Last month Israel introduced its second nationwide lockdown as the country experienced one of the highest daily infection rates of Covid-19 per capita in the world.
Just prior to the three-week Jewish holiday period, on September 25th, the restrictions were tightened for a second time.
All non-essential businesses and hotels were shuttered and Israelis were confined to one kilometre from their home. Restaurants were limited to takeaway orders. Schools and universities were closed with the exception of special education classes. Public gatherings were banned. Public worship was restricted to outdoor prayers, although synagogues were allowed to open on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, which was observed on September 28th.
Football and basketball leagues were suspended until further notice. Police roadblocks were erected at the entrance to Israel’s main cities, and drivers had to show special permits proving they were allowed to travel during the lockdown.
Business leaders warned in vain that the lockdown would mean thousands of companies going bankrupt as unemployment approached the one-million mark.
The experience in Israel is interesting given the suggestion Ireland could face a so-called circuit breaker – another lockdown but a short, sharp one – to curb the spread of the virus. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said it may be needed at some point and noted at the weekend that in Israel it seemed to be producing results.
The most controversial lockdown measures in Israel this time round, however, were the restrictions imposed on demonstrations, coming as they did in the midst of weekly protests attended by thousands outside the Jerusalem residence of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The protesters have been calling for Netanyahu to step down over the government’s perceived mishandling of the coronavirus crisis as well as allegations of corruption that have led to him facing a trial scheduled to begin in January.
Under the second lockdown, unprecedented in wartime Israel, a maximum of 20 people can demonstrate together within one kilometre of their home, maintaining social distancing. Critics of Netanyahu claim his prime motivation in implementing a severe lockdown was to put an end to the protests.
Wearing a mask is compulsory outdoors, and offenders face a 500 shekel (€125) fine. Business owners who operate in defiance of the coronavirus restrictions and people who break quarantine regulations face a 5,000 shekel (€1,250) penalty.
Discipline, then disaster
During the initial lockdown in the spring the public was on board and violations were few and far between. Israelis stayed home, and beaches and parks were deserted. People were afraid of contracting the virus and trusted the political leadership and the health officials. Israel was one of the first countries to close its skies, and the discipline seemed to work. The country showed one of the lowest global infection rates, and a number of world leaders contacted Netanyahu for advice on how to beat the pandemic.
In May hospitals closed their designated coronavirus wards, restrictions were lifted and Netanyahu urged Israelis to go out and “enjoy yourselves”. But the exit from the first lockdown was an invitation to disaster, and by August infection rates were rising again at an alarming rate.
A woman holds a placard that reads, ‘Go’, during a protest against prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Photograph: Ariel Schalit/AP Photo
The government’s response was erratic and chaotic. Decisions were taken against the advice of health officials after lengthy ministerial meetings. Regulations were altered on an almost daily basis, and the decision-makers lacked a clear strategy for combating the pandemic as hospital wards began to fill up with new Covid-19 patients. The Hebrew word for “mess” – balagan – was used by everyone to describe the government’s handling of the crisis.
Even though daily infection rates topped 7,000, the country’s morbidity rate remained low due to it demographics – Israel has a very young population compared with many western countries – and an advanced, yet underfunded, medical system. More than 2,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Israel, which has a population of 8.6 million.
The coronavirus ward of the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty
Two weeks into the nationwide lockdown the public mood has changed and confidence in the government has plummeted. Solidarity has evaporated, with each sector blaming another.
The lack of public confidence has been underscored by a number of cases of senior officials breaking the lockdown regulations. On Monday minister Gila Gamliel, from Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, admitted to an “error of judgment” when she contracted coronavirus after attending Yom Kippur services at a synagogue in Tiberius where her father-in-law is the rabbi, 150km from her Tel Aviv home. She also reportedly tried to hide the trip from a health ministry epidemiological investigation into her infection.
Supporters of Netanyahu blame the protesters for creating coronavirus hot spots. Secular Israelis blame the ultra-Orthodox.
Many believe Netanyahu has prioritised political considerations over health concerns. Dependent on his religious party coalition partners, numerous concessions were made to the ultra-Orthodox allowing religious study to continue while other schools closed.
The percentage of ultra-Orthodox who are testing positive is enormous: 40 per cent who are tested are found positive every day. About a third of all the people who have Covid-19 in Israel are ultra-Orthodox even though they make up only 12 per cent of the population.
A number of prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis stated that maintaining Torah study was more important than fighting the virus. Some even advocated reaching herd immunity within the community while taking special measures to protect the elderly.
Officials have indicated that this lockdown will remain in place for at least another fortnight. Even though the daily rates of those testing positive have dropped from 15 per cent to less than 8 per cent, Netanyahu told the coronavirus cabinet on Monday that it was still too early to consider easing the restrictions.
Israel’s coronavirus co-ordinator, Prof Ronni Gamzu, has proposed that the lockdown remain until daily infection cases fall to 2,000 and the R number – the average number of people every infected person goes on to infect – drops to 0.8.