I was wrong

On March 9th, I posted a piece in which I criticized the authorities in Israel for basically cutting travel off to Israel by imposing a 14-day quarantine period for visitors. I opined that the authorities were overreacting and that there were effective alternatives to the extreme measure they were taking. I minimized the danger of the coronavirus.

I heard from a lot of friends in Israel who, to put it mildly, said I was dead wrong, with an emphasis on “dead.” To summarize, they said that the actions taken were right for Israel because:

1) The coronavirus is much more easily transmitted than the common flu, and can result in a significantly higher fatality rate.

2) Israel is generally not a stop-off, but a final destination. Thus, it is relatively easy to quarantine the country.

3) Israel’s medical facilities are already strained. A deluge of patients needing acute care could overwhelm the country’s capacities.

4) Given Israel’s security situation, it must ensure that its military personnel as well as civilians, many of whom are called up to reserve duty when there is an imminent threat, are healthy and ready-to-go.

I was wrong. Given Israel’s unique circumstances and needs, a near-complete quarantine is possible and seems to be working, and the seriousness of the virus seems to have warranted such action.

A large concentration of the incidents of the virus are in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) city of B’nei Brak and Jerusalem, which has a large Haredi population. About 50 percent of the hospitalizations of victims of the virus are from the Haredi population, which represents about 13 percent of all Israelis.

Why the disparate impact and the concentration? Likely two reasons: 1) Some (emphasis on “some”) of the Haredi leadership, and one influential rabbi in B’nei Brak in particular, initially refused to close synagogues, yeshivas, and other places where the population gathers. 2) The density of population and living quarters in many Haredi neighborhoods. 3) A lack of access to the Internet and other media outlets. 4) A general skepticism of and resistance to state authority.

If the numbers in the Haredi community were similar to the rest of Israel, Israel’s strategy would be an overwhelming success. As it is, it is highly effective. Could similar results have been achieved without quarantining and severe restrictions on activities?

Perhaps, but it would have depended on widespread testing and highly concentrated efforts, with some of the population adhering to rules that others were not. Given the fact that enough tests were not (and still are not) available for near-blanket testing, and the fact that it is challenging to convince some parts of a population to comply with rules that others are not obliged to follow, it is hard to argue with what Israel is doing. In short, it is hard to argue with success.

So, I was wrong.

What prompted me to admit my mistake, besides the fact that it was glaring me in the face? Well, when your now 85-year-old college journalism professor and newspaper adviser from 50 years ago, the only professor you have maintained a relationship with, asks you to update your piece because “it is becoming quite serious and depressing in California,” you take it seriously.

My piece only addressed Israel’s actions, not California’s, so I assume my former professor was referring to my general assertion that the virus is not as bad as some were saying and that people in general were overreacting.

California has had a serious outbreak. It has taken serious action, urging people to take precautions and to restrict movement. Interestingly, though, because it is a state in the United States, it cannot seal its borders as Israel has done.

And, yet, its actions appear to be having a positive effect despite the fact that it cannot cut itself off from incoming traffic. Again, it is hard to argue with the severe restrictions without widespread testing that would have allowed for more of a focus on particular areas.

Despite my early questioning of the gravity of the situation and restrictions imposed, I never advocated ignoring the authorities. I have stringently followed the directives and am glad I have.

My wife and I left California on March 5th, on our way to Israel but with a first stop in Washington, D.C. for a new granddaughter’s baby naming ceremony, the first child for a son and daughter-in-law. Our daughter flew in from Tel Aviv, and another son and his family from California. It was just as things started to really come crashing down.

Things got a little stressful.  We took precautions and everyone was careful. This is not exactly the atmosphere new parents dream about.  New babies are about hope and life.  Deadly viruses are not.  Fortunately, enough time has passed so we now know that no one became infected.

Our other kids all left Washington for home immediately after the ceremony. Our daughter arrived back in Israel just an hour before the Israeli government required everyone, including citizens, to go into a 14-day self-quarantine. However, two days later she was notified that someone on her flight tested positive and was told to self-quarantine, which she did.

We had tickets to continue on to Israel on March 18th. We tried to move the departure date up by four days but United wanted an arm and a leg. Yes, they were waiving change fees, but not any increases in the cost of the ticket.

United sends me numerous e-mails telling me how much they love and appreciate me, and how they want to be there for me in my hour of need. But, in my hour of need, United wanted to stick it to us.

So on to Israel we went on March 18. Dulles’ departure area was like a ghost town. A few people, even some wearing masks, felt the need to get close in line. We told them to stand back. The flight was about 40% full. We took safeguards—wiping down, using hand sanitizers, masks in the airport, etc. Still, it was an uneasy feeling. In technical terms, it was spooky.

We went into our 14-day quarantine right after arriving to Jerusalem. Thanks to friends, we  arrived to groceries in our apartment and meals prepared. We live in about a 50 square meter (538 sq. feet) apartment. Fortunately, we have a small balcony plus access to our roof. One can always go up on the roof and scream. Cue: the Drifters. (You have to know popular music and be of a certain age.)

Even though we are now out of quarantine, life is severely restricted. The whole country is basically in lock down with people allowed to go out only for essential things and walks limited to 100 meters from their building.

The exit from this period is now being discussed. The strategy that looks most likely, including here in Israel, is to start to allow movement and socializing for those less vulnerable, i.e. the young and those with no underlying health conditions.

That would leave those of us over 60 or 65 and those with underlying conditions imprisoned in our homes and apartments until a either a vaccine or an anti-viral is developed, or until blanket testing is rolled out. Vaccines and anti-virals take a year to 18 months to test for efficacy and side effects.

It is unacceptable to keep 10-15% (in the U.S., 15-20%) of the population locked up for a year or a year and a half. That leaves widespread testing so that we know who is infected and should be isolated. That is possible. It takes resources, collective will, and leadership.

Do such resources, will, and leadership exist in Israel?  In the United States?

Israel: I think so. The United States: There was a time when the answer would have been a resounding “yes.”  Now, I am not so sure, which is, to put it mildly, depressing.

About the Author
Alan Edelstein was a lawyer and lobbyist in California for 30 years. He currently lives in Jerusalem and Sacramento, California and consults on governmental affairs, communications, politics, and business development. He blogs at www.edelsteinrandomthoughts.com. Inquiries regarding speaking engagements: ae@edelsteinstrategies.com
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