Israeli officials took quick action against the coronavirus this spring: They identified the threat quickly, closed the country's borders, and implemented a nationwide lockdown.
What followed was one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the world. By the beginning of May, Israel saw only about 30 new cases a day in a country of about 9 million people. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu essentially declared victory in the country's battle against the coronavirus.
“Israel’s successful battle against the coronavirus is a model for many countries, and the world is watching us in admiration,” Netanyahu said proudly as he announced the lifting of most public restrictions in May. He later posted a video urging Israelis to "go out, enjoy yourselves."
That rosy picture is quite different today. In the last couple of months, COVID-19 infections have spiked in Israel. On Thursday, the country reported 1,929 new cases, a record high since the virus first arrived in Israel.
Experts say Israel went from being a model for other nations to a cautionary tale on what happens when countries reopen too much and too quickly.
“What stopped working was, of course, that Israel didn’t build the mechanisms, during the lockdown and after the lockdown, in order to tackle small to medium-sized outbreaks and prevent them [from] going to a national level.”
“What stopped working was, of course, that Israel didn’t build the mechanisms, during the lockdown and after the lockdown, in order to tackle small to medium-sized outbreaks and prevent them [from] going to a national level,” said Nadav Eyal, chief international correspondent for Reshet News, an Israeli broadcaster. He’s been the most vocal voice on social media informing Israelis on the pandemic.
Unlike in other countries in Europe or Asia, Eyal says, Israel eased its restrictions pretty much all at once. With the complete reopening of schools and wedding venues, along with the public’s belief that they beat the virus, it was only a matter of time until a second surge.
More than four months since Israel recorded its first case, Netanyahu still hasn’t appointed anyone to head the national coronavirus task force. So far, he’s been managing it himself.
In light of the surge in coronavirus cases, Israel’s health minister Yuli Edelstein warned Thursday that the country is only days away from a second lockdown. In an attempt to avoid that, the government on Friday implemented some new restrictions limiting commerce and public gatherings.
According to experts, two key steps in keeping infection rates low are testing and contact tracing. After a slow and shaky start, Israel is now one of the world’s leaders in testing per capita.
“If you want testing to be effective, it needs to be done with contact tracing, with an epidemiological approach, and it needs to be done really quickly,” Eyal said. “You can’t do only one thing. You need to do the whole bunch in order to be effective. I would say, [Israel] started off South Korea, and it finished off Texas.”
Israel is known for its advanced universal health care system, which is not run by the government. And while it’s helped keep the death rate relatively low, Israel’s public contact tracing system is collapsing due to an extreme shortage of manpower and expertise. Today, It can take up to six days after being tested for people to be notified if they’ve been infected.
Dr. Ilana Belmaker, a former public health director of Israel’s southern district, says Israel’s public health system is more of a regulatory body and isn’t designed for a task of this magnitude.
“Public health services, they’re not designed and budgeted to be able to do it,” said Belmaker, an associate professor of public health at Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva.
For example, Israel entered this crisis with only 27 epidemiological nurses to conduct contact tracing nationwide. It has since added a few hundred nurses to help. But even now, they’re working non-stop.
“They need help,” Belmaker said. “They can’t do this by themselves. And as has happened, I believe, also in the United States, national governments tend to, when they have all these competing demands on their budgets, it’s kind of always easy to squeeze down on health services.”
The recent surge in cases and lack of public trust in the way the crisis has been handled has led to a steep drop in Netanyahu’s approval ratings to below 40%.
But perhaps more than the health crisis, it’s the economic ruin that is worrying Israelis most. The national unemployment rate has soared to 22%, after peaking at 28% in April. In mid-March, it stood at a historical low of 3.4%.
“People really began to feel the pinch of the economic effects of the lockdown.”
“People really began to feel the pinch of the economic effects of the lockdown,” Belmaker said. “I think we reached within a couple of weeks 1 million people, [who] are either on leave without pay or have been fired. That’s a huge economic impact.”
Last Saturday, thousands of Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv to demand the financial assistance which the government promised, but has been slow to come through. Nine people were arrested in the demonstration.
One group hit especially hard by the pandemic is Israel’s 600,000 self-employed workers.
“For four months of not working, we got only for April, an amount which is equivalent to $3,000,” said Lilach Sapir, co-owner of a Tel Aviv bar called “Peacock”. “That was the maximum. Most of the people got like half of it. This is like nothing.”
Sapir had to close down her bar during the first wave of the coronavirus. Today she’s operating at a loss just to stay open for her regular customers.
“You cannot pay your rent with this amount of money,” she said.
Sapir also owns a restaurant in Berlin. There, she says, the government gave businesses security that it will support them and committed to covering the workers’ salaries.
“What happens here in Israel is that the employees are being sent out to unemployment, they get unemployment, and the business itself got peanuts,” Sapir said. “Those of us who got it, got peanuts.”
That’s driving her out of business, she added.
Sapir has since become one of the organizers of the protests. She says they will continue to demonstrate, with one clear demand: “Money in the bank. Not money on TV, not promises. Money in the bank.”
Eyal, the journalist, says that the failure of the government to contain the virus and minimize its economic effects, has left it hugely unpopular.
“This is a perfect storm,” he said. “You have an outbreak of big proportion, and then you have a government, which is not really functioning very well in answering the needs of people. And that’s creating a lot of mistrust.”