China Syndrome comes to Israel: 6 things to know for February 3
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Israel media review

China Syndrome comes to Israel: 6 things to know for February 3

Fears, hopes and effects of the Wuhan coronavirus are all overblown, according to the Israeli press

People wear face masks at Ben Gurion International Airport following reports about the deadly coronavirus having spread worldwide, February 2, 2020. (Avshalom Shoshani/Flash90)
People wear face masks at Ben Gurion International Airport following reports about the deadly coronavirus having spread worldwide, February 2, 2020. (Avshalom Shoshani/Flash90)

1. Nothing to fear but fear itself (and the virus): No Israelis have been found to have the Wuhan coronavirus yet, but much of the country is infected nonetheless with coronavirus panic fever.

  • The Israeli strain takes up prime real estate in both major Hebrew-language tabloids, including Israel Hayom, which promises “drastic steps” being taken by Israeli authorities to isolate the country from the virus.
  • The paper, however, continues its trend of downplaying the virus (on Sunday, its Beijing correspondent wrote about how despite the panic, really very few people had come down with it.)
  • “From the medical literature, I can say that it seems the virus is not as bad as we think,” the paper quotes Dr. Arnon Afek, a former deputy head of the Health Ministry.
  • Afek is quoted surmising that there are many more than the 14,000 reported cases, which could mean that cases are so light, they have not even been reported.
  • Israelis better hope that they are correct. Kan reports that few hospitals in Israel have containment units, meaning that if there is an outbreak here, hospitals will have to quarantine whole wards, shunting people into other areas of the hospital.
  • “That being said, we are still far from an epidemic,” the outlet reports.

2. No cure yet: Many are still taking precautions. Channel 13 reports that the Health Ministry will send messages to the phones of anyone arriving at the airport telling them to quarantine themselves if they have been to China lately.

  • Unmentioned is how weak such a solution is, especially given that many tourists who come to Israel only get local cellphones or sim cards after arriving.
  • Channel 12 news pours cold water on those wearing masks to protect themselves. “In the best case, the air you breathe through the mask is 80 percent filtered, and you can still get infected from the other 20%,” it quoted unnamed “Israeli experts” saying, apparently in unison.
  • In Haaretz, Yossi Verter pushes back against the claim from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel’s military biological institute will actually come up with a cure, noting its poor track record.
  • “In 2003, there were leaks about the institute working on an antidote for SARS in Israel. The media was quick to report on it, but it didn’t happen then and didn’t happen now,” he writes.
  • He adds that it took the institute six to seven weeks to develop an anthrax antidote, and that was basically just a copy of the American one.

3. Hysteria: Israel Hayom quotes a Chabad emissary in Hong Kong saying that “there is hysteria,” and predicting things will get worse as the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday ends and people start traveling again. “It seems this is just the beginning.”

  • In Yedioth Ahronoth, columnist Sever Plotzker writes about the economic damage from the epidemic, “not because of the direct damage it is causing, but because of the hysterical reaction.”
  • Not helping matters is the amount of fake news and rumors going around about the virus. Channel 12 reports that all sorts of garbage is being passed along on social media and messaging apps, including one claim that posits that the virus is a man-made biological weapon that escaped, quoting a “former Israeli officer” as proof.
  • Unfortunately, the channel may have done more harm than good by using a clickbait-y headline that plays up the claims rather than highlighting the fact that they are fake.

4. Rampant racism: Walla seemingly makes the same boo-boo in a story about anti-Chinese racism, which it headlines “Yellow danger.”

  • The headline is an unfortunate addition to a unhealthy amount of latent racism in the reporting about the epidemic.
  • The Calcalist website, reporting that some models show up to 100 million people coming down with the coronavirus, notes stories coming out of “totally Chinese remedies,” such as a herbal mix that many places have run out of, with others having to rely on chicken soup, “thought of in Chinese, as in Judaism, as a protection from sickness.”
  • The front page of Yedioth Ahronoth looks at the economic damage from the virus, stamping its coverage with a giant “made in China” stamp.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that anti-Chinese sentiment is rising all over the world.
  • “To many with already existing anti-Chinese sentiments, the threat is now not just ideological or political but physical,” says researcher Charlotte Setijadi.

5. Compare at your own peril: Chinese have begun to push back, calling the world’s reaction “overblown.”

  • In Israel, though, the Chinese ambassador was forced to backtrack — apologize in the words of most in the Israeli press, though it was only a half-apology — after he seemingly compared what is happening in China to the Holocaust.
  • “There was no intention whatsoever to compare the dark days of the Holocaust with the current situation and the efforts taken by the Israeli government to protect its citizens,” the embassy is quoted saying. “We would like to apologize if someone understood our message the wrong way.”
  • Haaretz runs a translation of a piece published in Bloomberg in which the comparison between Wuhan and Chernobyl is also discounted.
  • “The biggest difference is in the symbolism. Chernobyl battered the very essence of the Soviet state, an entire system built on a myth of outsize military and economic might,” writes Clara Ferreira Marques. “Beijing, though, is well aware of the risk presented by unexpected events. It’s no accident that while cheery videos of doctors heading off to Wuhan have appeared, so too has some mild criticism, especially of local government — pressure valves, of sorts. Officials have turned to hefty fiscal stimulus in the past, and can do so again.”

6. Taking stock: What is really raising hackles, though, is the almighty shekel and how the virus may affect it, with stock markets crashing on pandemic fears.

  • Still, on Monday the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange sees a modest bounce-back from a large drop on Sunday, breaking the trend of other Asian bourses.
  • “Israeli companies are worried but are stifling their panic for now,” reports financial daily The Marker.
  • Fears of what will be worst-hit revolve around the tourism and construction industries, reports ToI’s Shoshanna Solomon.
  • “That could be damaging for the Israeli tourism sector and the hotel sector in the first quarter of the year, assuming that things do end within one quarter as they did in 2003 with the SARS epidemic,” Gil Bufman, the chief economist at Bank Leumi Le-Israel Ltd., tells her.
  • The Bizzness news website reports that another sector that may be affected is kosher food imports from China, which could see shortages beyond Passover.
  • “I have an open order for Passover orders from a factory with 120 workers, 90 of whom are under quarantine and it’s not clear when and how they will return to work fully,” an importer tells the publication.
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