Ob­ser­va­tions

...driv­ing Is­rael’s re­sponse to the new coro­n­avirus?

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - BRIAN BLUM

As COVID-19, the dis­ease caused by the new SARSCoV-2 coro­n­avirus, tran­si­tions into a global pan­demic, nu­mer­ous coun­tries have en­acted vary­ing de­grees of travel bans and quar­an­tines. Is­rael has taken some of the ear­li­est, most dra­co­nian steps in the world, ban­ning trav­el­ers from af­fected re­gions, can­cel­ing pub­lic events and con­fer­ences, plac­ing tens of thou­sands of po­ten­tially in­fec­tious trav­el­ers in 14-day home quar­an­tines, and rec­om­mend­ing that Is­raelis not fly abroad for the time be­ing, prompt­ing pic­tures shared to so­cial me­dia of an eerily empty Ben-Gu­rion Air­port.

Many Is­raelis are up in arms over the dis­rup­tion to their lives the new reg­u­la­tions are caus­ing.

They have good rea­son to be skep­ti­cal.

Travel bans sim­ply don’t work for these kinds of res­pi­ra­tory viruses “be­cause they move too quickly,” says Jen­nifer Nuzzo, an epi­demi­ol­o­gist at the Johns Hop­kins Cen­ter for Health Se­cu­rity. “I think this virus will turn up ev­ery­where be­cause that’s how res­pi­ra­tory viruses tend to spread.”

Har­vard epi­demi­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor Marc Lip­sitch pre­dicts that within the com­ing year, some 40%-70% of peo­ple around the world will be in­fected with COVID-19, al­though he em­pha­sized in an ar­ti­cle in The At­lantic that most will have mild dis­ease or be asymp­to­matic. By this time next year, he quipped, “cold and flu sea­son” could be­come “cold, flu and COVID-19 sea­son.”

A 2014 Bri­tish meta-anal­y­sis on the ef­fect of travel re­stric­tions on in­fluenza out­breaks con­cluded that bans slowed dis­ease spread by no more than 3%. But that may be enough to stop a coun­try-wide out­break that over­whelms the med­i­cal sys­tem. If we can push the full con­ta­gion off un­til af­ter the “reg­u­lar” win­ter flu sea­son, the think­ing goes, it may be more man­age­able.

I’d like to sug­gest an­other rea­son why Is­rael has been so ex­treme in its ap­proach: a long­stand­ing fear of the other.

The new coro­n­avirus is highly trig­ger­ing to the Jewish peo­ple’s col­lec­tive mem­ory. It re­minds us of all those in our past who have tried to wipe us out (even if this time it’s not a na­tion do­ing the killing). The hol­i­day of Purim only re­in­forces that mes­sage.

Now that we have our own state, we Is­raelis are hy­per-aware of any­one – or any­thing – com­ing to harm us; our com­mit­ment to “never again” means that Jewish sur­vival has be­come one of our ul­ti­mate im­per­a­tives.

While that may pro­vide some ex­pla­na­tion for what’s hap­pen­ing in the coun­try, there is still some­thing un­set­tling about Is­rael shut­ting it­self off from the world and turn­ing into a ghetto of its own mak­ing.

I know we’re talk­ing about a health ghetto whose bor­ders are os­ten­si­bly to save lives. But there have been less sa­vory ex­am­ples of “oth­ers” that re­cent Is­raeli gov­ern­ments have tried to keep out: refugees from Africa, im­mi­grants with Jewish back­grounds deemed “ques­tion­able” by the rab­binate, and left­ists whose po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism is seen as threat­en­ing.

This is clearly not an ap­proach that I sup­port. So, should it also im­pact my views on COVID-19-prompted bans and quar­an­tines?

I’ve found my­self ping-pong­ing over the last few weeks – at times de­fi­ant (“bans are stupid”), other times ap­pre­cia­tive (as some­one who is im­muno­com­pro­mised from can­cer treat­ment, I’m in the group that’s most vul­ner­a­ble to coro­n­avirus com­pli­ca­tions).

There’s a les­son from Is­rael’s re­cent past that may help guide us through this con­fus­ing pe­riod. Let’s treat COVID-19 as we do ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

How do Is­raelis re­spond to bus bomb­ings and stab­bings and rock­ets? By con­tin­u­ing to live our lives.

Sure, dur­ing the Sec­ond In­tifada, we took pre­cau­tions. We made sure to fre­quent cafés with armed guards and kept the keys to our bomb shel­ters handy. Tourists were wary, but many still came. Ter­ror­ism didn’t break us, nor should the new coro­n­avirus. Ter­ror­ist at­tacks – like viruses – can arise at any point. Mis­siles from Gaza, Le­banon and Syria are al­ways poised to be launched, but that hasn’t stopped us from go­ing about our daily ac­tiv­i­ties, just like we don’t think twice about driv­ing our cars on Is­rael’s dan­ger­ous roads. It’s how we com­part­men­tal­ize risk in the Mid­dle East.

That doesn’t mean we should ig­nore the Min­istry of Health’s ad­vi­sories – es­pe­cially when the po­lice can bust you if you’re rat­ted out for break­ing quar­an­tine. If I were to come in con­tact with some­one who had the virus, I would of course ac­cede to the min­istry’s reg­u­la­tions.

De­pict­ing COVID-19 as a vi­ral ter­ror­ist con­founds the nar­ra­tive of fear­ing the other. It al­lows us to think log­i­cally – from ex­pe­ri­ence – not out of hys­te­ria.

In­deed, much of the strat­egy to con­tain COVID-19 seems driven by panic. It’s like when two air­planes crash in quick suc­ces­sion.

“Fly­ing sud­denly feels scarier, even if your con­scious mind knows that those crashes are a sta­tis­ti­cal aber­ra­tion with lit­tle bear­ing on the safety of your next flight,” writes Max Fisher in The New York Times. With the new coro­n­avirus, we’re fo­cused on the fa­tal­i­ties, not on the 98% of peo­ple who are re­cov­er­ing or who had mild cases.

That’s why, when a friend’s mother died re­cently, we went to visit dur­ing the shiva mourn­ing pe­riod. A few days later, we at­tended a house con­cert of a lovely new in­die folk band (shout out to Salt­wa­ter). At the same time, we’ve adopted a form of greet­ing that I pro­moted in this col­umn al­ready two years ago when I started chemo­ther­apy: el­bow bumps in­stead of hand­shakes. Now it’s pub­lic policy.

I’m not try­ing to be fa­tal­is­tic. Ob­vi­ously, if the sit­u­a­tion de­te­ri­o­rates, I’ll not stand on chutz­pah or cer­e­mony.

Still, I hope that a smart bal­ance can demon­strate that “fear of the other” is not the in­evitable epi­ge­netic legacy of the Jewish peo­ple’s mil­len­nia-long shared trauma and that there are bet­ter ways to for­mu­late a re­sponse to these chal­leng­ing times.

The writer’s book, To­taled: The Bil­lion-Dol­lar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is avail­able on Ama­zon and other on­line book­sell­ers. bri­an­blum.com

De­pict­ing COVID-19 as a vi­ral ter­ror­ist al­lows us to think log­i­cally – from ex­pe­ri­ence – not out of hys­te­ria

(Eli Ber­l­zon/Reuters)

RES­I­DENTS HOLD placards (this one reads ‘No to corona’) as they demon­strate against a re­port that Is­rael may quar­an­tine vis­i­tors from South Korea at a mil­i­tary base in Har Gilo, on Fe­bru­ary 23.

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