Down with the sickness: 7 things to know for March 16
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Israel media review

Down with the sickness: 7 things to know for March 16

The government considers new steps after some Israelis fail to grasp social distancing, amid questions over whether officials have ignored fundamental cautionary moves

Iconic Carmel Market in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2020. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)
Iconic Carmel Market in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2020. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

1. Stop work order: Israel is on the precipice of a total shutdown, with coronavirus cases hitting 255 (as of this writing).

  • “Throughout the day, talks will be held on stepping up the measures that went into effect yesterday. The estimation is that there will be an announcement on the total work shutdown including any place not deemed essential,” reports Israel Hayom.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth reports that the Health Ministry is asking the government to place a total shutdown on the economy instead of the partial one in place now, an option they already urged on Saturday, to no avail.
  • “Now the Health Ministry is raising the issue again, before the spread of the virus in Israel rises dramatically. The head of the health system is preparing for the scenario that thousands of Israelis will contract the virus and the number of fatalities will spike, and so are convinced that a general shutdown is critical and urgent.
  • Asher Shalmon, the Health Ministry’s director of international relations, tells ToI that “you can expect more orders and decisions are going to be made in the coming few days.”

2. Lots of social, not so much distance: The partial shutdown put in place on Saturday night does not seem to be having the effect of keeping people at home as much as one might like.

  • Yedioth prints pictures of people out and about in the streets, congregating at a falafel store in Tel Aviv, a Cofix cafe in Ashdod and the Mahane Yehuda outdoor market in Jerusalem.
  • “How would we not open, this is our livelihood,” the owner of a home goods store in Sderot tells the paper. “We’re all trying to keep too many people from coming in but it’s not working. People are coming. They are not working, they have their kids at home, they want some fresh air so they come.”
  • In Haaretz, Allison Kaplan Sommer writes that Israelis should be more prepared than many places for this kind of disruption given their experience with wars and Yom Kippur, but nonetheless were caught off guard, confused and unhappy.
  • “Confusion, anger and frustration emerged on Sunday, stemming from the fact that although Netanyahu announced the new rules’ parameters on Saturday evening at 9 P.M., detailed instructions and clarifications were only issued in the wee hours of Sunday morning, after most had gone to sleep,” she writes.
  • Even more experienced with such situations may be Gaza. One resident of the Strip tells Zman Yisrael that though there are no confirmed cases there, they’ve been living as if with the effects of the virus for 13 years: “In Israel people won’t know what it is to live like this. Now our neighbors will feel what it’s like to be prohibited from leaving your homes, trapped in a cage, with no freedom. … We see what’s happening in Israel on TV and to us it is natural, it is not strange.”

3. Crash course: Prime Minister’s Office economic adviser Avi Simhon tells Army Radio that “a closure is not being considered, but if they do it — NIS 50 billion in lost gains will be the cost.”

  • He also indicates that the losses will in fact be much more, saying that if that were all he would say “yalla, fine.”
  • The partial shutdown and travel ban pain is already being felt sharply by many. Globes reports that the Fattal Hotel group is down 30 percent on the day, leading a long roster of losing stocks.
  • According to the paper, only some 28,000 tourists are left in the country and they are almost all expected to leave soon. With the hotels empty, the government is exploring turning two Dan Panorama hotels in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv into isolation vacation homes for those who have the virus but don’t need to be hospitalized.
  • Despite the losses, Kan’s Shmuel Amsterdamski writes that the Finance Ministry needs to stop stymieing the Health Ministry’s recommendations. He writes that though it feels like forever, it’s only been a week since Israel said all people coming in had to quarantine for 14 days, a move that seemed like overkill at the time but looks prescient now.
  • “This is what should guide these decisions. Everything that looks extreme will end up seeming like the step that needed to be taken with the distance of a month.”

4. The gloves are off: The Health Ministry is also coming under criticism for a lack of tests, a lack of protection for doctors and what appears to be the virus’s unchecked spread through a nursing home.

  • After a second doctor at Ichilov Hospital gets sick, sending even more of the staff into quarantine, questions arise over the lack of protection for those dealing with sick patients who may have the virus.
  • A nurse in central Israel requesting anonymity tells the Kan public broadcaster that there was a shortage of masks in her hospital and that medical staff there have been told to suffice with washing their hands.
  • “Sure, they could not have predicted the coronavirus, but they know that there are pandemics, we had a measles outbreak a little while ago. … why are there no stores of protective gear? Where are the stockpiles? This is a question. This is a big problem,” one unnamed Health Ministry source tells Walla news, aiming criticism at his bosses.
  • Yedioth quotes members of a family whose father is hospitalized somewhere in central Israel who were shocked to find out that a suspected coronavirus patient is being kept in the same ward. “They placed cautionary measures, but in actuality the same doctors and aides who are caring for the [suspected coronavirus case] are also treating regular patients,” a family member complains.

5. Testing, testing…1, 2, that’s it: Channel 12 news reports that Defense Minister Naftali Bennett is also going after the ministry hard for being slow in testing people, demanding that the army be given the responsibility instead.

  • “The policy of only spot testing is a terrible mistake,” Bennett is quoted saying.
  • Zman Yisrael reports that private companies turned to the Health Ministry two months ago offering help with testing, but the ministry only bothered to get back to them about it last week.
  • “The virus has been spreading and concerning the world for two months. If they didn’t expect it to come to Israel that’s a bad mistake,” says a source at one private testing company. “And if they knew it would come and didn’t take steps to make things better, that’s also a bad mistake.”
  • Haaretz reports that at the Nofim old age home in Jerusalem, seven patients have come down with the disease, and the other 170-odd residents are under quarantine but not being tested unless they show symptoms.
  • “The health system needs to see this place as very problematic focal point within the drama of the country,” one resident is quoted saying. “There could be a catastrophe here.”

6. Gantz in, Yuli on the ropes: On the other side of Jerusalem, it’s anything but politics as usual as someone other than Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu is given first crack at forming a government, for the first time since 2009.

  • Yedioth’s Sima Kadmon writes that Blue and White’s Benny Gantz is seen as far from assured of having a coalition, even a minority one. “Gantz will be going around for the next 28 days with a mandate, but no bullets,” she writes, adding that he can still replace Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and install Avi Nissenkorn as head of the Knesset Arrangements Committee, giving him the power to set the agenda, at least until elections are held again.
  • Haaretz reports that if he does push Edelstein out, the party will swiftly push two laws: “The first would prevent anyone charged with crimes from serving as prime minister, while the second would revisit the direct election of the prime minister, similar to the law that prevailed in Israel during the 1990s.” Thus Netanyahu could not run in a direct election.
  • “The combination of the two bills is aimed at making Netanyahu irrelevant in the next election, whenever it is held, and would foment a holy storm within Likud. Members of the party that has been in power for the past 11 years – thanks to Netanyahu – would have to decide whether to jump into an empty pool with him, or choose life – that is, a new leader,” the paper adds.
  • But pushing out Edelstein seems to be a tough nut to crack, with the speaker refusing to allow a debate that would see him voted out of power.
  • Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar tells Army Radio, “Until now the system worked on the basis of faith in statesmanship, but Edelstein has gotten rid of that.”
  • “Edelstein’s decision … does not add any respect or glory to the position, which was once thought of as ceremonial and statesmanlike, and will make it hard for him to praise the hall of democracy or separation of powers,” writes Tal Shalev in Walla.

7. In case of no emergency, panic: According to Haaretz, Edelstein’s excuse is that such a move would torpedo talks for an emergency unity government.

  • Channel 12 news reports that Netanyahu was ready to force his right-wing bloc to agree to a unity government, but was thwarted by party whip Miki Zohar, who refused to carry out the order in protest of Blue and White’s nerve in working with the Joint List.
  • But despite Zohar’s naysaying, other Likud members and their backers are apparently still holding out hope.
  • “It’s not too late for a unity government,” Likud’s Israel Katz tells Army Radio. “Even though Likud won the most seats, the prime minister is ready for it. I think it will take a leader-like decision from Gantz.”
  • In Israel Hayom, Nadav Shragai writes that an emergency government is a must, though only if Netanyahu is prime minister first.
  • “Gantz needs to let go of the fact Netanyahu will soon be facing criminal charges. Some 2.5 million voters knew that and still voted from the right-wing bloc. Netanyahu, for his part, has to understand that there are good and dedicated individuals outside the bloc and that the Left is just as anxious as the Right,” he writes. “Now is the time to find the common denominator, and it is wide enough. Now is the time to join and begin healing the wounds created by the ongoing political stalemate and those we know the coronavirus will inflict.”
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