This morning, as I returned from a workout in the park, my face-protector securely fastened, a maskless man approached me. Rail-thin and weather-beaten, he looked as though he might have spent the night outdoors.
As he drew nearer, the man coughed, hacked up some phlegm and hawked it on the sidewalk. Normally, gobbing like that is simply crude. Now, with COVID-19 water droplets in the air, spitting in public can pose a threat.
My spitting man may have been perfectly healthy. Or, like Typhoid Mary, he might have been symptom-free, yet unaware that he was hosting a lethal disease. At the very least, he was rude and selfish.
Meanwhile, as home-sheltering requirements ease, I wonder whether we’ve learned anything from this pandemic. Will people, in general, become more self-aware? Or will it be back to business as usual?
If the behavior of my two leaders, both of whom have spit in the faces of their citizens, shows us what lies ahead, I doubt much will change.
I say “two,” because as an American-Israeli, I am “doubly blessed” to have a United States president and an Israeli prime minister to look up to. They have responded to the coronavirus with antithetical approaches, but they share one important trait: each claims that no one else has been better suited to meet the Corona Challenge.
In one corner stands Donald Trump, the president who downplayed COVID-19, comparing it to the common flu and brushing off experts’ advice. Once he shifted gears, Trump not only insisted that he knew, and understood, coronavirus better than anyone, he boasted that he had done a terrific job battling it.
He told us that those to blame for America’s world-leading 1,000,000+ COVID-19 cases and 65,000+ deaths (as of May 3), were China, the World Health Organization, Democrats in Congress and the country’s governor’s mansions, The New York Times, CNN, and the rest of the so-called “fake news” outlets. He took no responsibility.
In the other corner, we have Benjamin Netanyahu who compared the pandemic to the devastating Spanish Flu of 1918 and warned that COVID-19 might claim tens of millions of lives. Unlike Trump, he did not dispute science, and he led a more focused effort to contain the virus. To date, Israel, a country of more than 9 million has recorded 230 COVID-19 deaths. New Jersey, with 8.2 million people, has recorded 7,700+ COVID-19 fatalities.
There are many factors that can explain the difference between New Jersey and Israel’s COVID-19 mortality rates. One of them is that Israel’s population, well accustomed to threats from outside, is more disciplined in the face of such challenges. Another is that it remains a country that respects science. A third is that it has an effective universal health care system.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s prediction that the sky was about to fall pressured his political rival to accept a coalition government in order to vanquish the virus. The deal, if it survives legal challenges, would leave Netanyahu firmly entrenched in the prime minister’s chair with a promise to turn over his seat to Benny Gantz in 18 months, once the pandemic crisis has passed. To many observers, the likelihood of that power-transfer happening seems far-fetched.
Netanyahu has raised alarms in the past for political gains, warning Israelis that unless they voted for him, the Arabs would overwhelm them. So, it is hard to ignore the possibility that his Chicken-Little approach was more of a political ploy to maintain power and avoid several lawsuits hanging over his head, than it was the measured response of a forthright leader.
Which brings me back to my spitter. When we crossed paths, he reminded me of Yaakov Litzman, Israel’s Minister of Health, who ignored social distancing norms and went to pray in a synagogue, resulting in his contracting the virus. My spitter also brought to mind US Vice President Mike Pence who, channeling the face mask-averse Donald Trump, visited an American hospital without any protection.
Sadly, Litzman and Pence, like the men they serve, hawked in their citizens’ faces.
On Israel’s Independence Day just passed, I visited a falafel shop where I found men who closed their shop when the government told them to, recently opened it only to people picking up from the street, and wore masks when they weren’t talking to someone who had come to document their story. In short, they demonstrated the kind of responsible, civic-minded behavior that we look for from our leaders.
One can only hope that the falafel men’s example will spread across the land and beyond when things return to whatever the new normal is. You can meet them here.