Opinion

The Coronavirus Won't Hurt Most of Us, but Lockdown Economy Will Bring Death

Closed shops in a street in Ashkelon during spread of coronavirus disease, Israel March 20, 2020.
AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Future historians will craft phrases like “in the struggle against the coronavirus, humanity decided to save as many lives as possible, even at the price of an economic holocaust.” Perhaps using the word “even” in the last part of the sentence is questionable.

The Finance Ministry estimates that if the lockdown does indeed last six weeks, the coronavirus crisis will cost the Israeli economy about 90 billion shekels – in other words, an economic crisis with hundreds of thousands of unemployed people and a prolonged standstill.

When this event is behind us, we will be able to thoroughly analyze Israel’s lockdown model approach to the coronavirus, but we can already state that the dominant policy comes down to frightening the public and sacrificing our economic future.

This approach has long-term implications. The current policy maintains that the way to save lives now is to slow down the economy to a minimum, going as far as a total lockdown.

As I write these lines, the media headlines are screaming, “Israel is heading for a lockdown.” In this context, it’s important to present two truths: first, an economic crisis is equivalent to death. Not only does it cause securities to lose their value – a painful situation for the increasing number of impoverished people – but it also creates a society that will live in debt for years to come.

In reality, to save lives today, society is “willing” to sacrifice the lives of many tomorrow. Soon experts will start calculating the effects of the economic holocaust being generated now on the population’s life expectancy, on the poverty and unemployment that will abound, and on the stagnation.

The prevalent neoliberal approach maintains that the state will deal with the pandemic (by strangling the economy and the psychobabble “love is keeping your distance”), while the market powers will deal with the poverty and unemployment, which this strangle policy is already creating.

The Finance Ministry has expanded the eligibility for unemployment pay and allocated a minimal grant to self-employed workers, but there’s no commitment regarding future state funding and no real safety net has been put in place – certainly not one like the safety net that’s been declared in Canada and other countries. Under Israel’s dominant economic policy, we can assume that such a net will not be provided.

Second, experts say that in order to discover coronavirus carriers, we must perform as many tests as possible, and patients must be put into isolation. But in Israel, few tests are being conducted (although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed we’re leading in this field), and the government is acting according to a model that predicts up to 21,600 fatalities (70 years old and up). Zvi Maron, whose company is involved in developing a coronavirus detection kit, was cited in TheMarker last week as saying that this model is “utter rubbish, and disputed by numerous scientists.”

As of last Wednesday, there were 1,400 tests being conducted for every million Israeli residents. In comparison, in South Korea, there are 3,700 tests for every million residents.

But there’s an alternative to this model. Instead of complete economic paralysis, what we need is to isolate only populations at risk for a significant length of time (a move that will still hurt the economy, but not like the current freeze, because most of the people in this group don’t work), enable the economy to operate under minimal restrictions and carry out tests to locate infected people.

Instead, they’re lying to the public, mobilizing the Shin Bet security service and threatening mass casualties if people shake hands or go to social gatherings. Meanwhile, only one single person has died of the coronavirus in Israel.

More people will surely die, and this is regrettable, but what about the lives lost as a result of the economic holocaust being generated?

Instead of shutting down the economy, the government should isolate and protect populations at risk – a small part of society – and let life continue its course. The absolute majority will be less affected by the virus than if they had a light flu.

Instead, the lockdown policy is leading to prolonging the pandemic and exposing populations at risk to the virus. It’s already clear that the model adopted by the government to deal with the coronavirus will exact many more human lives in the long-term than in the immediate term.

Georges Danton, the radical leader of the French Revolution, said a revolution is an opportunity for the biggest scoundrels to rise to power. Indeed, the future holds huge losses for the impoverished population, and huge political gain for Netanyahu.