New restrictions are being imposed on Israel’s population almost daily. At week’s end more drastic measures were announced, restricting people to their homes except for essential outings. Experience in other countries shows that it takes seven to 10 days, and perhaps as much as two weeks for social distancing to impact the spread of the coronavirus. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has once again called urgent meetings to impose greater restrictions – perhaps as far-reaching as total quarantine. He has done so although he has not been given data that can confirm the need for these stricter steps. Leaks about a quarantine come out every few hours, and Israelis remain confused.
The decision on new restrictions should come only after decision makers have received reliable data about the extent of testing and the number of infected people. Israel responded rightly at the beginning of the crisis when it closed its borders, asked the public to maintain social distancing and demanded that those who had come into contact with a confirmed patient go into isolation. Schools and kindergartens were subsequently closed and outings from home were greatly restricted.
The price of full quarantine is enormous. The GDP would plunge by 9 percent if it continued for five weeks, and by 18 percent if it persisted for 12 weeks. It would mean economic damage of 140–250 billion shekels ($39.3–70.1 billion), hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs and joining the ranks of the poor, and a real danger to Israel’s economic stability. Israel’s financial collapse would be a disaster, whose cost in terms of human life would be no less severe than the price the epidemic is now exacting, and an even greater cost in terms of quality of life.
The Health Ministry must increase the number of tests for carriers of the coronavirus, ensure the reliability of the tests and publish the data with complete transparency, for the good of the public. The police and the local authorities must enforce emergency measures. Closures should be considered in certain areas of outbreaks, such as Bnei Brak, where residents did not follow Health Ministry directives and almost no action has been taken to enforce them.
Only if the virus continues to spread at an increasing rate will it be possible to seriously consider full quarantine during the interim days of Passover, when economic activity is limited in any case. Even under such circumstances, decision makers should first prepare detailed plans for an exit from the crisis – because as long as no vaccine has been found for the coronavirus, even extreme measures will not ensure that the virus won’t spread again after things return to normal. Policy makers must make decisions in a way that limits the number of coronavirus patients on the one hand, and that also ensures the speedy rehabilitation of the economy on the other.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.