On Friday September 25th at 2 PM, Israel entered a near total lockdown, courtesy of COVID-19. Israel is the first country in the world to impose a complete lockdown for a second time. The imperative to take action is apparent. By the end of last week Israel was averaging over 8,000 cases a day, proportionate to 264,000 cases per day in the United States. Israeli hospitals are close to capacity. The number of critical coronavirus patients grows daily, and what was initially a very low morbidity rate has been steadily rising. Today’s report by the Israeli Army Intelligence Division states that the Israel death rate per million has now exceeded the United States.
How did Israel transform from one of the most successful countries in its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic to one of the least successful? Back in May, I wrote an article titled: “Israel Flattened The Curve Early, But Reopening Will Be Its Greatest Test.” Unfortunately, Israel failed that test. Initially, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that Israel would reopen the economy and services “slowly and carefully”; that it would “wait 14 days between each step, and reopen schools with great caution.”
Alas, once Israel started to restore various sectors, it seemed impossible to hit the brakes and slow down. Caution was thrown to the wind, and schools fully resumed, as if the pandemic was over. Malls were opened. Soon, bars and hotels were back in business. At the end of May, Netanyahu even went on television and encouraged Israelis to “go out and have a beer”.
The Israeli media contributed to this illusionary “post-Corona” love fest of mass reopening by running segments on current hotel prices and best vacation deals — all of this already after the number of cases in Israel had begun to grow again.
During the first week of June, there was a significant outbreak of COVID-19 in a Jerusalem high school. The Health Ministry immediately recommended all high schools close. However, the new Minister of Education, Yoav Galant refused. The high schools stayed open, becoming a breeding ground for COVID 19.
On May 15, Israel registered its record low of 13 new cases of COVID-19. By June 1, there were 53 new cases daily, and by June 11, the number of new daily cases had already reached 191. But the Israeli government was in denial. Instead of closing some of the newly permitted activities, the government continued to permit additional leniencies and openings — including allowing weddings of up to 250 people, and other cultural events. As a result, the daily numbers stood at over 750 new infections each day at the end of June. At that point, the government did close the large wedding halls. Though, the country did allow summer camps to open, as well as the operation of large hotels accommodating hundreds of lodgers.
By the middle of July, the daily number of COVID-19 cases had reached 1,500 a day, and it was clear the situation was not being managed. The Health Ministry was being handled by an able politician, Israel’s new Minister of Health, Yuli Edelstein. Still, as a good politician, he was loath to recommend further measures that were sure to be unpopular. The Prime Minister seemed more occupied with issues surrounding his upcoming trial and less focused on the worsening health situation.
Meanwhile, the government did try to impose limited measures, like closing indoor gyms, but populist parliament members undid those measures. They kept demanding numbers the government was unable to provide, since one of the critical things required to stop a pandemic is the ability to implement quick, widespread epidemiological studies of those infected. Despite the intrusive use of the Internal Security Service’s technological capabilities, Israel, which had been fighting Corona since March, did not have an effective system to trace those who were infected, (which remains still the case now at the end of September). So the Knesset, which has undoubtedly in the Netanyahu period been merely a rubber stamp for the government, revolted and removed some of the few restrictions that the government tried to impose.
It was clear Israel needed one individual to direct the handling of the COVID crisis, but all those approached seemed unwilling to do the job without the power of a clear mandate to implement his or her plans. Finally, on July 27, Dr. Ronni Gamzu, director of Ichilov, one of Israel’s leading hospitals, took the Corona czar job, without benefit of any special powers. Gamzu was considered a moderate, believing that a new curfew was not needed.
Gamzu thought that if he could regain the nation’s trust, he could persuade the population to properly follow all the instructions regarding mask-wearing and social distancing. The good doctor formulated a plan that differentiated between cities based on their rate of Coronavirus infection; cities with a higher infection rate would require additional restrictions. Upon examination, most of the Coronavirus hotspots were either cities with primarily ultra-Orthodox residents or Arab-Israeli towns.
The ultra-Orthodox objected to their cities being labeled as “red,” as opposed to the Arab-Israeli leadership who welcomed the move, and it took three weeks for a very watered-down version of the differentiated plan to be approved. At the same time, despite warnings from experts, the government decided to open schools. The Minister of Education stated that we had nothing to fear. So, with over 2,000 daily cases, the new school year commenced on September 1, with only minor accommodations for COVID-19.
By September 9, the daily number of new infections in Israel had risen to over 3,500. By that time, the number of critically ill patients, which had stood at around 100 in June, had increased to 454; and the number of those killed by COVID-19 had risen to over 1,000. More urgently, some of the hospitals were beginning to reach the limits of patient capacity.
On September 10, the cabinet’s select Corona committee decided to impose a partial shutdown of the economy the following week. Why they chose to wait a week was unclear. Although one theory is that Netanyahu did not want to institute a curfew while he was going to be in Washington to partake in “peace ceremony” at the White House. During the last few days before the shut-down, restaurants and bars (at least those in Tel Aviv) were packed with revelers enjoying their final moments of “freedom,” while schools remained open continuing to spread the virus.
The partial lockdown began, but private employers were allowed to remain open. It was soon apparent that despite theoretically being allowed to venture 1,000 meters (0.75 mile) from your house, many people violated the stay-at-home order. The partial lockdown law specifically protected the right to demonstrate, and demonstrations continued in front of Netanyahu’s house, demanding he resign.
While it was evident when the decision on a partial shutdown of the economy was made that it would take two weeks to see any results, the numbers of diagnosed patients skyrocketed after Jewish New Year, to over 8,000 a day. Still, the demonstrations continued. Netanyahu believed more robust measures were needed — especially with the upcoming Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Many of the ultra-Orthodox leaders demanded synagogues remain open for the holiday.
Playing to Netanyahu’s favorite concerns, they tied the status of synagogues with the allowance for demonstrations, asking ow could a Jewish state allow demonstrations, but not let Jews pray in a synagogue. Ultra-Orthodox leaders conveniently ignored the fact that houses of worship have been one of the super-spreader locations for this disease, while outdoor demonstrations have, so far, proven not to be dangerous.
The Knesset’s Corona committee met last Tuesday. It was decided to leave the decision of what to do about the demonstrations and prayer on the Day of Atonement to a panel of professionals. However, when the committee reconvened on Wednesday, it was reported that Netanyahu had changed his mind and decided he wanted a complete shut down of the economy, in light of the staggering infection rates of COVID-19. According to many reports Netanyahu was primarily obsessed with stopping the demonstrations. That message came out clearly any time his confidants were interviewed — because their first words were an attack on the demonstrations.
Before, the Corona committee could reach a resolution, Netanyahu decided to turn the decision over to the whole cabinet. Thus, despite the pleas of Professor Gamzu, asserting that only a partial shut down was necessary, as well as opposition from a number of government ministers, the cabinet supported Netanyahu’s position and voted for a complete shutdown to begin less than 48 hours after the decision was made.
On Friday morning. as the lockdown was approaching, many businesses did not yet know how, or if they will be allowed to keep operating. One friend who runs a transportation startup said to me this morning after telling me last night he was being forced to close ” we think we found a loophole” he went on “this is the flip flop nation”. That is how most Israelis feel after months zig zagging by the government as the situation worsened. Currently, Israel has registered 755 critically ill patients, with 1,507 deaths.
While a full answer to how Israel went from success to failure in its fight with Corona will take time to answer, three things are clear: One, the impatient nature of Israelis made it difficult to maintain the self-discipline necessary to control the virus. Second, most of the Ultra-Orthodox community refused to accept any limitation on their religious traditions during the holiday period and as a result their community became petri dish of COVID-19 spread, and finally the government; a government created for the express purpose of fighting the Coronavirus, took its eyes off the ball and by the time it started taking action, it was too late for all who died, and will remain too late for many more.
March Schulman is a multimedia historian.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.