My Word: Politicians, bus rides and the corona marathon

A public health expert interviewed on the radio this week warned that “Coronavirus is a marathon, not a sprint.”

PEOPLE TRAVEL on a bus in Jerusalem this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PEOPLE TRAVEL on a bus in Jerusalem this week.
A public health expert interviewed on the radio this week warned that “Coronavirus is a marathon, not a sprint.” As he said it, I reflected that I’m neither a marathon runner, nor a sprinter. I don’t even run for a bus. It’s a sort of fatalism that was heightened during the wave of bus bombings that rocked Jerusalem – including my local buses – during the post-Oslo terror war and subsequent intifadas.
The health expert was one of an endless parade of interviewees, some with conflicting views and advice, who were invited to share their opinions in the wake of the new regulations drawn up to tackle the spread of the novel coronavirus as the country was hit with a dramatic rise in new cases and in the numbers of seriously ill. (Whether this is a “second wave” or just a new spike in the first wave, was among the differences of opinion voiced.)
It was extraordinarily depressing. At the end of May, promising the government was monitoring the situation as restaurants, bars, gyms, swimming pools and hotel halls reopened, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told citizens, “Enjoy yourselves!”
It’s a phrase that will no doubt haunt him in future elections – should he run again – just as Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz’s premature “Anemone Speech” in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza still hovers in his background. Early in August 2014, then-chief of staff Gantz called on residents to return to their homes in the South just before Hamas broke another ceasefire with lethal results.
The emergency measures announced this week initially included an extraordinary regulation that buses can carry up to 20 people and must keep their air conditioning off and the windows open. I felt like I’d been thrown under the proverbial vehicle. It was clear that those who decided on this ruling had not traveled on public transport for a very long time. Sitting in a metal box in the heat of a Mediterranean summer without air conditioning is more likely to give the passengers heatstroke than stop the novel coronavirus in its tracks.
Today’s buses, thankfully, are not the rattling contraptions of years gone by. Equipped with air conditioning, they have only tiny slats that open. I felt like taking the little hammer meant for breaking the glass in the event of an emergency and using it as a gavel on some ministerial tables to call them to order. Fortunately, Transportation Minister Miri Regev woke up in time and this particular edict was revoked.
But it seemed symbolic of the huge disconnect between the extraordinarily bloated government and the ordinary citizens who are bearing the brunt of their clumsy efforts to get the coronavirus crisis back under control at a time when it seems like a runaway bus whose brakes have failed.
Last Friday, Minister-without-Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi was asked on Channel 12’s Ofira and Berkovich show what he plans to do to help people in Israel who don’t have enough food. He replied: “This nonsense that ‘people have nothing to eat’ is bulls***. ... Saying, ‘There is nothing to eat’ is populism.”
The dishonorable gentleman later apologized, saying: “Unfortunately, in the heat of the debate, I expressed myself in a way that hurt public sentiment. That was not my intention and I take back what I said.”
The apology sounded empty – as empty as the bank accounts of the newly unemployed and those whose businesses have collapsed. Putting aside the wording and tone, not exactly fitting for a cabinet member even if the show is not a high-brow program, his comment itself was problematic and emblematic.
He didn’t just hurt public sentiment, he hurt public trust.
Hanegbi has enjoyed a salary as a Knesset member or minister since 1988. I’m not sure what his job of minister-without-portfolio involves, particularly when there are 34 ministers and eight deputy ministers in the national-unity government, but he probably hasn’t seen the inside of a bus – and certainly not been dependent on public transport to get to and from work – for decades. We, the taxpayers, have paid for him to have much more comfortable and convenient transport.
It’s true, there are not masses of beggars on the streets and people aren’t dying of starvation, but there are hundreds of thousands of people who have had to drastically cut back, and in the case of the poorer sectors of society, this includes cutting back on food.
 And economic stress can also kill.
Netanyahu promised an “economic corona kit,” which, he said, “will provide breathing space.” It’s a welcome move but it’s effectiveness will be seen in its implementation. The wheels of the bus go round and round, the wheels of justice and bureaucracy, on the other hand, grind exceedingly
Hanegbi’s comment and the initial bus regulation are more than socially distanced from reality. As if this weren’t enough, on Sunday, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation rejected a proposal by Likud MK Nir Barkat to enable Knesset members to forgo some or all their salaries and benefits. Barkat, who is independently wealthy following successful hi-tech ventures, was openly disappointed when he was not appointed finance minister. He has remained outside the bloated government, acting instead as a self-appointed shadow minister.
Netanyahu’s expressions of empathy would sound more genuine had he not last month requested tax refunds to the tune of NIS 1 million for his work as prime minister at his private home in Caesarea over nine years. Following public uproar, he said the request was justified but “the timing was not right, and for that I am sorry.”
But it’s not all in the timing. And simply apologizing doesn’t make things better. The economy is bleeding, people are hurting and the socioeconomic gaps are growing.
Ask the country’s social workers. Thousands of them went on strike this week to protest what they call “a collapse of social services.” Overworked and underpaid for years, this cadre of caring citizens does not have the means of coping with the extra cases caused as people lose their jobs, domestic violence increases with the lockdowns, youth at risk are losing lifesaving frameworks, and the elderly are suffering from isolation and loneliness.
It is clearly going to take a long time to get the disease under control, even if a vaccine is found in the near future. Economic recovery is going to take even longer. There will be an increasing number of people who will need to rely on buses restricted to 20 passengers.
My friend David (Ze’ev) Jablinowitz, a former political and diplomatic reporter for Israel Radio, regularly publishes his “bus stories” on social media, showing the quirky and caring side of drivers and fellow passengers. Last week he shared this poignant story. It was told to him by a driver who saw a child, no older than 10, sitting near the front of the bus, greeting each passenger with either: “Please make sure your mask stays on properly. I don’t want my Saba and Savta to get sick,” or “Thank you for wearing a mask. Because of you, my Saba and Savta hopefully won’t get sick.”
“The driver says that as the child was later getting off the bus, he commended the little boy for making the comment to each of the passengers,” Jablinowitz recounts.
The bus driver recalled that he could barely hold back his own emotions as the boy explained that when he visited his grandparents a few weeks ago, for the first time in a few months, his grandmother told him to thank anyone he sees who is wearing a mask.
“If everyone follows the rules,” his grandmother had told the boy, “your Saba and I hopefully won’t get sick and you won’t have to stop visiting us again.”
It seems fitting to give the ordinary people – the people who ride on buses and those who drive them – the last words of wisdom: Wear your masks, care about others, and keep on running even when the going is tough.