Opinion | What Israel’s Getting Right About Coronavirus

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Doctor on flag of Israel background. 3d illustration
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By Mikhal Weiner

Although I now live in New York City, I’m originally from Israel and I happened to have been back home visiting family as the whole world began its decline into self-quarantine over the past weeks. As a result, I got to witness both societies folding in on themselves from an interesting vantage point.

What is clear is this: The Israeli government and population are taking the outbreak extremely seriously. The United States government and population — not so much.

I know of people returning from Italy to Israel who were ordered into self-quarantine as early as mid-February. They fell in line without complaint. Over the past month, I learned of another case, another quarantine, another closure with each passing day. The Israeli Ministry of Health set up a very clear, dedicated website with information on which countries are considered health risks, how to handle suspected cases, and detailed locations where all known patients went before diagnosis so that those who came in contact with them can self-quarantine.

It is obvious to everyone here in Israel that testing for COVID-19 is free and widely available, due to the socialized health care system. That extremely high health tax doesn’t seem so bad now.

One person I know put himself into self-quarantine for two weeks because he was in the same supermarket as a known patient. His roommates voluntarily moved out of their apartment to be safe.

Another friend entered into self-quarantine for two weeks because he had been in Switzerland on a business trip, even though that meant his wife would have to care for their two children by herself. When I asked his wife what she thought of this, she replied, “It’s what has to be done, isn’t it? Better safe than sorry.”

This kind of story is common, despite the huge financial hit many are taking. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to has lost work. Layoffs are rampant, many are on unpaid leave for an indeterminate amount of time, and those dependent on the gig economy are at a loss to make ends meet.

Nonetheless, compliance with regulations here has been pretty incredible. This has been particularly striking in comparison to the updates I continuously receive from my community in New York and as I listen to the president’s shockingly false statements about the outbreak. It should be obvious that a pandemic is not something spinnable, that we need to take immediate and extreme measures to control it when human lives are at stake.

A doctor friend in New York shared with me that she simply does not have tests for the virus; even when people appear with suspicious symptoms, all she can do is send them home with regular flu advice and medications.

Without tests, of course, people can’t be quarantined and the virus can’t be contained. The numbers of confirmed cases that the United States is reporting are hard to corroborate — there could be many more who were sent home because there aren’t enough tests.

Israelis and Palestinians, on the other hand, have not wasted time getting their priorities in order.

By early March, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government declared a state of emergency and were collaborating to control the virus. I can’t remember the last time the PA and the Israelis collaborated on anything. In this case, though, everyone wants to do whatever they can to get this thing under control.

Israeli medical teams have sent hundreds of coronavirus tests and gallons of disinfectant into the Palestinian territories. Officials from both sides of the divide are coordinating collaborative meetings for doctors from both communities. This may be the most surreal part of the whole ordeal, especially for someone like myself who was raised amid ongoing violence and hatred.

That being said, I’m not an idealist and I have no illusions about everyone’s self-interest. It’s clear that the Israeli government wants to control COVID-19 within Palestinian territories to make sure it doesn’t spread to Israelis and vice versa. Officials have said as much when they stated that this is a “virus that doesn’t respect borders.” The important part, though, is that they’re working together.

To be sure, things are far from perfect.

The Purim parade settlers held in Hebron while their Palestinian neighbors were under lockdown was both in poor taste and downright dangerous. Ultra-Orthodox communities are flaunting the regulations, carrying on yeshiva studies in large groups despite the lockdown. On the whole, though, the feeling is that most people seem to be rallying. Doing what needs to be done. Keeping a stiff upper lip.

It occurs to me that Israelis and Palestinians are actually particularly well-positioned to handle this kind of emergency. We are, after all, quite practiced at finding ourselves in life-or-death situations and following extreme regulations in order to stay safe.

After spending much of our youth running for cover or avoiding dangerous hot spots, after living through multiple wars, after being beaten down by the inhumanity and impossibility of the conflict — what’s a little quarantine?

It’s a strange, cynical silver lining in a mess of a situation. But a silver lining nonetheless. And if this is the only one we’ll get, I’ll take it.

Mikhal Weiner is a writer based in New York City.

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