Coronavirus pandemic: Whither hope – or has hope withered?

Challenging times necessitate a reality check and far-reaching change.

TAKING UP torches in protest, outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on August 1.  (photo credit: YANIV NADAV/FLASH90)
TAKING UP torches in protest, outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on August 1.
(photo credit: YANIV NADAV/FLASH90)
As coronavirus patients multiply; as unemployment reaches an unprecedented 21%; as demonstrations increase; as we face the possibility of a fourth election - we ponder how we arrived at this moment virtually devoid of hope.
The past month has witnessed crises within Israel’s vital services. COVID-19 exposed the deficiency of our education, health and social welfare systems. The truth is that these crucial resources were operating in an unsatisfactory manner long before the coronavirus changed the world; the pandemic simply highlighted their gross inadequacies.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the government acted correctly in creating a lockdown for the country. A prime goal was to prevent hospitals being flooded with patients. The decision was a wise one as Israel’s medical facilities have been understaffed and overstretched for years prior to the pandemic.
As the weeks passed, hospitals became inundated with patients attended to by a staff that lacked a sufficient supply of protective clothing. Unfortunately, this resulted in many doctors and nurses contracting the decease, leading to even greater pressure on the decreasing number of available medical professionals. With the arrival of the second wave of the pandemic, hospitals are operating at full capacity.
A recent Jerusalem Post editorial pointed out the embarrassing fact that Israel has one of the lowest nursing-to-citizen ratios in the developed world. While the average is about nine nurses for every 1,000 citizens, Israel has only five per 1,000. Hardly surprising that the nurses felt compelled to strike.
WEIGHED DOWN by additional burden of having to cope with a heavy increase in victims of violence, social workers took to the streets, too. They were being crushed, emotionally and physically, long before the virus raised its ugly head.
The Magazine spoke with Elisa, a social worker supporting dysfunctional families for 29 years. Often subjected to abuse and threats by those she was endeavoring to help, hers was a part-time position with a part-time salary, yet she found herself working virtually full time simply to keep up with the workload. Over the years, Elisa requested help but none was forthcoming. Finally, following abuse from a client, she resigned, recognizing she was unable to cope with the escalating and draining demands of the job. Her story is typical of many social workers who took to the streets demanding better conditions and an increase in salary.
As with the teachers and nurses, so it is with social workers – the salaries are abysmal and the demands, at times, are insurmountable, resulting in too few wishing to join this vital profession.
Education, Health and Social Welfare services are run by the government. What are the contributing factors creating the failures? To obtain an answer, where better to start than at the Israel Democracy Institute whose mission statement says, “The institute partners with government, policy and decision makers, civil service and society, to improve the functioning of the government and its institutions, confront security threats while preserving civil liberties and foster solidarity with Israel.”
IDI president Yohanan Plesner told the Magazine he believes that a major factor of the dissatisfaction, as displayed by the striking nurses and social workers, is the lack of stability in government. Israel’s electoral system has much to answer for. Having three elections within a single year contributes to the turmoil in which we find ourselves. COVID-19 has increased attention to a system that has been failing for years, with ever-changing ministers come ever-changing programs precipitating the chaos found in major aspects of governance.
In 2015 the IDI produced a paper on political and electoral reform citing changes that Plesner believes would foster stability. Crucial to change would be replacing the fractured multi-party reality of today with a two-party system. How could this be achieved? It would require the Knesset to pass a law that the head of the party receiving the most votes automatically becomes the prime minister.
To quote from IDI’s paper, “Knowing, in advance, that the leader of the largest Knesset faction will become the prime minister should incentivize voters to vote for large parties and encourage politicians and parties to form blocs, alliances or large parties.” The electorate would be encouraged to vote for the party likely to garner the most votes, thereby resulting in a two-party system, rather than the multi-party situation that inevitably positions minority coalition partners to call the tune via threats of resignation.
At a time when there is talk of Israel going to a fourth election if the budget fails to pass at the end of this month, IDI’s proposal that failure to pass a budget is not an automatic reason to go to elections has to be seen as making good sense.
Daily demonstrations by thousands of Israelis reflect the urgent need to change an electoral process that results in governments unable to govern effectively. The increases in coronavirus victims, the escalating numbers of unemployed together with those whose businesses have been destroyed, epitomize a failed leadership. Prof. Sergio Della Pergola, Israel’s leading demographer, warned recently that high unemployment rates coupled with political discontent could drive young Israelis away.
As one who has lived here for 22 years I cannot remember a time such as this, where hope is fast disappearing. For the sake of tomorrow and for the benefit of the young, we need change and we need a “Churchill” who inspires faith in the future and a system that makes real change possible.
The writer is public relations chairwoman of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.