Flight or fright: 8 things to know for February 27
Israel media review

Flight or fright: 8 things to know for February 27

The Health Ministry tells Israelis to stay grounded over the coronavirus, raising some questions about how much caution is too much

A tourist wears protective mask while waiting for a flight back to South Korea at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
A tourist wears protective mask while waiting for a flight back to South Korea at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

1. Grounded, kinda: The country’s coronavirus craziness, already higher than an Israeli backpacker, is reaching new levels with Health Ministry advice for Israelis to stay put and not fly around the world.

  • The advisory is called unprecedented, both in the annals of Israeli history and in the global response to the quickly snowballing crisis.
  • “Don’t fly,” reads the top headline in tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth, though the actual statement was closer to “maybe think about reconsidering flying if you don’t have to.”
  • Several news organizations nonetheless call the ministry statement “dramatic.”
  • But Health Ministry official Itamar Grotto plays down the significance somewhat, telling Kan that people were already canceling flights before the advisory was published. “We published the warning, but I would not recommend canceling important business travel,” he says. “We don’t know enough about how the virus acts.”
  • Given that Israel’s wide-ranging directive was predicated on the fact that the virus has spread much further across Europe than officials realize yet, Army Radio asks Grotto why the order to self-quarantine is only falling on those coming back from Italy and not the whole continent. “The warning covers all countries, but we can’t totally close off the country. There are people coming and going for important things that can’t be pushed off.”

2. When not in Rome: More evidence of the ministry’s directive being a sign of grasping at straws as much as informed health policy is evident from the strange decision to demand that travelers returning from Italy self-quarantine, but only starting Sunday.

  • Channel 12 news reports that the order was later changed to make it immediate, and that’s a good thing because by Thursday afternoon the ministry announces it found its first case from someone not in hospital quarantine: an Israeli who returned from Italy four days earlier.
  • Several news outlets report that the ministry has now taken the step of retroactively ordering the quarantine for anyone who was in Italy the last 14 days.
  • Three planes from Italy were turned back, with their non-Israeli travelers barred from entering.
  • Interior Minister Aryeh Deri announced he plans on signing an order to ban non-Israelis who have been in Italy immediately.

3. Making a catastrophe to avoid one: There are a lot of other questions that Deri can’t simply answer with a swipe of his pen, such as who will be affected by the order and what kind of damage it will do to Israel, and whether the Health Ministry is going rogue in doing all of this.

  • An El Al official tells Kan that Israel’s national carrier will go bankrupt soon if something isn’t done to staunch the virus or cancellations. “This is a catastrophe … If the country doesn’t wake up, there won’t be an airline here in weeks,” the source is quoted saying.
  • The head of the Israeli Manufacturers Association tells Walla that the decision could cost companies big time. “We understand the Health Ministry’s considerations, but feel like this is being mismanaged and decisions are causing great damage to businesses,” Ron Tamar says.
  • Ynet reports that the warning has cast a pall over the planned Juniper Cobra military exercise, which will bring American soldiers stationed near Naples to Israel for a joint drill with the IDF: “Reserves officers say the Air Force is not responding to their wariness regarding having the American soldiers here,” the news site reports.
  • It adds that the army may place some restrictions, such as forbidding handshakes between Israeli and American soldiers, and Walla later reports that the whole exercise is postponed.
  • Even the hospitals are unhappy with the way the ministry is dealing with this, with Israel Hayom quoting a senior hospital officials saying medical centers are not equipped to deal with the directive to turn wards into isolation units for coronavirus victims: “This will turn every hospital into a corona cruise.”

4. Listen, or the virus wins: Kan reports that many government ministries, including the Foreign Ministry, were not even informed of the Health Ministry’s directive before it went out.

  • But in Israel Hayom, top public health expert Hagai Levin snipes at the other ministries for sitting back. “We don’t hear anything about preparations in the education system, the welfare system or transportation apparatus for the case of an outbreak here.”
  • Dr. Rafi Kot, an Israeli doctor in Vietnam who is helping that Asian country battle the virus, so far mostly successfully, says Israel is actually doing much right, like testing people for the virus in their homes and trying to buy time until the summer.
  • But he tells Haaretz things can go bad very quickly. “The level of care most patients receive will fall very fast to first aid, like Acamol [acetaminophen]. How many intensive care beds does Israel have? 100? 200? 300? The Chinese moved 115,000 medical staff to Hubei and even that didn’t help. [Greater Tel Aviv] is a crowded urban area like Wuhan. Israel has almost no geographical depth of clean areas, as China does.”
  • In Yedioth, columnist Sharon Rosenblum also calls on the public to listen to the Health Ministry’s directives and allow the country to buy all-important time until the virus can be better understood and a cure found.
  • “If we don’t, within a short time most citizens will be infected, and the health system will collapse under the strain almost immediately,” she writes. “In a situation like his, those who are seriously ill, which could reach one million, will not get the care they need.”

5. Panic at the checkout: She need not worry as Israelis are seemingly taking it seriously. AFP reports that 6,500 people have so far turned to a MDA hotline to ask to be tested, even though many may not need to.

  • “People are anxious and worried. They call saying they were near the Korean tourists in Beersheba, but not at the same time. We explain they are not among the group at risk,” a paramedic tells the news agency.
  • Channel 12 goes over what precautions Israelis should be taking, and advises stocking up on food, but not going overboard. “Experts say that you don’t need to stock up with huge amounts of food, but you can start making a list, understanding what you already have and what you need to buy. This way you can slowly (without emptying whole shelves at the supermarket) to get what you need.”

6. Quarantine shmarantine: On the other side are Israelis who think the directives are going overboard. Yedioth reports that Israeli singer Sagiv Cohen is going so far as to sue the Health Ministry for NIS 140,000 after he was forced to cancel shows because he was put into quarantine due to his time in Thailand.

  • “The order was unnecessary. I had a better chance of being hit in the head by a monkey in Thailand than I did of getting sick.”
  • Channel 12’s Nir Arad writes that if officials acted like this toward traffic accidents, Israelis would never be allowed to leave their homes, noting that it’s normal for officials to push for policies that fit only their specific needs, while politicians are supposed to be the ones acting to moderate and balance those with other needs.
  • “Without a working political system, the Health Ministry technocrats are enacting everything the books tell them to — and to hell with the citizenry.”

7. So close: Will Israel finally be out of its year in the political desert next week?

  • A poll by Army Radio shows Likud up to 35 seats and its partners also doing well, giving the right wing 59 seats, just two shy of a majority — the best results it’s seen yet, though some question the accuracy of the poll, which could be an outlier.
  • The poll dovetails nicely with Likud’s messaging, as in Israel Hayom’s top headline, quoting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying “we are within touching distance of victory.”
  • In a sign of the party’s strategy to go after Blue and White and leave its potential partners be, the paper lines up a number of hit pieces on party head Benny Gantz.
  • “In a reality where the media was somewhat less hostile toward Netanyahu, Gantz’s party would have never won more than 10 parliament seats, simply because his military record is, at best, mediocre. The security achievement that has given Israel relative security calm is the product of Netanyahu’s consistent policy, not military tactics,” writes Amnon Lord in one such piece.

8. Gantz goes off: Haaretz reports that Gantz, meanwhile, has started attacking Labor-Gesher-Meretz and shifting to the left after its bid for right-wing votes seemingly fell flat and ended up hurting it.

  • “Something in the campaign wasn’t working the way it was supposed to. The fact that Blue and White continued to poll the same number of seats during a lengthy period led many of our supporters on the left to move to the left-wing Labor-Gesher-Meretz slate in order to expand the bloc, rather than remain and strengthen us,” a party source tells the paper.
  • That’s not to say Gantz has let Netanyahu off the hook and on Wednesday let loose against Netanyahu with a speech described by Yedioth as “angry.”
  • “The usually sedate former chief of staff had smoke coming out of his ears at a Tel Aviv press conference on Wednesday night,” Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev writes, but he notes that it got little coverage: “The prime time evening news shows opted to ignore Gantz in favor of feeding public hysteria about the coronavirus; a legitimate editorial decision, perhaps, but one that is somehow rarely reached when it is Netanyahu that needs to be ignored.”
  • ToI’s Raoul Wootliff writes that Israelis should expect to hear more from all the parties, whether they want to or not: “With parties taking note of a sense of apathy toward the coming vote, most have been saving the increased budget for the very final days of the campaign. An industry insider and campaign veteran estimated that some parties have saved over 90 percent of their budgets for campaign efforts in the final days, which include on-the-ground election day operations, last-minute publicity events, and advertising, both online and via billboards across the country.”
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