Flatten your enthusiasm: 6 things to know for March 15
Israel media review

Flatten your enthusiasm: 6 things to know for March 15

As Israel steps up its fight against the coronavirus outbreak, some fear what the country may lose in its battle to flatten the curve, from money to civil rights to toilet paper

Israelis buy food at a supermarket in Jerusalem on March 14, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Israelis buy food at a supermarket in Jerusalem on March 14, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

1. Shutdown nation: Israel took another step in its quest not to follow in Italy’s bootsteps, shutting down businesses, gatherings and essentially placing the country on some form of lockdown.

  • “A new way of daily life,” reads the front page of Yedioth Ahronoth, above a larger headline crowing “To defeat the virus,” (one could write a graduate thesis on the war-like jingoism on display in the fight against coronavirus.)
  • As my colleagues note on the new directives: “Save for supermarkets and pharmacies, all malls would be closed. Restaurants and hotel dining rooms will also be shuttered — aside from those that provide takeout — along with bars, pubs and dance clubs. The Health Ministry said gyms, pools, water and amusement parks, zoos and petting zoos, bathhouses and ritual baths for men, beauty and massage salons, event and conference venues, public boats and cable cars, and heritage sites would have to close as well.”
  • Reporting on the effect of the mass “Italian strike” (a term used in Hebrew for a labor action where work is performed, albeit much curtailed, that seems oddly fitting here), Walla notes that “the highways are emptied of cars,” and “trains are almost empty, with only one or two people per carriage.”
  • Looking way ahead to next month’s Passover holiday, Channel 12 news reports that the directive banning gatherings of more than 10 people “puts Seder night at risk.”

2. Getting testy: And this may be only be only the beginning. Kan quotes Sheba medical center doctor Arnon Afek saying that while a general quarantine of everyone may be drastic, “we need to be practical — we won’t be able to find beds for everyone who is positive.”

  • The announcement came as Israel reached the 200-case mark, just two days after hitting 100.
  • According to Israel Hayom, the Health Ministry actually fears that the real number may be as high as 2,500, but only a few thousand tests have been given out.
  • Where are all the tests? Haaretz reports that “one physician said she had complained to the Health Ministry about the lack of sufficient testing, and was told that as of Friday evening there were 7,000 corona testing kits in Israel and instructions not to approve more than 400 tests per day.”
  • It quotes another doctor fearing that one of eight people they examined, without protection, could have been carrying the virus.
  • “This is like sending a soldier to battle without a gun,” another doctor tells Army Radio.
  • But in Israel Hayom, Dr. Hagai Levine writes that nobody is served by mass panic: “It is impossible to know how long this crisis will last, but it is clear that it will not be less than a few months. Therefore, it is essential to maneuver the national and personal levels from an acute immediate stress response phase, which cannot be sustained for a long time, to a routine suited to the ongoing emergency. Various steps may be necessary to ‘flatten the curve,’ but they cannot flatten Israel and its social fabric along the way.”

3. Can’t buy me health: Yedioth reports that the new measures are the result of two days of “heavy battling” between the Health Ministry and the Finance Ministry, which warned of a “fatal blow” to the Israeli economy.

  • Channel 12 news reports that the measures are expected to cost some NIS 2 billion a week (about $550 million).
  • Finance Ministry bigwig Roni Hizkiyahu tells Army Radio that “the coronavirus will affect the deficit, we’re talking about many billions, but first we need to understand where the money is going to come from.”
  • Writing for Channel 12’s news’s website, Amalia Dweck says that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled the trigger on the shutdown, but left people who are now out of work in the dark.
  • “We didn’t hear how the nation plans on helping them, what solutions are being suggested, and how they — a critical part of the economy — are supposed to manage this crisis that has been foisted upon them.”
  • In ToI, editor David Horovitz writes that nonetheless, the disagreements were clearly on display at the Saturday night press conference to announce the measures: “But it was still less drastic than had been widely anticipated. Netanyahu and his colleagues, speaking at a delayed presentation to the nation that hinted at disagreements between various officials, did not declare a state of emergency. They did not impose a lockdown, barring Israelis from leaving their homes. They did not shut down the private sector.”

4. Panic your butt off: At least supermarkets are doing well, and then some. Pictures broadcast by the media show crowds and crowds of people with lines out the door, stocking up on everything from Nutella to toilet paper.

  • That holds true in both bustling metropolises and smaller towns, like Beit Herut, where Haaretz reports that “some shelves were totally empty as people stocked up on supplies, especially on eggs, fish, meat, frozen food, paper towels and toilet paper. There were no more tomatoes, cucumbers or peppers.”
  • “I needed to shop so I could make sure there’s enough to feed my children. It looks like we will be cooking a lot at home,” one shopper tells the paper.
  • “One thing is clear: You have enough toilet paper,” jokes humor columnist Hanoch Daum in Yedioth, reaching for the low-hanging fruit of corona comedy. “There’s no indication that this coronavirus will cause a toilet paper shortage, but that’s just how we are, worried about our own asses.”
  • In Israel Hayom, Baruch Ron writes about his quest to find toilet paper and other supplies, eventually finding his way to a hardware store without massive crowds, ample water and cleaning supplies. “We asked at the register where the toilet paper is, and she pointed to some hidden spot and said ‘there.’ But there was nothing there. In the place where there had been toilet paper was just air.”

5. The danger of coronafakes: The panic was seemingly set off by fears that markets would be shut down and people forced to stay at home, despite pleas by officials not to start panic buying.

  • The media has obviously played a large role in helping spread the perception of crisis. Channel 12 news, for instance is widely pilloried for playing a video of people rushing an Aldi outlet in Belgium, though it turned out to actually be a video from Germany from years earlier, with no connection at all to the virus.
  • While the channel later clarified that it had made a mistake, the damage was done. Later, when a reporter asked a supermarket manager why people are panicking, he answered “because that’s what is being broadcast by the government. They see the pictures from Belgium.”
  • Haaretz reporter Josh Breiner on Twitter urges the channel to keep pushing the clarification: “The public listen to us, relies on us, needs us to be trustworthy,” he pleads.
  • Channel 12 isn’t the only one at fault. Over the weekend, one MK sent out a tweet, since deleted, claiming a video of people being disinfected in what looked like a cage was being done by Israel to Palestinians, when in fact it came from another country entirely.
  • And more benign, but still not good, Israel Hayom publishes a picture of people being fever-tested at the entrance to Hadassah Ein Karem hospital. The paper does not disclose that the picture is from 2017 and unrelated.
  • “Alongside the steps being taken to be cautious in regards to public health, we also need to be extra careful regarding spreading information and jumping to conclusions. This is mostly true for journalists and public official, but is relevant for everyone. Anybody needs to think not twice but 10 times before hitting the share button on social media or WhatsApp,” writes Idan Ring in The Seventh Eye.

6. On the wrong track: Most criticism, though, is aimed at Netanyahu after he first announced the use of anti-terror tools to track Israelis and keep the virus from spreading, and the middle of the night announcement that his trial would be postponed at least two weeks.

  • ToI’s Judah Ari Gross reports that “while the Shin Bet security service confirmed that the dramatic course of action was indeed being considered, it denied rumors that the tools would be used to enforce quarantines, saying that they would only be employed to help authorities track the paths of confirmed carriers of the disease in order to find people they may have infected.”
  • And while Netanyahu cited Taiwan’s use of similar technology, Gross notes that “in that case GPS data was primarily used to ensure that those in quarantine remained at home, rather than tracking their past movements, as Israel is proposing.”
  • Ringing the alarm bell, Haaretz’s Noa Landau writes that “unbalanced, unchecked power is now concentrated in the hands of the prime minister of a caretaker government, allowing him to take and institute draconian measures the likes of which we’ve never seen – and with dizzying speed.”
  • Avner Pinchuk, a privacy expert with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, tells Reuters that the use of the technology leaves much possibility for abuse: “I am troubled by this announcement. I understand that we are in unique circumstances, but this seems potentially like overreach. Much will depend on how intrusive the new measures are.”
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