search
Analysis

It’s a lockdown of necessity. But what kind of necessity? Health or political?

How did Israel become world’s first country reimposing lockdown? It’s not just a story of rising infections, but also of fragile religious-secular relations, nervous politicians

Nathan Jeffay

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative: In this April 11, 2020, photo, Tel Aviv's beachfront promenade and a main road are empty of people during a lockdown following government measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Illustrative: In this April 11, 2020, photo, Tel Aviv's beachfront promenade and a main road are empty of people during a lockdown following government measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

This is a lockdown of necessity. But it’s debatable what kind of necessity: unavoidable for the health of the nation, or inevitable because of Israel’s complicated social and political reality.

Israel will becomes the world’s first country to reimpose lockdown on Friday, as the country is seeing upwards of 4,500 new virus cases per day. Scheduled to last for at least three weeks, the imminent national closure has been met with fury by many Israelis, unpersuaded that it is needed, decrying the economic consequences, and devastated at the idea of the Jewish holiday season confined within 500 meters of their homes.

In an address to the nation on Thursday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted not only that the lockdown is necessary, but that around the world, other governments will also face the decision of whether to impose new nationwide lockdowns, “and most of them in my opinion will have no choice but to do so.”

By contrast, opposition leader Yair Lapid is adamant. The lockdown, he says, “is an admission of failure. The citizens are being punished because the government failed.” Lapid called it a “death blow to the Israeli economy,” and predicted that it won’t save lives.

Is such castigation accurate? Are Israelis’ reservations and suspicions justified? Could the lockdown have been avoided? Are there better options available even now?

Abandoning the local focus

Israel’s path to a second lockdown started as a consequence of the way it opened up from its first.

In April, Israel emerged from the national closure taking a “trial and error” approach. This saw warning signs ignored, a misguided race towards “normality,” and a vicious second wave that has brought the death count to 1,163. The trial was an error.

Chevra Kadisha workers wearing protective clothes, carry the body of Rabbi Avraham Heber who died from complications of COVID-19, at the Shamgar Funeral Home in Jerusalem, on April 23, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This second wave has been characterized by strong regional patterns. A curse for the people in the worst-affected towns and villages, there is an argument that it could have been a blessing for the national fight: Instead of closing down everywhere to confront the virus, Israel could have concentrated on tackling it in the towns and villages where it most loudly announced its presence.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu addresses the Knesset Constitution Committee, September 6, 2020 (Screen grab)

This was at the crux of coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu’s “traffic light” plan, but there was a problem. The virus is at its most virulent in Haredi and Arab areas, affecting them out of all proportion to the wider Israeli population. Among residents in those hotspots, many felt that a strategy of locking them down, and them alone, for the sake of the national fight was unfair.

These two demographics often feel sidelined in Israeli society as it is, and the idea of literally isolating some of their locales touched a raw nerve. This was especially the case since Gamzu’s “traffic light” plan for strong local battles was introduced amid widespread criticism of these communities for holding large weddings and other gatherings. In areas designated as “red,” there was a widespread feeling that they were being blamed for their virus cases, and being told to pay a price.

And so, Haredi politicians, who are part of Israel’s coalition, along with their allies in local government in ultra-Orthodox towns, exerted pressure. For ministers wanting to avoid a coalition crisis, scrapping the idea of an intense localized virus fight became viewed as a political necessity. The proposed local lockdowns were downgraded to curfews, and the whole “traffic light” plan lost its teeth.

There’s little doubt that, had Israel gone for the local approach, the country would not be moving now into a national lockdown. The government was set on taking a major step to show it is serious about combating the virus, yet felt unable to commit to the local approach.

Is this legitimate? It depends on your perspective.

An Israeli border policeman sets up a barrier as ultra-Orthodox Jews wearing face masks wait to cross the street during an overnight curfew in Beit Shemesh, September 8, 2020 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Just as it’s said that the pandemic isn’t a health crisis alone, and we need to consider the other costs of the decisions taken to fight it, such as financial impact, it can be argued that the cost of local lockdowns on Israel’s fragile social fabric would be too high. It can also be argued that the pandemic is a long haul, and the more the government alienates these sectors of the population now, the less compliant they would be with future measures to control the virus.

For many Israelis, however, the decision to abandon the local fight and lock down all of Israel reflects the worst of the country’s sectarian politics, with Haredi MKs flexing their muscles, knowing they can wreak havoc in the coalition if they don’t get their way, and Haredi mayors telling the rest of the country that if they are going down, the rest of the country is going down with them.

While some Israelis point to the potential harm that would have been caused to the country’s social fabric by isolating various Haredi areas, others say that resentment towards Haredim will surge because everybody’s going to be restricted now, and that this too is bad for the nation and its social fabric.

Avoiding alternative options

Just because the government said no to local measures, however, that didn’t make the national lockdown inevitable.

There are alternatives, such as letting people move about relatively freely, relaxing the restrictions on outdoor interactions (since the virus is thought not to spread much outside), and focusing rules and energy on limiting activity indoors — for example, a 10-person maximum in a single indoor space, as suggested by doctors’ union head Hagai Levine.

There are also interesting options long since suggested by experts, originally in the context of exit strategies, which could have been deployed now. One of them is the idea of dividing the nation into shifts — asking some people to stay home during the first half of the week, and others to stay home for the second.

Workers inside a building at Sheba Hospital which was converted to receive Israelis who were under quarantine on the cruise ship Diamond Princess in Japan, due to the spread of the coronavirus, February 20, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Or how about addressing the big issue of hospital capacity? After all, the big fear driving many of the restrictions is that hospitals could be overwhelmed, less because of a shortage of equipment and more due to a lack of trained staff. Manpower can be boosted by stopping elective procedures and reassigning staff, as happened during the first wave. But there is reluctance to do this on the part of hospitals, because this will cause them to lose income, which can harm their long-term functioning. There is also the option of training new recruits to carry out some of the basic work that is needed to keep coronavirus wards running smoothly.

These ideas, and others, however, were evidently non-starters. Ministers are currently proving unwilling to try unproven approaches. After they embraced the concept of trial-and-error when coming out of the first lockdown, after all, they were left contemplating their folly.

Will it work?

Doctors are divided as to whether the coming lockdown is actually the solution with the best chance of success. To some it’s obvious that a radical reduction in contact will indeed bring the best reduction in cases. Others say it may yield short term gains, but they will quickly be lost, and more lives would be saved in the long term if the population were taught to live, responsibly, with the virus.

But Netanyahu and his cabinet have apparently concluded that the time for risks is over and the oldest approach for dealing with pandemics — well-tested or hopelessly medieval depending on your perspective — is the only option.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a televised statement at his official residence in Jerusalem on September 17, 2020. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Have Israel’s politicians been scared off fresh thinking unjustifiably, because officials took their eye off the ball when opting for trial and error after the first lockdown? Are they right to assess that the time for what is deemed risk-taking is over? Are they nursing a fantasy that, in three weeks’ time, they will be able to turn around and tell a grumpy nation that they were being cruel to be kind?

Will we see citizens, sick of the sight of their own four walls and their dwindling bank balances, acknowledging that it was tough, but seeing the virus stats falling, and deciding that the holiday season under lockdown was worth it?

Like all fantasies, this one is unrealistic — unless it’s engineered.

Ministers have tried to stack the odds in their favor. They present no clear picture of how large a drop would be seen as success, or indeed what parameters they are using to measure success. In recent weeks they have propelled the number of newly-infected people per day in to the spotlight, but they could quickly change tack and emphasize the number of hospitalized patients, or critical patients, or other statistics that reflect well on their policies.

Police officers close synagogues and hand out fines to Haredi Jews in Jerusalem’s Bukharim neighborhood, following government restrictions imposed as part of the effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, April 6, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the lead-up to the lockdown decision, news broadcasts were dominated with reports that hospital officials were telling ministers that their institutions were on the verge of meltdown. But in many instances this just didn’t match what senior staff on the ground in hospitals were saying, or the stats on serious patients.

So the lockdown provides an opportunity for the government to signal that it has the courage to take strong steps, and to deploy a large degree of flexibility to define success.

But what if the figures are indisputably lousy, however they are interpreted? Or the government decides that its best hope is to extend or intensify the lockdown? If this happens, ministers have also now gained the possibility of blaming the nation, saying that people haven’t been keeping the rules properly, or telling citizens they are serving as good soldiers in the pandemic war, but that despite strong efforts, the enemy is vicious and another push is needed.

It’s telling that official notices of lockdown rules don’t feature a firm end date. The “three week lockdown” could wind up lasting much longer.

read more:
comments