Coronavirus conundrums and repercussions

The airport authority, airlines and travel agencies sent home thousands of workers; naturally, this will have a trickle-down effect throughout the economy.

Empty El Al Israel Airlines check-in counters are seen at Ben Gurion International airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel February 27, 2020. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Empty El Al Israel Airlines check-in counters are seen at Ben Gurion International airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel February 27, 2020.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
This is war, but it’s not a conventional one. Israelis, sadly, know how to carry on when rockets fall or with waves of terrorism. This is different – germ warfare of the least expected kind, and no “enemy” to blame. Although the numbers of those infected so far are not huge, the psychological effects are taking a toll. Coronavirus goes against human nature – and against Israeli instincts and lifestyle. Our strength lies in carrying on as normal, coming together, being an extended community. A group hug is complicated when more than 100,000 are in home quarantine and touching is a no-no.
Israelis, who rarely realize that there are meant to be boundaries between personal and public space, are now being asked to keep a distance between one another. Kissing grandparents is out. So, for that matter, is kissing mezuzot. The custom of reaching out to touch the cases containing the Shema prayer placed on doorposts has been temporarily nixed by the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau.
There are no signs of widespread panic buying and I’m waiting to see if people will learn to keep a distance in supermarket and other lines. That certain buses have cordoned off the seats behind the driver to keep the passengers from getting too close seems unnatural.
In typical Israeli fashion, with very little advance warning, the Central Elections Committee met the needs of providing special polling stations for those meant to be in isolation as possible carriers. Putting together a functional government, however, is another matter.
Covid-19 provided inspiration for many Purim costumes this week. It’s the perfect disease for the topsy-turvy holiday. But the traditional Adloyada parades and street parties were victims of the ban on large gatherings.
The religious challenges posed by coronovirus are also considerable: Rabbis have been grappling with questions of balancing the need for a prayer quorum (10 men) and those in quarantine – particularly those who are saying the Kaddish memorial prayer for a lost loved one, for example.
In his commentary for the Torah portion Ki Tisa, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, president of Ohr Torah Stone, says: “There’s a profound message in this week’s Torah reading about how to cope with a serious threat that faces human society.
“First, recent events remind all of us that even if Chinese culture and Western culture are very different, and our societies are quite dissimilar, we recognize that we share one world and what happens in one country affects the entire world. What happens in China affects what happens in Europe and affects what happens in America; we’re all part of one society, even if we have different philosophical perspectives, traditions and values.
“Ki Tisa teaches us a very important lesson that we can learn in relation to the coronavirus: the mitzvah of the half-shekel. This mitzvah is a reminder that everybody is obligated to give a half-shekel – not a full shekel. It calls attention to the fact that we cannot do it alone; we are part of a larger group, a larger team.”
THE ECONOMIC cost of the government’s coronavirus containment policy is enough to cause even healthy people to feel faint and feverish.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on March 9 that anyone who arrives in the country must immediately enter 14 days of home quarantine, it was as if the skies had fallen. Essentially, air travel came to a halt. We’ve been collectively grounded. The results were immediate and brutal.
The airport authority, airlines and travel agencies sent home thousands of workers; tour guides, tour bus and tourist limousine drivers, restaurant staff, the staff in souvenir and gift shops were all literally or figuratively made redundant. Naturally, this will have a trickle-down effect throughout the economy.
Cultural events have been canceled or pushed off – causing huge losses to the organizers who have already paid out large sums. One of the casualties of the new policy was the annual Jerusalem Winner Marathon, which has been postponed. This has also set off a ripple effect that to some seems like a tsunami: Charities that rely on the funds from sponsoring teams are suddenly having to recalculate. The situation for many is already particularly bad this year, as the absence of a government and national budget mean that state funds are also not coming in.
It seems strange that at the beginning of the year, the words “novel coronavirus” – Covid-19 – were unknown to the vast majority of the billions of people worldwide who will now never forget them. Possibly we won’t know the full ramifications for a while. The disease is less significant than the measures being taken to deal with it. The travel industry will eventually recover, but it will be changed. The era of massive cruise ships, for example, might be over. Travel insurance will have new clauses. Work environments will be altered – be it a move to working from home to a reconsideration of the open-plan office. Business conferences and trips will drop in number to be replaced by video-conferencing or similar virtual gatherings. Medical care will increasingly focus on home care and tests.
Is the age of huge gatherings such as the Eurovision Song Contest over? Will the Olympic Games go on? Will spectators be present to support their competitors in future international contests?
Some of the changes might be beneficial: Already air pollution is dropping in China; the carbon footprints of once-frequent travelers could become carbon tiptoes; the destruction caused by huge ocean liners could be reduced. The question is how to maintain the benefits without destroying local economies.
In the “cost vs benefits” category, there are also the dilemmas posed by surveillance technology and the rights to privacy. The use of facial recognition technology and pinpointing the exact location of a specific cellphone could, on the one hand, mean that the authorities will be able to quickly identify who has been exposed to a contagious person, warn them, and stop the spread of disease. Similarly, it is easier to ensure that those who are meant to be in quarantine are indeed home alone. But who guarantees how such data is being used and who has access to it?
The Israeli health authorities have avoided naming coronavirus carriers and just given them numbers, but their personal details are becoming known to all. In close-knit communities and small neighborhoods, it’s not hard to figure out exactly which neighbor is the focus of attention.
Friends this week joked about the itineraries of corona-carrier suspects, which were widely published as warnings to those who might inadvertently have come in contact. Some of these suspects seem to be superwomen, combining in one day several hours work, shopping in more than one crowded mall, a couple of meals out, visits to relatives and friends, and a family celebration in the evening.
I marveled at their energy and wish them good health and good luck with dealing with the confining period of self-isolation. I have nothing to hide, but nonetheless I’d rather not have my prosaic comings and goings listed for general perusal: where I walked my dog and whom I stopped to talk to; what bus I took at what time; where I did my shopping, etc.
Instead of collectively wringing our hands, we are being reminded of the importance of regularly washing them. This seems like a good idea any time. During an epic pandemic it is doubly beneficial: Washing hands helps prevent the spread of the disease and helps you feel like you can do something positive – have a tiny bit of control.
But nothing is simple. A psychologist in a television interview noted an unexpected problem that she had encountered: OCD sufferers – who for years have been told there’s no need to be obsessive about hand washing – feel vindicated and they told the psychologist that she is the one with the problem. Like so much in life, it’s a question of proportion.
Still, with Purim behind us, we might as well put our collective need for sanitization to good use and start cleaning for Passover. And remember the Hebrew saying: “Avarnu et paro, na’avor gam et zeh.” We survived Pharaoh; we’ll get through this, too.
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