Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

Safety first!

"Safety First" (Courtesy)

Yesterday for the first time in months I ventured out 500 meters from home by myself.  I walked swiftly to the local S. P. pharmacy to replace an outdated bottle of American aftershave I like. This was hardly out of urgency but out of a desire for  pleasure and adventure. I never in my wildest dreams could have predicted what transpired.

At present there are strict rules for businesses that are open.  This should be doubly true for a large pharmacy which potentially hosts people who are sick even though they don’t exhibit fever.  That’s why there are doubly strict rules.

’HaTav HaSegol”

As I approached the pharmacy, the guard asked me to wait (only a set number were allowed at any one time). He then duly took my temperature via a heat seeking gadget held up to my forehead and politely invited me to enter.

I knew exactly what I wanted. I sped to the aftershaves, picked mine out and went directly to the check-out.  When I arrived there were five people waiting in line in a space of three meters with no other place to go!  The one lone clerk was busy with an exhausting refund; she seemed new at the job, and at least twice left her post with no one else there.  Little by little the line grew, until it was eight, then nine.  Still no clerk.  At least three times there was an intercom notice pleading for help at the cashier, but still no relief!

All NINE of us stood in line, shocked at what was transpiring before our eyes.  Finally a young worker attended to the 2nd cashier desk, and started inviting us one by one.  It was lucky that my remaining “colleagues” were all appropriately donning face masks as required by law.  Still we were a foot and a half from each other. We all noticed that the new clerk was wearing neither mask or rubber gloves. I was about to say something, but there was no-one to complain to.  I said to myself, “No, keep your mouth shut, you just need to get out of here as quickly as possible“.  I made my purchase and bolted to the door, fast-walking home.

Yesterday’s experience terrified me.  I will not venture out again, certainly not to THAT mismanaged establishment.  That’s when I decided to write these words for the few readers who MIGHT read them.  Complaining to the large mega-company won’t help (been there, done that).

However, in this time of extreme caution, I ask myself “WHY are such life and death environments mismanaged”?  My thoughts immediately turn to the poor elderly Holocaust survivor from Beersheva who was left weeks unattended to by the local welfare ministry; this poor soul was left without food or medication, or someone to visit.  The story was published on Mako.com and shown on Channel 12 TV.

It was a bizarre news item, but wrenching.  The man was surrounded by mounds of food neatly packed in cartons and literally swimming in supplies.  His phone was ringing throughout the night.  A stream of soldiers came to visit him. People finally started caring.

What was most shocking about this story was the local Beersheva welfare department’s reply:  “We don’t know from this case”. It seems that in the past he had been regularly attended to.

I share my indignation for one purpose: to alert us all to waves of mismanagement by those ultimately responsible.  Of course it is easy to criticize, but in life-and-death situations there is a limit to folly.

One last “coda”.  My daughter Eliana happened upon an article in Ynet.com about a man, Roni Bargil, (corona case No. 3) who flew from Naples to Tel Aviv on an EasyJet plane on February 22, 2020.  Shortly thereafter, he was tested for coronavirus. Roni’s test came out positive, so he went into five days of hospitalization. However, Roni never really felt that sick and claimed that the cough he had was something chronic.  The Ynet.com article further explained:

“Roni stated that after donating blood to the plasma on Thursday and undergoing a serological examination as patients recovering, he announced that no antibodies were found in his blood….He said, “I had a  cough at the time, but it was a chronic one, and I suffered from it before I went abroad. And the most significant thing – none of the people I was in contact with in the pre-isolation period, including my family members – was infected. ”  Roni was positive he did not have COVID-19.  “He said that apart from the initial examination that was done to him and came out positive, all the rest of the tests were negative.”  

(Point of fact: Experts say that such negative search for antibodies can be typical. “The health system explains that serological tests look for antibodies to the virus. If such antibodies are detected, it means that the person is definitely infected with the virus, but if they are not found it does not necessarily mean the opposite. Like other viral diseases, the patient’s body may produce antibodies for another two months, or maybe never. There is a certain percentage of people who will never develop antibodies. [translation from Hebrew by the author]. ) 

Why am I telling this story? First, reading this put me in a tizzy and churned up memories.  We all know that unfortunately testing mistakes are all too frequent. I was “primed” to react from this uncertainty, even though the absence of antibodies doesn’t really settle things, one way or another”.

Well, it turns out that I was on Roni Bargil’s plane (he was sitting several rows in back of me) and was later notified that I was required to be in quarantine.  My wife Ruth brought me three meals a day for 11 days, were I lived in our small bedroom.  I did not exercise.  I hardly worked.  All of this  was my traumatic initiation into the COVID-19 world. It changed me, probably for the worse.  It made be more callous and fragile.

“Me on flight from Naples, w. Roni Bargil” 22.2.20 (Courtesy)

That is why I will not return to that S.P. branch to buy anything.  I will think twice before venturing out in world that seems to be more dangerous than the “Wild, Wild West”. This is why I will learn to trust my instincts.  It is all that we may have in these unpredictable days.

On second thought, I look at the picture above of me on the plane from Naples and recalled the act of kindness that might have saved my life.  I fondly remember an Israeli couple who sat besides me on the flight. They immediately offered me a mask (a “classic” 3M British-made 8832 , Fttp3 [equivalent to N-100]) and taught me how to disinfect the plane parts around me.  Little did I know how precious the mask was.  I think I will have it framed.  Unfortunately I can’t “frame” the memory of this kind couple who helped me in moments of crisis.  That is also the lesson learned from this bizarre story, that amidst the dysfunctional cacophony there is also sweet, sweet harmony.

About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA). His teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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