columnIsrael News

Top 10 reasons Israel has (so far) survived coronavirus

Why Israel fared better than most countries during the global pandemic, and why Israelis are likely to continue to get back to normal more quickly.

Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical team cheer an Israeli airforce acrobatic team flies over Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem on Israel's 72nd Inependence Day on April 29, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical team cheer an Israeli airforce acrobatic team flies over Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem on Israel's 72nd Inependence Day on April 29, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Alex Traiman
Alex Traiman is the CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate).

Israelis are now once again taking to the streets in large numbers. Automotive traffic has resumed full force, schools are opening, stores and gyms are reopened, and even indoor markets and malls are now opening for business. Some restrictions limiting the number of individuals within closed spaces are in place, and face masks are required by law.

That said, many Israelis are quickly ditching the masks, or wearing them around their chins or below their exposed noses, as the number of new coronavirus infections continues to decline. Prime Minister Netanyahu has announced that all coronavirus restrictions are likely to be removed by the middle of June, provided the numbers of new cases remains low.

Death tolls in Israel have been among the lowest in the world per capita and are comparatively lower than other First World nations with similar numbers of reported cases. Since the virus first hit Israel in March, 254 Israelis have died. Most of those who succumbed to the virus lived in nursing homes. Others were elderly and had pre-existing health conditions. The number of previously healthy individuals who died from corona measures at most a few dozen.

Each and every loss of life causes tremendous pain to the entire nation. Yet somewhat shockingly, a recent health ministry report revealed that 12 percent fewer Israelis died during March 2020 than March 2019. The two months of coronavirus outbreak in Israel have literally been the safest two months to live in Israel in the last several years.

These numbers represent a dramatic contrast to many of the communities around the world where Jews live in large numbers, including in Paris, London, New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Miami.

Below is a countdown presenting some reasons why Israel may have fared better than other countries during the outbreak (so far), and why Israelis are likely to continue to get back to normal over the coming weeks, while other countries deal with  the virus’s harsh aftermath.

10. Israel knows how to face existential danger

Israel is a nation that is often in crisis. Israelis are not naive about the level of safety or danger they may be in. And Israelis remain instinctively ready to mobilize when a crisis breaks out, to fight an enemy and secure the homefront. In addition to securing the nation against conventional weapons attacks, Israeli security forces and private companies have pivoted in recent years to fight off cyberattacks. A virus simply represents a new type of danger and a new playing field.

9. Israel has strong national leadership

Israel is a small country with centralized national government. From the moment coronavirus broke out, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu utilized his longstanding relationships with world leaders, conducting regular video calls with his counterparts to gain insight into the virus, who was most at risk and what steps needed to be taken.

Early on in the crisis, Netanyahu’s opponents were squealing about the hospital system’s lack of preparedness for a pandemic, claiming that a commission of inquiry would be launched as numbers of sick and dead would pile up.

Several weeks into the pandemic, Netanyahu cited a poll that ranked Israel the safest country in the world during the outbreak. While several media outlets ran hit pieces debunking the poll and questioning whether Netanyahu was connected to the poll’s publishers, the raw numbers have clearly indicated that the Jewish state has indeed been among the safest countries in the world.

Israelis who support Israel’s embattled prime minister and even many who oppose him agree that Netanyahu has handled the pandemic admirably well, and are by and large appreciative that an experienced world leader was at the helm as opposed to a rookie parliamentarian.

8. Israel has secure borders

Israel unlike many other developed nations has very few ports of entry. Borders with Syria and Lebanon are practically permanently closed. Few lightly traveled crossings exist along our longest borders with Jordan and Egypt. Most anyone entering the country enters via Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv or Ramon International Airport near Eilat. Early on in the crisis, flights were severely restricted, preventing coronavirus carriers from entering the country.

7. Israel has a top-flight medical system

In times of tragedy, Israel is known for its ability to quickly setup field hospitals, as it has in Haiti, Nepal, Syria and elsewhere. In Israel, coronavirus wards were quickly set up, including the immediate opening of a new emergency ward in the basement of Sheba Medical Center.

In coordination with Israel’s Health Ministry, the Defense Ministry quickly converted suddenly empty hotels into quarantine centers for infected patients with light symptoms, so that hospitals would not be overloaded. These quarantine centers also served to house the few numbers of arriving passengers entering the country from abroad, during a mandatory 14-day quarantine period.

6. Israel’s military is agile

Israel raced, through the procurement abilities of the Israel Defense Forces and the Mossad secret service, to quickly import test kits, ventilators, Hazmat suits, face masks, gloves, Chloroquine and other supplies deemed necessary to fight the pandemic.

Israel’s robust military industries quickly developed manufacturing capacities to produce critical infrastructure, including ventilators and oxygen tanks locally, often with vital and efficient upgrades to existing technologies.

5. Israelis know how to hunker down

Israelis have been in emergency situations before. The homefront diligently took quarantine orders seriously. Rather than needing to run into bomb shelters, put on gas masks and seal rooms against potential chemical-weapons attacks, as has been necessitated in the past, the requirements placed on Israelis during coronavirus were light by comparison and easy to adhere to.

4. Israeli industries know how to adapt

As most high-tech workers are graduates of the IDF, the same agility present in the military carries over into the private sector. They reacted quickly and efficiently, maneuvering military skills and medical innovation to fight the new battle. More than just looking to earn money, Israelis continuously demonstrate a willingness to develop solutions for whatever are the world’s most pressing problems.

Once global markets reopen, Israeli industries will be ready to make the quick pivots necessary to provide the market with new products and solutions, and to remain profitable.

3. Israelis know how to clean up the mess

Israel is a country that since its modern founding has been completely traumatized by the threat of war and ongoing terrorism. When terror strikes, Israeli emergency services quickly treat the wounded, then immediately clean up the scene. It is simply amazing how quickly Israelis get back to business even after horrific terror attacks. For Israelis, coronavirus is yet another type of attack. Once the attack is concluded, Israelis will do what it takes to clean up the mess and get back to work.

2. Israelis don’t like to be taken advantage of

The same way Israelis are willing to hunker down and mobilize to protect themselves and others in times of danger, Israelis are not willing to hunker down or mobilize when they do not believe they are in danger. As Israelis see the numbers of coronavirus cases decline and their risk of infection continually reduced, they will be more willing to get back to normal and less willing to engage in potentially unnecessary steps like mass testing, staying out of the workplace and even to some degree wearing face masks.

If Israelis feel that they are being taken advantage of, they are notoriously less willing to adhere to the rules. While this behavior pattern often presents itself as a disadvantage—particularly to those in the West, who tend to exhibit more outward discipline and courtesy for others—the Israeli pattern often has its benefits as well.

Should it become clear that the numbers of infections again start to increase, Israelis would willingly restart employing stricter measures.

1. The “miracle” factor

While Israelis are known for doing their part in times of danger, they are also known for their strong adherence to tradition and faith. In the fundamental Jewish expression of faith, Jews say: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

Ultimately, it may be impossible to know why some nations or cities fare better against coronavirus than others that seemingly took similar decisions. In its short history, the State of Israel has managed to not only survive but even thrive despite existential threats. And while Israel has not been immune from many extremely painful losses, the Jewish State has generally had the good fortune to emerge victorious, often beyond rationale, when the stakes are highest.

Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.

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