Recently the European Union announced that it would reopen its borders to visitors from some other countries. Israel was not on the list (neither was the US). Many Israelis reacted indignantly, but objectively our Coronavirus situation is not good.
On June 30, Israel marked the highest number of new cases of Coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic, with 803 reported. After suceeding to extinguish the first wave with an economy-crushing lockdown, the re-opening was marred by some strategic mistakes, for which we are beginning to pay the price. Here is a graph of new cases per day:
Although there has been a recent increase in the daily number of tests done, a Health Ministry employee said on 16 June that “the proportion of positive tests was higher than before,” and therefore the increase in reported new cases was indicative of a new wave of infection.
I don’t pretend to be an expert, but some of the reasons were obvious. In the educational system: it was necessary to reopen the schools, because Israelis have a lot of children, and it’s very difficult to get people back to work when there’s no solution for child care. The usual safety valve for parents, retired grandparents, was not available due to the danger to them from the disease. The first mistake was to open all grades almost at once. It would have been possible to open the lower grades first, which would have freed the parents to work, while reducing the risk. What followed was a sharp spike in the 10-19 year age group and a smaller one in the 0-9 group at the start of the second wave in early June.
The Education Ministry devised a plan that would separate students and teachers in the schools into “capsules” which would be isolated from one another, students would sit 2 meters apart, masks would be required for students and teachers, and so on. The second mistake was not following the plan. I am not sure if it proved unworkable, or if teachers and administrators didn’t take it seriously enough, as some said. But in many schools, compliance was lax. Schools in which cases of Corona occurred were closed, but the damage was done.
Coronavirus transmission is believed to be primarily by droplets released when an infected person sneezes, coughs, talks, or sings. These droplets may remain in the air for a few minutes. It is also thought that the more viral particles a person ingests, the more likely they are to become sick, although it is not clear if this affects the severity of the illness. Transmission outdoors where droplets may be blown away or dehydrated by breezes and diluted in a larger volume of air, is much less likely than in a confined indoor space. Masks may not be fine enough to prevent viral particles from passing through, but they do greatly impede the much larger droplets; they are useful both when worn by the person who is infected and by others nearby. There is also the possibility of droplets impinging on a person’s eyes, so a face shield is useful in addition to a mask.
Israelis love “life cycle events” like circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and so forth. Big weddings are the rule, often held in large event halls. There are even websites that help you decide how much money to give according to the type of event, your relationship to the principals, and so on. These events are often held indoors, and the Health Ministry allowed event halls to reopen when the first wave subsided. There are guidelines on the number of people allowed at an event, but they were liberal. Religious services, which were initially sharply restricted, were reopened with more relaxed guidelines. These actions may have been premature, and some restrictions have been re-imposed.
What everyone wants to do is to find ways to protect the population without destroying the economy. The best way to do that (at least, until a vaccine or effective treatment is developed) is to identify each and every sick person and isolate them before they can infect others. This requires a) the ability to do enough tests, b) a rapid turnaround of test results so that it is possible to identify someone as a carrier of the disease before they can infect others, and c) trained people to investigate the sources of infection so that those exposed can be tested.
While the number of tests has been increasing, the turnaround time has been poor. In the early part of the second wave, when many cases were detected in schools, the labs were unable to keep up with the tests. As far as investigations are concerned the Health Ministry reports a serious shortage of personnel trained to do this; and it has been accused of poor management as well. They have just hired several hundred medical students and paramedics for this function; it’s mysterious why this took so long.
The public, which was relatively disciplined during the first wave, seems to have decided that “the Corona is over,” and that masks are best worn around the chin, to be moved up when a police officer, who might give them a ticket worth 500 Shekels ($146), is nearby. The latest news is that specific cities and neighborhoods will be placed on lockdown in order to try to break the chain of infection.
PM Netanyahu got good marks for his handling of the crisis during the first wave, when he made good decisions such as closing the country’s borders quickly. The removal of restrictions, however, has not been handled so well. Employment has not snapped back – unemployment stands at near 21% – and the epidemic has moved into a second wave, which could be as bad or worse than the first one. Some industries, like tourism and performing arts, have been devastated and little has been done to help them. Of course, everything isn’t his responsibility, but he is known for micromanaging what he believes are areas of importance, and many Israelis feel that he doesn’t believe that they are of importance.
It isn’t helping that after the scandal of the obscenely bloated unity government of 36 ministers and 9 deputy ministers, and after the unity negotiations produced unprecedented perks for the Prime Minister and his alternate, Bibi got the Knesset to pass legislation to exempt him from taxes on work done on his private residence by the government. He did not improve his image when he remarked that although he deserved the tax break, his “timing was wrong.” No kidding.
Israel’s approach to the Corona has been very – Israeli. First, we tried to overcome it by brute force. Then we became overconfident. And now, hopefully, we’ll try to be smart.