With the coronavirus remorselessly exacting an increasingly terrible toll around the world, Israel has shot to the top of the list of countries dealing with this unprecedented emergency pragmatically and sensibly.
The Israeli government was one of the first to call this insidious respiratory illness by its proper name — a “global pandemic.” Since then, Israel has acted accordingly, having taken drastic but necessary steps to keep it under control.
The measures Israel has adopted cut to the core.
Israeli citizens have been urged to cancel or postpone travel plans. Israelis returning from abroad have been ordered to self-quarantine for two weeks or longer. Newly-arrived visitors must go into immediate quarantine. Public events have been curtailed or cancelled altogether and public gatherings of a certain size have been banned. The border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank has been closed.
Israel, having voluntarily placed itself in international isolation, is paying a steep price for its vigilance. The tourist industry, one of the mainstays of the economy, has collapsed, leaving hotels, tour companies, bus lines, restaurants, bars and cafes in the lurch.
El Al Airlines is placing 80 percent of its workforce on indefinite unpaid leave and cancelling most of its remaining flights. El Al expects losses of up to $160 million for the period between January through April.
Recognizing the implications of these dire developments, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a $2.8 billion package to stabilize the economy and allow it to function.
Israel had no choice but to act vigorously.
The battle against COVID-19 requires sacrifice. Anything short of that would be foolish, irresponsible and potentially disastrous. Being a small country whose population is concentrated along the coastal plain, Israel is highly vulnerable to a virus that has already claimed the lives of 4,000 people and infected more than 115,000, mainly in China, Italy, Iran and South Korea.
By all accounts, COVID-19 is far deadlier than the previous SARS outbreak or the Ebola virus. It could might well be the most dangerous threat to public health and the economy since the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic, which killed about 50 million people, more than any other malady in history.
In the face of this global crisis, some countries have been more proactive and effective than others.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has responded to the crisis with the utmost seriousness, having first closed off northern Italy and then extended the lockdown to the rest of the country. Iran has cancelled Friday prayers for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution. South Korea has shuttered movie theatres, restricted the operating hours of cafes and restaurants, and closed schools.
Much more remains to be done if this virus is to be severely controlled, if not eradicated.
International travel must be subjected to severe restrictions. Sports and entertainment events must be cancelled. Schools and universities must empty classrooms and fall back to remote learning techniques.
Most importantly, mass testing of a substantial proportion of the population should immediately begin to determine exactly how many people have been infected. There are currently not enough testing kits available. As a result, doctors and nurses are stumbling in the dark, unable to calculate the precise number of coronavirus cases.
The United States has only begun the long, complex and expensive process of combating COVID-19. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump has all too often downplayed the problem, assuming that his soothing approach would be helpful in containing the contagion of fear and panic. On March 9, Trump tweeted, “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
Trump will have to change his tactics because the flu cannot remotely be compared to COVID-19, which remains a mysterious virus. Scientists are still in the early stages of studying it, and a vaccine will not be developed for at least a year.
Unlike Trump, Netanyahu has fearlessly acknowledged the harsh reality of the coronavirus. And he is making no false and silly comparisons between COVID-19 and the flu. The Israeli government is taking every conceivable step to protect Israelis from a pandemic that has caused multiple deaths, sowed widespread anxiety, and wreaked havoc on the international economy.