Israel Has a Promising Coronavirus Exit Strategy. There Are Just Two Problems With It
Throughout the coronavirus crisis Prof. Sigal Sadetsky, head of the Health Ministry’s public health services division, has played the proverbial bad cop of the story. She repeatedly expresses disappointment with Israel’s high incidence of illness and sounded the alarm that the worst is yet to come. But for a minute or two during an interview with Channel 12 News on Friday night, Sadetsky allowed herself a bit of optimism. “We managed to flatten the curve,” she said. “I’m happy to say that we’re in good shape.”
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Israel isn’t the only place taking pride in how it’s coped with the pandemic. Even in New York state, which is still seeing nearly 800 deaths a day from the virus, has had talk this weekend of a bending of the curve — an admission that, at least for now, the blackest forecasts are not coming true. In Italy and Spain, two of the hardest-hit countries in western Europe, the number of new cases each day has been in decline; the number of deaths each day has been in a decline for two weeks. Nevertheless, every day more than 500 people continue to die from COVID-19 in each of these countries.
The figures in Israel, of course, are much, much lower in terms of fatalities, the number of people in critical condition and the number of those on ventilators. But while the most pessimistic forecasts have not come to pass, there is reason to fear that lifting the increasingly tighter lockdown imprudently and without proper controls could set off a more widespread outbreak. A group of consultants to the National Security Council said in a document, whose contents were reported by the Kan public broadcaster, that the first steps toward easing the lockdown can begin once the number of new COVID-19 cases reported each day falls to around 10.
There are only two problems with this promising theory. One: At present, even with all the restrictions in place, there are still a few hundred new cases each day. Two: The low number of tests and the continued slow pace of testing undermines the credibility of the numbers. The only way to get close to the goal is by expediting the entire testing process so that people who came in contact with a patient can be tracked down within hours after the results come back.
Emergency regulations have reduced the workforce at most workplaces to 15 percent of their pre-pandemic levels. The Finance Ministry plans to lift that to 30 percent, with the approval of the cabinet. Some sectors, such as aviation, tourism, leisure and entertainment, restaurants and conferences, will remain closed. And unfortunately for parents, schools won’t be reopening any time soon. (If it’s any comfort, New York City announced Saturday that its public schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year.)
The Finance Ministry’s exit plan would keep old people in their homes indefinitely. That would be very difficult. And what about younger people with conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to the virus? The gradual return to economic activity increases the risk to them and will keep many of them out of the workforce for as long as the coronavirus continues to affect Israelis.
In the United States, as in Israel, a wide range of exit strategies are under scrutiny, even though the pandemic is far from being over there. All of them call for a gradual exit over a period of around 18 months and include harsh restrictions on freedom of movement and violations of individual privacy, justified by the need to collect information about the spread of the virus.