So, Are We All Going to Die, or Is This ‘Unnecessary Panic’?


I don’t know about you, but I’m veering between the extremes.

Our Hebrew sister publication, Zman Yisrael, carried an interview with a renowned Israeli futurist, Prof. David Passig, a few days ago, in which he warned that the coronavirus might kill up to 300 million people and rewrite the history of the 21st century.

Passig is a respected academic, adviser to Knesset panels and government committees. And however outrageous his assessment, it’s not a million miles from the warning delivered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Thursday night, when he said the pandemic was unlike anything the world or modern Israel had seen, and reached back a century to the Spanish flu for a comparison. “Tens of millions of people died from it,” Netanyahu noted, “at a time when the world population was a quarter of today’s.”

On the other hand, watching some medical experts on Israeli television in recent days, one can reach very different conclusions. “The panic over the coronavirus is more damaging than the actual coronavirus,” the outgoing president of the Israeli Medical Association, Professor Leonid Eidelman, told Channel 12 on Saturday.

And on Sunday, Prof. Jihad Bishara, the director of the Infectious Disease Unit at Petah Tikva’s Beilinson Hospital, insisted that “there’s unnecessary, exaggerated panic. We have to calm people down… People are thinking that there’s a kind of virus, it’s in the air, it’s going to attack every one of us, and whoever is attacked is going to die. That’s not the way it is at all. It’s not in the air. Not everyone [who is infected] dies; most of them will get better and won’t even know they were sick, or will have a bit of mucus.” But in Israel and around the world, he said, “everybody is whipping everybody else up into panic — the leaders, via the media, and the wider public — who then in turn start to stress out the leaders. We’ve entered some kind of vicious cycle.”

So what are we non-experts supposed to make of that? Presumably, as so often, wisdom lies between the poles.

For a start, the idea of “social distancing” seems to make a lot of sense. This is a virus transmitted via coughs and sneezes, and also one that can hang around on surfaces but doesn’t like soap. So no hugging, kissing or handshaking seems a practical idea; keeping a couple of meters’ distance from each other; coughing and sneezing into tissues; plenty of handwashing with soap.

And not so smart? Crowding inside and outside supermarkets — as hundreds of Israelis did all over the country after Shabbat ended on Saturday night. I mean, we all do use toilet paper, but risking infection with a virus for which there is no vaccine for the sake of a few extra rolls, when there is every indication that neither toilet paper nor anything else in the supermarkets is about to run short, would seem to be a fairly radical misjudgment of priorities.

Also not so smart? The Lithuanian stream of the ultra-Orthodox community continuing to send their kids to crowded schools, and their young men to crowded yeshivas, because their esteemed spiritual leader, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, has determined that the studying must go on. What actually happened was that his grandson asked him briefly whether school and yeshiva study should halt while the virus was being battled, and Kanievsky, 92, muttered “heaven forbid.” How comforting it must be to have a leader who need not consult at length with medical experts, nor weigh concern that some of his adherents might spread the virus among themselves and others, before making so fateful a decision.

Not that the supposedly responsible authorities are all handling this with particular distinction. Having sought to marginalize the virus through sheer force of disdain, U.S. President Donald Trump then swung to the other extreme, declared a national emergency, and moved to impose travel restrictions from Europe. This unsurprisingly prompted large numbers of Americans to dash home — where over the weekend thousands of the new arrivals spent hours and hours in jammed U.S. airport terminals waiting to be checked for the virus.

“If they weren’t exposed to COVID-19 before, they probably are now,” lamented Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University, watching the “appalling” scenes at nearby O’Hare airport. “From a public health perspective, this is malpractice,” Murphy told AP. “The lack of preparation and concern is unfathomable. This is not ‘poor planning.’ This is ‘no planning.’”

Israel has been ahead of the curve in essentially closing its borders — Israeli arrivals are sent straight to 14 days’ quarantine, and non-nationals are barred unless they too have a place to go into isolation. Gatherings of more than 10 are banned. Places of entertainment and culture are supposed to close down. Cafés and restaurants are trying to survive by setting up takeout operations.

But the question of our strategic planning ahead of this challenge is also now a focus of concern.

Netanyahu has placed himself front and center in the battle against the virus — a strategy not without risk. On the one hand, his broadcasts to the nation these past few days are plainly aimed at reinforcing the sense, built up over a consecutive decade in power, that he is indispensable. On the other hand, if Israel’s handling of the crisis goes pear-shaped, he’ll be the one remembered for directing the foul-up.

Israelis can be a fairly disciplined people — driving habits and toilet paper hysteria aside. Those who are required to are honoring the self-quarantine rule. Recent police raids on hundreds of event halls and other facilities, to ensure the 100-person limit (since reduced to 10) was being observed, yielded only a handful of offenders.

But the restrictions under which we — like many, many nations worldwide — are now being told we need to live are radically atypical. Stuck at home with the kids after all educational facilities have been closed, jobs disappearing, the economy heading into meltdown and with the prospect of this continuing for months, a rise in national grumpiness is readily discernible.

Radio and TV broadcasts on Monday were devoting lengthy periods to critiques not of the handling of the here and now, but of the ostensible planning failures that have left our perennially creaking medical service under too much strain to cope properly with this kind of new challenge — with much citing of years of State Comptroller reports that warned of the lack of strategic preparation for national disaster. Medical personnel are said to be underprotected and in direct risk; thousands of them are now in quarantine after exposure to infected patients.

Of course, the pandemic has struck an Israel still hamstrung by political deadlock. A new Knesset was sworn in Monday afternoon — three MKs at a time amid the limits on gatherings — after yet another deadlocked election, as Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz gets first shot this time at trying to muster a coalition. Israel has had no effective parliament for more than a year, no fully functioning government, no permanent police chief, no updated national budget — all factors that deeply hobble the national response to crisis.

And the prime minister is a figure of intense controversy.

His trial for corruption was due to start on Tuesday, but his hand-picked interim Justice Minister ordered the courts largely closed down at 1 in the morning on Sunday, and Netanyahu’s trial has now been postponed to May.

Court closures have been ordered in many countries amid the virus fight, but Netanyahu might have been smarter to insist that the reading of the charges against him go ahead on schedule — if only to deny his critics the ammunition to claim that he is capitalizing on the virus crisis for personal benefit.