Israel vs. coronavirus: macro-genius, micro-idiocy

The argument over the nature of the pandemic is irrelevant by now. That ship sailed around the time that the 'Diamond Princess' docked and was locked down in Japanese waters.

 TEST TUBE with coronavirus label is seen at the end of January.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
TEST TUBE with coronavirus label is seen at the end of January.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel’s impressive initiative in the battle to contain the coronavirus pandemic is not surprising. Aside from directing scientists to develop a vaccine for the novel strain as soon as it emerged in China and began to traverse borders, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promptly adopted measures to slow its entry into and spread across country.
His efforts didn’t wane, even while campaigning for reelection, facing a looming court date for the beginning of his corruption trial and attempting to cobble together a coalition.
On the contrary, the pains he has taken to protect the public – from both illness and panic – have increased with every rise in the number of infected citizens and accompanying surge in home quarantines. Exhibiting true leadership, he has been giving press conferences to provide health directives and updates.
On Wednesday alone, for example, he addressed the nation twice on this topic. First, he announced the injection of billions of shekels in aid to the health and small-business sectors, both of which are hurting from the current state of emergency.
“Corona is greatly affecting the global economy and our economy as well, [but] we are entering this crisis in a good situation,” he said. “The Israeli economy is in a better situation than most economies in the world. Unemployment is low, growth is high and the debt-to-GDP ratio is good. However, we have a great challenge here that we all are feeling and of which we are all aware. In our view, we can also deal with it in a way that will allow us to get through it successfully in peace – not without difficulty and not without sacrifice – but ultimately in peace, and I think that we can do this together in the best way possible.”
He went on to clarify that of the NIS 10 billion ($2.8 billion) in government funds being allocated, NIS 1 billion would go to “saving lives” – to “increase the supply of drugs, to purchase medical equipment, to prepare the hospitals to receive a greater number of patients and to prepare the medical teams.”
He said the rest of the money is for businesses – such as those in the tourism industry – which will be eligible for bridge loans to keep them afloat until they cease bleeding customers.
Several hours later, he took to the airwaves again, this time to issue the latest instructions about the importance of heightened hygiene and warn against the perils of crowded venues.
“We want to limit gatherings,” he said, recommending that events with 100 or more attendees be canceled. “If there is no need for conferences, don’t hold them.”
He also stressed the danger that corona poses for senior citizens, requesting that those in low-risk groups be considerate of their elders and other vulnerable populations for whom the virus could be fatal.
OF COURSE, neither Netanyahu’s admonitions nor those of the Health Ministry would be of any use without the cooperation of the public, which has been incredibly obedient. Perhaps this stems from genuine fear, though many Israelis are hesitant to admit it, preferring to quip about sneezing into their sleeves. Still, most have been upholding the honor system when it comes to self-quarantine. That is no small feat when it means being cooped up at home – often in a separate room from the rest of the family – for two full weeks.
All of the above helps to explain why Israel hasn’t been hit as hard by the coronavirus as other countries have, at least for the time being. It also serves as a perfect illustration of Israeli excellence on the macro level.
It’s on the micro level where things in the Jewish state aren’t so hunky-dory, including where the war on coronavirus is concerned.
Take the story of “Patient #71,” for instance. The 60-something Israel Airports Authority (IAA) employee was recently diagnosed with the virus, but only after his worried wife spent days pleading with medical professionals to test him for it.
In an interview with Army Radio on Wednesday morning, she recounted taking her sick husband to the hospital, where she was told that he didn’t qualify for a coronavirus test. “Come on, take a sample,” she urged. “I don’t want him here infecting half the place.”
Told that since his IAA job didn’t involve customer service, his risk of corona infection was slim, she had no recourse but to succumb. When his chest X-ray revealed that he had pneumonia, he was admitted to the internal medicine ward. Due to overcrowding, his bed was in the hallway – exposed to doctors, patients and visitors alike.
Again, she insisted that he be tested for coronavirus, appealing to a senior emergency-room physician.
“Madam, imagine if we were to administer that test to everybody,” he responded.
“I felt like I was being made fun of,” she said. “Even though I repeatedly made it known to everyone that my husband works at the airport.”
That was on Sunday. On Monday morning, he was sent home with a prescription for antibiotics. By evening, his condition had worsened considerably, so his daughter rushed him back to the hospital.
She, too, entreated that he be tested for coronavirus. But to no avail. Again, he was admitted overnight, along with the general population.
On Tuesday morning, someone on the staff reached the conclusion that perhaps the man’s symptoms did warrant closer examination. The upshot was that he tested positive for COVID-19, as his wife had suspected he would. A greater problem was that he spent a week and a half out in public, even attending a large event. One shudders to think how many new cases will erupt as a result.
IT’S UNCLEAR whether arrogance, incompetence or a combination of the two were responsible for the pooh-poohing of a patient exhibiting sure signs of coronavirus. Nor is it possible to understand the snide dismissal of his wife’s concern, other than to chalk it up to idiocy.
After all, she – like the rest of us – has been bombarded non-stop by warnings about how dangerously contagious coronavirus is, so much so that we’ve been directed to greet one another with Namaste gestures and wash our hands for at least 20 seconds every time we happen to touch a doorknob or unwittingly graze any other surface that may be contaminated.
It could be that physicians are too busy dealing with masses of corona-hysterics to take each one seriously. Furthermore, there is a lack of consensus among health professionals about the gravity of coronavirus relative to what has come these days to be called the “regular flu,” which kills many thousands of people each year.
Some physicians have pointed out, as well, that many Israelis barely batted an eyelash mere weeks ago when the Health Ministry implored that everyone get vaccinated.
Nevertheless, the argument over the nature of the pandemic is irrelevant by now. That ship sailed around the time that the Diamond Princess docked and was locked down in Japanese waters. At this juncture, with coronavirus and its collateral damage wreaking havoc far and wide, nobody can deny that it’s a global phenomenon whose epidemiology is slightly mysterious.
What can be observed plainly, without the use of a microscope, is the apparent disconnect between the preachers and their preaching. Indeed, it’s as though only the flock is listening.
This is why it didn’t seem to occur to Foreign Minister Israel Katz and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz that their photo-op handshake at a Purim service this week was a no-no; not because their parties are in a fierce battle over the premiership, mind you, but due to the glaring fact that neither was following coronavirus-protection protocol. In another context, such an act might be viewed as hypocrisy; in this case, it was pure obliviousness. No wonder they were smiling instead of dousing themselves in Alcogel.
That brings us back to “Patient #71,” the second Israeli coronavirus victim, out of many dozens, whose origin of infection has yet to be determined. Since being diagnosed, his condition has become critical.
Shockingly, despite the incessant reportage on the exact locations visited by the dozens of Israelis afflicted with the virus before they were diagnosed – for the purpose of isolating anyone exposed – doctors failed to recognize an actual coronavirus sufferer when he was staring them right in the face. Talk about ignoring the trees for an overview of the forest!
Ironically, it is medical professionals such as these who are likely to develop a vaccine against and a cure for coronavirus. Herein lies one of Israeli society’s greatest paradoxes: genius on the macro level, idiocy on the micro. It’s high time that the latter started emulating the former. The coronavirus pandemic is a good place to start.