Israel Back on the Learning Curve as Schools Set to Reopen

Israel is now entering the third month of the coronavirus crisis. The first case of COVID-19 – the disease caused by the virus – was diagnosed on February 27, in a person who had returned from a trip to Italy. Subsequently, the constantly rising curve, the dramatic declarations and the ever stricter restrictions attested to the fact that the virus was continuing to spread. Along with the cost in human life, there was steep economic damage, leading to a recession and an unprecedented unemployment rate.

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But while the country was in the shadow of generalized confinement, the past few weeks have seen a gradual shift to containment. This is due in part to the quick, appropriate measures that the government adopted at the start of the crisis, and also to Israel’s relatively young population, which is less vulnerable to the virus.

The daily figures about the number of sick – which yesterday reached almost 16,000 – are somewhat misleading. In practice, more than half of those who contracted the disease have already recovered, so that the infection rate today resembles what it was at the start of April. The number of patients on ventilators has fallen below 100. This constitutes only about five percent of the country’s capacity, which has increased in recent weeks.

These are reasonable safety margins. The government’s decisions on easing the restrictions reflect these changes, though they were also, and perhaps mainly, the result of pressure from the grassroots. The public is fed up with the restrictions and skeptical about their logic and their consistency, and the ministers are falling in line accordingly. In many cases, small businesses even reopened before the government gave the official go-ahead.

Another factor might also be an attempt at reducing fear. Nearly half of those actively ill with the coronavirus are from Haredi communities or Haredi neighborhoods. Notwithstanding the many speeches about unity that were delivered this week, Israeli society is split and divided between tribes and sub-communities. With the rate of illness from the virus in Tel Aviv at 0.3 percent, it’s unlikely the average resident of the city feels their health is under direct threat.

Typically, the decisions about the easing of the restrictions are also being made in disorderly fashion, without a uniform message to the public, and usually at the last minute. On Sunday, the Education Ministry is planning to resume school for kindergarten through third grade, after a two-month pause. Did the cabinet meet to discuss the plan? What’s the hurry? The discussion will take place Friday, even though the municipalities and the teachers’ organizations say they don’t have a clue about what the reopening will look like. In the meantime, heads of Arab local authorities have announced that they will not reopen the schools in their communities until Ramadan is over at the end of May.