The great Jewish historian Simon Dubnov found solace from two evils of his day, Communism and Nazism, in working on his memoirs. Some ninety years later, I am escaping the pandemic-tinted reality of today’s Israel by reading the resulting book. The rest of the time, I am on the phone trying to reach someone – anyone – at Clalit, Magen David Adom, or the Ministry of Health, in order to procure a referral for the coronavirus test for my three-year-old son. I have plenty of time on my hands: my whole family is in strict quarantine till next week.
On Sunday morning, as we were getting the kids ready for the day, my phone beeped. A teacher’s aide at my son’s preschool tested positive for coronavirus. Thirty plus families who had children enrolled at the preschool were to go into quarantine effective immediately, and were instructed to wait for a test referral for the kids.
Fifth day and counting, the referral for my son has not arrived. Without a referral, he won’t get tested. Without a negative test result he won’t be accepted back into his preschool after we are done with the quarantine.
At this point, I am less worried about the disease itself than about the Kafkaesque setup we are in. We live in a country that has been dealing with the coronavirus for four months. Yet its public health agencies charged with COVID-19 testing, curing and policy planning – who have all been notified in writing that a given preschool had a verified corona case – have still not figured out a simple algorithm that would enable them to swab a three-year old.
My personal experience is apt illustration of the absurd reality of today’s Israel.
With 36 ministerial portfolios, the country has the largest government in its history. Yet this government deals with the health crisis in a way that is irresponsible, myopic and negligent. As massive weddings were once again allowed and restaurants, fitness clubs and spas reopened following the first lockdown, government sources, in a schizophrenic disconnect with reality, poured rage on citizens for participating in public gatherings. Policemen went on a prowl for easy prey, women and teenagers wearing their masks “improperly”, leaving out the more menacing offenders. Following the spike in numbers of infected individuals, everyone panicked, and we are now facing the second lockdown.
While the health crisis is real, the authorities’ reaction to it is deeply flawed. It is more than the fact that people in power cannot serve as role models in dealing with the crisis, not individually and not collectively. Forget that. After all, these were the people who hosted their extended families for Passover seders while all others were under strict lockdown in their homes. They reopened IKEA while schools and most other businesses were still closed because franchise owners in Israel are cosy with the then Minister of Health.
Instead of incentivizing businesses to stay closed, the government reopened the economy almost overnight. Instead of compensating independent business owners, who are not entitled to unemployment benefits, properly and generously, those in charge threw a handout their way that did not begin to cover the losses. Instead of looking for a solution for families who do not own multiple computers, or have no access to wi-fi, the educational system moved to online instruction in mid-March, leaving children from underserved, underprivileged populations far behind.
To top all that, no one spoke or speaks to the public directly and honestly, utilizing medical advice, sharing clear and accessible information in a way that would inspire public trust. Instead, Israel’s citizens are subjected to constant reprimands for irresponsible behavior. General Security Service sends out thousands or erroneous messages to people who allegedly have been in touch with corona sufferers, and there is no presumption of innocence here. The police chase single women on deserted streets in order to slap on fines. And public health agencies, as I now know, cannot figure out how to issue a referral for a test to a toddler who has been exposed to a known virus-carrier.
Every morning, when I scan the headlines, I am disappointed by the agonizing incompetence of the government’s handling of this crisis, and my solar plexus tightens when I think of what is to come.
The anxiety of these days will at some point become a thing of the past. Yet inasmuch as I try to quench it, escapism does not work. I will not remember this quarantine as the time when I cooked healthy meals, helped my kids build a tent in the living room, or reorganized closets. I will remember it much as Dubnov recalled his sojourn at a Finnish resort in July 1915. He wrote then:
“…by the time the morning tea comes, one is poisoned by reading [the morning paper]. Only the hour till 8.30 AM, when we receive the paper, is pleasant.”