Wear a Mask, Hope for the Best

Masked passengers arrive at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Israel, February 17, 2020.
Moti Milrod

The strongest feeling regarding how Israel is addressing the threat of the new coronavirus is a sense of the state’s own helplessness. Behind the big, pompous, seemingly decisive words is nothing except for a cardboard sign at Ben-Gurion International Airport calling on passengers returning from certain Asian countries to self-quarantine for two weeks. As if people would voluntarily place themselves under a kind of house arrest, as if it were even logical, in a democratic country, to arbitrarily quarantine thousands of people in this way. That’s your solution? As if the state can even enforce the command to withdraw from life for two weeks.

Who’ll compensate the self-employed while they’re in quarantine? Who’ll take care of their families? Who’ll reimburse employers? Did anyone consider even the most trivial ramifications of the policy? For that matter, who will enforce the quarantine? Who’ll make sure people who may be infected don’t come in contact with others and risk spreading the virus? What personnel will carry out such work, and with what funding?

Beyond the countless “human interest stories” on the news, there isn’t really a serious discussion of how the state should respond to the threat of an epidemic such as the new coronavirus. There is no serious debate of considered, concrete, steps the government should take to reduce the potential harm. Most measures taken so far seem more like theater than a genuine response. Could it be the government has no real response? Could it be that in its current state – defensive, stalled, disconnected – it can’t really respond beyond issuing the usual, automatic response?

And it’s not only the government. It’s doubtful whether, under the current political circumstances, it’s possible to hold any serious public discussion of these questions, this situation or life in general. I ask all those speaking now about the health system’s problems and promising big changes, what is your position on readiness to address the new coronavirus? What would you do? Do you consider it unimportant? What can be done to safeguard public health at the most immediate, existential level?

The story of Israel’s preparedness for the coronavirus is largely an allegory of its current inability to handle anything a little challenging, that requires creative thought, that requires it to set aside its automatic positions for a moment to get something done. It is doubtful whether the state today is capable of meeting the needs of Israelis with problems that deviate from the recognized and the familiar.

When I write here about the “end of the political era,” of the powerlessness of nation-states – not only of Israel – in the face of the rampant craziness of these fragile times, I’m also writing about that. The outbreak of the new coronavirus is a small matter in comparison to the tremendous changes facing the entire world, and what nation-states, such as Israel, will have to confront in the future (such as climate change).

Almost no one is shouting out a warnings about the coronavirus creeping toward us; nobody is demanding the Health Ministry, the prime minister, the Knesset, take action. It’s doubtful there’s a single Israeli who believes the sign at the entrance to Ben-Gurion International Airport instructing people to self-quarantine, without anyone to supervise or to answer the most basic questions, can be of any help. The deep public distrust in the political system has long since given way to indifference, disinterest and shoulder-shrugging. We’ll buy a face mask and put it on. Like a person who has fallen off a cliff and can do nothing but flap their arms as they descend.