Since the start of the second coronavirus wave in Israel, plenty of people, including politicians, have pointed fingers—more or less openly—at the Arab public for not following public-health regulations and not demonstrating a commitment to stopping the spread of the virus.
True, there is a problem in Arab society, but the finger-pointers are forgetting, or choosing to ignore, the fact that the Arab public were model citizens during the first wave. The Arab public and its political and social leaders realized very quickly how important it was, and many served as a mouthpiece for the Health Ministry when it came to upholding the rules.
In conditions of population density, poverty and faulty infrastructure, they took the lockdown seriously. Houses were made airtight and they, along with the rest of the citizens of Israel, threw themselves into the national effort to reduce the spread of the virus and the number of cases. There is no need to mention the Arab Israelis who fought on the front lines, along with Jews, as doctors and other medical staff.
What changed between the first and second waves? How did we make the jump from discipline and adherence to the rules to a summer of huge weddings and social events?
Just like the Jewish sector, the Arab sector came out of the first lockdown with a sense of confidence—we had made it past the danger, and maybe the second wave wouldn’t be as bad. If the beaches, the bars, the protests and the synagogues are hopping, why shouldn’t we be with our extended families in the neighborhood, the community and the village?
That is no excuse, but given the crowding and the community lifestyle, it’s no wonder that the virus is spreading like wildfire.
But given the discipline that characterized the first wave, it’s a shame to see that no one has learned a lesson, especially when it comes to public outreach and improving conditions to make social distancing possible. The government ministries responsible for handling the COVID-19 crisis haven’t fully utilized the willingness of local leaders to cooperate and take part in public service messages. Announcements, information and instructions in Arabic were delayed, and the change in behavior we have seen in the past few days is mostly thanks to intensive outreach work by Arab civil-society groups, religious leaders and Arabic-language media outlets.
The failure to provide information added to the problems of infrastructure and resources that typify Arab society as socioeconomically weaker, which made it more difficult for Arab local authorities to improve their readiness. Communications and Internet service, for example, are sub-par.
Arab society isn’t proving itself isolationist as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, and the loosened discipline has nothing to do with hostility toward the country. But if the underlying problems that floated up and grew worse during the crisis aren’t addressed, Arab Israelis’ trust in the government could deteriorate even further.
The government must strengthen Arab local authorities so they are able to handle crises like this one more efficiently. Government ministries must learn to enlist Arab leaders in outreach efforts, and ministers need to increase their visits to and visibility in Arab communities. Arab local authorities need to prepare emergency plans, appoint professionals and put an end to the culture of nepotism, as well as get rid of background noise from internal politics.
Both sides now need to take an approach that is constructive rather than accusatory. Not only can we still change tactics and go back to the full cooperation that marked the first wave, but we can also turn the coronavirus crisis around.
Jalal Bana is a media adviser and journalist.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.