The battle between the Israeli Health Ministry and Finance Ministry over the lifting of coronavirus-spurred lockdowns is heated. Early on in the crisis, when schools, malls and office buildings closed last month, government officials projected that life would resume some semblance of normalcy in the immediate aftermath of Passover.
It was a mid-April date on which parents pinned hopes and to which everyone looked forward. But to no avail. The kids are still home, stores remain shut and freedom of movement feels like a thing of the distant past.
To counter bouts of anxiety, loneliness and cabin fever – amid a rise in COVID-19 deaths and a drop in employment – we Israelis initially turned to humor. Hebrew memes circulating on social media poked fun at the current form of warfare, which involves not charging at the enemy with tanks and rifles, but rather binging on Netflix and junk food.
Growing fat is not the only reason that our patience has begun to wear thin, however.
ALONGSIDE A general societal willingness to adopt inconvenient habits to contain the ultra-contagious virus that strikes “grandmas and grandpas” with a vengeance, there is a gnawing sense that health authorities are going a bit too far in their doomsday scenarios.Defending their demand for increasingly stringent measures to “flatten the coronavirus curve,” these authorities often appear oblivious to the ills of a demolished economy and mass demoralization.
The perilous side effects are already evident. Indeed, in a matter of weeks, more than a quarter of the workforce suddenly found itself with no income, business owners became poverty-stricken overnight, domestic violence spiked drastically and the ERAN organization hotline for emotional first aid has been ringing off the hook.
The argument that the cure for the coronavirus crisis could end up being worse than the disease, then, has genuine merit. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows it, which is why he keeps assuring us that an “exit strategy” is underway to enable the reopening of the economy – beginning, perhaps, as early as Sunday.
We will believe it when we see it, of course, since the only movement we have seen of late has been in the opposite direction. Furthermore, the controversy over the health risk continues to rage, in spite of the fact that the rate of infection and hospitalization has decreased, or at least plateaued, depending on the number of COVID-19 tests administered or results received on a given day.
IN AN interview with Channel 12’s Yonit Levi on Wednesday, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov reiterated his consistent stance on the pandemic: it is not behind us. He even went as far as to reject the term “exit strategy,” saying we should refer to our current reality as “routine in the shadow of corona.”
“Corona is still here,” he asserted. “Corona is still contagious. We see what’s happening in other countries, and we understand that the event is not over. Thus, though we do want to resume economic activity, we will have to behave differently from the way we have been doing until now, to ensure that there isn’t another outbreak … Our recommendation, which we will present to the prime minister, is based on the principles of caution and moderation.”
He did not explain exactly what he meant by this. And though he declined to reveal his opinion about the wisdom of some shops opening next week, his opposition to it was obvious.
Former Health Ministry director-general Prof. Gabi Barbash, Channel 12’s resident medical expert, was less vague but equally somber. To justify his own reservations on the reopening of the economy, he pointed to countries that “absorbed another hit” of the virus as soon as they resumed regular activities.
It was surrounding this very issue of coronavirus management abroad that Barbash butted heads on Monday with Tel Aviv University security studies program director, and prominent mathematician, Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel. Ben-Israel, chair of the National Council for Research and Development said COVID-19 follows a “set pattern” – of peaking after about 40 days and virtually disappearing after 70 – in every afflicted area of the world, including New York. Calling Israel’s lockdowns and curfews a function and expression of “mass hysteria” – and saying that simple social distancing is sufficient – he railed against “closing down the entire country when most of the population is not at high risk.”
Barbash blasted Ben-Israel’s theory, claiming Israel is going to be contending with the coronavirus for at least another year. When Ben-Israel concluded his interview and left the studio, an incensed Barbash declared, “I strongly urge that we not let mathematicians, who know nothing about biology, determine when we lift the lockdown.”
Whether or not Ben-Israel was right, Netanyahu has been erring on the side of caution. So Barbash has nothing to worry about just yet.
NOR IS the Health Ministry the only body putting the brakes on a return to normal school and work activity. The National Security Council, too, is recommending Netanyahu slow down, rather than speed up, the process. After consulting with health and finance officials, as well as teams of scientists and economists, the NSC formulated an “exit plan” to present to Netanyahu and the Knesset.
The plan contains four phases, the first of which entails the resumption of activity in the hi-tech, finance and import-export sectors, as well as in public transportation and parts of the education system. The second phase allows for small stores and additional sections of the education system to reopen. In the third phase, hotels, restaurants and cafes will be able to receive patrons. The fourth and final phase will only begin when the pandemic is “under full control.” During this stage, the entertainment industry, culture, sports, shopping malls and airlines will resume operations.
According to this plan, citizens above the age of 60 and members of other high-risk populations will be excluded from most of the above – even though everybody at all venues will be required to adhere to social-distancing regulations and hygiene procedures.
It is not clear how long each phase of this draconian program, if approved, will last. It is likely to take months, with spurts of lockdowns along the way. What it does not answer is the question of how people over 60 with preexisting conditions will get back to work, let alone enjoy any leisure.
WHICH BRINGS us back to the bone of contention between the Health Ministry and the Finance Ministry.
The latter considers the reopening of the economy to be both urgent and feasible. Finance Ministry officials believe that most people not in high-risk categories can return safely to work without placing too great a burden on the hospitals. Their optimism stems from the fact that original predictions – according to which 10,000 patients would be in need of ventilators by this point – proved false. Astonishingly, at the time of this writing, the number was well below 150.
The former nevertheless disagrees. Health Ministry officials hold fast with the notion that the economy should not begin to reopen until the total number of new cases is no higher than 30-50 per day. With such a criterion, which is tantamount to a “no exit” strategy, we will all die of starvation – or obesity – well before contracting COVID-19.
Following a marathon meeting on Thursday afternoon with all the relevant ministry and NSC representatives, Netanyahu will weigh the options at his disposal and decide, ostensibly by the end of the weekend, on when to get the country up and running again. For our health, let it be soon.
The advice of virologists and epidemiologists has kept us quarantined with good reason. Now it is time to heed the market.