My word: Don't panic - and other advice for the galaxy

In a time where fear-based announcements overcrowd our newsfeed, we might consider taking a less reactive approach and lean into finding out-of-the-box solutions during this global pandemic.

 People walk in the rain on a Jerusalem street on Wednesday.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
People walk in the rain on a Jerusalem street on Wednesday.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Someone shared a meme with me this week that has stuck in my mind. It shows the image of a woman screaming with the punchline: “The moment you realize 2022 is pronounced ‘2020 too.’” It was witty rather than funny ahead of another civil new year in the coronavirus-era, when we’re all reeling from different punches.

This week, as if old-new corona-related struggles weren’t enough, Israel was fighting a different battle. One that had a name: Carmel.

It was the first time Israeli authorities were using a name for a storm. “Why can’t they just call it ‘Winter’?” asked a friend. “Why the added drama?”

The storm is the third monikered extreme weather system in the Eastern Mediterranean Group of EUMETNET – a mouthful of a name in its own right – which comprises the meteorological services of Israel, Greece and Cyprus. Each country preselected a name in turn, according to alphabetical order. Ahead of Carmel, A and B, Athina and Ballos, were given to similar meteorological patterns by Greece and Cyprus respectively. Other proposed names for the 2021/2022 season are: Diomedes, Elpis, Filippos, Genesis, Helios, Irit, Kalypso, Lavi, Meliti, Nikias, Ora, Paris, Raphael, Semeli, Thomas, Urania, Vion, Xenios, Yasmin and Zefyros. 

Travelers wearing masks chat in the arrivals terminal after Israel said it will require anyone arriving from overseas to self-quarantine for 14 days as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus, at Ben Gurion International airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel (credit: REUTERS/RONEN ZEVULUN)Travelers wearing masks chat in the arrivals terminal after Israel said it will require anyone arriving from overseas to self-quarantine for 14 days as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus, at Ben Gurion International airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel (credit: REUTERS/RONEN ZEVULUN)

I’m all in favor of planning ahead but that list is frighteningly long. I prefer to give names to things I’m fond of – pets, family cars, an egg-timer and other objects found on my kitchen shelves. Storms and depressions – barometric or otherwise – I can do without.

The main reasoning behind naming the storm is to help make the public take it seriously and prepare accordingly. Perhaps, if they’d called it Lucifer or something similarly daunting it might have had more of an effect. There is, however, a certain poetry in naming it after the beautiful Carmel Mountain in Haifa, where the Prophet Elijah prayed to God for a miracle and God sent a downpour.

It’s not that I ignore flood and storm warnings – they are given for a reason and ignored at peril. Too many lives have been lost in floods in Israel, which typically seem like the skies are opening dramatically in one spot, washing away anything caught in the flow of the water.

I think I might have “Panic fatigue.” If it isn’t a term, it should be. If you can name hurricanes and storms and give Greek letters to corona variants, you can coin a phrase for how you feel. I’m not overloaded by anxiety, but it’s hard to cope with fear-mongering and constantly added warnings.

In this context, readers abroad should understand that Israel soldiers on during rocket attacks, waves of terrorism and even wars, but a centimeter of snow brings the country to a halt. Cloudbursts from Heaven incapacitate us. Any storm warning – and we’re not talking about hurricanes here – creates a rush of panic buyers in local supermarkets. In Jerusalem, my fellow consumers seem to have never quite conquered a siege mentality starting with the Babylonians.

Many years ago, when I was a communications student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, our lecturer in advertising strategies taught us that fear-based public service announcements and advertising are not always wise. The example he gave was smokers who see announcements linking smoking with cancer and light up another cigarette as a way of coping with the stress.

I’ve unfortunately forgotten the name of the lecturer, but his lesson lives on and came back to me in full force this week when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held yet another prime-time press conference (à la Bibi) to warn that the fifth wave of corona is already upon us. 

This was swiftly followed by a call to continue to vaccinate children from ages five and up and for over-60s and those with added health risks to get a fourth shot (to boost the booster.) Any more of this and we’re going to have to start naming the different rounds of shots to keep track.

Again, the problem isn’t that I don’t take the matter seriously, but message overkill is a killer. Fear can be paralyzing. Those frozen with fright are sandwiched between the two parts of the Fight or Flight Syndrome. Anyone in Israel who hasn’t been persuaded so far to get the readily available vaccinations is unlikely to do it now just because the prime minister recommended it again. 

PANIC IS not a strategy. And the prime minister needs to realize that frequently convening press conferences to address the nation primetime smacks more of panic than leadership. It doesn’t calm anyone’s fears. On the contrary. And it doesn’t necessarily spur the public into action, particularly if the required action is nothing more than they are already doing.

As The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon put it this week in a front-page analysis titled “Needed: Gov’t decisions, not recommendations”: “Bennett’s role in this crisis is to lead the nation through it, not parcel out advice. If he, as head of the government, believes that the time has come to keep people from going to the workplace to stem the infection rate, then come to the public with a government decision mandating just that. And then make sure those decisions are implemented.

“Israelis are not going to follow the prime minister’s advice simply because he recommended or asked them nicely to do so. That’s not how this nation operates.”

Keinon, like many other observers, also noted that the prime minister’s credibility was seriously dented when it became known earlier this month that Bennett’s own wife and children had gone on a foreign vacation just days after he told the public, “I don’t recommend flying abroad right now with such a level of uncertainty.” 

There was also the much vaunted meeting between Bennett and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, which took place in the Emirates last week. Could that really not have waited? And much as I appreciate the positive aspect of holding the Miss Universe competition in Eilat, it was jarring that it took place at a time when virtually all other visitors were barred from the country. 

There is also a problem with the constant zigzagging regarding public policy, such as the swiftly reversed decision that people entering malls would be divided according to whether or not they have a Green Pass and need an essential or non-essential service there. The rule would have been unenforceable, impractical and illogical. Once inside, wouldn’t they all be breathing the same air no matter what the purpose of their visit?

It would be better to increase enforcement of the mask mandate in malls, public transport and elsewhere. 

In a pandemic of global proportions, I can’t help but recall the top tip Douglas Adams shared with readers of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t panic.” 

The other necessity? A towel.

As hardcore Hitchhiker’s fans know, a towel “is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth... ; you can lie on it... ; you can sleep under it beneath the stars... ; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes... ; you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”

Israel earned its moniker of the Start-Up Nation – a name I like – because Israelis think out of the box. As Adams put it in The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time: “Solutions nearly always come from the direction you least expect, which means there’s no point trying to look in that direction because it won’t be coming from there.” 

So here’s my advice to leaders and readers dealing with the cosmic ramifications of COVID: Don’t panic! And, of course, if you’re going out in stormy weather it doesn’t hurt to take a towel – whatever the storm is called.

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