Patience is essential amid the coronavirus pandemic

Israel’s characteristic trait of impatience will need to be curbed to regain its corona advantage.

BETAR ILLIT residents protest Wednesday at the entrance to the city against a week-long lockdown due to the high numbers of people newly infected with the coronavirus. (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
BETAR ILLIT residents protest Wednesday at the entrance to the city against a week-long lockdown due to the high numbers of people newly infected with the coronavirus.
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
"Leadership means calling it like it is, the unvarnished truth. And this is the truth: We must change direction, now,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a week ago Thursday, letting the nation know Israel was on its way back to restricting life because of the coronavirus.
“The virus could not care less about us. When it has the opportunity, it attacks,” he said. “Therefore, we need to act like a battlefield commander. When the enemy changes position, one cannot remain with the old plan. We cannot close our eyes. The battle plan must change and adapt itself to the enemy.”
Not sure that the battlefield metaphor here is one that will give Israelis a lot of comfort, since the country has in the past had problems translating lightning battlefield victories into sustainable gains.
The Six Day War is the perfect example. Israel won the war in six days, and has spent more than the next half century trying to consolidate those gains.
We often win quickly, but then don’t know how to handle our victory. We are good at winning the initial battle; it is holding on to what we won that is something we find much more difficult.
The same can be said about our experience with COVID-19.
When the virus hit, Netanyahu and the transitional government he headed acted swiftly and wisely. They stopped flights, they closed the borders, they locked down the country for some six weeks. Passover Seders were held alone. Grandkids skipped lunch with their grandparents. People did not stray more than 100 meters from their homes.
Netanyahu, in mid-March and early-April, radiated a sense of crisis, and the country – well-versed in crisis situations – responded admirably. We do crisis well. The coronavirus curve was flattened.
That was the easy part. The tough part came later.
Israelis, for various reasons, are not a patient people. This is something that came out in the early days of the state in its military doctrine, a doctrine built on the idea of quick victories.
Quick victories on the battlefield were needed to reduce casualties, keep the international community from intervening before Israel could consolidate its victory and reduce the pressure on the economy from the extended long-term call-up of reserves. The cornerstone of this doctrine was being able to deliver the quick knockout blow. Israel does not do well in long, drawn-out wars of attrition.
Which may be a problem, since this is how the coronavirus is shaping up – a long, drawn-out war of attrition, not a war where the enemy can be felled in one swoop.
Back in May, after the lockdown days of Passover, after Remembrance Day passed without public memorial ceremonies and Independence Day without family barbecues, citizens – led by their prime minister – took a victory lap too soon. In a press conference on May 4 he said Israel’s fight against the novel virus has been “a great success story.”
This was like a football player sprinting for a touchdown and commencing his victory dance before actually crossing the goal line, dropping the ball, and watching incredulously as it is then scooped up by an opposing player who then races with it in the other direction.
The coronavirus picked up the ball Israel fumbled by exiting the lockdown too quickly, and is now galloping full speed ahead – at the rate of more than 1,300 infections a day – in the other direction.
How far now does April 18 seem, when Netanyahu – a few days after Passover – addressed the country and announced that the severe restrictions of the lockdown were to be relieved.
“I believe that just as we have succeeded in being an example to the world in safeguarding life and blocking the outbreak of the pandemic, so too will we succeed in reviving the economy and restoring it to activity,” the prime minister said. Just more than a month later he advised everyone to go out and have a cup of coffee or a mug of beer.
He was overly optimistic.
The country’s impatience to open up fast, to swiftly get back to the vibrant life it once knew, was the undoing of so many achievements. The numbers of new infections now make the numbers back in April pale by comparison.
In his last coronavirus address to the nation last week, Netanyahu said the role of leaders is to tell people the “unvarnished truth.” However, it is also to lead, not to follow. The public called for schools, restaurants, synagogues, gyms, hair salons and so much else to be opened swiftly, and they were. The leaders placated the public, and as a result, the infections rose.
So now, five months into the crisis, Israelis are staring into the possibility that all of those sacrifices of March and April were for naught, and that they will be called upon to repeat it all over again.
Psychologically that will take a toll, even if it is physically what is required.
“We are facing a prolonged challenge but our people and our state have proven so many times in the past that they are up to any challenge. The coronavirus, as of now, is not going to be resolved in one go. This is a tough battle that will take time. But I know the great forces that are latent within us. The Israeli spirit is fearless. It is strong. It is mighty,” Netanyahu said eight days ago.
The Israeli spirit is also, he should have added, impatient. And that characteristic trait will need to be curbed if Israel is to regain the advantage it had over the virus just a few short weeks ago.