Ambassador to China talks about life under quarantine in Beijing

As of this week, China has reported that it is ahead of the curve, meaning that it has gotten past the mass contagion stage with no new community transmission of COVID-19.

AMBASSADOR TO China Zvi Heifetz with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
AMBASSADOR TO China Zvi Heifetz with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about trying to “flatten the curve” so that the spread of the novel coronavirus does not occur at one major peak, but happens at a lower and longer rate.
As of this week, though, China has reported that it is ahead of the curve, meaning that it has gotten past the mass contagion stage with no new community transmission of COVID-19.
Watching the developments from their outset has been Ambassador to China Zvi Heifetz.
Though some have expressed concern about a lack of transparency from the Chinese government and propaganda messages about the virus’s origin, leading many to distrust the claims of zero new local coronavirus infections, Heifetz is confident that the saga is near its end in that part of the world.
Heifetz posited that, “in today’s global world, with all the social media and smartphones,” it would be impossible to hide it if the coronavirus was still spreading in China.
“They realize they need to be transparent. They’re cooperating with the world,” he said.
“I have no reason not to believe them – because we were there, and we see life is coming back [to normal] in China,” Heifetz said this week.
“It’s not a total return to routine yet," the ambassador said. "When I look at the streets, it’s not the Beijing I know; no schools and universities, not all the restaurants are open, and people are sitting far from each other. But the decisiveness of the government was great, and they finished with this ordeal in two months. People are still concerned and stay home when they can.”
The Chinese government “wouldn’t take another chance. They’re very careful with opening Wuhan,” he added.
“Now Chinese people are afraid of catching the coronavirus from the world; it’s come full circle,” he said.
Heifetz has been working on bringing supplies to Israel from China, and to that end met with Alibaba founder and billionaire Jack Ma, whom he called a friend of Israel. Ma donated tens of thousands of masks, coronavirus tests and items of protective clothing to Israel.
Heifetz also said he thinks it’s “unfair” for the world to make demands on China – for example, by demanding more hygienic conditions in the “wet” wildlife markets that were the source of the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak and that were, many epidemiologists say, are the source of the current outbreak.
“There have been outbreaks of diseases in Europe and Africa and other places in the world. To hold China to account because it happened by them and not somewhere else is so unfair, because I think the war they waged against this disease is not just their personal war,” Heifetz argued.
“If China hadn’t stopped [the novel coronavirus], the situation in the world would be even worse. They were on the front lines. They aren’t just fighting for China; they wanted to reduce the spread,” he added. “To blame China’s markets is not serious.”
HEIFETZ IMMIGRATED to Israel from the Soviet Union as a teenager. He is a veteran diplomat, whose career in the foreign service began when he was one of the Israelis posted to the Embassy of the Netherlands in Moscow as Israel began reestablishing ties with the Soviet Union in 1989.
After that, he turned to the private sector and was, for a time, the deputy chairman of Maariv, before it became The Jerusalem Post’s sister publication.
Heifetz returned to the diplomatic world in 2004, when then-prime minister Ariel Sharon appointed him ambassador to the United Kingdom. Nearly a decade later, he was sent to Austria and then Russia. He was posted to China in 2017.
The coronavirus pandemic is a new challenge for the entire world, and for diplomats as well.
Heifetz recounted learning of the “mysterious illness” in January.
“No one expected an event this big in China or in the world,” he said. “Around the time of the Chinese New Year, the end of January, it reached world awareness, because that’s when the larger numbers were reported. At that point, the Chinese were transparent and helped us understand what was happening.”
Israel was the first country that evacuated families from its embassy and four consulates in China, because “we already realized the event was significant, even though not everyone in the world understood,” he said.
Both in China and in the West, “people raised an eyebrow at China closing borders, ordering quarantines, making arrests, fighting fake news – now we see it’s happening in the whole world, not just Israel,” Heifetz pointed out.
Israeli diplomats prepared to remain in place to maintain bilateral relations and help Israelis in China. The Israeli Embassy in Beijing also began stocking up on necessary supplies out of “a sense of total emergency,” though that turned out not to be necessary.
“We helped many Israelis who needed it, and we helped Chinese people. Everyone was looking for supplies. It was great to see such brotherhood between people,” he said.
As for Heifetz himself, he has been in quarantine three times, with his travels back and forth from Beijing to Israel.
“It was confusing returning to China from Israel, thinking about how to protect myself there, and then it turned out I was on the plane with Koreans [infected with coronavirus] and had to go into quarantine,” he said.
Heifetz’s residence is in the same compound as the Israeli Embassy, such that he said going into isolation was not such a dramatic shift for him.
THE AMBASSADOR said the Israel-China relationship has not been damaged at all by recent events, including Israel being the first country to stop flights from China.
“Today, the whole world is dealing with coronavirus, morning noon and night. Over time, everyone canceled the flights. It didn’t become a real issue,” he said.
China is Israel’s third-largest trading partner, and accounts for 10% to 15% of Israel’s economy, and the ambassador said he does not see that changing.
Heifetz expressed hope that “this pandemic will pass as quickly as possible and things will go back to normal, that the economy will be strong again and China will go back to what it was: the second-strongest economy in the world.”
“The whole world will continue to cooperate with them, as will we. When life goes back to normal, trade will go back to what it was.”
Ambassadors tell their stories
The Magazine asked Israeli ambassadors around the world to tell us how their work and their lives have changed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The remarks have been condensed for space and clarity.
Accra: Ambassador to Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone
Shani Cooper
Africa and Ghana are behind the rest of the world in catching the virus, but Ghana decided to take drastic immediate steps. Ghana is an African country with relatively good infrastructure. The biggest concern here is that the health system will fall apart. Ghana is trying hard to make sure it doesn’t happen, but we have to be prepared. We hope it doesn’t happen and that a vaccine will be found before that, but it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be an outbreak – unless the virus doesn’t survive the heat.
What’s different with coronavirus in Africa is that, as opposed to other diseases in the region, like Ebola, the biggest risk category aren’t the poor people in isolated villages. It’s the expats, the people who travel abroad, the wealthier people.
My husband and daughters here are isolating themselves as much as possible. I’m working in the embassy with my deputy, security chief and two other Israeli workers preparing for the possibility of a crisis. We are buying benzine and a water heater and dry food.
As an ambassador, morally, I cannot see myself leaving Israelis behind. We are a community and know one another. Our children study together in the international school. I’m happy that I helped about 40 people leave. The community is about 200 people; they have businesses here. In most families, the breadwinner stayed and the rest went back to Israel. I’m here until the end. It was a debate whether to keep my family here. We decide day by day. It’s a great responsibility. We’re trying to help however we can, but we also feel uncertainty.
It’s like a countdown. We’re waiting, and we don’t know what disaster will strike when the count hits zero.
Santiago: Ambassador to Chile
Marina Rosenberg
Just a week or two ago, we were busy with completely different things in Chile. There was the social unrest starting in October, along with violent riots. They started up again in March with huge demonstrations and violent events. The coronavirus outbreak calmed the violence somewhat, but there are still sporadic violent events throughout the country.
We already experienced school closures because of the riots. Families are worried about the uncertainty. We haven’t evacuated diplomats’ families because that would be separating the diplomats from the families, and most of us have young children. We were able to get masks and hand sanitizer through diplomatic mail, and because we have the experience of unrest, we stocked up on the supplies we need.
In Santiago, security forces are patrolling the streets and asking for ID to see if people are violating quarantine. Schools have been closed, all sporting events were canceled, malls shut and more. The daily increase of infected people is one of the largest in Latin America. The big challenge is that there are not enough kits to test. We know people who called emergency services and reported symptoms, but because they were not in a high-risk category, they were told to just stay home and call back if it gets worse. We think the reported number of cases is not accurate.
In the embassy, we’re doing our regular work, but divided into shifts. I’m continuing public diplomacy full force. On social media, I have been promoting Israeli culture by recommending movies, tv shows, books and recipes for people at home. I also recommended virtual visits to Israeli museums.
We’re also fighting antisemitism. There is a big Palestinian community in Chile, in which there is a minority of anti-Israel activists and antisemitic activity, like conspiracy theories about Jews and the virus.
We are in daily contact with the Jewish community of about 15,000 people. They want to know that despite our borders being closed, Israel still cares about Jews abroad. They offered their help, and if there are Israeli tourists who are infected, they can stay in the Jewish community center.”
Berlin: Ambassador to Germany
Jeremy Issacharoff
“The Embassy in Germany is probably the largest, most important on the European continent in terms of our relations with Europe. There is a wide span of things we are dealing with on a regular basis, like the bilateral relationship, defense relationship, counterterrorism, cybersecurity. The embassy is always a busy place and there is a very vibrant relationship between Israel and Germany.
Before the coronavirus crisis, we had major things on the agenda, like Iran, Syria, refugees and defense cooperation, which has increased significantly. Then, you come to the coronavirus crisis and first and foremost we had to monitor how the virus was impacting Germany and feed the information back to Israel. Both countries are looking inward to see what the implications are for us. We’re also seeking German help in terms of certain materials that can be helpful in combating the virus.
One of the lesser-known stories of the relationship is that there has been an incredible intensification of cooperation between senior scientific research institutions in the last few years, including two centers at Hebrew University and one at the Technion. I’m sure they’ll continue to work to the extent they can to fight the virus.
We tried to secure the embassy and take every step possible so no diplomatic families would be impacted by the virus. One of the frustrating things was that with all the steps we took, it still was not enough to prevent myself and my deputy from being infected. On March 13, the authorities told me I’d been in touch with a member of the German parliament who had been diagnosed with coronavirus, so I immediately put myself into isolation. Now I’ve got it. I had a bit of a temperature; now I don’t. I don’t have any major symptoms and I’m hoping for the best.” – L.H.