Back in April and May, Israel halted what appeared to be the rapid trajectory of the coronavirus. A severe lockdown during the Passover holiday pushed the number of new cases per day, down from approximately 700 a few weeks earlier to less than two-dozen daily cases. At the time, many Israelis believed and hoped that the Jewish state’s bout with COVID-19 was coming to a rapid conclusion.
Yet within weeks after reopening, the numbers of new cases started mounting, and within two months, new cases spiked to more than 1,000 per day and didn’t stop there.
Now, with the numbers of new cases reaching 4,000 per day, Israel’s cabinet has voted in favor of a second lockdown beginning on Friday afternoon, just before the start of the Rosh Hashanah Jewish New Year.
In a dramatic press conference, just moments before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left to fly to Washington for the signing of normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, he announced that the public sector would be shuttered for at least three weeks.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, from Netanyahu’s Likud Party stated at the press conference, “For three months, I tried to avoid a lockdown. I did everything so that we could live alongside the coronavirus, with rules here and there,” adding that “under the circumstances that were created, we had no choice.”
This closure is much more contentious than the first. The number of serious cases and fatalities—now totaling more than 1,100—remains relatively low compared to other countries, despite high positive test numbers. The overwhelming majority of coronavirus cases in Israel are asymptomatic. And while the government has begun to lay out the rules of the lockdown, quantitative goals and targets for opening the country have not been given.
On Monday, the morning after the press conference, Chezy Levy, current director-general of the Health Ministry said that “we would like to get to 500 cases a day, but it is clear that this won’t happen now. If we see a decrease to 1,000 patients, proper behavior, lower morbidity, and simultaneously we stabilize the hospital system, that would be a positive signal to consider coming out of the lockdown.” Yet, it is extremely unlikely that such goals can be reached within a three-week timeframe.
Most Israelis have accepted the risks of contracting the virus and have been living a relatively normal life. Many continuously refuse to wear masks properly despite government mandates, and virtually none are adhering to recommendations to employ social distancing. It’s not in the DNA of Israelis, who have long been trained to crowd together in a rather small country.
Now, with case numbers skyrocketing, some doctors and hospital administrators have raised a red flag, stating that the medical system risks collapse unless the numbers of patients are dramatically reduced. Yet, this is by no means a consensus opinion. Many of their colleagues, including the heads of coronavirus wards at leading hospitals, have stated emphatically that the medical system is not on the verge of a breakdown, and that a new lockdown will do little to curtail the pandemic in the long term.
The dramatic increase in positive cases is directly linked to a dramatic increase in testing, while the percentage of positive cases remains steady at approximately 9 percent. Less than a month ago, Israel was performing less than 20,000 daily tests and had approximately 1,800 new cases. Today, Israel is performing 45,000 tests per day, and positive case numbers have increased accordingly.
Meanwhile, the percentages of severe infections and fatalities have steadily dropped comparatively.
Some leading doctors have contended that the total case numbers, now more than 150,000 since the beginning of the pandemic (active cases are under 40,000) may actually be nine to 10 times higher than reported following serological antibody testing. They argue that Israel is likely approaching the apex of the curve and not far from the beginnings of herd immunity.
Furthermore, the Finance Ministry estimates that a lockdown will cost the economy billions.
And regardless of what Israelis think about the dangers of the coronavirus versus the dangers of a lockdown, just about the only thing that Israelis seem to agree upon is that the government is mismanaging the crisis.
A unity government, created after three successive elections in 12 months failed to establish either a clear right-wing or left-wing coalition, is about as dysfunctional as any coalition in recent memory. Ministers and Knesset members argue over seemingly every political issue—fortunately, with the critical exception of security. Yet upon the top of the list of disagreement includes how to intervene—or not intervene—in the path of a still-yet-to-be-understood coronavirus.
In recent months, policymakers have consistently zig-zagged and overruled each other on virus restrictions.
Gabi Barbash, a former director-general of the Health Ministry, was momentarily appointed the head of Israel’s pandemic response months after the initial outbreak, only to be whisked out of the position even before officially starting when it became clear that his strategy was to lockdown the population.
In his stead, Ronni Gamzu, another former director-general of the Health Ministry, was appointed. In a nationally televised address at the time, Gamzu insisted that he did not favor a public lockdown, and that the virus could be contained by increasing testing and “cutting the chain of infection,” or quarantining those who came into contact with a carrier.
He also insisted that the way to restore the trust of the public was to issue clear orders that could be explained logically and to stick with them. At the time, Israelis were hopeful that management of the crisis would stabilize. Those hopes soon turned to wishful thinking.
More tests have led to more confirmed cases of the virus with most carriers reporting no symptoms and most others only light ones. Through government-mandated contact tracing, nearly 1 million Israelis have been forced into 14-day quarantines over the past two-and-a-half months. The quarantines have had little impact. Since July, case numbers have quadrupled.
Just two weeks ago, Israel reopened schools following a summer in which camp activities were banned for children, placing a tremendous burden on parents. Countless hours of preparations and debates went into how to isolate children into capsules that would meet in school half a week, while alternatingly engaging in remote learning.
The opening was an abject failure. Predictably, mass numbers of students were almost immediately sent into quarantine—many younger students along with their parents. A number of schools, including those in recently declared “red zones,” were already forced into closure until after the holidays.
Now Israel’s cabinet has decided to employ a three-phase lockdown plan, starting with the extended Jewish holiday season, despite a lack of consensus among both doctors and politicians. Meanwhile, the general public, which has been exposed to the dangers of COVID-19 for long enough to develop valid opinions one way or another, have indicated repeatedly in polls that they overwhelmingly reject new lockdowns.
Business owners, many who are longtime Netanyahu supporters, are worried that they may not survive another lockdown. Many are vowing not to adhere to the closure. Traditional Jews who typically spend extended hours in synagogues during the holidays will be forced to pray at home due to restrictions on quorum sizes. Limits on prayers are particularly angering Israel’s religious public, whom Netanyahu also traditionally relies on for political support.
Even with a lockdown looming, from the outside looking in, Israel still has much to be grateful for. Many countries have been hit much worse in terms of fatalities, as well as damage to their economies. But most Israelis don’t feel so grateful.
At this moment, Israelis should otherwise be celebrating normalization deals with once-enemy Sunni Arab nations—the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—and preparing for joyous holiday festivities. Yet instead, they are increasingly anxious about a virus that refuses to go away, a new lockdown, the ability of their government to stabilize domestic matters, and the overall mental and emotional stability of a country on a political and medical roller-coaster.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.