Opinion |

The Real Danger the Coronavirus Poses Is Not the Number of Fatalities

Ariana Melamed
Ariana Melamed
Ben-Gurion International Airport empty of passengers as coronavirus persists.
Ben-Gurion International Airport empty of passengers as coronavirus persists. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Ariana Melamed
Ariana Melamed

There’s a danger they don’t mention when they talk about “flattening the curve,” the “availability of throat swabs” and the “inventories of respirators”: What happens the day the sinister graph reaches its peak? No one can say exactly how many fatalities are anticipated, but the danger of which the prophets of doom are warning, and from which the politicians are trying to protect the public and themselves, is not the number of dead.

Every year thousands of people die from infections they got in hospitals, and no one acts with a sense of clear and present danger to prevent these fatalities. After all, they take place one after another and out of sight, and have yet to cause the collapse of the healthcare system, which for years has been close to the breaking point. The economy is not affected, the media doesn’t report on it, the public is not in a panic and our collective moral muscle is too weak to change the situation.

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On the day the gloomiest forecasts come true, there will be a drastic change. If that day comes, it will find Israel already badly battered economically, extraordinarily frightened and mighty angry. Added to the existing wave of anxiety will be the harsh realization that all the government systems – which until now we tried hard to believe in – have failed and betrayed the citizens who funded them and voted for their representatives, out of a belief that they know what has to be done, and that they want what’s best and intend to help everyone.

If the day comes that in Israeli hospitals they are conducting wartime triage – in other words “risk management,” in which you have to decide whether to detach grandma from the respirator in favor of a young man with better chances of recovering – the vestiges of faith in the healthcare system would disappear.

Violence directed against medical teams will soon follow, the justified anger will emerge from the hospitals to the streets, and from there to the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street: At the boiling point, no orders for voluntary quarantine or prevention of gatherings will halt the fury fueled by fear, and no statistical juggling will conceal the failure.

Protest has rules of its own, and what is now beginning on social media is likely to deteriorate quickly into general chaos. When the political establishment pictures all this (without sharing its fears with the public), it is not concerned only for itself and its survival, but for the survival of order and discipline – for the very thin layer of civil culture that submissively accepts the existing order.

When the decision makers look at the threatening graph, it’s not the collection of bodies in the hospital refrigerators that disturbs them – but rather the living, those who have not yet fallen ill but feel that they are next in line for that triage. And in such a situation, what will become of them?

When the dimensions of the failure and its consequences become clear, all the genies will escape from the bottles and from the cellars of the collective awareness and erupt all at once: Tom Hanks and the president of Brazil will have access to respirators, of course, but if God forbid billionaire Shari Arison and social activist and single mother Vikki Knafo fall ill at the same time, imagine what would happen to the vestiges of the Israeli sense of solidarity, which we call “national resilience.”

Now picture burning tires, shattered windows, police forces and non-lethal riot-control devices. That is the scenario that led to the order that all civilians stay at home, whatever the cost. If the curve really does flatten as a result of the prohibitions and the orders, the government systems and the “resilience” will also remain in place. Maybe it’s a bad, cynical and undemocratic deal – but it’s the only thing that will prevent a disaster greater than an epidemic.

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