Six weeks ago, in my regular Newsweek column (“Tel Aviv Diary”), I wrote that Israel had done an excellent job containing the spread of Covid-19, but cautioned that our national impatience might undo all the good we had achieved. Unfortunately, that unsolicited warning turned out to be prophetic.
Israel had three significant advantages in battling the first wave of Corona. First, we are effectively an Island (similar to New Zealand) and we have one point of entry, which we are able to control. Second, we have a population that has been conditioned to deal with emergencies. Third, we have a prime minister who reads reports and takes threats seriously.
Still, Israel’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic was far from perfect. We waited too long to close our gates from the United States, and we did not perform nearly enough tests. And yet, despite those shortcomings, Israel managed to bring its number of new cases to under 20 per day.
However, the area in which the government unquestionably failed, turned out to be the achilles heel that destined the country to endure a new, previously avoidable wave of the virus. That area was not healthcare, but rather, the economy.
Despite the government’s repeated promises of generous aid to help businesses and the self-employed, their plans were never implemented. Some of the projected initiatives were almost laughable, e.g. granting banks a 15% government guarantee to provide loans to struggling businesses. Subsequently, practically no restaurants, bars, or other entertainment venues received any money, because the banks were unwilling to take the credit risk.
Meanwhile, some banks chose to raise interest rates on many existing businesses (which might have correctly reflected the additional risk factors in the economy, but in no way matched the financial and social needs of the country.)
As a result of the resounding lack of economic aid, the outcry to reopen the economy steadily spread. The news media did its part, as well — airing a very poignant segment featuring a poor falafel store owner on the verge of bankruptcy. The pressure swelled to open up the economy. If Israel had compensated business owners and individuals, in a manner similar to the assistance provided by other OECD countries to their citizens, we would have been able to hold off opening the economy for a few more weeks — which would have allowed the number of new cases of infection to be brought down to zero. Alas, we did not keep the economy closed and our population protected.
Prime Minister Netanyahu promised we would open up the economy and services “slowly and carefully”; that “we would wait 14 days between each step, and reopen schools with great caution”. But once we started to reopen various sectors, it seemed impossible to hit the brakes and slow down. After investing time in planning a deliberate strategy, with only partial school openings, caution was thrown to the wind, and schools were fully reopened, as if the pandemic was now over. Malls were opened, and soon, bars and hotels were back in business, as well.
Regarding the bars — Did anyone actually think social distancing would take place in the bars of Tel Aviv? Not only was the decision to reopen too fast, but simultaneously opening multiple sectors caused us to lose the ability to learn which steps were most dangerous. The bars? The schools? The synagogues?
Two weeks ago, with the severe outbreak of Corona in the secular Jerusalem high school, Gymnasia Rechavia, it became clear not only that we had not defeated the Coronavirus, but that the virus was rallying. In response, the Ministry of Health recommended immediately closing all the high schools. However, the new education minister, General Yoav Galant, (whose reputation in the army was that of someone who preferred to forge through walls, rather than navigate around them), would not hear of it.
Furthermore, over the past two weeks, as the number of people with verified Coronavirus infections has steadily continued to climb, the government has continued to authorize additional openings — now allowing cultural events of up to 250 participants and opening the railroads that have been closed for three months. While Coronavirus cases surge, the only defensive action taken by the government was a single television appearance made by Netanyahu to urge Israelis to keep social distance and wear masks, once again.
Unfortunately, despite the Prime Minister’s impassioned request, the Israeli public is no longer listening. Who can blame them? The media paraded “experts” on their news shows, several of whom claimed masks do not prevent infection; followed by segments on potential vacation destinations abroad.
Finance Minister Yisrael Katz has pledged the country will not go back into lockdown. If that is the case, and if the disease continues to spread, it means we gave up on being New Zealand (who beat Corona), and may have chosen to become Sweden (who worked toward herd immunity) instead. Only in retrospect, Sweden has concluded it is sorry it made the decision it did, as they failed to control the virus or achieve herd immunity.
It’s still too early to know the full implications of the virus’ return. Hospitalizations and mortality rates are lagging indicators. But if those indexes rise to alarming numbers in the coming weeks, it will be too late for Israel to avoid the fate New York suffered. Israelis, especially politicians, have a very hard time admitting they made a mistake. It’s time to take action now, immediately, before it’s too late.