Israel Must Choose Anything but Another Lockdown

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Israelis in Tel Aviv, June 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

The coronavirus can’t be denied. It’s a large-scale global disaster. The lockdown and other draconian measures employed to stop the pandemic during the initial crisis period weren’t a cunning plot by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; they stemmed from genuine alarm at a faceless enemy worse than Iran and Hamas, which are at least guided by human hands that could stop a war if it served their interests.

Not that we know much more today, but the virus has become an accepted presence in our lives, as depressing as the realization that this is a marathon, painful and exhausting, not a sprint. Our lives have been stripped of lofty idealism and reduced to the most basic functions of mere survival. Physical, but above all economic, mental and social survival.

The size of the coronavirus crisis has not shrunk. Any talk of the weakening of the virus is speculation, as valid or as idle as any rumor. There won’t be a vaccine anytime soon.

The criticism of the testing and contact-tracing programs is justified; they have not become sufficiently organized or efficient since the first wave. But even the critics know that their remarks are less a concrete proposal for halting the spread of the disease than they are an attempt at action at a time of helplessness. The pandemic cannot yet be halted; we must try to live with it with minimum harm. It will continue to claim victims and to cause pain to many.

Yet despite the rise in the number of cases, the hysterical reports of the advisory groups, the pressure from the Health Ministry and the scary news headlines, Israel cannot return to lockdown and the economy cannot be allowed to slow dramatically.

The first lockdown, which wasn’t particularly long and wasn’t even hermetic, proved that Israelis’ economic, psychological and social resilience is very fragile. One beloved elderly friend told me he can’t ever remember being so depressed, even during the War of Attrition, an arbitrary, meaningless machine that claimed victims every day.

Besides, how will another lockdown help, apart from temporarily halting the spread of the virus at the cost of dealing a death blow to the economy? The earlier shutdown flattened the curve of infection, but it rebounded quite quickly after the (necessary) reopening of schools. Limited measures produce limited results. Does wiping out the entertainment and event industries, leaving their employees to starve, help to halt the pandemic?

I don’t mean to presume, but there is one thing I share with the prime minister: a febrile, paranoid anxiety, especially about health issues. Yet anyone with eyes in their head, including people who suffer from this tortuous affliction – after all, what can be more important than life and death? – understands that the risk of economic collapse, the anxiety accompanying it and the severe damage being done to our social and communal fabric are currently even more dangerous than a war.

In bad situations, and this situation is exceedingly bad, there’s no choice but to engage in the almost cruel process of risk management and choose the lesser evil. Not due to denial or to downplaying the risks posed by a virus whose behavior still isn’t sufficiently understood and whose dangerousness is a variable that hasn’t been fully deciphered, but due to a clear-sighted view of the evident dangers that are clearly coming to pass – the collapse of the middle class, the loss of societal confidence and the rise in dangerous problems like domestic violence and mental illness.

At the end of four difficult, shattering months, health considerations, which were rightly given primacy initially, must become a lesser consideration, because the economic, social and psychological dangers have proved to cause even more concrete harm.

No one wants to sacrifice their loved ones to the pandemic; the very thought is petrifying and distressing. But when we adopt a comprehensive view, it’s clear that shutting down the economy and causing it further damage will kill us all. This is a cruel choice, but we must face it.