At the beginning of March, Israeli authorities were weighing how to respond to a new virus which was already raging in several parts of the world, including some major Asian and European nations.
Some 15 COVID-19 patients had been identified in the country, mostly people who had just flown back from abroad. The upcoming festival of Purim, which was coming up on March 9 and 10, was raising some concerns among health officials as a possible cause of infections.
On March 4, the government acted, publishing a set of regulations. They included a ban on gatherings of over 5,000 people; a prohibition on holding international conferences in Israel; another one for healthcare workers not to travel abroad; and a requirement for individuals who had traveled to certain countries in the previous 14 days to enter home isolation, while those who had returned from any other country had to avoid attending events with over 100 guests.
In addition, the Health Ministry recommended that people over 60 avoid gatherings and for everyone to avoid shaking hands.
Now that Purim is approaching again, those first guidelines appear to belong to another era, when the word mask was mostly mentioned as part of costumes. In retrospect, however, they marked the moment the virus dramatically erupted in Israeli public life.
While many cities decided to cancel their traditional Purim parades, synagogues were still fully functioning, festive meals and parties were allowed with no limits and schools were open.
“It’s the saddest Purim in Jerusalem ever,” Jerusalem resident Yinon told The Jerusalem Post on the usually festive day last year. Little did he know that a month later, Israel would experience the first Passover in its history under a full lockdown.
On Purim day, the total number of cases registered in Israel was still under 100 – 71 to be precise – and of those infected, only six were considered in serious conditions.
For each individual, the Health Ministry would release all the details about their movements in the previous days.
“Patient 44 is a woman from the center of Israel, returned from a guided tour to Tenerife on March 4,” read one such update, followed by the outbound and inbound flights, the name of the hotels, and other details of the patient’s movements.
“Patient no. 52 is a man in his 80s from Ma’aleh Adumim,” read another one. “The patient is a contact of a verified patient, no. 28. The patient’s close contacts were already located, and they are being briefed individually.”
The rest of the epidemiological investigation included the buses he had taken, the synagogue where he had prayed, and a wine store.
According to experts, while it can take two to 14 days for the virus to show symptoms after the infected person had been exposed, the disease usually starts to appear about 5-7 days later. On March 15, Israel had some 215 cases; on March 17 the number had risen to 382. Some three weeks after Purim – the window of time during which those exposed often develop severe symptoms – there were 99 patients in serious conditions.
In the meantime, the government had shut the country down, closing the entire education system and all non-essential businesses and activities.
In Israel as well as in many Jewish communities around the world, Purim 2020 was considered a super-spreader event, as it emerged that many people unaware of being positive to the virus attended megillah readings in synagogues, as well as parties and festive meals. A few weeks later, a disproportionate number of patients and deaths would ravage many communities.
Now that one full Jewish yearly cycle has passed – with its many holidays celebrated in a limited form, often far away from our loved ones – the hope is that this Purim marks the last time that, prior to planning a family event, we will have to take fear of the virus into consideration, as well as government restrictions to minimize it.