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A fine line between sensible caution and outright hysteria

The Jewish communal response to the coronavirus must be guided by the principle of “pikuach nefesh”—the obligation to save lives—while not feeding paranoia or panic.

An American tourist wearing a face mask for fear of the coronavirus prays at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on Feb. 27, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
An American tourist wearing a face mask for fear of the coronavirus prays at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on Feb. 27, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It’s time to take the threat from the coronavirus seriously.

That’s as true for local Jewish communities as it is for governments. But just like some of our leaders have been slow to comprehend the peril from the spread of the disease, the same is undoubtedly true for those in charge of schools, synagogues and communal organizations. But now that more cases are being reported, there’s little doubt that overcoming resistance to canceling events and reverting to virtual services or classes where possible is rapidly becoming an imperative, rather than a choice. And the reason for doing so is rooted in faith as much as in common sense.

Few governments seem to have been entirely prepared for the spread of coronavirus, COVID-19, which has rapidly spread across the globe in the last several weeks. That’s proved a serious problem as the impulse to downplay the risk of contagion slowed the decision-making process in many places to impose quarantines and travel restrictions, as well as expediting testing and other measures that can help decelerate the spread of the virus.

Regimes such as those in China, which is believed to be where the coronavirus originated, and Iran restricted information for the same reasons authoritarian governments always do. They feared that transparency about any public-safety threat will undermine their authority; the result was, as is always the case, that a bad situation is made much worse.

Yet coronavirus is as much of a challenge to democracies as it is to nations that are not free. Blaming leaders for failing to act quickly enough is reasonable, but politicizing public health is a topic not so easily pigeonholed in our usual compartments in which we all damn those with whom we disagree on other issues. Coronavirus isn’t a hoax dreamed up by President Donald Trump’s critics in order to take him down any more than it is, as one Washington Post columnist disgracefully characterized it, as “Trump’s Chernobyl.”

The real problem is that most of us are resistant to the idea that our lives must be inconvenienced in order to reduce the risk of contagion, while at the same time we are all too ready to believe conspiracy theories and that the very worst is possible.

Far too much of our popular culture is rooted in dystopian fantasies about zombie apocalypses, diseases that can wipe out the world and evil governments that are either facilitating these terrible things or not doing enough to stop them. That’s why many of us are ready to believe such a thing can happen, while at the same time dismissing the possibility that it’s happening right now.

Listen to medical experts and you can receive a sobering lecture about how easily the illness spreads, as well as the very real scenarios in which large numbers of those who are more vulnerable to the disease—a category that includes, but is not strictly limited to, the elderly and those with pre-existing health problems—are at risk. Still, they are also saying that this it is neither the bubonic plague nor the 1919 Spanish flu pandemic.

Pop culture has conditioned us to think that sooner or later, we’ll wake up one day to learn—as was the case in the 14th century—that a disease is killing a huge percentage of humanity. It’s also true that a century ago, the flu killed many millions. But coronavirus is not the Black Death. Nor is today’s situation comparable to the post-World War I world in which huge populations of vulnerable civilians and soldiers were felled by the flu before the advent of antibiotics.

But just because the coronavirus isn’t going to kill all of us doesn’t mean that drastic measures aren’t sometimes necessary. And the need to avoid spreading panic with irresponsible talk about politicized conspiracy theories and dystopian fantasies is no excuse for thinking that, at least for the short term, we can keep on with business as usual.

Israel’s rapid implementation of tough quarantine measures were expanded on Monday shortly before the country started celebrating Purim this year (anyone entering the country must self-quarantine for 14 days, including Israeli citizens), was the right way to respond to the problem. The United States has been slow to implement similar measures but ought to be moving in that direction.

In that same spirit, while the unwillingness of many community institutions to consider canceling Purim carnivals, religious services and school classes may be rooted in a sensible desire to refuse to succumb to panic, there’s good reason to believe that it is necessary in areas where cases of coronavirus have been reported.

Programs involving international travel, such as the annual March of the Living program, which takes students to Poland to see the death camps of the Holocaust and then moves on to Israel, simply had to be postponed.

But the impulse to simply shut down life and commerce altogether should be resisted—not just because there is no rational reason to believe it is necessary, but also because spreading panic does genuine harm.

Charting a course in which sensible precautions are employed while avoiding the spread of fear goes against every instinct that our current political and entertainment culture has fostered. Yet as the toll of coronavirus grows and the disease runs its course, it is vital for us to resist the temptation to downplay or exaggerate the threat. It’s equally necessary to understand that even in a free society, citizens must sometimes sacrifice some of their freedoms for the sake of public health.

As always, it is important to look to our spiritual heritage and realize that the answer lies there. The Jewish religious principle of pikuach nefesh—the idea that the saving lives can and must mandate the overriding of almost all other rules, laws and considerations—must prevail. Neither politics nor personal convenience can be allowed to intrude on that imperative.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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