All is fair in love and coronavirus: 7 things to know for March 8
Israel media review

All is fair in love and coronavirus: 7 things to know for March 8

There’s a bit of confusion about Israel’s policies regarding the virus and the US, and others see inconsistencies in the resolve to win the battle in the West Bank and elsewhere

An elderly man wearing a protective masks reads from the Quran while seated in a mosque being sterilized by Palestinian Authority health workers in the West Bank city of Ramallah to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, March 7, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
An elderly man wearing a protective masks reads from the Quran while seated in a mosque being sterilized by Palestinian Authority health workers in the West Bank city of Ramallah to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, March 7, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

1. Amber waves of infected: The coronavirus isn’t going anywhere, and neither is coverage, but as more Israelis are getting sick and the Health Ministry is issuing more directive things are getting more muddled.

  • The main hot zone for the confusion epidemic (or pandemic) is the US, after Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said authorities were considering banning flights from certain parts of the US.
  • Army Radio followed up the report by saying an official announcement would be made within hours. But no such announcement was made, and the Ynet news site reports that some government officials objected to pushing ahead with such a drastic measure.
  • Leaks from the Foreign Ministry after every major announcement have telegraphed unhappiness with Israel’s supposed overreaction, but they were normally just spitting into the wind. In this case, though, the order has actually apparently been frozen, given the importance of the US.
  • Speaking to Army Radio, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin seems to confirm as much: “A decision like this has internal ramifications in the US. It’s important to act on this subject in coordination with the US.”
  • Some surmise that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be under pressure from US President Donald Trump, who has seemingly tried to minimize the economic damage the virus is doing, including by downplaying fears as panic.

2. Should I stay or should I go: Further confusing things is a tweet from an Israeli journalist saying she was told attendees of the AIPAC conference in Washington do not need to quarantine, despite a directive that anyone who was at an international conference needs to do so, as well as the fact that at least two people there have gotten sick.

  • Plus the Health Ministry is seemingly making exceptions for large gatherings for sporting events, allowing 9,000 people to watch a Hapoel Jerusalem basketball game and 20,000 to watch a soccer cup match.
  • Ynet reports that despite the Health Ministry easing up, doctors are still telling people to stay home.
  • “The fitting thing to do would be to not go be part of such a large group convening together. Everyone needs to take responsibility,” the head of the Clalit HMO tells the news site.
  • Maybe clarification is on the way? Kan reports that Health Minister Yaakov Litzman says that “big steps are possible later in the day.” The station notes that a press conference is scheduled for 6 p.m.

3. War, what is it good for? Fighting a virus: Seemingly giving backing for the decision to quarantine lots of people but not take it too far is Ran Reznick in Israel Hayom,

  • Reznick reports that many Israelis with other serious illnesses are now afraid to go to the emergency room for fear of catching the pathogen, which he says is a sign of the needless public panic that needs to be counterbalanced.
  • “Israel’s resilience in the face of the virus needs to rest not only on medical advice, but also on a strong and robust communal and economic infrastructure. The country needs to minimize, as much as possible, the damage to Israeli businesses and industry, like airlines.”
  • (The paper also, strangely enough, runs a full page ad from an eyeglasses store telling people not to panic. The same store also has a full page in ad in Yedioth Ahronoth, but only to sell glasses.)
  • Netanyahu himself said that the economy is second fiddle to good medicine in the fight against coronavirus, writes Shaul Amsterdamski, praising him for doing so. “These are not normal times we are in. These are times of crisis. So, as I see it, the correct analogy is not to routine, but to emergencies: Like war.”
  • Is war enough? With the number of sick people jumping to 25 over the weekend, Yedioth Ahronoth reports that “the Health Ministry is waging all-out war against the virus, but in the meantime, it’s continuing to spread at an alarming pace.”
  • If 25 is alarming, what’s 10,000? Itamar Grotto, the Health Ministry No. 2, tells Channel 12 that the country needs to prepare for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of cases.
  • “Not all 10,000 will go to the hospital, most will be treated at the community level. 80 to 90 percent will be very lightly ill and nothing will happen to them, they will just need to stay in home quarantine until it passes if they do not need special medical attention,” he says.

4. Slouching away from Bethlehem: Israelis may gain a vision of their future by looking at Bethlehem, which Israel and the Palestinians effectively closed off from the outside world starting Friday.

  • Haaretz takes a peek inside and finds eerie silence in place of bedlam: “Bethlehem looked like a ghost town on Friday. The city has virtually died since seven people were diagnosed with coronavirus,” reports Jack Khoury.
  • He also says people have some questions as to why authorities are taking stricter measures there than in Israel itself. “The fear is that this is more of a decision by a defense minister who wants to prove his existence than a decision that will have a real impact on preventing the spread of corona,” one resident tells him.
  • Speaking to Reuters, the pastor in a group of Americans trapped in a hotel in the city says that they are using their faith to remain strong, but hoping Uncle Sam comes to the rescue.
  • “Even if we need to be quarantined, we’re hoping that the United States, our own country, will possibly fly us home,” he said. “And if they need to quarantine us there for a time we understand that. But, you know, we need to get home,” says Chris Bell.
  • The Philippines Inquirer reports on 100 Filipino tourists who were stranded in Bethlehem without even any room at the inn.
  • “We want to go home even if the tour is not over. We have to cross Israel, somebody please help us,” the group wrote on social media, according to a presidential spokesperson who got them in touch with authorities, who eventually got them out via Jordan.

5. A fake in the road: Along with the real news, unfortunately, there’s plenty of the fake stuff going around as well.

  • Over the weekend a screenshot of a story made the rounds on social media dressed up to look like a Ynet news story, claiming that Yemenite Jews were immune and they were being studied for a cure, one of several fake stories to take on the guise of the somewhat respectable news outlet.
  • “My advice: Don’t spread screenshots, go to the website and check if it’s real. 99.9% of the time it’s fake. Anyone who actually quotes Ynet will use a link,” the site’s editor Yon Feder tells Globes.
  • Channel 12 runs a story about how the coronavirus has mutated into two, including a more aggressive strain, making it sound pretty scary and as if it will make a vaccine harder to develop.
  • While the story is true, it’s not something worth getting worked up about, as Mary Petrone and Nathan Grubaugh explain for CNN: “Mutation is a mundane aspect of existence for many viruses, and the novel coronavirus is no exception,” they write.
  • “A common perception is that the continuous acquisition of mutations will cause our future coronavirus vaccines to be ineffective. While virus evolution may confer vaccine resistance, this process often takes many years for the right mutations to accumulate. … The two proposed ‘S’ and ‘L’ coronavirus strains only differ by two mutations and are 99.993% identical. It’s extremely likely that any vaccine designed for one coronavirus will be protective against the other,” they write.

6. The kids are all immune: Who needs fake news when the real stuff is so wacky. Like Netanyahu’s plan to send kids to bleach train stations and other potential virus hot-spots, since kids have been found to be mostly fine.

  • “This virus is sensitive to bleach and we must act in an orderly way to disinfect railway stations, bus stations, etc. To this end, over the vacation period, which may be extended, I will mobilize teenagers, both in schools and in youth movements, in a very meticulous way, to help with the disinfection,” Netanyahu said.
  • Grotto, still speaking to Channel 12, said that it was not the best idea he’d ever heard: “Children and teenagers can get infected, but their death rate is very low. I do not think that disinfection is the solution — it is a secondary step. More care should be taken over contact between people.”
  • That’s not to mention parents, who aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to send their kids into the hot zone.
  • “Parents, do you already have a costume of kids being sent to scrub trains and other public places,” journalist Tal Schneider asks jokingly.
  • In Israel Hayom, columnist Ariel Kahana has another modest proposal: Use the coronavirus to annex the West Bank.
  • “Given the coronavirus, there is a clarifying and growing opportunity that will not repeat for a significant expansion of Israel’s sovereignty,” he writes, using it as a pitch to bring the right-wing flank of Blue and White aboard the sinking Likud-led coalition.

7. Gantz on fire: Over the weekend, Zman Yisrael and ToI published the musings of a senior minister, close to Netanyahu, who is now making peace with life in the opposition and even painting it as kind of a win.

  • “Netanyahu cannot become prime minister again,” the minister says bluntly.
  • “In a year’s time, there will be another election. Netanyahu will lead Likud and the right-wing bloc. He’s not going anywhere. Blue and White will reach these elections after they’ve formed a government without a Jewish majority, relying on the Arab’s Joint List, and after a failure that is as expected as the heat wave in mid-August,” he adds.
  • Also in ToI, Haviv Rettig Gur writes that Gantz may actually be hurting himself by pushing ahead with forming a coalition, since it will push Netanyahu out and leave Likud an even more formidable foe: “Removing Netanyahu from the equation uncorks a great deal of what stands between Likud and a clear Knesset majority for its rule. A Likud now led by a Yuli Edelstein or Israel Katz or Gilad Erdan, or any other front-bench leader, would find an extremely amenable Yisrael Beytenu and an even friendlier Labor party (not to mention Blue and White’s own Telem faction of former Likudniks) eager to secure for themselves and their constituents the privileges of power now that the campaign promise to oust Netanyahu has been achieved.”
  • In Haaretz, Yossi Verter writes that Netanyahu is closer than ever to being given the boot, praising his rival Benny Gantz for being the “mirror image of the historic and hysteric political reality taking shape before our eyes.”
  • “There are many roadblocks ahead, but one thing is clear: this election gave birth to a new Gantz. The man has changed,” he writes. “He has finally lost his political virginity. He’s on the playing field.”
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