On Sunday morning, for the first time in over a month, there were traffic jams on the Ayalon Freeway going into Tel Aviv. Police, who remained a presence at highway checkpoints at some locations around the country, looked helpless.
Israelis had voted with their feet, or more literally with their cars, and as a practical matter, the lockdown that the country had been under in response to the coronavirus pandemic was over. The country was shifting to a new stage in the efforts to deal with the virus.
Bibi's got the perfect exit strategy - just not for the coronavirus
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the nation on Saturday evening in which he announced plans to loosen some of the stringent health regulations was followed by a cabinet meeting in the middle of the night, which resulted in their approval with some modifications. This marked the crossing of the Rubicon. Cabinet members and ministry officials may think they are in control of the situation through their statements and directives, but in practice, the public is already preoccupied with the day after, calculating their own exit strategies from the crisis.
The coronavirus is a real presence in our lives and apparently will remain so for a long time to come, but from the moment the announcement was made Saturday evening of the plan to significantly ease the lockdown, as the public had expected, it’s hard to imagine a way back to those limitations.
Things are happening quickly. All of a sudden, the daily toll in lives that COVID-19 has been exacting was pushed to the sidelines. People were talking about it as if it were simply another common cause of death, such as cancer or other illnesses. Instead, the attention was focused on the increasing economic cost that the virus was inflicting.
A major psychological shift is occurring that is a bit reminiscent of a cease-fire following a military campaign. The government is still telling the public that they need to exercise caution and that new limitations are still a possibility, but they are already preparing for peacetime.
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The difference between a war and the current situation, of course, is that the coronavirus is an enemy that can’t be deterred or threatened. The easing of the lockdown is taking place in Israel at the same time that several European countries, including Germany, Austria and the Scandinavian countries, which were not among the very worst hit, are also easing some restrictions.
The changes in Israel will come with limitations. Practices such as social distancing and wearing masks will remain in place. One would hope that most Israelis comply with the directives. All of this involves a number of difficulties and considerable risk.
Two major segments of the Israeli population are being left to fend for themselves, since the government is not providing suitable solutions. Those who are 67 or older are being required to remain at home and being advised not to have outside contact, but are not being given a future target date or appropriate assistance package to address their needs.
And younger people with underlying conditions need to decide whether to take the risk: Should they venture out in the knowledge that they might become infected (and seriously impacted), or hole themselves up at home and perhaps lose their jobs.
The first stage of the effort to combat the virus has ended relatively successfully, an official who is playing a major role in gathering and analyzing the data on the pandemic told Haaretz Sunday. “The question is how we go from here,” he said, “with a minimal risk of a renewed outbreak.”
In several East Asian countries that were among the first to deal with the virus, some of which had appeared to be emerging from the crisis, there has been a jump in new infections over the past two weeks following the arrival in the country of people from abroad.
“In the next two weeks, the incidence of the disease and of deaths will probably not be particularly high. That will be the result of the lockdown of the past two weeks,” the source told Haaretz. “If it hadn’t been for that policy, hospitals here would have been flooded and we would have sustained many hundreds of dead. My concern is that if the numbers are low in another two weeks, major public pressure will develop to lift the remaining restrictions – and then, actually, we could lose control and discover too late about another outbreak of the virus.”
At this stage, preparations are lacking. The daily pace at which testing for the virus is being carried out did go over the 10,000 mark, but it is now being projected that it will take more than a month to hit 20,000 tests per day.
“From the new patient’s first cough until he goes into isolation, it’s taking too much time,” the official said. “If two weeks have passed, he has already infected everyone around him and a lockdown will have to be reimposed on the city. Our system is not efficient enough. If we don’t improve quickly, after the easing of the lockdown, in another month and a half, we could be right back to the beginning,” he warned.
A cabinet farce
The decision-making regarding easing of the lockdown was a farce that could have been anticipated in advance. Netanyahu announced the easing off in the restrictions before convening the cabinet by phone to vote on it. The Health Ministry released a detailed description of the details of the plan on its Telegram messaging account, only to then hurriedly delete it. Only then did the cabinet deliberations begin, with ministers heatedly debating clauses and sub-clauses.
Following changes demanded in the cabinet, the final version of the plan was released Sunday morning, but it appeared to be rather illogical. We shouldn’t envy the police officer who has to distinguish between the person on the street who might be within a 100-meter (330-feet) radius from home and just out to get some air, as the regulations allow, or whether it’s a jogger who is allowed to stray 500 meters from home but who perhaps is 600 meters away. Or perhaps he is on the way to shop at a store three kilometers from home, which would be permitted, depending on the type of store.
The burden in the battle against the coronavirus is being borne by two main groups: medical personnel who are treating patients and running the risk of being infected themselves, and the broader public, whose conduct will have a decisive impact on the outcome. Enlisting the public in the fight requires transparency, clear directives that are issued at the right time, as well as efforts to calm the public and dispel their concerns.
The ritual in which the public eagerly awaits Netanyahu’s statement on what the cabinet will later approve, which is then followed by marathon cabinet debate, sows confusion and erodes the public’s confidence in the government.
At the moment, the prime minister and Health Ministry seem to be banking on public fear and the public conducting itself responsibly. As time passes, the public’s discipline is liable to wane, which could create a situation that would then require drastic new restrictions, which could prompt dissatisfaction and opposition. The government cannot continue over time to simply issue orders.
The problem is exacerbated by the failure to open Netanyahu’s briefings to questions from the press. With time, the achievements so far in battling the pandemic could be lost, and not only due to the failure to conduct more testing.