- David M. Weinberg - https://davidmweinberg.com -

Numskulls, don’t spread the plague!

Published in The Jerusalem Post [1], August 21, 2020; and in Israel Hayom [2], August 24, 2020.

Print-friendly copy [3] 

Alas, Israelis are wantonly flouting all sensible health restrictions. Just about every sector in this country has slacked off the social distancing guidelines, whether at work, at home, or play. We need rigorous government enforcement of the rules. 

[4] Cartoon: Shlomo Cohen, Israel Hayom.

Friends of mine recently traveled from Toronto to Cleveland for the wedding of their son. On the way back into Canada, border officials served them with a mandatory 14-day self-isolation order, to limit the introduction and spread of Covid-19. 

My friends had to sign a declaration in which they acknowledged the fact that “failure to comply with this order and other related measures are offenses under the Quarantine Act Section 58 Emergency Order,” and that “the maximum penalties are a fine of up to $1,000,000 and/or imprisonment for three years.” 

This no text error. The fine is in fact one million dollars. (That is Canadian dollars, not US dollars, but still!) 

During their first week of quarantine, Ontario Ministry of Health officials called twice to make sure my friends were quarantining, and a physical visit by health officials is expected too. 

In Melbourne, Australia, residents are currently under curfew – barred from leaving their homes between 8 pm and 5 am except for urgent medical care. Those who test positive for corona can expect to be door-knocked by police and Australian defense force personnel. They face whopping fines if they are not at home.

Other Australian “stage 4” restrictions are in place for six weeks, at least. Even during daytime, Melbourne residents can only leave their home for four reasons: shopping for food and essential items, care and caregiving, daily exercise, and work. Employers must support work-from-home arrangements where possible.

Exercise must take place within 5 km. of home, and is limited to one hour, once per day. Pubs and nightclubs are closed, as are entertainment and cultural venues. Libraries can only stay open for essential services, or to host funerals. Religious services must be broadcast online, only. Schools are distance-learning only. Playgrounds, gyms, and camping venues are closed. Weddings are not permitted.

Police can issue on-the-spot fines of up to $1,652 for individuals and up to $9,913 to businesses, with almost no recourse to appeal. (That is Australian dollars, not US dollars, but still!)

Clearly, these are blunt approaches to containing the coronavirus, backed-up by rigorous and intrusive enforcement. But apparently, the tough measures are necessary, and I understand that Canadian and Australian citizens are mostly compliant.

Here is the rub: The incidence of corona is far lower in Canada and Australia than it currently is in Israel! Canada is considered a “green” country. And yet the Israeli government seems incapable of again taking tough lockdown decisions, and worse still – the Israeli public is wantonly flouting all sensible current health restrictions.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Just about every sector in this country has slacked off the social distancing guidelines, whether at work, at home, or play.

Sure, many people are being careful about where they go and how often, and many wear masks most of the time, but most people also are enjoying risky indoor and outdoor summer gatherings.

Israeli Arabs and Jerusalemite Arabs are holding massive wedding celebrations without regard for coronavirus guidelines, as are significant segments of the Ultra-Orthodox community. The secular public has its mass political rallies in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv where people dance with and hug one another, along with packed nightclubs. Insanely, flights in/out of Israel and cultural performances are supposed to re-open in September – under the (natural, but ill-advised) pressure of unions and lobby groups.

It is as if everybody is loafing around with abandon, while the plague laughs and reaps a grim toll.

With only two weeks before the school year is scheduled to start (and a day or two before the yeshiva semester starts), Israel’s morbidity rate remains worryingly high. The death toll is over 700, there are over 95,000 patients in total, and the number of patients in serious condition is 400 and rising. These are scary statistics.

If schools open as planned, and the High Holy Days are marked by large gatherings at synagogues, Israel could have hundreds more serious patients two weeks later. Remember what happened at the Gymnasia Rehavia school in Jerusalem only three months ago? More than 100 people contacted coronavirus after one teacher brought it into the school.

As for “capsules” in schools, workplaces, the army or at weddings: Somebody in Israel should get a prank Nobel Prize for inventing this unwieldy, unworkable, fake concept.

Bill Gates, a co-founder of Microsoft who has been funding pandemic studies for years, told The Economist this week that millions more are going to die before the covid-19 pandemic is over. This mainly because of expected winter-time strain on health-care systems. While more than 150 vaccines are being developed worldwide, with six large-scale clinical trials underway, it will be likely be the end of 2021 before these are available in mass quantities.

The bottom line is that the only way to avoid a second total lockdown of Israeli society and economy next month, and perhaps again when the flu season erupts in the winter, is for the Israeli public to self-isolate as much as possible and to dutifully abide by all current restrictions.

But no Israeli wants to be the freier (sucker) who takes it on the chin first by canceling a hotel vacation or large family wedding when everybody else is not sufficiently self-restricting.

Therefore, we will not get public compliance without draconian government enforcement of the rules. A few fines of only NIS 800 for not wearing a mask in public is a joke. Employing another two dozen health officials to track and chastise quarantine breakers is ludicrously insufficient too.

We need fastidious enforcement and rigorous punishment of lawbreakers, whether they be Hassidic rebbes or left-wing politicians who encourage their followers to attend pandemic-propagating events, or the simple sheep who gladly take advantage of opportunities to celebrate and demonstrate. We need enforcement, enforcement, and again more enforcement.

The primacy of human life is a fundamental principle of Jewish law and a core value of Jewish tradition. This is known as pikuach nefesh, and the term applies to our current coronavirus situation with laser-sharp precision.

The haredi leader and halachic decisor Rabbi Asher Weiss of Jerusalem puts the matter starkly. It is bad enough to endanger oneself. It is even worse to infect another person; that is tantamount to attempted murder, he asserts. Or as the national coronavirus czar Prof. Roni Gamzu said of wild weddings in eastern Jerusalem: These events are equivalent to terrorist attacks.

During the First Gulf War, then-IDF spokesman Nahman Shai famously said to Israelis who climbed their rooftops to watch Iraqi Scuds slicing through the air: “Idiots, get off the roofs!” We need national leaders today too with the gumption to tell Israelis: “Numskulls, don’t spread the plague!” And then get truly tough with those who don’t conform.