Coronavirus: With airport lockdown, riots, will I see my family again?

It is a war that may never end.

People on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, during Israel's third nationwide lockdown, Sunday, January 10, 2020. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
People on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, during Israel's third nationwide lockdown, Sunday, January 10, 2020.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Over a year ago, I first wrote about the spread of a mysterious “coronavirus” in China. At the time, on January 11, there were only 41 cases reported. Today there are around 100 million cases and more than two million deaths. There is no evidence that the pandemic is slowing or will ever end. This is despite weekly articles that promise some hope, whether it is vaccines or social distancing or more lockdowns or a ban on flights.
I doubt I will see my family, who live in the United States, again. I doubt it now because Israel’s government has closed the only international airport with no end in sight. Meanwhile the same government has not enforced many of its regulations in parts of the country. The government claims it must close the airport to prevent new “variants” or mutations from entering the country.
But within the country, where variants have been found, it has allowed some ultra-Orthodox communities to return to schools and done little to enforce the regulations that are enforced for my, more secular, community. That guarantees the spread will continue in some areas of Israel even with mass vaccinations taking place.
Israel is a microcosm of the world. Some regulations here and there, lockdowns for some, but not others. Chaos. In some ways Israel is unique. The country has excelled at vaccinating the public. I took the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on December 29 and the second on January 22. Like many law-abiding people, I did what I was asked. I have worn my mask, I have social distanced.
My family has done what we were asked. Our kids have been yanked from school several times throughout the year, kept at home. We followed orders. We stayed home. We were some of the lucky ones. The privileged ones. We had to move twice in the last year, but for the most part we are privileged. Not everyone we know has been so lucky. Family members have died. Friends have been sick.
What has the government done? The haphazard approach, like more governments, particularly in the West, has been to lurch from one crisis to another. Rolling lockdowns. Swaths of businesses shuttered. Small businesses destroyed. The tourism industry bankrupt. No clear answers to travelers about if they can travel, when and how. You may find yourself abroad without health insurance. You might test positive and be blocked from flying home. You might fly back to a quarantine hotel, or quarantine at home. Regulations change every month. Chaos.
In the beginning chaos was normal because there was misinformation. We knew a lot before we were told the full truth by authorities. I left for the United States in late February 2020 for AIPAC’s annual conference. Already then people were wearing masks at the airport. Around ten percent of travelers. At the time the US authorities were still telling people not to wear masks.
March 2, 2020 CNN wrote “US surgeon general not only wants people to stop buying facemasks to prevent coronavirus, but warns that you actually might increase your risk.” CNN claimed that “coronavirus hysteria” was leading to mask shortages. You can still Google search those articles.
Those were the days when the WHO was still claiming that China had successfully controlled the outbreak. In China, the WHO had praised the mask wearing. Abroad the advice was the opposite. It’s not a conspiracy or a secret, you can go back and read the reports. Were we purposely lied to or just chaotically lied to?
What I know, I witnessed first-hand. I flew to the US and I looked for masks and all of them had been purchased. I attended AIPAC. I said to a co-worker before going that the pandemic might get worse and who knows, maybe I would not be able to return. I warned him, he was a bit elderly, that it affects older people more, he should be careful.
By the time I did return in early March we were already asked by Israel to quarantine. The WHO still had not declared a pandemic. Already dozens of countries had cases and a huge outbreak was taking place in Iran and Italy, but world bodies were not doing what they should.
So I went to my quarantine. And then we had slowly increasing lockdown. Restaurants closed. On March 31 it became much harsher. We hid in our homes, the army outside our house. By May, the schools were open again. They would be shut again in the summer. A “three week” lockdown began on September 13.
Restaurants and businesses that had reopened were plunged into the dark again. They gradually reopened a bit, only to be shut again on December 24. The third lockdown was supposed to be for the vaccines to be rolled out. We had a million vaccinated by the beginning of January and two million by late January with some 500,000 having both doses.
Israel will reach the point of having half the country vaccinated soon, with most of the population that is in the most danger, over 60, covered. Nevertheless the country closed its airport on January 25. Hospitals have stopped accepting new patients as shortages rise. Thousands of new infections are found every day, far more than in previous months.
The new “variants” from the UK or South Africa, are spreading, and the country is concerned. Airport closures must be extended, the exit from endless lockdowns will be gradual. Or maybe never.
There are no real answers or strategy. The vaccines were supposed to enable return to normal life. But no. Even with those most in danger vaccinated, there can be no return. The new variants are now the great concern. And what mysteries lie behind the future with them. More potent mutations, and then those that are resistant to the vaccines. So another year waiting for new vaccines, and then new mutations and then another year, and border closures, airport closures.
I don’t believe I will see my family again. I don’t have a large family. My mother passed away in May of 2019. I last saw my father in January 2020. My aunts, uncles, sister, cousins. It was nice to have known them.
OUR GOVERNMENTS failed us. We paid taxes. We worked. We were asked to stay home. We did so. We were told that if we asked questions it could be flagged on social media as “misleading.” If we just post old headlines from CNN or the WHO, our accounts can be closed because we have spread “misleading” information. Masks, which we were told not to buy because of “hysteria” we should of course now wear. That’s all fine. It’s public health.
In the movies when there are pandemics there is a whole-of-government response. Labs in the US and Europe all work together and share information and government authorities work together on strategy. But in our real-life movie that doesn’t happen. Instead what happens is some communities in Israel were allowed to re-open schools and sign secret deals with authorities so that no rules were enforced.
I remember in the beginning of the pandemic when Jerusalem was totally locked down I drove to a nearby area. We passed a shwarma place and saw activity. It appeared open. We went to the door and a man told us to wait down the street, to call and place an order. So we waited and a man brought us food in a brown bag. It was clandestine. Secretive. Later I saw shops quietly open elsewhere. I heard stories of secret establishments that are open. Numbers to call. A shadow economy. In the shadows life goes on. People resist.
And in some areas they rebelled openly. They burn buses. They attack the light rail. They go to synagogue. They go secretly. They go openly. The government accepts that ten or twenty percent of society will not obey guidelines. But the government knows that when it runs the numbers, its goal is not zero new infections. This isn’t New Zealand. The goal is to get the number down to a certain number.
So you accept that some people will disobey, because you want the majority to obey. You break the law-abiding people and crush them and their economy and their small businesses and their lives. You lock them in a prison, in their home or generally via the airport. They want to visit family? That is not important. For the greater good they will obey. After all, this is war.
It is a war that may never end. We might not travel again. We will not open restaurants. There will be new variants every six months, new stories about “the next wave will be worse, you need to obey the guidelines.” And we will obey. For a while. Will the variants arrive that kill the middle aged and the younger?
In the city it began, in Wuhan in China, people go about normal life. They gather. They have parties in Wuhan. And at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where they were studying coronaviruses for many years, we have not heard how to stop the spread. That may be the most fascinating unanswered question of all. Experts were studying these viruses prior to the outbreak. They knew there was a threat.
Nevertheless, after a year, the world is in chaos, with every country pursuing its own policies. Some countries ban travel, others allow people to arrive with a negative test, some close schools, some open them. There is no collaborative project to identify mutations quickly and rapidly test them against existing vaccines, and there is no trillion-dollar budget set aside to develop methods to make life easier, to fight the spread.
In Israel we were told that the vaccines would enable some normal life to return. But we hear nothing about the plan for that. Instead, the spread appears to remain the same, hospitalizations rise, deaths increase, and the airport is now closed. The government continues to not enforce rules in some areas, which guarantees the numbers will percolate in those areas.
The government doesn’t bother to reward communities that observe guidelines and where the spread is low and enable them to open businesses. Instead the whole are collectively punished by the same government that doesn’t enforce guidelines on some, punishing all those who obeyed and rewarding those who did not. And this will continue forever.