Opinion

Coronavirus Outbreak: Israel's Economic Epidemic Is Just Around the Corner

People returning from abroad wearing protective masks, Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport, March 2020.
Ofer Vaknin

Prof. Michael Levitt says he will be surprised if more than 10 people die in Israel from the coronavirus. Levitt, who asked the public to listen to Socrates’ advice and follow their natural instincts instead of heeding the rhetoric. It is hard enough to hear the intuition that is swimming against the current, and even more so to voice it. There is a big gap between the rhetoric the authorities and most experts have adopted, and many people’s instincts. The gap between the rhetoric and the natural intuitive feeling infuriates experts and authorities, and causes them to harshen their rhetoric and their enforcement efforts accordingly. Because you didn’t listen to us, you are forcing us to track you, lock you up and punish you.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 70Haaretz

On Thursday, it was reported that the average age of those dying from COVID-19 in Italy was 79 years and a half years old. From the beginning, it was known that the coronavirus was dangerous mostly to the elderly, but anyone who dared point that out as a statistic requiring different proportions in how the epidemic is described, and maybe even the use of other means, was presented as someone who hates old people.

But the fact that the disease “respects” the life cycle and “spares” the children, and that most of those who are ill recover, must be present in both the definition of the threat and also in the means that justify the war against it. If the healthy would live forever, then there would be logic in an all-out war against a disease in which the average age of its victims is 79. When life expectancy is 82, it is hard to understand the intensity of the global anxiety. Italy is only an example, the numbers may be wrong, in every country it is different, etc. It is all true. But at this stage it is hard to ignore the intuitive feeling that the human race is behaving as if it has discovered for the first time that there is no such thing as eternal life.

The problem lies in the description of the threat by the authorities, justifying the harsh methods for dealing with it, including the deliberate melting down of the economy. In order to fight the spread of the coronavirus, Israel is demanding that everyone, including young people and the healthy, endanger and even lose their source of income. The healthy are sent to become financially sick or even die, as part of a moral mission – while the alternative is presented (justifiably) as a moral abomination. Just look at the speed with which, at the very first sign of economic difficulties caused by the coronavirus, employers rushed to send their employees home on unpaid leave – when most of them have no financial reserves. And the public accepted this with such calm understanding, this sacred economic logic. These very same employers turned their arrows against the government without endangering their own private financial reserves, which are hidden from the public eye.

But will the country and its wealthy be there “after the war” for those same hundreds of thousands of workers, self-employed and small business owners who return from battle and discover they have nothing left? Will Israel act with the same devotion with which it surveilled, caught and isolated us all to prevent the spread of the virus, in order to look after those citizens enlisted in the corona war “on behalf of the good of all?” Or will it turn its back on the unemployed veterans and the economically bereaved families, and remember that in fact it believes in a free market? Will it invest all its resources to prevent the spread of the poverty and unemployment epidemic with the same fastidiousness?

It is impossible to be a communist when that is what is needed to fight a viral epidemic and then to remember the free market when the time comes to fight the economic epidemic – in particular when the latter problem is the result of treating the former. The country has allowed itself to recruit the entire population in this war in the name of the moral principle of ensuring that not only the strong survive. This same principle must dictate the country’s steps in treating the economic epidemic waiting around the corner.

We cannot let the elderly die. But the poor cannot be the coin that redeems the elderly – and the rich – from the hands of the angel of death. Something is rotten in the kingdom of the socioeconomic model of our times, and that’s what our natural instincts are telling us.