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Israel's Second Lockdown Defies Skeptics by Succeeding Faster Than First One

The number of daily new cases declined earlier, more sharply than experts predicted, even if the economic cost was high

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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People walk in Jerusalem on October 18, 2020.
People walk in Jerusalem on October 18, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

“The lockdown has been a major success,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week. Many disagreed, justifiably. A lockdown – and certainly a second lockdown just a few months after the first one had lowered morbidity rate to almost nil – is a failure in every respect for the damage it does to the economy and society. Yet one thing is clear: The tool may be primitive, but it is effective.

In fact, the data show that it has been even more effective in reducing the number of coronavirus cases than experts had expected. That is the interim assessment by TheMarker a month after the second lockdown was imposed, based on an analysis by Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science and his students Hagai Rossman and Tomer Meir.

Haaretz Podcast: Why is Israel arming Azerbaijan against Armenia? Listen to Yossi MelmanCredit: Haaretz

The prevailing view on the eve of the second lockdown was that Israelis were exhausted. The public no longer trusted the government and wouldn’t adhere to the directives, so the lockdown was destined to fail. That didn’t happen.

According to figures assembled by the Weizmann team, the second lockdown achieved results faster than the first one: The decline in the number of new cases started earlier and the rate of decline was steeper. The decline was seen across all the parameters, including the one not affected by the rate of testing – the daily number of severe new cases.

“When we forecast the number of severe cases before the second lockdown, our most optimistic model was based on the first lockdown,” said Segal. “In the end, the second lockdown was more effective and that was certainly a surprise.”

That best-case scenario predicted that the number of severe cases would reach as high as 976; in fact, the number peaked at 930 COVID-19 sufferers admitted to hospitals, although there may have been others who remained at home.

The Weizmann analysis showed that the rate of contagion began to fall 10 days into the second lockdown, half the time it took during the first one. In addition, the sharp decline occurred in all segments of the Israeli population. However, the drop among Israeli Arabs began before the second lockdown, which may mean that it wasn’t the only reason for that decline.

As to why the second lockdown worked better, Segal admitted that it is a “sort of mystery.” But he suggested that people making sure to wear masks made the difference. During the first lockdown, there was no requirement to wear one, but now it’s been established how important they are.

The last several weeks have been characterized by a wrenching public debate over the ultra-Orthodox and the pandemic, beginning with their insistence on holding large public gatherings and their keeping schools open in defiance of the rules.

Segal’s data show that the drop in new cases among the ultra-Orthodox started later – 19 days after the lockdown went into effect – but when it began to decline it was consistent and significant. While the focus of the debate was over public gatherings, one of the reasons for the delay in the decline in new cases was contagion spread by crowded homes.

“The lockdown worked with the Haredim, despite the impression created by photos of extensive violations,” he said.

Nevertheless, the Haredim are the big story of the second lockdown. The first coronavirus wave began among the general population, in which 80% of cases were reported prior to the lockdown, including people returning from abroad. But when the ultra-Orthodox began contracting the virus, shortly after the first lockdown got underway, their rate of new cases rose quickly due to crowded homes and much more contact with people in public spaces.

According to Segal, during the first wave, the rate of transmission was one Haredi COVID-19 sufferer passing it to seven others; in the second wave, the rate dropped to 1.6 and today it is just 0.6. Still, the ultra-Orthodox account for 40% of cases, nearly four times their share of Israel’s population.

Like the Haredim, Israeli Arabs also have high rates of poverty and close, communal living, but that’s where the similarities end in regard to the coronavirus. Among Arabs, the rate of contagion was almost entirely disconnected from the lockdown. In the first wave, there were few COVID-19 cases in the community until the lockdown was imposed. However, the lockdown began at the start of the wedding season and that quickly lifted the numbers.

Similarly, the decline in morbidity among Israeli Arabs in recent weeks began before the second lockdown. Today, they account for only 13% of all confirmed cases, compared to their 21% share of the population.

As to the lockdown’s effectiveness, Segal said the main factor was the ban on large gatherings, mainly schools, weddings, restaurants and on public transportation. Other restrictions, such as the one-kilometer limit on movement, mattered far less. Even if they were ignored by many, they had less effect on contagion rates.

“It could turn out that the things that were authorized this week, like restaurant take-away and [the opening of] businesses that don’t host the public, didn’t need to be banned at all to achieve the same results,” he said.

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