One flu over the cuckoo’s nest: 6 things to know for February 17
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Israel media review

One flu over the cuckoo’s nest: 6 things to know for February 17

Israelis have the coronavirus and more are being told to quarantine, amplifying calls for cruise strandees to be freed vs pleas for them to stay put – and a tiff between ministries

An officer stands next to the Diamond Princess cruise ship on February 16, 2020, with an Israeli flag visible through a window of the ship. (Behrouz MEHRI / AFP)
An officer stands next to the Diamond Princess cruise ship on February 16, 2020, with an Israeli flag visible through a window of the ship. (Behrouz MEHRI / AFP)

1. Bugging out: The Chinese coronavirus COVID-19 remains of top concern in the Israeli press Monday, following confirmation that three Israelis had contracted the virus on a cruise ship and Jerusalem’s decision to order returnees from a growing list of countries to self-quarantine.

  • “Just on the day the Chinese reported a light drop in new cases, it was announced that three of the Israelis stranded on the quarantine cruise off of Japan tested [positive] for the virus,” reads an exasperated-sounding Yedioth Ahronoth.
  • “Praying for their health,” reads an aw-shucks headline in Israel Hayom.
  • Haaretz goes for a more matter-of-fact approach, but snags some nice front page art with a picture, from AFP, showing a window on the ship through which can be seen a tiny Israeli flag (seen above). Perhaps it is a metaphor?

2. Going overboard? Much of the coverage appears to be centered on the issue of getting the other 12 Israelis still on the ship home, especially among the tabloid papers which have essentially become boosters for the cause.

  • Speaking to Channel 12, Health Ministry deputy head Itamar Grotto, dispatched to Japan, says the remaining Israeli passengers “are undergoing tests now. Anyone who gets a negative result will be able to leave the boat and it will be my job to ensure they arrive safely… home.”
  • According to Walla, the tests are part of a new push to get the Israelis declared virus-free and let off the boat.
  • A common theme is the idea that the passengers will be better cared for, and in less danger, in an Israeli quarantine. One passenger tells Israel Hayom that her friend and bunkmate has a fever, but they had to wait five hours before a doctor came to see them: “After asking a few questions, he just gave him some pills and told him to report if the fever goes above 39 degrees. This is dangerous and worrisome.”
  • “Take us from here, throw us in some hangar in Israel,” another passenger tells the Walla news site. “I don’t care if I’m there for a month, but why leave us here, why not update us with what’s happening?”
  • “Let us come home,” pleads a massive front page headline in Yedioth, quoting another passenger.
  • The paper reports that anger among families and passengers has only grown with the news that other countries are taking their nationals off the ship and whisking them back home.

3. You can never go home again (for two weeks): The possible ineffectiveness of the quarantine is used in arguments both for and against bringing the Diamond Dozen home.

  • “The message from the Americans reinforces our feelings along with those of our relatives on the ship, that the quarantine on the boat is irrelevant, ineffective and dangerous,” Yoni Levy, whose mother and sister are aboard the Diamond Princess, tells the Ynet news site.
  • Channel 13 news notes that in terms of moving the group, “many questions remain regarding logistics and health.”
  • In Yedioth’s op-ed page, Shirit Rosenblum writes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be making a grave mistake if he rashly flies the Israelis home for brownie points ahead of the election.
  • “Total quarantine for two weeks is not practical in Israel,” she writes. “The needed steps to keep Israel clean of the virus, and thus the needed decision to keep the passengers where they are until it’s proven that they no longer pose a threat, are not easy, but they are better than the alternative.”

4. Quarantine thyself, traveler: Israel is even going above and beyond, ordering those returning from a host of other East Asian countries, most notably Thailand, must also self-quarantine for two weeks.

  • Among those caught in the quarantine are Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who is visiting Singapore to oversee the opening of its new Jewish cemetery and is expected to return later this week, plus a whole lot of Israelis who make Thailand one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. Many are not happy.
  • “I think this is unnecessary. There’s more fuss here than there,” one passenger returning from Thailand tells Channel 12 news. “The quarantine will hurt us at work.”
  • Also unhappy, apparently, is the Foreign Ministry, which vents its displeasure by telling the media (via unnamed sources, natch) that other countries have not taken such far-reaching steps, while warning of diplomatic fallout.
  • Channel 13 notes that tour operators are in a tizzy because of the lack of coordination between the Health Ministry and Foreign Ministry, given the fact that they can’t collect refunds if the Foreign Ministry doesn’t put out a travel warning corresponding to the Health Ministry’s.
  • “There is hysteria and a lot of phone calls,” one tour operator tells the channel. “If we can cancel, we cancel. If we already paid the airline and providers abroad, we can’t be the ones that pay for the customers’ requests [to cancel].”
  • Haaretz notes that hardest hit by the decision will be El Al, the only carrier with a direct Tel Aviv-Bangkok route: “The company announced last week that it was planning to significantly reduce flights on the line, after many travellers cancelled their bookings for fear of catching the illness. But with these new restrictions in place, the financial viability of running the connection will be seriously jeopardized, especially as crew would also be slapped with a 14-day quarantine.”

5. No problemo: Israel may be the king of calling for quarantines, but Kan reports that unlike other countries that have taken strict measures in checking where passengers have been, Israel is leading the way in laxity when it comes to checking people coming in and making sure they haven’t been to the forbidden zone.

  • And Walla points out that with elections just 15 days away, many of those returning after today will have trouble voting. “According to sources in the [Health] Ministry, no directions have been drawn up.”
  • As for the self-quarantines actually working, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman lets Army Radio in on his great idea to make sure Israel stays virus free: “We decided to do surprise house checks to make sure people are doing their home quarantine.”
  • At least one person doesn’t see all of this leading to disaster. Hadassah Hospital head Zeev Rothsetin tells Kan that the virus is not expected to spread in Israel.
  • “It’s not smart to assume there will be an epidemic here. Maybe a sick person or two will show up, maybe even 10, but our system is fine-honed and the testing will be done quickly, so there’s no chance it will get to the level of epidemic. Those few who come can be easily quarantined … I don’t think we need to get into a panic.”

6. Half-baked: Likud MK Nir Barkat may be hitting the panic button, with his appointment as finance minister inviting heaps of criticism on himself and Likud.

  • Barkat doesn’t help matters when asked on Army Radio how much a loaf of bread costs. “I want to say that… no, I don’t know how much a loaf of bread costs.”
  • Even right-wing Channel 20 calls the episode a fadiha or embarrassing joke.
  • Army Radio’s Nitay Anavi points out on Twitter that the first part of the economic plan rolled out by Barkat and Netanyahu Sunday dealt with food security.
  • That plan is also not doing him a ton of favors. Kan’s Shaul Amsterdamski writes that the plan, as presented by Netanyahu and Barkat, was nothing but a series of contradictory platitudes, like promises to lower tariffs and support local growers.
  • “How are they going to lower tariffs that will increase imports into Israel — cheese, butter, meat, whatever will be — but on the other hand support Israeli growers? Unless Netanyahu and Barkat have some sort of secret invention they haven’t bothered to show us, I don’t understand how the two things can happen together.”
  • In Calcalist, Adrian Filut writes that the pair have apparently decided to back the farmers and not consumers, who will be hit in the pocketbook: “The reason is simple. The farmers are a strong pressure group.”
  • Seeing the glass half full, Kan’s Keren Neubach writes on Twitter that the plan “despite everything, is still better than nothing. There’s something encouraging in the fact that Likud has finally remembered to put out an economic plan.”
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