Namaste, Israel: Coronavirus Spurs Unique Response (And Warning From Rabbis)

Public events like Purim parades are canceled, Netanyahu urges people to try ‘Namaste’ greeting, Orthodox Jews attempt to see the funny side of the crisis – and there's even an app with an 'Isolated Together' chat

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netnayahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference on the coronavirus in Jerusalem on Wednesday, March 4 2020
Prime Minister Benjamin Netnayahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference on the coronavirus in Jerusalem on Wednesday, March 4 2020Credit: Emil Salman

Normally, spring in Israel is a cavalcade of festivals and celebrations, with the Jewish holiday of Purim followed quickly by Passover and Independence Day, and Ben-Gurion airport jammed with tourists heading in and out.

>> For live updates on Coronavirus in Israel, click here

But the new coronavirus has cast a grim shadow over the usual preparation and anticipation of parades, all travel and large gatherings, as the government has taken a maximalist approach to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has placed tens of thousands in home quarantine, crippled business travel and devastated the tourism industry.

Israel may be viewed as an “Americanized” society, but its government’s response to the epidemic strikes a sharp contrast to the United States. President Donald Trump has been criticized for what are being seen as overly optimistic remarks regarding the dangers of the spread of COVID-19. That has sparked concern that out of deference to Trump and his concerns about the stock market and other economic concerns that could damage him politically, the federal government, including health authorities, is downplaying the threat.

In Israel, the criticism is precisely the opposite: That draconian efforts to preserve the public health are overly extreme, and their potential damage to the country’s economy are not being weighed heavily enough.

A security guard at Maccabi Tel Aviv's Euroleague basketball game against Andolo Zero, which was played behind closed doors on March 4, 2020.Credit: Nir Keidar

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set the tone Wednesday in a joint press conference with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, declaring that the world was in the midst of a global pandemic, and that it could be “among the most dangerous of such pandemics in the past 100 years.”

Extolling the fact that “Israel is in the best situation of all other countries, together with another two or three Western countries,” Netanyahu added that Israel’s abundance of caution has, so far, paid off. “We were compelled to take harsh – even very harsh – measures in order to slow the pace of the spread of the disease in Israel, and indeed this has happened,” he said.

The press conference unveiled measures that are perhaps the most extreme in Western countries with relatively few diagnosed cases of coronavirus. Only 15 Israelis had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday – with all cases traced to overseas sources of infection – and no fatalities.

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov was put on the defensive when grilled by Channel 2 news anchor Dany Cushmaro on Wednesday evening. He asked if the excessive measures were driven by “politically fueled hysteria,” noting that “we’re in a much better situation than many European countries and yet our restrictions are far stricter than in Europe – maybe stricter than anywhere else.” Cushmaro quoted anonymous government officials as alleging that “the Health Ministry restrictions border on hysteria and aren’t taking economic damage into account,” calling the rules “unjustified madness.”

Bar Siman Tov retorted that “the very reason we are in such a good situation, and the reason I know every single infected person and where they got their infection from, is because we put very restrictive rules in place early.”

He warned: “Once we reach the point where we identify people with the disease from whom we don’t know the source of the infection, we will have to take even more drastic measures.” Bar Siman Tov pointed to Italy, where all schools, universities and public gatherings of any kind have been shut down, and entire cities and regions sealed off.

Election officials in Shoham counting the ballots of voters who emerged from home quarantine to vote in the Israeli election on March 2, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

“We hope we don’t have to reach that point … we are making tough decisions so we don’t have to make even tougher decisions in the future,” Bar Siman Tov explained. Regarding the economy, he said, “It’s not as if we can choose between protecting public health or protecting the economy. If we don’t protect the public health and the situation deteriorates, we’ll have both a health crisis and economic collapse.”

Expanding the list

The restrictions meant to continue to curtail and slow the virus’ spread include requiring all Israelis returning from Germany, Spain, France, Switzerland and Austria to enter into 14 days of self-isolation, effective immediately. Those countries were added to a list that already includes Italy, China, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Singapore and Vietnam. The expanded requirements are believed to affect more than 100,000 Israelis. Beginning Friday, foreign citizens arriving from any of the countries on this list won’t be permitted to enter Israel.

Rumors have swirled that the authorities have considered applying the same restrictions on those visiting or returning from the United States. That step has yet to be taken, but its likelihood increased Thursday with reports that a New York woman who returned from a trip to Israel last week has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

As the expanded quarantine restrictions were announced Wednesday evening, passengers at Ben-Gurion airport about to leave for Europe canceled their trips. One flight to Berlin that was already on the runway allowed passengers who had just heard the news to disembark if they were put off by the prospect of going into quarantine upon their return.

Workers at Ben-Gurion airport wearing face masks to protect themselves against the coronavirus, February 25, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Public Purim festivities – the traditional mass parades scheduled to take place on the holiday that starts Monday – were canceled, along with all gatherings of more than 5,000 people, including major sporting events. After last week’s Tel Aviv Marathon barred foreign participants, Thursday’s Jerusalem Marathon was canceled altogether.

All international conferences were shut down, while Israelis returning from any large international gathering, no matter where it took place, were ordered into quarantine. Any Israeli who had returned from any overseas trip was forbidden to attend gatherings of 100 people or more. Health workers have been forbidden to travel overseas, while anyone over 60 or with a chronic illness (including diabetes and high blood pressure) was told to avoid contact with anyone returning from an overseas trip.

Netanyahu also made global headlines Wednesday by asking Israelis to adopt a new greeting instead of the handshake. “You can adopt the Indian practice – you can say ‘Namaste’ – or you can say ‘Shalom.’ But find the way, any way, to avoid shaking hands,” he cautioned.

In the face of the disruption, Israelis have maintained their tradition of dealing with stress through humor.

Regarding recommendations not to shake hands, hug or have any form of physical contact, some Orthodox Jews joked online: “We’ve been preparing for this moment our entire lives” – laughing that Orthodox strictures against touching members of the opposite sex are suddenly coming in handy.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau warned against the traditional touching or kissing of mezuzahs – the decorative cases containing parchment with Hebrew verses that are put on entrance doors – and synagogues advised worshippers against touching or kissing Torah scrolls. In a small country where everyone knows everyone, news of quarantined celebrities made the rounds on social media. One of Israel’s wealthiest women, Shari Arison, was restricted to her mansion; Kahol Lavan lawmaker Yoaz Hendel was in home quarantine, as was one of Israel’s most celebrated sons, Gilad Shalit. The newly engaged Shalit returned from a trip to Austria and was restricted to his home, presumably under more comfortable conditions than when he was held hostage in the Gaza Strip by Hamas for over five years.

True to its reputation as “startup nation,” Israel has already developed an app for the crisis: CoronApp has been downloaded on smartphones across the country, giving Israelis access (in Hebrew, French or English) to information, updates and a chat room called “Isolated Together” – in which “quarantinees” can compare notes and commiserate.

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