The Cabinet yesterday decided on an almost total closure of Ben-Gurion Airport amid the rise in coronavirus mutations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented a proposal to prohibit the entry and exit of all foreign and Israeli passengers from Ben-Gurion except for humanitarian and medical reasons.
The idea is to close the airport almost totally to non-cargo flights until the end of the month. Yesterday’s measure followed the increased restrictions put in force last week under which travelers are required to pass corona tests 72 hours before take-off.
The closure step is drastic, but understandable in the current crisis. Corona infections among tourists returning from the United Arab Emirates and Turkey remain particularly high. A report in TheMarker showed that between October 17, 2020, and January 17, there were 386,000 arrivals at Ben-Gurion Airport. Some 55,000 of them were from Turkey, including 832 reported cases of corona within seven days of arrival – about 1.5%.
In the same period, there were 38,997 arrivals from the UAE with 679 reported corona cases within a week of entrance (1.75%). Incidentally, Denmark last week announced it was suspending flights to and from Dubai for a few days amid fears concerning the pre-flight testing there, according to a Reuters report.
Sadly, we have also seen non-compliance in Israel regarding quarantine for people entering the country, many of them returning from corona hotspots. Without adequate testing both before the flight and on arrival, along with a period of isolation to ensure that passengers have not developed symptoms, there is no way to prevent the import of more cases.
While it is understandable that people wish to go on vacation and relax during these particularly tense times, there is a tendency abroad to forget that coronavirus is everywhere and that you can get infected in a foreign hotel and shopping center, too.
The lack of incoming tourism is obviously devastating to a large number of people involved in the industry including in hotels, restaurants, souvenir stores, tour guides and drivers. Their economic needs must be considered and they should be compensated.
However, in overall financial terms, Israel’s economy relies more heavily on the hi-tech sector, which is continuing to operate, and not on tourism. Unlike many other countries, the economy is not collapsing without incoming tourism – despite the obvious loss.
The airport was closed last year during Passover, with a few exceptions, and there were dramatic scenes of backpackers and vacationers being reunited with their families as borders around the globe were closed.
Some people are complaining that the airport closure is unnecessary and others say that it comes too late. Naturally, with the country in yet another round of elections, there have also been claims that Netanyahu is taking strong measures now to bring down the infection rate before Israelis go to the ballot box.
It is impossible to hermetically seal the country – but that doesn’t mean that an effort shouldn’t be made to stop the spread of the disease from abroad as much as possible. Incoming flights are still restricted in many countries and those people who do disembark are required to enter strict quarantine at their own expense.
New Zealand, which has become a model of controlling corona for example, restricted incoming travelers to residents and citizens who are required to undergo a strict 14-day quarantine and COVID test before being allowed to enter the community.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday called on citizens not to travel abroad unless absolutely necessary and warned that the country could bring in new measures that would “significantly impede your ability to return to Canada at any given moment without warning.”
This could include making it mandatory for people to quarantine in a hotel at their own expense when they arrive in Canada, Trudeau warned.
Israelis will be happy to get back to normal and see the Departure and Arrival halls at Ben-Gurion Airport full with passengers as soon as possible. The country will welcome tourists and pilgrims with open arms when the main danger of the coronavirus pandemic is over.
But until then, the “stay at home” slogan should include no unnecessary travel abroad. Desperate times call for drastic measures. Coronavirus is a life-and-death matter. There can be nothing more important than saving lives.