Israel Flattened The Curve Early. But Reopening Will Be Its Greatest Test | Opinion

Israel is attempting to restore some semblance of normalcy, in the shadow of the Coronavirus. Schools began to reopen this week, with 1st–3rd graders and 11th–12th graders being the first to return. Israelis can now venture out more than 100 meters from their homes. By the end of the week, malls, outdoor markets, and even gyms will be open, even if all will operate under restrictions. Here in Tel Aviv, almost everyone on the street can be seen wearing a face mask, and it's impossible to enter a supermarket, or any other large store without a mask. Almost all businesses are open, and the roads are packed. As Yaniv Rivlin, General Manager of BIRD Israel (whose fleet of scooters remained available during the lock-down period) stated: "In the past few weeks we have seen a sharp and steady increase in BIRD rides, and believe we will continue to see growth as cities continue to reopen, like Tel Aviv."

However, railroads are still not operating and the buses (albeit returning to nearly full schedule) are traveling largely empty. Most of the workers in Israeli high-tech continue to work from home, and El Al, Israel's national carrier, has announced cancellation of all flights through the end of May.

Many here fear Israel is reopening too quickly. As plans for restarting the economy were initially raised, it was asserted that changes would be instituted very slowly and deliberatively, with 14 days between each step to assess best practices. Nevertheless, intense pressure to take swift action surged. One story aired on Israeli TV, that of a Falafel stand owner in Ashkelon wholly unable to pay his bills, so strongly impacted the country that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally called the man. It may well be that this one very personal story has hastened the rush to reopen.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai on Thursday called on the government to allow restaurants and bars in Tel Aviv to open by next weekend. The city has developed a plan, together with Restaurant & Bar Association, to allow improve patron safety; a plan includes allowing restaurants to use public spaces to physically distance their diners.

The urgent need to reopen has clearly been fueled by the fact that government efforts to help small businesses have been a total failure. The government attempted to take a short cut by guaranteeing loans via the banks. Still, that guarantee was only 85 percent of an individual loan and 15 percent of the total amount lent. Consequently, banks chose not to lend funds to any business in trouble — which was, of course, almost all businesses, who had been, forced to close and need funds.

Shay Berman, CEO of Israel's Restaurant & Bar Association, said that "bar and restaurant owners have been lied to, repeatedly. Every day they heard promises, but none of his members have seen a single shekel, not as a loan, nor as a grant." Thus, the pressure to start allowing businesses to reopen, along with schools, has been very high (not for the students' stake, but to enable parents to go back to work) — i.e., instead of waiting two weeks between each restorative step, one step has promptly followed the next.

Despite the fact that the openings are seemingly taking place too Israel's decision to reopen its economy is not merely based on the wishful thinking that accompanied decisions made in several states in the United States. By almost any measure, Israel has coped very well with COVID-19. Israel went from a high of 400 new cases per day on April 12, to an average of 30 new cases per day over the course of the last three days — with most of those instances confined to particular sub-sets of the population. Even more remarkable, despite having 16,289 reported cases overall, Israel has only lost 238 souls to the disease.

What explains Israel's success? While it's impossible to know for sure, there are a couple of crucial factors involved in that answer.

First, Israel effectively has only one real point of entry and exit to the rest of the world: Ben Gurion airport. It was one of the first countries in the world to stop arrivals — not only from Wuhan China, but from almost all of the Far East (three days before the U.S. did so). In short order, Israel stopped entries from Italy and other European countries, and demanded all who returned from those countries to immediately sequester themselves for a 14-day quarantine. For political reasons, Israel was slow to halt arrivals from the U.S. As a result, a full one third of all Israelis infected overseas were infected in the U.S. Still, by March 10, Israel had stopped arrivals from everywhere, worldwide, including from the U.S., for non-Israeli citizens.

Second, Israel closed down the country, except for essential services. Individuals were not allowed to travel more than 100 meters from their homes, nor were they allowed to meet people outside their nuclear family. In some of the most infected areas, residents were instructed to remain at home, and the army distributed food to them. While Israelis are now thrilled that most of these restrictions are being lifted, there was never a thought of protesting the Coronavirus rules, when they were in place—except a couple of creatively organized, socially distanced protests against what was perceived as the political benefit an embattled Netanyahu was drawing from the crisis.

Third, Israel implemented contract tracing. During the initial phases of the outbreak, the Ministry of Health would disclose every newly identified individual with the virus each day, and publicize their movements. When the numbers became too high, the government made a controversial decision: to utilize the powers of Israel's Internal security service, known as the Shabak (whose primary mission has been to fight terrorism) to track Covid-19 patients and locate all those with whom they came into contact.

The question of whether the Shabak should be used in such a manner was widely disputed— with the Shabak itself reluctant to expand its engagement outside its core responsibilities. The issue of whether it was legal to employ the Shabak to surveil citizens was addressed by the Supreme Court, which ruled the measure to be acceptable temporarily, but said the government would need to pass legislation to authorize the Shabak's full cooperation on an ongoing basis. According to the Israeli Health Ministry's Sigal Sedensky, a third of the infected in the country were located by the Shabak.

On Tuesday, the Knesset approved interim authorization for the Shabak to continue accessing personal location data through the cell companies for another three weeks. While that decision has met with concern among parts of Israel's legal community, most Israelis have exhibited little concern, for this rapid expansion of the powers of the surveillance state. Most Israelis seem to feel that if this encroachment on personal privacy saves lives, and might allow a quicker return to normalcy, it's a worthwhile trade-off. Of course, others worry about the slippery slope and question what will happen when the next crisis arises. Still, at the moment, naysayers appear to be in the minority.

Fourth, although in the past few years, Israel has developed a very individualist capitalist approach when it comes to the economy, the collective spirit that founded the country and is strengthen by military service for a large proportion of the county is deeply embedded in the country's DNA. That collective spirit is well suited for a national crisis such as a pandemic.

Finally, there is the question of what fueled the low death-toll Israel has experienced. Again, while there are no clear answers, a few hypotheses exist. Israel has a young population, and many of those infected initially were young natives on trips abroad. In addition, Israel has an excellent system of universal health care that provides a high level of universal treatment. Thus, Israelis are generally healthy, and if they suffer from any chronic health issues, such as hypertension or diabetes, they receive proper care.

What's more, although Israel has one of the lowest ratios of hospital beds per capita in the OECD, Israeli hospitals were able to prepare for the wave of patients that were hospitalized. As one doctor shared with me many years ago, "we [Israeli medical professionals] are not all that good at routine, but we are outstanding in an emergency."

Perhaps that sentiment is what best sums up the country's response, generally speaking. Israel and Israelis are at their best in a crisis. Let's hope that another well-known Israeli trait, i.e., impatience, will not have resulted in opening the country back up too hastily, and with that, bring on a new wave of infection.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.