Public Health or Politics, the Lockdown Examined

(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

It has been announced that Ben Gurion Airport will be reopened as part of the loosening of Lockdown 2.0. While I welcome the decision, I feel obligated to point out that the impression given by the government and the media that the closing and subsequent reopening of Ben Gurion Airport were connected to the fight against the coronavirus is utterly false.  Policies such as limiting synagogue attendance or closing schools could be excused as drastic steps required to combat the further spread of corona. However, claiming that the closure of Ben Gurion Airport was related to preventing the spread of corona is wrong for the following reasons.

    1. Flight bans are used to prevent the arrival of viruses, not prevent spread in hard-hit areas. Closing the airport might have been appropriate early in the pandemic as a means of preventing the importation of corona into Israel. At the time of the recent closing of Ben Gurion Airport COVID-19 had already run rampant through Israeli society. Israel had one of the highest rates of confirmed cases per capita, ranking ahead of hard-hit countries such as the USA, Brazil, and Spain. Given that corona was already extremely prevalent throughout the country the expected health benefits of closing the airport were very small.
    2. Arrivals to Israel already have to quarantine. Further limiting the benefit of closing the airport is the existing policy of requiring arrivals to Israel to quarantine themselves. As such even if an undetected carrier of coronavirus arrived in Israel they would be unable to infect others. This policy predates even the first lockdown, as early on in the global pandemic Israel instituted a quarantine policy first for travelers from China and then later for all arrivals. As Israel already requires arrivals to quarantine the health benefits of closing the airport were made even smaller. 
    3. More effective policies not only exist, but they have also already been used in Israel. Some might argue that Israelis routinely ignore quarantine periods leaving no alternative to shutting down of Ben Gurion Airport. (I would instead argue that widespread quarantine breaking demonstrates the government’s utter inability or desire to enforce existing rules. To me this raises the question as to the benefit of creating ever more strict policies if even their authors don’t anticipate them being followed.) However, already in lockdown 1.0 a policy of mandatorily quarantining travelers from high-risk countries in government-run hotels was instituted. There is no good reason why reinstituting such a policy or even expanding it to all travelers is not preferable to shutting down the aviation industry in Israel.

If the airport wasn’t shut down for health reasons why then was it closed? The reason according to government officials was to promote equality and solidarity in Israeli society. The Health Ministry’s head of public health tweeted that it would be unfair if some Israelis could fly while others couldn’t because of financial reasons. During a meeting of the coronavirus Cabinet discussing loosening the lockdown, Israel’s Attorney General stated that Ben Gurion Airport should remain closed. His reasoning? it would not be fair for some to fly while restrictions on internal movement persisted. When Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu was asked why the airport was closed, he responded that the decision was made in order to increase solidarity in Israeli society. To recap Ben Gurion Airport was closed for political reasons, namely the promotion of equality and solidarity in Israel. 

The decision to close Ben Gurion Aiport is emblematic of Lockdown 2.0 in many ways. The first being that many of the restrictions imposed on Israelis as part of the lockdown are highly inefficient and ineffective. For example, preventing restaurants from providing takeaway has little health benefit and comes at a high cost for restaurants.  The second is that policies adopted ostensibly under the banner of the war against corona often have ulterior motives, such as the prohibition on traveling to protests. Last but not least the closure of Ben Gurion illustrates the casual willingness of the government to suspend fundamental rights such as the freedom of assembly, movement, and trade. The government presents the lockdown as a necessary evil required to protect Israelis from the coronavirus. Through its own actions and statements, the government has demonstrated that it cares little about the rights of its citizens or even their health. Instead, the government utilizes the lockdown and the broader fight against corona to achieve its own political goals. 

About the Author
Erez Cramer is a Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.
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