End all restrictions, they were unnecessary, Hebrew University researchers say
Team that includes economists, epidemiologist say death toll without limitations would be higher but manageable, while preventing serious damage to economy
Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent
Israel should end all coronavirus restrictions and reopen the country to international travel, according to a Hebrew University research team that includes a prominent epidemiologist and two finance professors.
They crunched statistics from around the world and concluded in a newly published study that while lockdowns were necessary in London, New York and various other places, Israel didn’t need to confine people to houses or impose other strict rules.
Though researchers admitted that without those limitations, Israel’s death toll would have been higher, even significantly so, they believed it would have stayed within manageable rates, while protecting the economy from massive damage.
“The purpose of publishing this isn’t to criticize what was done,” Prof. David Gershon, an economist with the Jerusalem Business School at Hebrew University, told The Times of Israel. “It isn’t political, but it raises the question of why we are still in semi-lockdown. Why are we keeping the cemeteries closed on Memorial Day? It shows that there’s an overreaction.”
They assert that in retrospect Israel should have adopted a similar approach to the lockdown-free Sweden, despite the human cost. Sweden’s population is only slightly larger than Israel’s, but it has seen 11 times the number of COVID-19 deaths so far — 2,194 compared to 202.
While Sweden eschewed lockdowns and appealed for voluntary social distancing, Israel has implemented strict regulations, punishable by fines, to fight coronavirus. Israeli schools and universities were closed on March 12, soon followed by most workplaces, and most Israelis have been largely confined to their homes for weeks.
Restrictions are now being slowly eased, with many workplaces and stores reopening for business — under heavily restrictive conditions — and schools set to partially reopen next week.
But health officials have warned that a too-swift return to normal could see infection rates spike amid a second, potentially worse wave of the disease. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that a spike in cases is possible and could cause a return to lockdown.
Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov has insisted that his hard-line approach was necessary and without it, Israel could have ended up like Belgium, which has a population slightly larger than Israel’s and a death toll of more than 7,000. He told a TV interviewer on Friday that if early trends in Israel had been allowed to continue, “today we’d have over 600,000 people [sick], over 10,000 on ventilators, and many thousands whose lives would have ended.”
Israel currently around 15,500 infected and some 100 on ventilators.
Gershon argued that Israel has clearly weathered the storm, and the only logical course of action is to roll back all restrictions. He said that all sectors including tourism should reopen. “We shouldn’t think of tourism being about just having fun. It’s about the survival of the people who provide the services like in [the Red Sea resort town of] Eilat. If you want Eilat to rebound, you need to return it to life.”
International visitors should be welcomed in Israel, but tested for coronavirus upon entry and turned away or quarantined if positive, according to Gershon. Israelis should be asked to remain vigilant about hygiene and continue social distancing. If they oblige, a small proportion of false negative results at the airport wouldn’t compromise Israelis’ health, he said, arguing: “As long as the population behaved in a responsible way, even when you have a few newcomers with coronavirus, their ability to create a wave of infection is very minimal.”
Epidemiologist Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians and a faculty member at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine, took the lead on the health data in the report. For the modeling, Gershon and fellow Jerusalem Business School professor Alexander Lipton drew on their PhDs in physics and years spent working in finance. Gershon is former global head of options for Barclays Capital in London.
They studied data on the number of COVID-19 deaths so far in various places, how close together people live, whether subway travel is common, how many intensive care beds are available in hospitals, and how prepared people are to change their behavior during a pandemic. Israelis proved very willing to change habits, they found.
The message of the final report, “How to Manage the COVID-19 Pandemic without Destroying the Economy,” sharply contrasts with that of the government.
The scholars particularly admire Sweden, which controversially didn’t impose a lockdown, kept schools, restaurants and businesses open, and relied on people voluntarily following guidelines to slow the spread of coronavirus. “I think Sweden got it right,” Gershon commented. “Israel should have done what Sweden did.”
He said that deaths due to illnesses are inevitable and the only criterion for assessing how a country should react is whether the health service is in danger of melting down. “If not, we are safe,” he argued.
Gershon said: “If we put the life of other people in the country on one hand — not just having them stay alive but also quality of life — and on the other hand put the number of dead people from coronavirus, draw the conclusion for yourself.”
According to his model, without a general lockdown and in a worst case scenario, Israel would not have used more than 800 intensive care beds for COVID-19 patients at any time, out of a national capacity of 2,000 to 3,000 ICU beds.
He said that the main importance of his model wasn’t to review policy over recent weeks, but rather to facilitate the best possible decision-making next time around. His team expects a second wave in early 2021, and says that its model can give Israel confidence to avoid what it considers an unnecessary lockdown.
“In the second wave we mustn’t close the economy,” Gershon insisted. “We should ask for responsible behavior, but there will be no need to panic.”
The researchers plan to make their model widely available to health officials around the world, to help them predict how their country will fare in future coronavirus waves and other crises, and explore what steps to take. It can be “recalibrated for future [health] crises” even if the threat is different, Gershon said.
“We’re scientists, not politicians,” he stressed. “We’ve developed a model that will be used if another plague comes, so people don’t throw out over-simplistic models. It’s a very powerful tool.”