The increase in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in recent days comes amid a new reality in Israel: An almost entirely new team of officials is now in charge of managing the crisis, and a public that is just starting to stretch its legs after weeks of confinement.
All the relevant ministries – finance, health, defense and education – are now led by different ministers than when the virus first reached Israel. Right under them, ministry directors general are being rapidly replaced. Only two holdovers from the old coronavirus team remain – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Bar Siman Tov, who is planning to step down as director general of the Health Ministry but has not yet done so.
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Meanwhile, after two-and-half months of draconian lockdown, the economy has begun coming back to life. Ordinary Israelis, who had been house-bound for long weeks, went out to celebrate their new freedom in the restaurants and cafés that were finally allowed to reopen at the end of last week.
At the Health Ministry, the graphs showing growing rates of contagion, some of it connected with the reopening of the schools, officials were shuddering. Bar Siman Tov, who talks directly with Netanyahu, raised the red flag again and demanded that the schools be closed. The National Security Council began asking itself whether wedding halls should be reopened and public events permitted as planned on June 14.
A delay, officials said, is not just about nipping a second wave of the coronavirus in the bud, but about sending a message to the public that even if life is returning to normal the danger hasn’t passed. There’s no room for complacency.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the Health Ministry has waged a war on two fronts. The first was a practical campaign to prevent large gatherings of people. The second was a kind of psychological warfare that included bans, for instance, on swimming at the beach even though it didn’t present a real danger. The idea was to prevent the public from treating the lockdown as a pleasant vacation.
Now, as the lockdown eases, the ministry is grappling with how to continue with its dual approach with policies that won’t exact too heavy an economic toll, but at the same time send the message that the coronavirus is still here and that if the public doesn’t behave accordingly, the lockdown could return.
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The problem is that the strategy is encountering a major obstacle. Bar Siman Tov is on his way out. His new boss, for now, is Yuli Edelstein. In the Finance Ministry, Yisrael Katz is now in charge and is well aware that he is being tested on his ability to rein in the economic impact of the pandemic. The new defense minister, Benny Gantz, knows that a sustained economic crisis will leave the government no choice but to cut the defense budget. Education Minister Yoav Gallant wants to be running the schools, not deferring to the Health Ministry.
This group on the one hand knows it has to get economic activity back to normal and on the other fears a second coronavirus wave. They know that the options their predecessors had three months ago no longer exist. The cost to the economy of reviving the lockdown would be much higher this time and the willingness of the public to obey lockdown directives would be much lower. They don’t want to be wrestling with an underground economy or street protests.
This situation has created a new and interesting division inside the government. On one side is Katz, Gantz and Gallant, who support a continued reopening of the economy; on the other is Netanyahu and the healthcare establishment.
The prime minister certainly appreciates the risk of an economic crisis, but since the onset of the pandemic, he has always chosen the path of caution advocated by Bar Siman Tov and health officials. That path served Netanyahu politically, leading to the breakup of Kahol Lavan and Gantz’s joining him in a national unity government. But that policy reflects the prime minister’s innate caution. He doesn’t like to take chances when the blame is likely to boomerang at him.
The massive pressure that the business sector has exerted on the government to address their problems has resulted in several controversial programs, like the one that grants 7,500 shekels ($2,140) for every furloughed employee a business brings back. The effectiveness of such a scheme is debatable, but in the end what decided in its favor is that it could be approved and implemented quickly. It’s a lot simpler a formula than one based on the percentage of workers who are brought back to their jobs, or one based on industries that have been the most badly affected by layoffs.
But officials at the treasury and the Bank of Israel know that the most effective program of all is getting the economy up and running again while using smart tools for preventing contagion. The latter include enforcing social distancing and imposing targeted lockdowns in places were the coronavirus has resurfaced.
The problem with this sensible policy is the Israeli public. During the last lockdown, people displayed impressive levels of discipline, but the easing of the lockdown is being taken as an end to it. Many fewer people are wearing masks, they’re gathering in large groups and failing to maintain social-distancing rues. The question is: Can Israel return to normal without being quite normal?
The rapid return to normalcy, which has been accompanied by a rise in the number of new COVID-19 cases, raises the issue of how to enforce the rules that remain. The Health Ministry hasn’t made it easier. It all but declared the pandemic over in broadcasting the news about hospital coronavirus wards being closed and the number of new cases falling so dramatically. It was no surprise the public has taken the ministry at its word and concluded that the pandemic is over.
The message the government needs to send now runs along the lines of “The coronavirus us dead, long live the coronavirus.” Or, it will remain alive if the social-distancing rules aren’t adhered to. One solution being considered is to step up police enforcement at places of entertainment.
That is a job that, unhappily for them, will turn the police into state-sanctioned party poopers. But Israel must take social distancing seriously so it can continue reopening the economy. Enforcement is the only way to do it. The government, with the aid of business, will have to take at least that one unpopular decision for the public’s good.