Israel Reopens with Anticipation — and Anxiety


Jerusalem — Larry Derfner, 68, knows that if he contracts the coronavirus, he could be at higher risk of life-threatening complications than younger people, but he supports the Israeli government’s decision at the beginning of May to end the country’s month-long lockdown. 

“Israel has done a great job in containing the coronavirus, and now it’s time to let people live, let society live,” said Derfner, a journalist, noting that fewer than 300 people have died in Israel, apparently thanks to an early lockdown that saw schools, shuls and businesses shuttered.

Sarah Nadav, a behavioral economist and a single mother, isn’t so sure that it’s time to “let society live,” at least in the way it was accustomed, pre-Covid. In the grip of a mid-May heat wave, Israelis flocked to beaches even before restrictions on outdoor activities were officially relaxed. Nadav is deeply troubled by the speed with which Israel has gone from lockdown to almost fully open, sometimes backtracking along the way.

“The way Israel is reopening is haphazard at best,” Nadav said.

The Israeli government’s seemingly sudden about-face to permit many companies, all stores, schools and parks to reopen within a matter of weeks has been a welcome development for some Israelis and a cause of worry for others. (Last Friday, amid a spike in coronavirus cases and fears that social distancing measures were not being followed as closely as they had been, health officials were considering once again halting school for grades seven through 12.)

During Passover, Israelis were ordered to stay home and not visit with elderly relatives, to limit the virus’ spread. Tens of thousands of families held their seders via Zoom. As recently as Israel Independence Day, April 28, citizens were ordered to stay within 100 meters of their homes, with all public celebrations cancelled.

Israel even took the difficult decision to close all places of worship, and to keep them closed during Passover, Easter and Ramadan.

In mid-May, with the absolute number of deaths and the fatality rate low compared to other countries, the government opted to allow young children to return to school to allow homebound parents to work.

(This week, as more coronavirus cases have been found at schools, thousands of students were sent into quarantine in Jerusalem, Hadera and Beersheva, according to The Times of Israel.)

“Any lockdown destroys the economy, and when you have 25 to 30 percent unemployment, even in six months’ time we expect unemployment will be 10 to 15 percent,” said David (Dudu) Gershon, a professor of economics at the Hebrew University School of Business.

The rate of unemployment prior to the outbreak was about 4 percent.

Gershon predicted that 25 percent of Israeli restaurants will shut down, and that “there will be a generation of people who will find it extremely hard to keep jobs.

“That will include high tech workers,” he continued. “The father of one of my sons’ classmates was a high tech worker. Now he’s working as a supermarket cashier to feed his family.”

Israel’s economy contracted by 7.1 percent in the first quarter of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the sharpest decline in 20 years, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Derfner is worried that unless people are allowed to return to work, it could take a decade or more for the economy to recover.

“Israel’s unemployment rate is nearly 30 percent. We are galloping into an unimaginable economic depression, and with it will come a national psychological depression. How many lives will that cost? What will it do to the living?” he asked. “I have two sons in their 20s. I didn’t raise them for such a future, and I’ll be damned if they have to go on living this crippled life to protect me and my generation. It’s not right. Let them live.”

According to a much-discussed study Gershon co-authored with Hebrew University colleagues Alexander Lipton (Business School) and Hagai Levine (School of Public Health), Israel didn’t need to lock down the country in the first place.

“If a state like the State of Israel takes non-closure mitigation steps such as physical distancing as much as possible while continuing work, isolating patients and those who were in close contact with them, maintaining personal hygiene including using masks, and stricter measures for the high-risk population, then almost always there can be no general closure for the entire population,” the April 2020 study stated.

The then-director general of Israel’s Health Ministry, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, defended the strict measures. He compared the coronavirus death toll in Israel, 300, to the 7,000 people who by that time had died in Belgium, a similarly sized country.

Mental health professionals seem to agree that the gradual end of lockdown here — including the opening of gyms and the green light for socially distant outdoor events of up to 50 people — is good for the public.

“I think there’s a huge positive impact to the ability to go back and lead a social and family life,” Limor Aharonson-Daniel, head of the Prepared Center for Emergency Response Research at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

Family connections play a “central role” in Israel, so being separated “caused a lot of stress, across the generations.” Even those without strong family ties found it difficult to remain isolated, she said.

But the ability to get together, albeit in masks and standing six feet apart, doesn’t mean that everyone is ready to re-enter.

“I think we’re all a bit scared,” Aharonson-Daniel said. “We know the consequences [of reopening] aren’t immediate. We’ll know in about two to three weeks, and in the meantime we’re kind of holding our breath” to see whether there will be a second wave of infections.

Nadav is feeling that sense of anxiety.

“There are no clear guidelines, nobody knows what is or is not allowed anymore and there is no way to track what is safe or unsafe. If there was a slow reopening that happened in stages, we’d need to stagger events every two weeks and we’d be able to see what caused the numbers to go up, or if they remain low. At this point, we have no idea what would be driving a spike because it could be one of many things.”

Nadav said she is worried about the health of the country’s workers.

“If you open a store, the chances that a customer will get exposed to the virus are low but the chance that the store worker will get exposed is high,” she said, citing studies related to viral load exposure. “Public transportation brings many people together into an enclosed space with circulating air from an air conditioner, which is also problematic. Then add to this that workers need to take public transportation to get to their jobs and it’s a recipe for disaster.”

The newfound freedoms are giving people “a false sense of confidence,” Nadav said.

“Israelis need to be prepared to make serious changes, perhaps move or cut their expenses. They need to understand the gravity of what we are going through and not be buoyed by false hope, which will lead them to put off making important financial decisions.

Leiah Elbaum agrees. She said she resents being called overly cautious for debating whether to send her five kids back to school.

“The implication that anyone concerned about reopening or sending [children] back to school is just a ‘nervous Nelly’ from the quaking-at-their-shadow-tin-foil-hat brigade does a grave disservice to many very thoughtful and serious parents who are quite calmly and carefully studying the existing research and statistics,” she said.

“Even if one is not high risk, given the unpredictable nature of this new disease it is not unreasonable for many to urge caution, because so little is still known about longer-term consequences of this illness.”