Netanyahu Must Start Implementing a Coronavirus Exit Strategy Before It’s Too Late

Haaretz Editorial
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A man wearing a protective mask waits at the arrival hall in Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, February 27, 2020.
A man wearing a protective mask waits at the arrival hall in Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, February 27, 2020.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP
Haaretz Editorial

The Finance Ministry’s task force on an exit strategy from the lockdown couldn’t have been clearer: We must start gradually easing restrictions on the economy immediately, right after the Passover holiday ends, to prevent an economic collapse and irreversible damage.

The task force concluded that the risks of a spreading economic plague are high, whereas according to the data in its possession, the risk of infection in the workplace is relatively low, and would be further reduced if returning to work is conditioned on compliance with stringent requirements for hygiene and social distancing.

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The task force, made up of officials from the treasury, Bank of Israel, National Economic Council, Economy Ministry and Health Ministry, warned that Israel is approaching the point of no return from an economic and social standpoint. Continuing the economic shutdown beyond this point would undermine the country’s ability to recover, and the damage would be long-term (Meirav Arlosoroff, Haaretz in Hebrew, April 12).

The task force warned of a massive collapse of businesses and of the severe social ramifications of a steep rise in unemployment. Therefore, it weighed the contribution of various industries to gross domestic product and employment against the health risks they entail and recommended that work resume in high-tech, the financial sector, industrial firms, office work, law and accounting firms, wholesale marketing, agriculture, construction and warehousing. It also concluded that there should be a controlled resumption of school for younger children and of public transportation needed to get to workplaces.

The problem is that there is more than one government task force. While the Finance Ministry’s task force is focused on the economic risks, the Health Ministry’s task force is focused on health risks, and it has adopted an extremely strict interpretation of the coronavirus statistics. Even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has personally violated the Health Ministry’s instructions and demonstrated contempt for their necessity, when it comes to the public, he tends to adopt the stringent conclusions of the Health Ministry’s task force. That task force recommends not easing the lockdown until the daily number of new patients falls to no more than 10 nationwide.

With all due caution, it’s reasonable to conclude based on the data that the peak of the pandemic’s spread is behind us. Moreover, trying to draw a distinction between health risks and economic risks is misleading, because an economic collapse can sometimes be a matter of life and death. We must begin a cautious, controlled return to normality, even if it’s a different normality than what we were accustomed to before the coronavirus outbreak.

Netanyahu is known for hesitancy, not to say cowardice, with regard to any move that entails risk. But he must rise above this, adopt the conclusions of the Finance Ministry’s expert panel and start implementing a strategy to gradually exit the lockdown immediately after Passover.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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