How Israel Kept a Lid on the Coronavirus


Ahe economy is in tatters. An unemployment rate that was below 4 percent last month is now above 25 percent. Businesses that looked solid just a few weeks ago may never recover. Promised loans and grants have proved hard to obtain or inadequate, been delayed or not come through at all.

Lockdown and reopening policies have been inconsistent and illogical. IKEA is doing a roaring trade, but bereaved families were barred from military cemeteries on Memorial Day. We were allowed to jog 500 meters from our home, but not to walk 500 meters from our home … unless we were on the way to the shops.

We had days and days of screw-ups at the airport. Passengers boarded flights knowing they were carrying Covid-19. Prime ministerial pledges that all arrivals were being sent to state-overseen quarantine facilities were disproved time and again.

In the early weeks of the crisis, major failures of communication and minor instances of obstinance and stupidity contributed to disproportionately high contagion rates in charedi Orthodox areas — notably the densely populated, 200,000-strong city of Bnei Brak and several Jerusalem neighborhoods. Communication was less than perfect in the Arab sector and in East Jerusalem, too, where Israel was also slow to set up adequate testing facilities.

There were turf wars between our would-be Covid-19 czar, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, on one side, and our actual Covid-19 czar, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Health Ministry and most everybody else, on the other.

And yet…

As of this writing, Israel, with 9.2 million people, has suffered 219 fatalities in the coronavirus pandemic. Of the nearly 16,000 confirmed cases, more than half have now recovered. Fewer than 100 Israelis are currently on ventilators.

Compare those figures to other countries.

By the Worldometers count, based on approximately the same stats, Israel has 25 fatalities per million citizens — which puts us at about 50th in the world, and better than the global average. (With many countries providing less reliable statistics, furthermore, Israel’s global ranking is actually almost certainly considerably better.) Certainly not peerless, but striking nonetheless.

Sweden, which chose a radically less interventionist approach, has about 10 times as many deaths as Israel — about 2,500 — in a population only slightly larger than ours at 10 million. Belgium, population 11 million, has over 7,500 fatalities — 34 times as many as Israel. Britain, with a population six times ours, has buried 26,000 victims. The United States, with 36 times our population, has almost 300 times as many dead.

Israel’s relative success is prompting growing calls for Israel to reverse the norm by which diaspora Jewry rushes to help it at times of emergency, and to urgently reach out with effective assistance to a diaspora in pandemic crisis.

There is so much the experts have yet to understand about Covid-19. In the specifically Israeli context, are our numbers so low because we’re not reporting them properly? That seems highly unlikely.

Because we’re not a huggy, kissy nation? But we are.

Are we doing so relatively well because we’re a relatively young population? Are our hygiene norms notably better than those in other, worse-hit countries? Are our wonderful healthcare professionals, in our perennially underfunded healthcare system, uniquely outstanding?

If the flow of tourism was a factor in the high contagion rates in the likes of Italy, Spain and the UK, then how come we didn’t get more heavily battered for the same reason?

If population density is a major factor, then how come Sweden, all 174,000 square miles of it, is suffering so much more than tiny Israel, 8,550 square miles? And if Bnei Brak, with its large charedi Orthodox families and its high contagion rates, was identified as an epicenter, how is it that a lockdown, confining large numbers of known carriers to a closed area, proved able to reduce the danger rather than incubating it?

Amid profound economic, medical and mental health concerns, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, the Health Ministry’s director general, was asked in a TV interview a few days ago whether Israel hadn’t overreacted. Wasn’t his, and the prime minister’s, talk of “tens of thousands” of Israeli fatalities if we didn’t heed the rules and batten down “an exaggeration”?

“We have a very simple check,” he replied. “We were at a rate where the number of new patients was doubling every three days… There was a single day when the number of seriously ill patients rose by 50 percent. If that trend had continued, today we’d have over 600,000 people [ill], over 10,000 on ventilators, and many thousands who would have died.”

Pressed again: Bar Siman-Tov made one of the comparisons I cited above: “I don’t think so,” he said. “There are enough control groups — look at Belgium.”

Israel has just marked its Memorial Day and its Independence Day. This is always a surreal time, as we transition from the depths of grief for our fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism to the heights of celebration. This year, it was doubly surreal — our sorrow and our joy physically constrained.

But turning 72 in these nightmarish circumstances, Israel has at least wary cause for encouragement. They were not always perfectly executed, but the decisions Israel’s leaders and authorities made, and that its citizens generally heeded, were designed to maximize the defense against a mysterious virus that disproportionately targeted the elderly — our parents, our pioneers. For now, the numbers and the comparisons suggest, that strategy has been remarkably effective.

David Horovitz is editor in chief of The Times of Israel, where a version of this essay first appeared.