Israel’s Coronavirus Woes

When Israel decided to reopen in May, it was inevitable that there would be an increase in cases. But, Israel could have prepared for that increase by developing adequate contact tracing, and by opening in stages. If  and only if -things seemed stable after  2 weeks of Stage 1 – then you move on to Stage 2. Instead, Israel went from Stage 1 to nearly complete opening within a few days. Why? Because there was public pressure from people whose businesses were shuttered. Why was there so much public pressure? Because the government did not offer an adequate compensation package, that would tide restaurant, gym, and event-hall owners and employees over for a few months, instead of a few weeks. If Israel had agreed, in May, to extend financial compensation to people for 8 more weeks, maybe it could have gotten away with another month of lockdown and eradicated Coronavirus completely. Instead, we are living in a reality of nearly 2,000 cases a day.

When things reopened, Netanyahu went on TV and told people to have a good time. The message from the government was clear: We beat Corona. We, the genius Israeli government, have saved you from death’s door. Go out and party. But remember to wear masks and maintain 2 meters of distance when you dance.

The thing is, once you say the first part of your message, people don’t hear the second part. “Coronavirus is over” are words that were heard, verbatim, over and over in Jerusalem streets and supermarkets. Those words were internalized by the people. The government could have responded with a massive public outreach campaign to say that Coronavirus is still here, and to educate people about masks and distance-but that would have been denying its major accomplishment. So it stayed silent. In a less cynical version of the story, the government was simply too disorganized and incompetent to engage in effective communication.

Meanwhile, cases rose rapidly. Netanyahu got on TV and told the people it was their fault for not wearing masks or distancing, passing responsibility on to the public. Since Israel had almost no contact tracing capabilities, the Shabak was given powers to track people’s phones. In addition to being a massive violation of privacy, the Shabak phone tracking also sent at least 12,000 people into quarantine unnecessarily. The 12,000 are those who were able to get their quarantine overturned. Imagine how many there are who were unable to do so. This also raises the question: If the tracking is ineffective enough to falsely identify 12,000 people, is it effective enough to correctly identify the people who it needs to identify?

The government seems to have treated Coronavirus like a security problem, farming it out to security services. Many Israelis seem to be treating Coronavirus like a security problem as well: Just as we go to the beaches when there are Qassams, so too, we will go to restaurants when there is Covid-19. Meanwhile, more people in Israel have died from Coronavirus in 2020 than the number of Israelis who died in terrorist attacks in the past decade. But it feels less dangerous than terrorism, because it feels less personal: There is no direct enemy you can point to. In Israel, mafia bombs are often met with a sigh of, “At least it’s not a terrorist attack”.  The same thing is happening with Coronavirus.

As cases approached 2,000 a day, the government announced weekend closures last Thursday: Restaurants were to be shuttered the next day, indefinitely. In the future, there would be complete weekend lockdowns. The restaurants protested: They had just invested so much money in reopening according to new Ministry of Health guidelines, and now they were being closed indefinitely, with no warning, and not being given compensation. So the restaurant closure was delayed on Tuesday. Then on Monday, it looked like it might not happen. Then it did happen, but the Knesset Coronavirus Committee is already promising to reverse it within 24 hours. This uncertainty is almost as bad for business-owners as closing is! The obvious solution is to announce closures, but give restaurants time to prepare, and to offer an adequate compensation package.

Meanwhile, the Coronavirus committee announced the pools and beaches will remain open on weekends. By extension, there will be no weekend lockdown, because once you’re allowed out for any essential purpose, plus beaches and pools, it becomes impossible to enforce.

This is similar to what happened a few weeks ago, when gyms were closed one week, and reopened the next, after public pressure. It essentially means that the government is unable to pass any restrictions to help contain the spread of Coronavirus. The minute something is passed, there is public pressure to rescind it, and the government caves. But the unpopularity of anti-Coronavirus measures is the government’s fault, for failing to communicate that Coronavirus is still here, for failing to educate about how Coronavirus is spread, and for failing to provide a serious financial bailout plan for people who are losing their livelihoods.

Some restaurant owners were interviewed saying that they refuse to close, even if government restrictions order them to do so, unless they see data proving that closing restaurants is necessary to fight Coronavirus. This shows how much the government has lost the people’s trust. They no longer trust the government to make the policies for them; they want to see the data directly, so they can make the policy for themselves.

Another sign of mistrust is the mass protests against the government in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv every week. The government paints these people as left-wing agitators. Many are simply fed up people who are worried about paying rent next week. But who will help them? The opposition bemoans the government’s actions and says that it would help the economy more. How would it do that? Like the government, they are working off of the assumption that economy and public health must conflict. However, sickness and death has an economic impact. A recent study showed that Sweden, which did not have lockdowns, was economically impacted by Coronavirus at a similar rate to neighboring countries that did have lockdowns. It turns out that people don’t go to restaurants if they think there’s a chance they might die as a result of eating out. It also turns out that in today’s globalized economy, it’s pretty hard to escape the economic effects of a global economic crisis induced by a pandemic.

This means that the government needs to start planning a serious financial compensation package for those who lose their livelihoods because of Coronavirus- while also passing (and not reneging on) restrictions to contain its spread.

Unfortunately, the government is too busy bickering among themselves and painting the opposition as traitors to get anything done. As the cases were inching up, it looked like Likud may be beginning to blow up its own coalition, and there were talks of new elections. But then when Coronavirus cases ballooned and Likud’s popularity dropped, the election talk went away. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s corruption trial is continuing.

And this is the place where you really feel the difference: Because maybe having a Prime Minister on trial for corruption is ok for the day-to-day functioning of government. But when a crisis hits, and the government is asking people to engage in extreme financial and emotional sacrifices, all of a sudden, it matters that the person asking you to make those sacrifices may have stolen money from the government coffers, or had tax money pay for both a personal chef and takeout. Does he have a right to ask this of you? Can you trust him? That little niggling doubt makes the sacrifice that much harder. And I think it is also a driving force behind the protests. But those protests are unlikely to result in concrete action, until there is a serious opposition that manages to sell itself to the Israeli public as a credible alternative to Bibi. It could start by releasing a Coronavirus plan that takes both public health and the economy extremely seriously.

But I’m not holding my breath.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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