By: Aryeh Schoenbrun  | 

How Israel’s Lack of Urgency Exacerbated the Spread of COVID-19

A little over two months ago, in expectation of spending Shabbos at a friend, I splurged and bought for myself and his family a copy of The Economist. I don’t generally read the overpriced trumpet of capitalist, bureaucratic sterility, but as my friend’s father works for a bank, I thought it would befit the visit.

Leafing through the countless pages of boring topics, a short piece caught my attention. A new virus had been detected in Wuhan, China, and it had begun to worry local authorities. It had not yet been identified, but it looked similar to SARS, and it was affecting humans. I read in anxious anticipation, but owing to the piece’s benign, small heading, I decided to ignore my natural instinct to panic. Who knows, I convinced myself, it’s probably nothing.

Later that week, news broke on the novel coronavirus and my instincts proved right. The virus was spreading, it was deadly, and it was bound to interrupt the lives of billions of people. As the WHO upgraded their classification of the outbreak from local to epidemic to pandemic, we stood in awe at the undeniable might of such a small monster that has apparently brought the mighty powers-at-be to their knees. We now just enter the panic that will surely surround us for at least the next few months. Only God knows what lies in store for humanity.

However, as we can surely mutually corroborate, our current state does not much surprise us. We waited a while for the virus to reach us, it took some time, but we all intuitively feared the worst, we all knew that it would eventually reach us.

Our economies are too intertwined, our lives too global, our borders too porous, and our sensibilities too subdued. We could not panic in time, since we ought not panic, however, now that the virus has reached our own localities, we must panic. We looked on as the Chinese fought the virus for over a month, as Japan and South Korea struggled to maintain stability, but we didn’t take the necessary precautions, we did not prepare: we did not close our borders.

I write to you from Israel, a country that has garnered criticism from its European counterparts for its panicked, chaotic response to the virus. We were one of the first to self-quarantine, we shut out tourists from affected countries, we conscientiously adhered to our now-daily issued protocols and epidemiological bulletins (tracking the whereabouts and possible contamination points of countless sick individuals), but even we failed in containing the virus. Compared to America’s response, we excelled in our expedient willingness to sacrifice and solidarity, but we failed as well — it just didn’t matter.

As thousands of Israelis hunkered down in self-quarantine, tourists and travelers continued to pour through our gates at Ben Gurion airport, carrying the virus and infected their loved ones, their handlers and random passersby. Three weeks ago, a large group of religious pilgrims from Korea paid a visit to the region, visiting virtually every large population center in Israel and the West Bank before falling ill, but, alas, such a situation repeated itself time and again for another two weeks. A group of Greek tourists, then Americans, Europeans, etc., came to visit and left having spread the virus to more locals. Ironically, tourists had come and infected locals while Israelis, having returned from abroad, subjected themselves to two weeks of quarantine. We had done our part, but we could not win against the endless onslaught of bedeviled, irresponsible foreigners. Bethlehem was quarantined first and a few days later chaos erupted. Flights were cancelled, tourists and Israeli travelers got stranded, a country fell in disarray.

The Shin-Bet has requested a special license to track our movements, in order to more precisely administer court-ordered quarantines (which are increasingly hard to enforce on account of the escalating virus figures), and we are bound to quickly lose other basic freedoms. We cannot pray together, work together or eat together. We cannot hug or kiss. We cannot live. We have been reduced to the bare minimum of life: food, sleep and internet.

If our leaders had acted promptly, and not waited until the virus had already begun to propagate, such measures would most likely have been deemed unnecessary. From the onset of this plague, back in January, our leaders had the full gamut of political power and control to enforce a blanket ban on non-essential travel to affected areas, and globally. Instead of heeding the calls of frightened experts, our leaders allowed for the free movement of tourists and businessmen, even as the situation escalated in the Far-East. We were informed of sporadic cases in the West, mostly all travelers from abroad, but we didn’t pay heed to the anxiety-provoking warnings of the WHO. We continued to allow individuals to fly in and out of our country for non-essential purposes, and have just begun to pay the price for this stupidity.

Some of the blame falls on those who decided to fly into harm’s way in the midst of an uncontrolled, ballooning situation in Asia. Europe had not yet reached epidemic levels, however, ignoring an explosive situation in China did not fare well for us. I often ask myself why anyone would decide to fly out of their home country, knowing that they may become the harbinger of calamitous death and suffering. Would anyone not care enough about their fellow citizens that they should obnoxiously and pigheadedly take the chance that they may infect loved-ones and the general population. Was it really worth it?

Clearly, they were not entirely to blame. The government, sensing no immediate threat, childishly allowed for such a situation to transpire. Without an official advisory, travelers could not refund their tickets. Our leaders’ silence equally assuages the fears of the many travelers who would have been willing to forego their vacation abroad. If they haven’t yet issued a warning, the situation must be under control. Additionally, the government’s silence reassured those with moral qualms. As long as the advisories remained lenient, the travelers, many of whom thoroughly patriotic veteran soldiers, could pass on their guilty conscience to their irresponsible leaders. If the rules provide, they supposed that they could not be criticized for their egotistical behavior.

This false sense of security, fostered both by government inaction, blinded by mob-mentality and bound by the inflexibility of a morbid economic system that values short-term gain over long-term stability combined to create this man-made, artificially-induced crisis. We had time enough to act, we could have shored up our defenses and stayed put. Instead, we stubbornly, cavalierly, powered on through the tumult, praying to our false gods and actively repressing our natural instinct to quarantine on a national scale. China may be responsible for their original lackluster response and their much-too-liberal approach to the disease producing “wet markets” that have spawned SARS and now coronavirus, but they, unlike our leaders in the “free world”, took rapid action against the virus and now appear to have survived their epidemic with minimal casualties. If our leaders had worked in tandem with Chinese authorities and taken preventative measures back in January, we would not have to worry about a global pandemic here and now.

We could not resist the bait. Panic had gripped China, she faltered economically. Western countries and companies saw a golden opportunity to gain ground on Asia. Yes, we depended on China for much of our production train, but we also had the ability to reinvest in local infrastructure and industry. China would recuperate, we surmised, but we didn’t know how long she would suffer. We had time to stage an economic comeback. Ironically, China now seems to have won the economic bout, and to a great degree. Cases there have stabilized while they now skyrocket around the world. She will quite soon regain her economic footing, leaving Europe and the West in the dust. She will begin to turn to her domestic markets while still maintaining her global industrial dominance, punishing her foreign buyers for their irresponsibility and neglect.

Additionally, this crisis serves the ends of global capital. Chaos, panic and instability, while nominally landing large blows on global markets, will eventually allow for those with money to consolidate and monopolize their investments (0% interest rates will ease the process). Average middle-class workers stand to lose much of their savings in the coming months. They may need to dip into their pension funds in order to deal with the indefinite period of unemployment that awaits them. In addition, the psychological trauma caused by such panic, uncertainty and instability will only serve to further weaken the middle class. These workers, who have been educated to believe in government, democracy and justice, will have nothing to protest against the “natural disaster” that has befallen them. They will have seen the disaster as an act of god. Most of them will never consider the notion that it was intentional.

On the books, our governments have acted fairly responsibly. They’ve sealed off our borders and tracked disease levels. They’ve issued travel warnings and warned us against sneezing in public and hugging our friends. Even Trump, has acted, perhaps out of duress and pressure from experts, according to and beyond global expectations. He angered Europe when he decided to close our borders and, to be fair, much of the burden of response falls upon local authorities, city and state governments. Israel too has seemingly taken a strong stance against the infection. And even in Europe the leaders have woken up to the dire situation. France and Italy have called for nationwide quarantine, Germany, Spain, Austria and others have closed their borders indefinitely and have limited non-essential travel. But, as we all know, everything has come in response to severe outbreaks, and unfortunately not in advance.

Something about this calculated delay, this unnerving sense of dread, of momentary hope then the grief recognition of setback after setback, of feeling protected, then having chaotic hell unleashed before your very eyes, of having to constantly monitor the situation, of having to forego any previous engagements, meetings and personal matters, reeks of serious political malpractice. I have no reason to believe that our leaders acted wholeheartedly out of concern for our safety. In fact, they have addressed such accusations and have fully admitted to their unholy allegiance to the esoterica of the global economy. When we should discuss the eventuality of hundreds of millions of potential deaths, what occupies us, and our leaders, remains the stability of our financial markets. 

I do not claim that businessmen and political leaders invested in the production of this new disease. However, I believe that were it not for their stubborn insistence on market stability, and their eagerly opportunistic avarice in exploiting chaotic situations, we would not need to deal with such a widespread pandemic. Jet-set tourism, as a manifestation of today’s overly globalized economies, has thinned our natural defenses and left us vulnerable. If we don’t act to roll back our international travel habits, if we do not begin to limit our global mobility, we risk exposure to far worse pathogens and pandemics. We may not get another warning.

Photo Caption: The virus was spreading, it was deadly, and it was bound to interrupt the lives of billions of people.
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