On a day when Israel announced the radical step of barring bereaved families from military cemeteries on next Tuesday’s soldiers’ Memorial Day, and outlawed celebratory gatherings on Wednesday’s Independence Day, signs multiplied nonetheless that many of the country’s leaders believe it has turned a corner in the battle against COVID-19.
Perhaps symbolizing the shift, Israelis flocked Wednesday to branches of the IKEA superstore — permitted to reopen, under the terms of eased guidelines introduced at the start of the week, as a purveyor of household goods. Footage screened on TV showed eager buyers trying, but not always succeeding, to maintain the required two-meter social distancing as they waited in large numbers to enter.
Together with scenes of large crowds at the country’s post offices, the footage prompted a furious debate at the day’s cabinet videoconference, with minister after minister rounding on the director-general of the Health Ministry, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, and accusing him of pushing Israel deeper into economic ruin when the guidelines on economic activity in general, and retail sales in particular, were now unnecessarily stringent.
The strict restrictions — and widespread complaints that government-ordered grants and loans for small business have not come through — have triggered a series of bitter protests from independent businessfolk in recent days, amid growing concerns that the government is now getting the balance wrong between fighting the virus and protecting the economy.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon — a normally self-effacing and understated politician but one who has seen unemployment in Israel spiral from 3.6 percent before the advent of the pandemic, to an unprecedented 26% and rising — slammed the restrictions as illogical and unjustified at Wednesday’s session.
While Kahlon focused on the damage being done to restaurateurs and hairdressers, a second minister called to reopen plant nurseries, and a third demanded that all stores except for shopping malls be immediately allowed to resume operations, rather than the ostensibly “vital” categories of shops allowed to reopen thus far.
Citing the IKEA footage, Education Minister Rafi Peretz asked why if the situation was safe enough for the superstore, 2.3 million Israeli schoolkids were all still being kept at home. Surely, he suggested, it was time for at least a gradual return to the classrooms. Another minister then urged the start of a return for pre-schoolers.
Such discussion would have been unthinkable in Israel just a few days ago, when the health chiefs were still warning about possible major outbreaks, especially in densely populated ultra-Orthodox areas. As recently as Saturday night, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eased some restrictions, he specified that the encouraging statistics should not yield complacency, and specified that the next reassessment of the guidelines would take place only in two weeks.
On Wednesday, however, having heard the chorus of ministerial complaints, Netanyahu decided to convene another cabinet conference for Thursday to consider easing the guidelines further. Unsourced reports predicted that restaurants will soon be allowed to restart takeaway services, that hairdressers will reopen amid restrictions, that clothes stores may also get a green light. Stallholders at Jerusalem’s shuttered iconic Mahane Yehuda fruit and vegetable market are vowing to reopen Sunday, permission or not.
The Health Ministry on Wednesday morning had announced a relatively high jump of over 400 in confirmed COVID-19 cases since Tuesday, to over 14,000 in all. But insiders said this was a misleading figure, in part reflecting a major increase in testing. Overall, Israel had registered just 189 fatalities as of Wednesday night — almost all of them among elderly people or those with previous serious medical conditions. The Worldometer global ranking placed it at about 40th in the world for deaths per capita. By comparison, Belgium, with about 11 million people compared to Israel’s 10 million, has registered over 6,200 deaths; Spain, with perhaps five times as many citizens as Israel, has marked almost 22,000 fatalities.
For a week now, the number of new cases in Israel has been outstripped by the number of recoveries. For several days now, the number of Israelis on ventilators has actually been falling overall, with the figure at 106 as of Wednesday night. Israel had been gearing up for several thousand people to require ventilators, and unnamed hospital chiefs Wednesday were said to be fuming at the Health Ministry for continuing to allocate immense resources for new COVID-19 wards, when the trends were now so apparently encouraging.
Significantly, Sweden, with a similar population size to Israel, is closing in on 2,000 deaths — underlining, for Israel’s health experts, the price the country could have paid by now had it followed the relatively lenient Swedish policy on economic lockdown. But with the economy so badly battered, and a greater confidence that COVID-19 is overwhelmingly dangerous only to the elderly and the vulnerable, Wednesday’s ministerial pressure reflected the growing belief that a corner has been turned and the worst of the danger is over, at least for the time being.
Hours after his own deputy assessed that the current wave of the virus had just about “exhausted itself,” Bar Siman-Tov appeared on television Wednesday evening to say that he hoped there would be “good news” after Thursday’s scheduled cabinet meeting.
He cited World Health Organization warnings of a possible second and third wave of contagion, and stressed that the encouraging trends could reverse “in an instant.” It would be wrong, he said, “to say that it’s all behind us.” But he also acknowledged that “there were some things that could have been done more logically” in terms of who is being allowed back to work, and promised further clarity.
The ministers’ approval of stringent limits on commemorations and celebrations for next week’s Independence and Memorial days, and on gatherings during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (similar to those imposed on Passover last week), underlined they too recognize that the virus is still potentially devastating.
But just a month ago, Netanyahu was suggesting that the virus might prove the biggest threat to humanity since the Middle Ages, and urging his rival Benny Gantz to join him in a new, emergency unity government and help him avert the deaths of “tens of thousands of Israelis.” While Gantz has now heeded that call, and indeed signed up to partner with Netanyahu, IKEA is back in business, and the current government is agitating to reopen hairdressers and nurseries.