Why Local Lockdowns Failed to Curb COVID-19 in Israel

From reckless elected officials to rebellious populations, Israel has a problem with compliance

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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Two women crossing the street in locked down Jerusalem, September 2020.
Two women crossing the street in locked down Jerusalem, September 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

Nine months since the start of the pandemic, Israel is still wasting its time on useless measures.

How COVID – and Israel’s Trump-brokered lovefest with Arab states – are affecting Palestinians

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The incidence of infection in Israel’s Arab community illustrates the problem. Just a couple of weeks ago, the official in charge of coronavirus policy in the Arab community, Ayman Saif, threatened to resign amid professional disagreements with the Health Ministry’s COVID-19 policy czar, Prof. Nachman Ash. Their difference of opinion related to the effectiveness of local lockdowns in Arab towns that had been designated as “red,” where the prevalence of the virus is very high.

These lockdowns are a charade. The police, with an obvious lack of enthusiasm, close off access in and out of these communities while letting through essential workers. Schools in these communities are also closed, with the students paying the price over and over.

Other than creating traffic problems, the lockdowns accomplish almost nothing. Movement within the communities continues nearly unabated. Commercial activity remains entirely open, and anyone who really wants to leave finds a way of doing so. The lockdowns are full of holes and don’t help reduce the incidence of infection. It’s a fact that there are Arab communities that have been in lockdown for weeks without a decline in infection rates.

Local lockdowns fail because they are poorly managed and because a crisis of public confidence is leading to a failure of compliance. When Israel tried to lock down ultra-Orthodox communities in the fall, there was a revolt and residents challenged it by force. Arab Israelis haven’t permitted themselves the privilege that the ultra-Orthodox community allowed themselves because they lack the political power. But Arabs aren't suckers either, and therefore are not complying with regulations.

Another reason for the failure is that local lockdowns don’t deal with the root of the problem. It is clear what the sources of infection are in the Arab community: transmission of the virus from Turkey, when Israeli Arab tourists return from there and don’t strictly follow quarantine requirements; transmission of the virus following visits to areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority; mass gatherings at weddings; and extensive spread of infection within households due to failure to follow isolation requirements. How can a local lockdown possibly address these issues, and one full of holes at that?

The disagreement between Ash, the coronavirus czar, and Saif, the COVID-19 policy chief for the Arab community, has subsided, in part because last week there was considerable improvement in the incidence of the virus in the Arab community. The transmission rate there has declined and is now the lowest of any segment of the Israeli population – lower than the rate for the secular and ultra-Orthodox populations.

But it’s not due to the porous lockdowns. It’s due a combination of luck and smarts. The major stroke of luck was that the incidence of the disease in the Palestinian Authority reached such high proportions that officials there imposed a general lockdown. That, in turn, resolved the problem of Israeli Arabs bringing back the illness from visits there. At the same time, with the arrival of winter, the wedding season in the Arab community ended, which luckily also ended weddings as a major source of infection. That problem could have been dealt with earlier, by the way, if stiff fines for violations had been introduced, but the idea went nowhere due to opposition from the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Smarts were also a factor. The government spotted the outbreak in the Arab community and devoted considerable effort to dealing with it. With the help of an information campaign and the support of local government in Arab communities, testing in Arab communities surged.

When the problem involving tourists returning from Turkey was recognized, Turkey became one of four countries from which returning passengers were required to have coronavirus testing at the airport if they wished to avoid being immediately sent into quarantine at a coronavirus hotel. The concerted government response plugged the policy hole.

Another loophole

But another loophole remained – the one involving the spread of the virus within households.

“That’s scandalous behavior on the part of a portion of Arab society,” Saif acknowledged, but he attributed part of the problem to economic distress in the Arab community. Day laborers who work in construction or landscaping and receive their wages in cash, under the table, have not been entitled to government compensation if they are laid off without pay. The laborers feel compelled to go to work even if they are supposed to be in quarantine because they have no other way to support themselves and their families. Clearly the government shouldn't encourage people to be paid under the table, but their plight should be taken into consideration when it comes to how quarantine enforcement is carried out.

The problem of non-compliance with quarantine and isolation is not limited to the Arab community. It is a clear weak spot in efforts to halt the spread of the virus in Israel as a whole, and after all these months, the time has come to solve the problem. The first option is monitoring of patients who are supposed to be in isolation through an electronic handcuff of sorts. Granted that this poses an issue in a democratic society, but it should be considered for short durations.

Thought should also be given to referring as many people as possible to coronavirus hotels. The police and municipal inspectors have so far failed to enforce isolation requirements, and there are those who suggest a reverse policy – involving representatives of the neighborhood, who instead of focusing on enforcement would conduct home visits and provide assistance to those in isolation – a positive approach rather than a negative one – to increase the motivation to comply.

As can be seen from the ultra-Orthodox revolt and the porousness of the lockdowns in the Arab communities, local lockdowns don’t work in Israel. It's a divided society that is not ready to tolerate a local lockdown while activity elsewhere remains open.

Serving by example

Lawmaker David Bitan was admitted to the intensive care unit on Sunday after his COVID-19 condition worsened. The Likud Knesset member had been diagnosed a week earlier, three days after he developed symptoms. For those three days, he continued about his legislative business, making rounds in the Knesset building and in government ministry offices. He came into contact with a few dozen people, including senior government staffers, now in quarantine.

“I just had a little cold. I thought it was the flu. It started on Thursday night. After that, I met with people,” Bitan responded frankly to media inquiries over his failure to be tested or to self-isolate. But later his spokesman lambasted the media.

“Knesset member Bitan had a runny nose for three days with a little mucus, without a fever and without symptoms linked to the coronavirus – a routine matter that happens to him every winter,” the spokesman said ... We regret that while Knesset member Bitan deals with COVID-19, officials from the Health Ministry are trying to make baseless accusations that are divorced from reality.”

Bitan’s spokesman’s attack, which is akin to an offense being the best defense, was aimed at sparing Bitan from responsibility, although the Knesset member himself had admitted to meeting with people despite not feeling well. In short, he knowingly violated coronavirus directives by not being tested when he should have and by continuing to appear in public even though he wasn’t feeling well.

Since other top Israeli public figures haven’t been complying with the health directives either, it’s not surprising that Israel is struggling to curb the pandemic. Public health officials have said that there is no cooperation – and no awareness on the part of large segments of the population – when it comes to the health directives.

The problem mainly relates to the need to self-isolate and get tested immediately upon feeling ill. People don’t understand the significance of quarantine, they think it’s alright to just stay at home but meanwhile come into contact with members of their household, potentially infecting them as well.

And it would greatly help if Israel’s leaders started demonstrating leadership and responsibility. That would surely go a long way towards creating trust and a commitment towards compliance.

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