Sweden decided not to follow conventional wisdom and impose a radical lockdown to thwart the spread of the coronavirus. With a population about the same size as Israel’s at 10 million, it has recorded almost 900 deaths at time of writing — nine times as many as Israel.
The UK, which hemmed and hawed before going into lockdown, has a population about seven times that of Israel, and had recorded almost 10,000 deaths at time of writing — almost 100 times as many as Israel.
These and numerous other comparisons underline how much worse things could have been by now in Israel had the government not moved quickly — to first discourage nonessential overseas travel and then to largely seal off Israel altogether, and to impose fairly stringent restrictions on movement — in the battle against the contagion.
The growing concern now, however, is that while the big, sweeping policy imperatives were recognized early by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his team, and implemented quickly and relatively effectively, Israel risks slipping back in its battle as more specific and nuanced measures are being mishandled.
Incomprehensibly, the task of ensuring that arrivals on the few flights still landing in Israel are sent to government-overseen quarantine hotels has proved beyond the capacity of authorities for several weeks — despite repeated assurances by Netanyahu and others that the issue had been dealt with. While the leadership bickered, arrivals including from the New York epicenter strolled blithely through Ben Gurion Airport and took taxis home, and the Health Ministry over the weekend reported a huge rise in the proportion of infections traced to new arrivals from oversees.
Ministers finally voted Sunday to enforce mandatory quarantine on all arrivals, but only after the attorney general was forced to deny claims that he had imposed a legal impediment to the move. According to reports on Sunday morning, the true problem was that the Defense Ministry had not arranged sufficient space in the various quarantine hotels nationwide, and also lacked sufficient tests to even check new arrivals for the virus.
If hundreds upon hundreds of carriers are not evacuated to quarantine facilities, the feared consequence is that the lockdown on these densely populated neighborhoods, rather than reducing the spread of the virus, will turn them into veritable incubation centers
Another radically disproportionate source of contagion has been the ultra-Orthodox community, whose political leadership, as I have already argued, failed to quickly and coherently alert its constituency to the gravity of the danger. Belatedly, ultra-Orthodox spiritual leaders internalized the threat, and reversed their earlier insistence on keeping synagogues, yeshivas and schools open. But there are still far too many indications that the spread of contagion in the ultra-Orthodox sector is not being effectively addressed.
The government moved Sunday to lock down numerous ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem — where 75% of those in the capital known to have the virus live. But hundreds upon hundreds of those carriers, who are supposed to have been evacuated to quarantine facilities, are still at home. The feared consequence is that the lockdown on these densely populated neighborhoods, rather than reducing the spread of the virus, will turn them into veritable incubation centers. The exact same situation applies in Bnei Brak, another epicenter.
All statistics on infection rates, furthermore, are partial at best, given that Israel is still not testing anywhere near the 10,000-30,000 daily goal set out by Netanyahu. An initiative for random testing in Bnei Brak, due to start on Sunday, was scrapped at the last moment amid further bickering. The demand for tests at the Magen David Adom drive-in center in East Jerusalem’s Jabel Mukaber neighborhood, meanwhile, is so high that TV news reports this weekend showed long lines of vehicles waiting outside.
That, in turn, brings us to the entire Arab sector, where unsourced Hebrew media reports have warned intermittently in recent days of the virus spreading “out of control” in East Jerusalem neighborhoods, and Health Ministry statistics show rising contagion in several Arab towns and villages in both the north and south of the country.
On Friday, the northern Arab Daburiyya (30 confirmed cases) and Jisr az-Zarqa (31 confirmed cases) communities sealed off their roads to prevent the spread of contagion. In Daburiyya, the source of the outbreak has reportedly been traced to a local man who works at an elder care facility in Acre.
Which brings us to yet another disproportionate source of contagion — and of death: Israel’s old age homes and elder care facilities. About a dozen of Israel’s first 100 fatalities were residents of a single senior living home in Beersheba.
If it remains difficult to assess how well, or not, Israel is faring in this battle, the confusion comes from the top. A week and a half ago, Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov warned that there would be “thousands of dead” by the time the crisis was over; on Saturday night, he hailed Israel’s “amazing success,” insisted “the right decisions were made” when it came to testing and to the various restrictions imposed, said the infection and death rates showed how effective policy had been, and talked about plans for a phased exit.
Indeed, the mixed signals extend all the way into the prime minister’s and president’s residences. On the one hand, Netanyahu and Reuven Rivlin relentlessly implore us all to exercise the necessary self-discipline and strictly abide by the restrictions, notably including the anguishing ban on sharing the Seder table with relatives. And on the other, both of them — leaders who themselves are old enough to fall into relatively high-risk groups — saw fit to breach that Seder night restriction.
As of this writing, Israel’s death rates from the virus do indeed provide room for wary optimism. The critical figure of those who are on ventilators — now in the 120s — remains an encouraging far cry from the feared hundreds, even thousands.
We can look to Italy, Spain, the UK and the US, and internalize how much worse things might have been at this stage. But we can also look to Austria, whose chancellor last month hailed Netanyahu for having shocked him out of his complacency, and where the statistics are deemed sufficiently encouraging to have enabled a specific timetable for a return to something akin to normalcy.
We need transparent criteria for lockdowns, so that nobody need feel that this or that sector is being discriminated against. We need to reach the testing levels our leaders rightly deemed necessary to swiftly identify new areas of concern, and to efficiently assess where restrictions can be eased. We need action, rather than endless talk, when it comes to evacuating carriers, ensuring the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors are properly equipped, and tackling the outbreaks in elder care facilities.
It is by no means clear that the Health Ministry is equipped to oversee these and numerous other imperatives. The IDF has the operational manpower, but not the health experts’ guiding wisdom. Netanyahu has been steering the national response, with a select group of advisers. It may well be that a new command structure is needed.
This virus is going to be blighting our lives for a long time yet. Israel, it would seem, is far from out of the woods. And not because we’re an ill-disciplined citizenry.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
I'm proud of our coverage of this government's plans to overhaul the judiciary, including the political and social discontent that underpins the proposed changes and the intense public backlash against the shakeup.
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