israel now seems to be facing a renewed challenge. Celebrations over the end of the pandemic were premature: Last week saw a relatively sharp rise in the number of newly infected people, many of them youngsters who were asymptomatic.

This change will require the Health Ministry to take the steps that were already needed some time ago: to quickly locate the sick and those who may have been infected by them. Down the line this may require a step back in the education system. But it is unreasonable for an increased rate of infection to bring about renewed closure. After the huge damage done by the previous closure, this would be a blow that the Israeli economy could not stand. It could even be met with widespread resistance by the public, a possibility the government should take into consideration.

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The lifting of the closure began on April 19, after it seemed that the spread of the virus in Israel had been contained. Beginning May 10, preschools began to gradually open, at first by dividing the children into “capsules” of smaller groups. A week later, schools were opened, and the economy also began operating again. Over the past few days, restaurants and even clubs began to open again under certain restrictions.

Only a few bans remain (on spectators at sporting events, and live concerts). The reopening was accompanied by a decline in people’s compliance with social distancing directives. Anyone leaving their house last week could notice that fewer people were wearing masks or keeping their distance from others. The police, in what seems like a policy order from above, have not been handing out fines for breaking the rules. And despite the widely publicized “purple badge” – indicating that a business was in compliance with the rules – there has been no real enforcement of the hygiene and congregating rules.

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who astounded us with his prophecies of doom in the first months of the crisis, told citizens last week to “have fun.” The government was signaling to Israelis that the emergency was over; and they acted accordingly. The rise in infections, which seems to have been a direct result of the opening of schools and businesses, along with less attention to the rules, should come as no surprise.

People at the beach in Tel Aviv, May 30, 2020.
People at the beach in Tel Aviv, May 30, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

On the other hand, it’s best not to get into a panic. More than 70 percent of new infections identified last week came from one hotspot – the Gymnasia Rehavia High School in Jerusalem. Another, smaller hotspot was identified among foreign workers in Tel Aviv, and another, yet smaller focus of infection came from other schools. At the moment it still doesn’t seem like a countrywide spread like the one in mid-March, around the time of Purim parties and mainly among people returning from abroad.

Circumstances are different now, with greater ability to help rein in the spread of the infection. It may be hoped that the few flights now landing in Israel are indeed inspected and people returning from abroad are going into two weeks’ quarantine. Unlike in March, is seems that the ultra-Orthodox community, which was hit hard, is much more aware of the danger than it was before. Many people are still practicing social distancing. At least according to some recent research, there is a theory that the hot weather somewhat reduces the spread of infection.

These things were not mentioned in the press conference held by senior Health Ministry officials, which was called urgently during the holiday on Friday evening. The outgoing director general, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, interrupted his long and very public leave of absence after stepping down from office to once again scold the undisciplined citizens. The politicians, not surprisingly, stayed out of the picture. The new health minister, Yuli Edelstein, left the work to the officials. The prime minister preferred to wait until the holiday was over.

Israel has seen a relatively low mortality rate from the coronavirus. Netanyahu and senior healthcare officials have lavishly praised themselves over the past few weeks on this outcome, attributing it to the correct decisions they made at the beginning of the crisis. But it’s hard to say the same about the exit strategy they devised. After Passover – and in light of the damage caused by the economic closure, together with the decline in infection – there should have been a gradual return to routine. But the impression is that after a few carefully measured steps, Israel ran amok. Very real pressure felt by business owners and the exhaustion of parents stuck at home with their children led to a quick lifting of most restrictions, with only loose supervision of the safety directives put in place.

A soccer game is played without an audience at Tel Aviv's Bloomfield Stadium on May 30, 2020.
A soccer game is played without an audience at Tel Aviv's Bloomfield Stadium on May 30, 2020.Credit: Nir Keidar

Last week the government’s center for information on the coronavirus published a document describing attempts to return to routine in other countries in Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States. The document contains implied criticism of conduct in Israel. “The bottom line is that countries that succeed in opening their economies successfully are those that began lifting restrictions when infections were low; carried out a gradual and cautious transition between one phase and another; and mainly showed the ability to respond point-by-point but decisively to overcome renewed outbreaks, and when necessary re-impose restrictions.”

One of the problems Israel faces is that this capability was not upgraded during the time at the healthcare system’s disposal. As senior members of the team of experts advising the National Security Council during the crisis warned in Haaretz, Israel still has not established an efficient epidemiological system to find and break the chain of infection. Moreover, the collection of data is faltering. The extent of testing is not great and the Health Ministry continues to place obstacles before widespread testing at hotspots (the quick response at Gymnasia Rehavia is an exception).

These are bureaucratic difficulties that the state should have been expected to overcome by now, considering the time that has passed. The renewed outbreak does not yet necessarily seem to be a second wave, certain and inevitable. But dealing with it in a slow and cumbersome manner, rife with turf wars among government ministries, could lead us there.

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