Israel closes borders, world cut off

Netanyahu and Trump / Photo: Reuters Kevin Lamarque

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agree over most things but their approach to the virus crisis could not have been more different.

To adapt the apocryphal British newspaper headline "Fog in channel - Continent cut off," Israel is setting about containing the Covid-19 virus by shutting out the rest of the world.

Taking advantage of its geopolitical isolation and secure borders, Israel first banned non-Israeli arrivals from China, then the rest of East Asia, then Italy and now most of Western Europe. There were health officials who would have liked to add the US to the blacklist, which includes Germany, France and Spain but in the end Uncle Sam was given a reprieve. It will only take one Israeli returning from the US or any other country with the virus for the US or wherever to be blacklisted.

The swift and dramatic action taken by Israel's Ministry of Health includes banning events of more than 5,000, canceling Purim parades, advising people over 60 not to attend crowded events or shake hands, and of course all people self-quarantining for 14 days after returning from blacklisted countries or being in the vague vicinity of one of the 15 Israelis (so far) diagnosed with the disease. The Ministry of Health has also advised against all foreign travel and banned all civil servants and health workers from going abroad. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi has called off a trip to the US.

These dramatic measures have been criticized from all sides. The optimists say that the actions will damage Israel's foreign relations with friendly countries and cause untold economic damage. The pessimists say that the spread of the disease is inevitable and these measures will ultimately fail.

But as the WHO keeps reminding us, we are in "uncharted territory" and therefore, nobody really knows how the virus will play out - the WHO cannot even give us an accurate mortality figure for Covid-19 - raising it significantly yesterday from 2% to 3.4%.

For their part the Health Ministry would argue "a better safe than sorry" approach is advisable, while even if the inevitable happens and the pandemic sweeps through Israel, the delay caused by the border closure may prevent the health system from being overwhelmed and gain more time for Israeli doctors and health workers to learn from the experience fast being gained abroad.

What is to be commended is the decisiveness of Israel's authorities, which can go a long way in calming the public and preventing anxiety and even panic. Employees forced into self-quarantine are by law entitled to 14-days paid sick leave. It seems to be working although goodness knows how much it will all cost. Store shelves are still full and judging by the jams going in and out of Israel's main cities, life goes on.

To a great extent, this is because Israel is experienced in living through emergency civil drills. It is usually Ministry of Defense officials combating terrorism and war who call the tune but now the baton has been passed onto Ministry of Health officials.

In contrast the US and Western Europe seem uncertain whether they are dealing with something akin to a bad bout of flu or an enemy as deadly as the Nazis.

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agree over most things but their approach to the coronavirus crisis could not have been more different.

Netanyahu has been taking the threat very seriously and is letting his senior health officials get on with the job while Trump has been eager to play down the threat on every possible occasion. Having assured people last week that the virus will soon be eradicated, Trump yesterday told Fox News that the 3.4% WHO mortality rate figure is false. While it is certainly true that the figure depends in part on the quality of a country's health services, it is unclear how the US will cope with a pandemic when so many millions of Americans have very limited medical services. Also worrying is that senior US health officials were taken by surprise when Trump announced that Vice President Mike Pence had been appointed to head a US task force.

Trump is also calming people by insisting that the warm weather in April will kill off the virus. Health experts might disagree and meteorologists might point out that most of the US is not very warm in April. Perhaps Trump has been converted to the concept of climate change and global warming.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 5, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Netanyahu and Trump / Photo: Reuters Kevin Lamarque
Netanyahu and Trump / Photo: Reuters Kevin Lamarque
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