In the terrifying days after September 11, 2001, Australians learnt a new phrase. As key Washington ally, the Australian government feared that its citizens would be targeted. At the same time, it wanted to prevent unnecessary panic. We citizens were asked us to be “alert but not alarmed.” For the sake of the mental health of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, this sentiment needs to prevail here too.
The state of Israel exists in a somewhat manic state seemingly swinging between a sense of impending doom and brief senses of invincibility. I call it the May 1967-July 1967 syndrome. Every time more than a light drizzle is forecast the Israeli news practically warns you to build an ark and start collecting two of each species – the impending doom of May 1967 in the May 1967 – June 1967 syndrome.
This exaggeration is unhealthy, and the pandemic has exacerbated the exaggeration and sense of doom. Our politicians, health experts and media are to blame.
It started in March of 2020 with the theatrics of the near-daily press conferences of Benjamin Netanyahu. At one of these press conferences, Netanyahu outrageously implied that hundreds of millions would die globally (the current death toll stands at 5,377,893). True, little was known at that time – but that was precisely why the nation (and particularly those suffering with anxiety disorders) needed Netanyahu to avoid grandstanding and demonstrate calm levelheadedness.
Recently, Naftali Bennett has returned to such theatrics, hastily calling press conferences, and making proclamations without evidence, such as the false claim that two young British boys had died of the Omicron variant.
Our health officials have likewise made frequent hyperbolic statements often proven false. Earlier this year, Dr Sharon Alroy Pries warned that opening the airport would lead to a massive wave of infection. It did not. Currently, health officials warn that our health system will collapse under the weight of Omicron infections. Given that South Africa’s developing world health system has stood up fine, this seems unlikely, but we will soon see. What is certain is that allowing such statements to reach the press can do nothing other than cause anxiety and perhaps a rush on hospital beds by those not seriously ill who fear a bed may be unavailable later.
Then there is the absolute irresponsibility of the Israeli media, which more than other places, is seemingly Covid obsessed. Just three days ago for example, writing for Ynet, Nadav Eyal called on the government to close Ben Gurion Airport. Eyal and his editors know perfectly well that the government is unable to do that – the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional back in March. Why then publish this piece – a piece likely to cause unnecessary panic and foreboding among Israelis who need to travel abroad for essential reasons, with family overseas, and among Israelis already abroad such as representatives of the diplomatic core and Zionist movement.
All of this matters greatly because hundreds of thousands of Israelis suffer from some level of depression and/or anxiety disorder. This can lead to more serious illness up to and including death. The sense of panic constantly being propagated worsens the condition of many of these people, and can trigger illness for many others.
Nobody serious dismisses Covid as not being a real health threat. However the Israeli Health Ministry needs to remember that it is the Health Ministry, not the Covid Ministry. It needs to measure its pronouncements to protect physical as well as mental health. The government and media need to do likewise.
This extended May 1967 moment serves nobody.