The coronavirus infection statistics, and the reasonable prospect of a fifth and maybe a sixth wave, require us to infuse some content into the phrase “living with the coronavirus.” Because there are those who are living quite well with the virus, whose lifestyle, livelihood and functioning have not been affected at all, and there are those whose lives and the lives of their loved ones have been turned upside down.
The government effort to allow most Israelis to go about their business is crucial, but the need to identify those who aren’t managing to function is no less crucial. No one can tell us how much longer we’ll have to live with the pandemic, but there are assessments that it could go on for a few years. This means that in addition to planning and coping in the short term, there needs to be long-term government programs to provide a solution for those who cannot adjust – in the workforce, the educational system and in business.
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Practically speaking, we are “living with” the coronavirus since the beginning of the year, when the vaccination campaign began and the economy gradually reopened. Businesses were open, restrictions were lifted at workplaces and the schools reopened, albeit at a faltering pace given the quarantines imposed on many teachers and students. In principle, if no new variant emerges that is resistant to the vaccine, the way to live with the coronavirus is by using the tools available: Vaccines, quarantines, masks and green passports. This will allow the economy to function and most employees to work, make a living and pay taxes, and for critical systems to work properly.
As noted, however, there are those who aren’t really managing to live with the coronavirus. In the workforce, which is recovering after an unemployment rate of 28 percent early in the pandemic – a rate never seen since the founding of the state – there are still too many people who lost jobs and haven’t returned to work. Before the coronavirus crisis there were around 150,000 unemployed people. Now there are 350,000, most of them low earners, young people, a significant number of them from the Arab community, who paid the price of the business closures and downsizing caused by the crisis.
The crisis may also be undermining Arab higher education. The Aaron Institute for Economic Policy at Reichman University, formerly the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, published a position paper on the impact of the crisis on Arab students. It showed that a fifth of Arab students fear they will have to drop out of university or college – double the ratio of Jewish students. The study also found that 74 percent of Arab students’ households had suffered from the crisis, compared to 43 percent of the Jewish students’ households.
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During the crisis, Israeli schools were closed for many more days than schools in other OECD countries, and there will probably be consequences for international comparisons of achievement. A few months ago, the Bank of Israel published an analysis showing that the lack of frontal instruction does more harm to those from poorer families, which will deepen inequality.
So while the impact of the coronavirus crisis may be more or less uniform at the health level, at the economic and educational levels it is very differential. The high-tech industry is thriving with large capital fund-raisings, rapidly climbing wages and get-rich stories, but the aviation, tourism and culture sectors are collapsing. While public sector workers feel they have high job security (their share of those buying apartments for investment is twice their share of the population), many other workers face great uncertainty. And while large companies are thriving thanks to low interest rates and the process of streamlining that was accelerated by the pandemic, small businesses are closing and many more are teetering at the brink.
To live with the coronavirus is indeed necessary, but because the impact of the crisis has affected people so differently, this phrase must be accompanied by an asterisk that demands the government advance plans to deal with those who have suffered – by providing professional training, educational programs for those who couldn’t adjust to distance learning, and incentives for small businesses and the self-employed. These programs must be launched quickly, before the emerging gaps become too large to bridge.