Analysis |

Coronavirus Won't Destroy the Israeli Economy, but Netanyahu’s Hysteria Could

The prime minister has shown no interest in weighing risks properly, and is determined to tighten coronavirus lockdown no matter what

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A border police officer adjusts his mask next to a sign protesting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, July 14, 2020.
A border police officer adjusts his mask next to a sign protesting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, July 14, 2020.Credit: Oren Ben Hakon

About 256,000 Israelis have been identified as COVID-19 carriers. Of those, about 1,700 have died, a mortality rate of 0.6% of confirmed cases. However, the figure is far from being exact because the number of carriers is a lot higher than the number of confirmed carriers. How much higher? A huge controversy is raging over this.

HAARETZ PODCAST: A very close call for Netanyahu and Mossad chief at the White HouseCredit: Haaretz

The generally accepted estimate is that the number of carriers is two to 10 times the official figure. If the lower end of the range is correct, it means the mortality rate in Israelis is just 0.3%.

But even this figure isn’t exact, because many died from the coronavirus without being diagnosed as having it.

In a recent issue, The Economist magazine estimated that the real death rate for COVID-19 is 30% to 50% higher than the reported rate, but that’s in countries where the rate of testing is much lower than in Israel. It’s reasonable to assume, then, that in Israel the number of coronavirus deaths that were attributed to other causes is much lower than that. To be conservative, let’s assume that the mortality rate is between 0.3% and 0.5% of all carriers in Israel.

In addition, there’s been a persistent worry that the health care system will collapse under the weight of COVID-19 cases, thereby leading to a higher mortality rate from non-coronavirus causes. If that were to happen, we would have to add those deaths to the pandemic death toll.

Finally, there is a critical aspect of the pandemic that the public tends to ignore: The medical problem COVID-19 poses isn’t measured just by deaths but by sufferers who will be left with serious chronic conditions. The deaths pertain mainly to the elderly – the average age of COVID deaths is 80 – but those recovingy with chronic conditions are younger. Their quality of life will be lowered in the years ahead and they will create a burden on the health care system.

It is hard to quantify this aspect of the coronavirus pandemic. Large numbers of sufferers struggle to recover, but we don’t know whether this is just the start of a long, drawn-out process and/or what problems they will have to live with.

The bottom line is that the coronavirus is a serious illness whose long-term implications can’t be ignored, but it’s not an illness than will wipe out humanity or the State of Israel. If the 0.5% mortality rate is correct, it would spell 45,000 deaths – and that assumes that the entire population of Israel is infected, i.e., without taking into account herd immunity or a vaccine ever being developed. On the other hand, the additional deaths caused by COVID-19 will be reflected in fewer deaths from other causes in the years ahead.

These data all have to be taken into account as we try to manage the risks of the pandemic. We shouldn’t underestimate its dangers, but there’s no reason to fall into the trap of hysteria.

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House, September 17, 2020. Credit: Alex Brandon,AP

We don’t need to echo the complacent near-denial of the disease by U.S. President Donald Trump. But by the same token we shouldn’t adopt the hysteria of our own leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who this week wants to look into turning Israel into a giant prison by limiting the distance people can ordinarily go from their homes to just 200 meters, and perhaps adding additional restrictions on business.

Israel’s second lockdown began just two weeks ago. A week later it was severely tightened and now Netanyahu is looking to tighten it even more – and it’s all being done without the support of Health Ministry experts or data that justify it.

The numbers on the contagion over the past two weeks aren’t clear, among other reasons because the High Holy Days disrupted testing. However, what numbers that are coming in point to the lockdown’s success.

Dr. Dan Yamin and Prof. Irad Ben-Gal of Tel Aviv University have found that the number of people who have traveled more than 1.5 kilometers from their homes fell 35% during the second, more draconian stage of the lockdown, compared with 43% during the spring lockdown. In other words, even the second time around observance has been pretty good.

That the rate was higher in the March-April lockdown is not surprising because back then the fear kept people at home. Since then, as they have come to realize that the coronavirus is not going to be a second Holocaust, the fear has receded. Moreover, the second lockdown allows more exceptions and with good reason: Since the first lockdown, we’ve learned that the virus spreads most effectively in enclosed spaces and among very large gatherings of people without masks. There’s no reason to imprison everyone.

Office buildings are seen on the border Tel Aviv and Givatayim, June 16, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

That is why Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the coronavirus chief, and the Health Ministry experts don’t see any need for tightening the existing lockdown restrictions. Admittedly there are a few experts who argue they should be stepped up, but not because they think it will have a epidemiological impact but because it would make the police’s job of enforcing the rules easier. It would also send a message to the public about how serious the situation is.

It would be a terrible mistake to decide on coronavirus policy based on their psychological impact, especially when you understand the heavy price they exact. Treasury Chief Economist Shira Greenberg estimates that the cost of keeping people locked up in their homes and closing businesses will cost the Israeli economy 35 billion shekels ($10.2 billion) over two weeks. And that doesn’t take into account the psychological and health costs from the economic fallout.

So, how did we get to the stage that we are even talking about a tightening of the lockdown?

The answer lies with Netanyahu and his being the polar opposite of Trump. The president suffers from excess complacency, the prime minister from excess hysteria.

For many Israelis, the hysteria is grounded in bad intentions – the desire to put an end to the anti-Netanyahu street protests. But that is giving the prime minister too much credit for cunning. The reality is he that he is a bad manager, has lost control of the pandemic and refuses to learn from past mistakes. Just recall his recent remarks that he has ignored expert advice in the past because he knows better than everyone.

Instead of imposing a livable lockdown, one that would let the economy function while reducing the rate of contagion, he prefers one that strangles. It’s the only kind of policy he can understand, the only one that gives him a sense of power. He’ll be the one who enters the history books as the one who not only saved Israel from Iran but from the pandemic.

The fact that the Iranian threat remains tangible and that the coronavirus is not an existential threat shouldn’t muddy the waters as far as the prime minister is concerned. The important thing is that he should decide alone, without expert input and without weighing the cost to the economy. Hysteria serves Netanyahu, but it does nothing for Israel.

Protesters gather in front of the Prime Minister's Residence on Jerusalem's Balfour Street, July 25, 2020.
Masked protesters in Jerusalem, July 25, 2020.
Protesters wear masks and close their eyes while sitting on the ground in Jerusalem, July 25, 2020
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Protesters gather in front of the Prime Minister's Residence on Jerusalem's Balfour Street, July 25, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
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Masked protesters in Jerusalem, July 25, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
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Protesters wear masks and close their eyes while sitting on the ground in Jerusalem, July 25, 2020Credit: Emil Salman
Anti-government protests

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