Israelis' civil unrest in coronavirus hotels

FIRST PERSON: I’ve encountered some of the absurdities that explain the coronavirus contagion, and how it came about that I was to consume an entire 7-kilo turkey and 18 “everything bagels” alone.

POLICE PREVENT detainees quarantining at Jerusalem’s Crowne Plaza Hotel from leaving. (photo credit: Courtesy)
POLICE PREVENT detainees quarantining at Jerusalem’s Crowne Plaza Hotel from leaving.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Three times a day there’s a loud knocking on the door. I jump to my feet and, if quick enough, manage to catch sight of the back of the person who’s just delivered my rations.
That’s the only chance I have to glimpse a human in the flesh (actually, in protective gear) since being whisked out of the airport through a concealed passageway, VIP style, and transported to Jerusalem in a specially outfitted bus, the driver shielded by plexiglass from the mutations we airline passengers are suspected of having smuggled into Israel.
The other sound I hunger for is that of the anonymous voice booming sporadically over the hotel’s PA system, reminiscent of TV’s Big Brother, warning those under his watchful eye not to venture out of their rooms. It’s not a friendly voice but comforting nonetheless, offering some semblance of assurance that someone is in charge.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. My journey to Hotel Corona actually began more than six weeks ago, and along the way I’ve encountered some of the absurdities that explain the coronavirus contagion, and how it came about that I was to consume an entire 7-kilo turkey and 18 “everything bagels” all by myself.
NOVEMBER 16. Trying to get through to the Health Ministry’s COVID-19 hotline is maddening. I never get past the recording: “Due to the many inquiries regarding corona, waiting time is longer than usual.”
Usual? “‘Usual’ and ‘corona’ don’t belong in the same sentence,” I shout into the phone. “They don’t belong in the same universe. Usual is the exact opposite of corona. This pandemic’s been around for 10 months already. In all that time, you couldn’t have trained a few of the 850,000 unemployed to answer some basic questions?”
So much for the dedicated line set up specially to help people through this very unusual crisis.
What I was after was information regarding COVID-19 testing. My health fund representative – a real person! – tells me it’s free and immediate. Amazing. Until I get to the part where he asks why I want one.
“I’m traveling to the States.”
“Then we can’t help,” he tells me. “To board the plane, you’ll need an internationally recognized certificate,” and advises me that the one offered by Maccabi won’t suffice. I’m left with two choices: the airport for NIS 45 or a hospital for NIS 500.
November 19. I’ve opted for the schlep, still not understanding why the health funds can’t issue the certificate I’m told I need. Nevertheless, by the end of the day, I’m the proud bearer of an internationally recognized certificate declaring me COVID-free. But wait...
November 21. I arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport an unprecedented four hours early. It takes the better part of the first of them to get through the door. A security guard stationed on the sidewalk isn’t letting anyone through who can’t produce the proper documentation. Pandemonium. I smile smugly and take out my “diploma,” feeling sorry for those who weren’t clued in as was I.
“Not that,” she scoffs, “your declaration that you’re symptom-free.”
Unbelievable. The certificate the Health Ministry issues that is recognized internationally is not recognized locally!
Defeated, I’m referred to a malfunctioning computer that manically erases forms almost as quickly as they are completed. Forty minutes later the printer spews out mine, a checklist of yes and no questions I could easily have lied about, rendering it totally meaningless yet quizzically more authoritative than my laboratory test results.
Check-in, security and boarding go relatively smoothly. But as I settle into my seat I realize no one asked to see the document I wasn’t supposed to be allowed on the plane without. Oh well, I tell myself, at least I have it for entry to the States.
November 22. No one at JFK asks for it either! Nor am I asked a single COVID-related question as I enter America, nor warned about quarantining, despite regulations requiring three days of isolation and a negative test result on the fourth before being free to move about.
November 25. It’s the day before Thanksgiving and I pick up 18 “everything bagels” and head off to do the mandatory test near my sister’s house, two-and-a-half hours from where I’ve been isolating, to spend the holiday with my mother and a handful of family members.
But what is it that’s said about the best laid plans? Four hours later, in a clinic 15 minutes from my final destination, I’m informed that my rapid test for COVID-19 has come back positive.
Impossible. (Isn’t denial generally the first stage of dealing with news of an illness?) My sister is a doctor, and I drive to her office to provide a specimen for a slow test, just to make sure.
From there I continue to her house to wave to my mom and drop off the bagels before turning around for the long drive back to New York. Turns out that the coronavirus-infested bagels nobody wants, but, realizing I can’t go into a supermarket, they insist I take the 7-kilo turkey back with me.
November 29. Five days of anxiety come to an end. The second test I did within an hour of the first comes back negative. Again disbelief. False positives are extremely rare. I should have bought a lottery ticket. But being asymptomatic, I’m not surprised that a third test I do immediately also comes back negative.
December 24. The El Al counters at JFK are empty. There are less than 40 people on my flight. There were supposed to be 70, but once it was announced that everyone arriving from abroad would be confined to a hotel for 10 days, the cancellations started pouring in. Twelve hours later I begin to understand why.
December 25. Disembarking at Ben-Gurion was surreal. We were ushered through a number of checkpoints manned by soldiers, each requiring different information.
They were asking the questions without anyone around to answer ours. No one was the least bit interested in my request to quarantine in an empty house rather than a hotel. I submit an appeal to that effect through the Health Ministry’s website. I would submit a second appeal two days later.
December 28. I’m not a picky eater, but the food here is awful. Today’s dinner consisted of rice, corn and potatoes. Oh, yes, and a roll. As to cleanliness, suffice it to say that I mark off the days of my confinement in the heavy layer of dust that’s accumulated on the furniture in this hotel that’s been closed for months.
But you wouldn’t hear a word of complaint from me if I believed there was justification for my being here. I understand the need to quarantine; I don’t understand not being trusted to do that on my own.
Still, I don’t want to make too big a deal of my situation. I’m among the lucky ones, and I know it. The impact of this pandemic on me and my extended family has been minimal, and relative to so many others I have absolutely nothing to grumble about.
I also don’t want to come off an ingrate. The state has extended itself on my behalf, even if ill-advisedly, and the reservists who are keeping us under lock and key – called to duty at the very last moment – are as happy about being here as we are.
In any case, the frustration is building. There’s nothing worse for an Israeli than feeling like a freier (sucker), and when reports begin surfacing that only 46% of those returning from abroad actually end up in hotels, the others managing to wiggle their way home, things became explosive. The chutzpah, innovation and initiative that make us the Start-Up Nation suddenly burst forth.
In brazen defiance of the rules, a few young guys start knocking on the doors of the hotel’s 400 “guests,” urging us to join the WhatsApp group they’ve created for the purpose of mounting a protest.
From then on, they’re in charge, like commanders at the head of an elite IDF reconnaissance unit. A few hours later we’re ordered to descend to the lobby, Big Brother’s warnings notwithstanding.
We make it out the front door but are blocked by police, three patrol cars having been called in as backup, their sirens wailing. We get as far as the news, but no further.
December 29. I wake up to a WhatsApp announcement that we’ve begun a hunger strike followed by orders to bring our boxed breakfasts down to the lobby at 10 a.m., pile them high in the middle of the floor and sit in a large circle, 2 meters apart from one another.
Apparently the police have infiltrated our ranks. They’re there waiting for us, this time suited up in protective clothing ready to take action. We’re warned to return to our rooms or face fines and, if necessary, even arrest.
Our insistence that we have the right to protest is refuted. Personal stories of hardship shared by those assembled are deflected.
The ranking officer’s advice that we submit our complaints to the Health Ministry is met with an outburst of anger. I’m not the only one whose multiple petitions have been completely ignored.
But NIS 5,000 seems like a lot to pay for the satisfaction of letting off some steam, and the prospect of being thrown into a real jail is decidedly less attractive after spending just a few days in this make-believe one. We’ve made our point, we tell ourselves, and disperse.
December 30. Nothing objective has changed since the directive mandating the hotel quarantine went into effect, other than the obtuseness of the Health Ministry, but opening their eyes was all it took to have the order rescinded. The Knesset corona committee just voted the measure unnecessary. Yet another government flip-flop, this one warmly received. (The flip, that is, not the flop!)
Big Brother just announced we can leave. I welcome the news, though I did have a surefire alternative escape plan already in the works. “Saba,” my three-year-old granddaughter reassured me the other day, “I’m going to come and rescue you on my flying unicorn.” Then, following a pensive pause, “But you know I can’t kiss you.” This past year, a third of her life, has taught her the hardest lesson of all. Don’t hug the ones you love.
May this new year bring happier lessons for us all. And may the dysfunctionalities I experienced over the past several weeks be redressed in the coming months by those we chose to be responsible for our well-being.
The writer is a temporary resident of a corona quarantine hotel. He previously served as deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational Center in Jerusalem.