Analysis |

When Israel's Holiday Lockdown Is Over, Coronavirus Will Continue Its Spread

Lockdown decision was made under influence of shocking statistics about increase in infections ■ Some resources mobilized months ago still not utilized

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Soldiers direct traffic ahead of a night lockdown in Jerusalem, September 9, 2020.
Soldiers direct traffic ahead of a night lockdown in Jerusalem, September 9, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

What’s a camel? A horse designed by committee. And a general but loose lockdown, like the kind that will be imposed on the entire country starting Friday afternoon, is the dubious measure decided upon by the government after it capitulated to every possible pressure group. The result is a move full of internal contradictions, whose chances of reducing the incidence of infection aren’t great. By contrast, the chances that the lockdown will make residents even more miserable and deepen the rifts between Israeli society’s warring tribes actually look pretty high.

The lockdown is almost the measure of last resort, after several alternative moves failed. Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kish (Likud) admitted on Wednesday to the Kan national broadcaster that “[w]e can’t expect a significant drop in the incidence of infection” as a result of the closure, and that anyone who wants to leave his house contrary to the guidelines will probably find an excuse to do so.

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increase in infections
However, the ratio of positive tests is hovering around 10 percent, about 1.5 percentage points more than a week ago. The suspicion is that there is a phenomenon of “quiet” illness, broad and unidentified, whose scope could be two to three times the number of identified cases. The problem is not the carriers themselves, but the risk that they will launch new chains of infection.

Looking back, as several of the experts warned, the primary contribution to the current jump in the numbers comes from the schools. After a sharp rise in the incidence of infection that resulted from the reopening of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) yeshivas in mid-August and from the large weddings in the Arab community, there was another uncontrolled opening of the state and state-religious schools.

The relaxed Israeli interpretation of study “capsules,” in which pupils and teachers move between several classrooms daily, children play together at recess and travel together in vans and buses, has crashed on the rocks of reality. The source of some 20 percent of the infections over the past week was the education system.

Coronavirus chief Prof. Ronni Gamzu would have preferred not to bring the older children back to school on September 1, but he found himself in the minority among members of his own team of experts and Education Minister Yoav Gallant, who insisted that all schools open. Gamzu conducted a rear-guard action, and partially succeeded in keeping schools closed in the “red” cities and towns, those with high rates of infection. But since then, more and more cities have turned red.

On Tuesday, as the new data streamed in, Gamzu raised a ruckus during the discussions of the coronavirus situation and insisted on the immediate closure of the school system. The discussions involved difficult, loud confrontations between him and Gallant (around this issue) and with Minister Zeev Elkin (regarding the outline for allowing Hasidim to travel to Uman in Ukraine – a plan Elkin never ended up releasing). In the end, schools were closed as of Thursday, a day early.

The rise in the number of carriers can be expected in the next few days to be reflected in the number of seriously ill, hospitalized, and intubated. All these indices are already rising, but at a relatively moderate pace. Soon there will apparently be a slightly larger jump in these statistics, particularly because the morbidity is once again slowly making its way to the population most vulnerable to serious illness – the elderly in assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

LISTEN: Why did Israel let 70 evangelicals flout its COVID-19 travel ban?

The slide into a general lockdown also stems from the obstacles placed in Gamzu’s way last week when he tried to enforce stringent moves only in the so-called red communities, many of which are Haredi. Afterward, several hospital directors warned that their institutions were getting close to the point where they would not be able to serve the public properly because of the continued rise in the number of seriously ill patients. What four of them told the coronavirus cabinet last week persuaded the ministers and paved the way for the general lockdown. Yet the delay in implementing it was apparently due to additional political constraints – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s concern that the gloomy mood in Israel would cast a pall on Tuesday’s signing of agreements with the UAE and Bahrain in Washington.

Meanwhile, some other hospital directors and leading physicians issued an opposing call, saying they still had enough leeway to avoid a collapse. Some of the experts on the various coronavirus teams also expressed doubts. There is far more pressure on hospitals in the north, because of the increasing morbidity in Arab communities, than there is in the center of the country. But only in recent days did the system start diverting patients from the north to the center. The pressure on the teams treating coronavirus patients, who must wear heavy protective equipment all the time, is indeed exceptional. Yet some of the capabilities and resources that were mobilized in the health system at the end of the winter, when Israel feared the type of collapse that Italy’s health system suffered, are still not being utilized.

Much of the public is angry about the lockdown for a combination of reasons: The blatant exceptions being made for the Haredim with regard to many religious activities, ranging from high limits on the number of worshippers to immersion in ritual baths; the gross circumventing of the quarantine rules by the prime minister’s entourage upon their return from the United States, the contradictions and lack of clarity in the guidelines, and the failure to provide sufficient economic assistance to those who have suffered from the crisis and the closures.

So the Health Ministry is warning not to expect a tough closure that will be widely observed by the populace, as there was in March and April. And the police are admitting that the level of enforcement this time will be lower. Policemen, sources there say, will avoid confrontations with worshippers and will not be able to prevent violations of the guidelines by secular residents, either.

Haredi synagogues are expected to the main source of infection throughout the Tishrei holidays – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The most optimistic scenario that one can sketch out under these circumstances in that the closing of schools, the broad ban on gatherings that are not of a religious nature, and the closure of hotels and restaurants will all lead to a halt in the rate that the virus spreads.

But even this will only be a temporary solution, one that isn’t likely to quickly bring down the rate of infection to a tolerable level that would allow for close monitoring and quick cutoffs of the chains of infection. What’s more likely is that the minute the lockdown is lifted in a few weeks, the virus will resume its spread, as happened at the end of May.

In short, nothing good is in the offing for us right now.

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