Coronavirus: Scaring the public into obedience – analysis

Taking the public's mindset into account is a major factor involved in deciding what measures to implement, and when.

Israelis stranded in India board a special El Al flight to return them to Israel amid the coronavirus outbreak. (photo credit: EL AL)
Israelis stranded in India board a special El Al flight to return them to Israel amid the coronavirus outbreak.
(photo credit: EL AL)
Along with the worrisome upward curve of Israelis getting infected by the coronavirus, there also has been another steadily rising curve that has impacted our lives: new strict measures the government is instituting in gradual steps.
First it was not sneezing on your fellow, then it was keeping a distance of one meter, then two meters, then no gatherings larger than 10,000, then 5,000, then 100, then 10, and then no gatherings at all.
The cabinet met late Tuesday evening to consider more measures to prevent Israel from hurtling toward an Italian fate, where more than 6,000 people have died, and more than 60,000 have become infected with the virus.
Irwin Mansdorf, a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs specializing in political psychology, said the professional term for this type of gradual approach to essentially clamping a lockdown on the country is the “success of approximation.”
The idea is that “if you want someone to get somewhere, they are not going to do it in one shot,”  he said. “No one is going to stop smoking in one day, but if you say that instead of 10 cigarettes a day, smoke nine, and then go down to eight and then seven, then they will do it.”
The same idea is at work here. There was a need to habituate the public to these strict decrees, Mansdorf said, since it would have been unable to abide by them had they been declared all at one time. It is unwise, he said, quoting a Talmudic dictum, to order a decree that the public will simply be unable to abide.
Tal Brosh Nissimov, coordinator of the Health Ministry team set up to fight plagues, agreed in a Kan Bet interview that this is the reason the stiff measures that the country is facing now were not instituted at the very beginning of the crisis several weeks ago.
“There is a psychology involved in dealing with this crisis,” he said. “You can’t do something like this – perhaps justifiably – before people start getting sick. You do it gradually according to the risk level.”
Taking the public’s mindset into account is a major factor involved in deciding what measures to implement, and when.
Much of the world right now is looking at South Korea, one of only two badly infected nations – along with China – that has flattened the coronavirus curve of the number of people infected.
Dozens of articles have been written about how they did it, trying to figure out what their secret is: from the quick decision to test as many people as possible and having the test kits on hand, to the invasive decision to track people using electronic surveillance, to isolating asymptomatic carriers.
But along with that, the South Koreans, according to a report Tuesday in The New York Times, also succeeded in instilling a “near wartime sense of common purpose” among the population.
And that, too, seems to be what is behind the implementation in Israel of new, dramatic steps almost every third day: to impress upon the population the seriousness of the threat so that they abide by the guidelines.
Leaks from a government meeting on Monday in which Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel was liable to become the new Italy if the regulations are not made stricter seem designed to scare the population into greater obedience.
“The battle against the corona is the most critical one to have faced Israel since the Yom Kippur War,” former Military Intelligence head Amos Yadlin wrote in Tuesday’s Yediot Aharonot. But with the sun shining, and the birds singing and the number of fatalities not yet piling up, that sense of urgency is not felt by everyone. Tighter, tougher restrictions are meant to instill that sense of urgency and emergency. Right now it is all about creating an environment where people will be obedient.
“I don’t know if I would go so far as to say the government is trying to create a crisis atmosphere,” Mansdorf said. “They are trying to get people to understand that this is serious. You have to put in greater restrictions to ensure that lesser restrictions are met.”
The countries that seem to be most effectively fighting the virus are states where discipline and obedience are an integral part of the culture.
For instance, Mansdorf said, Japan and Germany are having more success at fighting the virus than Italy. Why? “The common denominator is that they have more obedient behavior and respect for authority,” he said. “The Italians are more capricious.”
In order to ensure that – when it comes to dealing with the coronavirus – Israelis behave more obediently like the Germans and Japanese, rather than “capriciously” like the Italians, Spanish and French, creating an atmosphere that feels like a war is critical.
Israelis, like the rest of the world, might not know how to behave during a plague, but they do know how to act with discipline and self-sacrifice in a time of war.