Israel, which realized quicker than most the danger posed by Covid-19, took swift, decisive action. In doing so it bypassed the Knesset and gave carte blanche to the security forces.
Fans of post-apocalyptic literature will no doubt be aware of the novel World War Z, by Max Brooks, which became a star-vehicle for Brad Pitt in 2013. In it, a pandemic transforms the sick into zombies, killing 85% of the Earth’s population. But some far-sighted counties managed to stem the tide and save their population, notably Israel, which decided to close its borders to protect its citizens from the mysterious virus which originated in China.
Now life is imitating art, well, except for the zombies. While many western experts, such as Michel Cymes, were hitting the airwaves to downplay the virus as no more dangerous than a mild case of the flu and that there was no need for alarm, Jerusalem was the first to take action. On February 24th all flights from China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Japan were suspended indefinitely. Travellers on flights that were in the air when the announcement was made were placed in a 14-day quarantine as soon as they landed.
On March 5th Israel closed its borders to Italians, Germans and the French, with flights from those countries no longer allowed. Then on March 18th, one day into the country’s lockdown, the government announced that no individuals who were not either Israeli citizens or permanent residents would be allowed in the country. But implementing a lockdown and closing the border are far from the only measures taken to combat the spread of Covid-19 in the Holy Land.
Israel’s response has not been spearheaded by leading politicians, many of whom have of late been mired in corruption scandals, engaged in bizarre electoral pacts and have taken almost a year to form a ruling coalition. In a country where the security forces hold an elevated stature, it is in them that trust has been placed to deliver the Jewish people from this pestilence.
From the earliest days of the crisis, the security forces have used their considerable logistical skills to amass test kits, masks and other protective clothing items. It took military zeal for Israel to get their hands on stocks of these items, often from China, which the whole world had their eyes on. In addition, as in Taiwan, military production facilities were put to work making masks, all of which meant that, by the end of March the country had enough supply to make the wearing of a mask mandatory in all public places under pain of $75 fine.
While Israel was one of the first countries to roll out a contamination-tracing app, named HaMagen (downloaded more than a million times in a week), the authorities went one further. Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, has employed sophisticated tracking tools commonly used in counter-terrorism to trace the spread of the disease. The Knesset was not consulted.
This measure allowed the authorities to trace the movements of a vast number of the infected, identify clusters and place those who had potentially been infected into quarantine. If you were suspected of carrying the virus, you would receive a text message reading, “According to epidemiologic research, on (date) you were in close proximity to someone with the coronavirus, place yourself and your immediate family in quarantine at once.”
The tracking does not stop there. The movements of those ordered into quarantine are monitored and are fined should they not respect it. The results of this policy mixing prevention, tracking, testing and mask-wearing are impressive. As late as the April 22nd, Israel had recorded only 187 deaths, a rate of two per 100,000 people, while Belgium, a country home to a similar number of people had seen 55 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Although the Mediterranean country may, in reality, already have passed the 200-death mark, which brings us to the problem of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jews.
For this community, which follows a strict interpretation of the Hebrew faith, religious rules take precedent over those of the state, and the rabbis are listened to more than the government. When the lockdown was announced rabbi Haïm Kanievsky, a prominent spokesperson for the ultra orthodox community, announced that “giving up studying the Torah is more dangerous than catching the virus.” Unsurprisingly, members of his flock continued to frequent synagogues and Talmudic schools. Add to this the fact that the ultra-orthodox community is, on average, significantly less well off than the average Israeli, with a higher birth rate and live in cramped living conditions and you see the lethal potential of Covid-19 for this community.
In fact, although this sect accounts for only 12% of the population, around 50% of Covid-19 related deaths have been in the are ultra-orthodox community. One of the biggest coronavirus clusters in Israel is in Bnei Brak, a Tel Aviv suburb of 200,000 and bastion of the ultra-othodox community. Faced with the reality of the situation, the rabbis eventually relented, allowing their congregation to follow government advice.
It was a lesson American evangelists should have heeded during Easter instead of calling their congregations to worship. No faith is immune to the virus.