Israel on verge of uncontrollable outbreak of virus, warns foreign minister

Israel Katz defends strict travel limits, says aim is to save lives, prevent a spread that could see country isolated; denies decision to leave US off list is politically motivated

An ambulance carrying an Israeli man who returned from Italy and tested positive for coronavirus arrives at Tel Hashomer Hospital, February 27, 2020 (Flash 90)
An ambulance carrying an Israeli man who returned from Italy and tested positive for coronavirus arrives at Tel Hashomer Hospital, February 27, 2020 (Flash 90)

Israel is on the verge of a coronavirus outbreak that it will not be able to control, Foreign Minister Israel Katz warned Thursday as he defended the strict measures authorities have ordered on international travel to and from Israel.

Israel has banned entry to the country from a range of countries around the world, including several in Europe, and has ordered tens of thousands of Israelis who have returned from those locations to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“We are talking with leaders and explaining to them the Israeli point of view,” Katz told the Kan public broadcaster. “We are on the verge of an outbreak that we won’t be able to control, and then the whole way of life in Israel will change.”

Katz said officials have two goals in applying the restrictions — “to save lives and prevent a spread, and to prevent the isolation of Israel.”

A local outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, could see countries around the world close their borders to Israeli travelers, he explained.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz attends a Likud party rally, ahead of the Israeli general elections, in the Northern Israeli town of Safed, February 24, 2020. (David Cohen/FLASH90)

Notably, the US has been left off the list of countries from which foreigners are no longer allowed entry and returning Israelis must self-quarantine, despite a spread of the disease there, including at least 11 fatalities. California on Wednesday declared a state of emergency over the situation.

Katz denied that the decision to exempt the US was politically motivated and hinted that the situation could change.

“We will not endanger the lives of Israelis due to political considerations,” he stressed, saying that the developments in the US are not yet considered a serious enough outbreak.

Katz called on the public to do its part by following the instructions of health authorities.

However, Health Ministry Director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov told Kan that “it is only a matter of time until there is a wide outbreak in Europe and the US.”

Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov visits a ministry call center in Kiryat Malachi on March 1, 2020. (Flash90)

Bar Siman-Tov, too, defended the restrictions ordered by the ministry, noting that other countries that did not take early measures were then forced to take more extreme steps when the virus eventually spread. He pointed to Italy and South Korea as examples. Italy, where over 100 people have died of the disease, on Thursday confirmed that it has closed all schools in the country for ten days.

Siman-Tov said that delaying a possible spread of the disease gives authorities more time to learn about the virus, and possibly produce a vaccine.

In addition, a sudden wave of infected patients could overwhelm the health system and as a result also impact the economy, he said.

Over 70,000 Israelis are now reported to be in self-quarantine, foreigners from a slew of European and Asian countries have been or will be banned, and large events such as concerts and sporting matches have been canceled due to directives issued by the Health Ministry, which were significantly expanded on Wednesday.

All Israelis returning from France, Germany, Spain, Austria and Switzerland were instructed to enter self-quarantine for a period of 14 days after their last day in those countries.

The decision applied retroactively to all who have come from those nations in the last 14 days. Foreign citizens arriving from those countries will not be allowed into Israel unless they can show a proven ability to self-quarantine at a home during their stay.

A young couple wearing protective masks are greeted upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport on March 4, 2020 (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

Israel has taken far-reaching steps to prevent an outbreak, previously banning entry to foreigners who were in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Italy in the 14 days prior to arriving, and compelling all Israelis recently in those areas to self-quarantine for 14 days.

In a statement last month, the Health Ministry urged Israelis to seriously consider refraining from traveling abroad. Israel was the first country to urge its citizens to refrain from international travel entirely because of the outbreak, which started in China in December and has since infected over 93,000 worldwide and claimed over 3,200 lives, almost all of them in China.

The Health Ministry has faced criticism for its extreme measures, with some saying it is unnecessarily panicking people and causing economic and diplomatic damage to the country. Ministry officials have said they prefer to take a strict line than be sorry later.

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