On May 15, with the coronavirus raging around the world, Israel reported just 13 new cases. It appeared that the start-up nation had succeeded in flattening the curve, as only a few other countries had done. That was cause for praise. Indeed, as others struggled to address the coronavirus, Israel — with its strict lockdown and sophisticated contact tracing methods — appeared to be a pioneer in the pandemic struggle and a light unto the nations.
But then things changed. On Oct. 1, Israel reported almost 9,000 new cases, a record number in a 24-hour period. And its death rate soared past that of the United States to become one of the highest in the world. Israel then became the first country to impose a second complete lockdown.
What happened? The simple answer is that Israel reopened too soon and too widely. According to some, the country’s leadership treated the coronavirus emergency like the security and military emergencies to which Israelis are so accustomed, such that once the threat was contained, life was expected to return to “normal.” According to others, the country was hamstrung by a bloated and dysfunctional government, which wasn’t able to cope with the enormity of the national challenge and spent its time arguing about regulations that changed every week. Either way, the results are alarming.
The largest concentration of illness is in Israel’s haredi and Arab communities, many of whom are either unaware of or openly flout coronavirus guidelines. Thus, for example, while Israel’s haredi community is just above 10 percent of the population, it accounts for a reported 40 percent of verified coronavirus cases.
Israel’s response has been a mixture of politics and regulation, driven by an understanding that the haredi political parties are an integral part of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, and recognition that the coalition could collapse if government regulation imposes too heavily on the haredim.
Israel’s liberal and left-wing voters are not part of the government. Their weekly demonstrations (generally masked) outside the prime minister’s residence calling for Netanyahu’s resignation seem to be the reason the Knesset passed a law on Sept. 30 banning outdoor gatherings of more than 20 people during the pandemic, with critics saying the law is meant to squelch protest.
So, what is the prognosis? Will the second lockdown succeed? According to one commentator on Ynet, the answer is uncertain. “There is no order here because everyone has lost patience. There is no discipline because everyone thinks they are smarter than the person who wrote the directives. And there definitely is no social cohesion.”
We hope Israel figures out the right answer. And we are encouraged that preliminary reports indicate that containment has improved since the new lockdown. Going forward, at least until a vaccine is available, adherence to standard coronavirus protocols continues to make the most sense. Social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands are the best protection against a pandemic spread. That’s true in Israel, and everywhere else.