Sorry, My Complaining Countrymen, but Israel’s Coronavirus Policy Is Working

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

The speed with which the public’s mood has changed – from hysteria to arrogant over-confidence – is second only to the speed with which so many people have become experts in epidemiology, economics and every other field affected by the coronavirus over the last two months. Yesterday, everyone was listening to the Health Ministry’s experts; today, everyone is kicking them as they go by.

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The terrifying Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov and Prof. Gabi Barbash are out; Prof. Yoram Lass and the new star, Maj. Gen. (res.) Isaac Ben-Israel, are in (after the previous representative of this school of thought, Prof. Michael Levitt, retreated together with his forecast of only 10 deaths). Yesterday’s hero is today’s idiot; the prophet has become a con man.

“It’s the Israeli health system’s Yom Kippur,” society has declared. Why Yom Kippur, I asked? The number of patients doesn’t seem to be very high, the Israeli health system hasn’t collapsed like that of Italy, for instance, and we have been spared the collective trauma of mass death, at least for now. Would you want to be living in New York or Madrid these days?

“I don’t believe a word Bar Siman Tov says,” one friend replied. “He’s speaking with an eye toward a [future] commission of inquiry.”

But what, I asked, does he have to be afraid of? Of promoting a conservative policy to cope with a new virus that the medical world doesn’t know enough about? Would anyone volunteer himself, or his children or parents, for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s failed experiment in immunity, which was brought to a screeching halt after the horror show in London became clear, and which, ironically, sent the prime minister himself to the intensive care unit?

The limited damage Israel has suffered (so far) could be due to local genetic factors, a relatively young population or pure luck. Or it could be due to the Health Ministry’s conservative policy and the chronic anxiety of Bar Siman Tov and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The miserable life of the chronically anxious is one continuous, tortured wait for an impending disaster; it’s an oppressive burden to himself and others. But sometimes – say, in the case of a pandemic – it has a certain value.

Senior Health Ministry officials are being attacked now only because the number of victims to date hasn’t risen to the shocking levels of some European countries and the United States. In other words, they’re being punished precisely because they may have done the right thing.

It’s clear that there have been and still are failures and flaws in both the Health Ministry’s conduct and that of the prime minister. These include the lax restrictions on the ultra-Orthodox community at the beginning of the crisis, the very fact that Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has remained in office, the failure, due to ulterior motives, to require quarantine for people returning from the United States, the failure to protect medical staff, the insufficient amount of testing, the situation at nursing homes and more. (And that's without even getting into the subject of unemployment and the economy.)

But before accusing senior Health Ministry officials Siegal Sadetzki and Itamar Grotto of sowing panic for phony reasons, it’s worth glancing at pictures of the lines outside an Ikea branch this week. After all, everyone knows that the most urgent task on people’s list upon exiting a two-month lockdown is to look for lighting fixtures together with several hundred other people in an enclosed space.

Over the past few days, whenever I’ve gone out into the street, I’ve noticed that only I and a few other elderly people are still bothering to wear masks. Perhaps the masks are useless, but it’s impossible to deny that since the Passover holiday ended, many people have simply abandoned all precautions.

It’s as if, without a loved/hated patriarch to impose stringent rules, including a brutal lockdown that sparked fantasies of revolt, they’re incapable of taking moderate, reasonable precautions of their own accord, or of grasping that we’re still in the grip of an unfamiliar occurrence, the extent of whose damage remains impossible to predict, regardless of which approach you favor. Is that also Bar Siman Tov’s fault?

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