What exactly are we reopening?

Israeli walk at a shopping center in the city of Netanya, on April 26, 2020. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** מרכז קניות
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Credit: Yossi Aloni/Flash90

Nine weeks ago my daughter celebrated her eight birthday; I visited with a dear college friend here in Israel. Both of those sneaked in under the wire. Eight weeks ago as we celebrated Purim, an ominous feeling loomed outside, just beyond our joyous gatherings. Right after the holiday, we began this now seven week (and counting)  shut-down. Those who can, work from home. Those who have to, go to work providing the most basic of services (i.e., grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, clinics and hospitals) remain available. There are those who pivoted their businesses or careers in response, while others have been furloughed or left unemployed. This has not been an easy time for anyone. I choose to believe that everyone is doing as best as they can to weather this difficult situation. I choose to believe this is a pivotal moment in time.

This has been an unprecedented period of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. Our kids, not to mention, us adults, too, need stability and routine. We need to be able to count on what is coming the next day. Yes, there are many parents who would like to have their kids go back to school – either because they need to be able to get to work or because they have just had enough of having everyone home all day. I haven’t yet heard a current plan that provides stability in the long-term for me or for my kids. I choose to believe that we are all doing the best that we can to meet the educational needs as best as we possibly can, in a less than ideal situation.

Our school year is fast drawing to a close. We all know that after Pesach, the degree of serious learning declines, constantly interrupted each week or two with another holiday or observance. By the time we reach June, everyone has one foot out the door and the month fills up with end of the year celebrations, what seems like every other day. I wish this weren’t true – but let’s be honest with the reality on the ground here, in a healthy year.

I would suggest that we consider how we strengthen the distance learning to finish out the year. Many kids can continue to learn from home and keep their germs to themselves. At the same time, we have to recognize that there are many parents who need their children to be in a formal educational framework to allow them to return to work. We have to find a way to open up enough space in schools for the youngest of our learners (age 3 through fourth grade) to return to school. The fewer kids who return to school, the less risk of disease transmission we’ll have, which puts less stress on everyone – parents, kids, teachers.

Our government is starting to move in the direction of opening things back up again. What exactly does that mean? Open up what? For whom? What, precisely are our objectives?

This surreal moment in time, this reality altering experience, is a unique opportunity to reevaluate our priorities. We have a moment to reconsider our economic and national goals and policies. Speeding back to reopen our economy only ensures that we reenter the high speed ride we were on before, that may not have been as much fun, or as safe, as we thought, now that we’ve taken a breather on the side of the road.

Retail, tourism, hospitality, restaurants – they all closed and remain closed. Those workers and those companies are hurting – 27% unemployment in Israel, as of Thursday, April 23, many in these sectors. And those hurting the most are the small business owners. The hurt is going to remain for a long while. Let’s be honest, normal for these sectors is a long way off. Buying necessary clothing, shoes, and household goods, sure, that’s feasible soon. Sitting in a restaurant, staying at a hotel, flying on a plane – those activities will require a far greater sense of confidence on the part of the consumer before they can begin to resemble what once was.

For a vast majority of the high tech sector, the only thing that changed was that everyone shifted to working from home, full-time. This is not the sector that needs permission to reopen, because it was never closed. The only purpose of returning these workers to their offices, that I can imagine, is to help ensure a strong income-tax revenue to ensure the longer term economic supports for those workers most negatively affected. If that were the goal, then perhaps that approach would hold water. Except that many (possibly a majority) high tech workers have been able to pivot to working from home without any serious, adverse impact on their productivity or income levels. Tour guides and hotel housekeepers can’t pivot. So then what’s the point of pushing to get workers who are working as it is, back in their offices?

Can those who are able to still work, at more or less the same level of productivity and income, help push the economy along well enough to provide the supports needed by those unable to work at present? Can we figure out that we all need to row together because we are sharing the same lifeboat? The reality that was our economy is no more, at least in the short-to-medium turn. We cannot be focused, obsessed with, endless growth and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few, as our guiding economic mantra. The COVID-19 shutdown, which is now transitioning into a slowdown, is an opportunity to pause. An opportunity to reassess what we could be doing and what we really should be doing, to create the kind of society we desire.

I would like to believe that the push to reopen our economy isn’t a political power play that will come at the expense of innocent lives, in an attempt either to divert attention or boost public approval ratings ahead of the impending corruption trials. Let’s be honest, the government could be playing Russian roulette by pushing to get our kids back to school and workers back into offices. I’d like to believe that the government cares about your life and mine, but at the moment, that’s a hard sell for me. (I haven’t even addressed the lack of either a vaccine or reliable treatment protocol, let alone a full understanding of how this disease operates.) I’d like to believe that we have leaders who are able to take a holistic and macro level view of the situation while also respecting the micro level challenges we are facing as they lead us in these challenging times. But sometimes, belief if hard to come by.

We have not pulled the car off the side of the road to wait out the storm. Rather, the car we are riding in never stopped. We came to a fork in the road, and a road closure, we took a new path, whether we realized it or not. We can either accept that our destination has changed and embrace our new route, or we can spend the coming months pining for our previous route and attempt to take the long way back around and return to where we were. I choose looking forward and embracing the new opportunities of our changed route.

About the Author
Rachel Gould made aliyah in 2010 to Haifa and now lives in Yokneam. She is a PhD Candidate in Public Policy at TAU focusing on environmental and population policies. She was a candidate for city council in Yokneam on the Mekomi list in 2018.
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