Israel knew how to beat a pandemic, we didn’t

'How has the supposedly chaotic nation of balagan done so well, while a nation associated with well-run order and calm has suffered so badly?'

May 27, 2020 14:51

Not for the first time, I’ve found myself thinking of Amos Oz. Not only because he’d have had a thing or two to say about the newly-formed government of Binyamin Netanyahu and its promise to annex one third of the West Bank, land that should rightly form part of a future Palestinian state — though of course Oz would have had plenty to say about that.

None of us can claim to speak for the dead, but I think it’s a safe bet that the man who was for so long Israel’s foremost novelist, both revered and reviled as the conscience of his nation, would have opposed this move. He believed that Israelis’ future, their chance of living in a secure, democratic state of their own, depended on there being two states in the biblical Land of Israel, Israel and Palestine, side by side. The prospects of such an arrangement ever becoming a reality were already fragile. Annexation, scheduled for July, will all but kill them off.

And yet, that’s not why Oz has been in my thoughts. Rather, I’ve been thinking of a line from his last book. “I love Israel even when I cannot stand it,” he wrote. “Should I be fated to collapse in the street one day, I want to collapse in a street in Israel. Not in London, nor Paris, nor Berlin, nor New York. Here strangers will come and pick me up (and when I’m back on my feet, there will certainly be quite a few who would be pleased to see me fall).”

That’s come back to me because of an odd, unexpected twist in the coronavirus story. Consider this contrast. In one corner stands Israel, a country that for the last year has had a void where its government should be, as three successive elections failed to anoint a winner. In charge has been a leader who this week stood in the non-metaphorical dock, appearing in court to face multiple corruption charges.

To the naked eye, the country’s people are famously disorganised, even chaotically unruly: an “Israeli queue” is a living, breathing oxymoron. The idea of demanding Israelis refrain from seeing their parents or grandparents should be ludicrous; preventing them from touching each other, or standing close, laughably absurd.

In the other corner, meanwhile, stands Britain, a country that prides itself on political stability and good governance, with a state machinery it liked to believe was a Rolls Royce engine of efficiency, a model to the world. As for the citizenry, why, observing social rules is Britons’ forte, queuing all but a national sport.

And yet, look at the numbers. Britain has the highest excess deaths figure in Europe and one of the worst per capita death rates in the world: some 64,000 are dead. Israel, meanwhile, has one of the very lowest. As I write, the total Israeli death toll from coronavirus stands at 281. The country is steadily emerging from the crisis, as markets and restaurants re-open and life returns to something closer to normality.

What explains this vast difference? How has the supposedly chaotic nation of balagan done so well, while a nation associated with well-run order and calm has suffered so badly?

There are structural answers to those questions and the public health experts have already been giving them. They cite the fact that Israel’s most affected groups were young, and the young tend to survive coronavirus. Or that Israel is unusually easy to seal off from the outside world, since 95 percent of arrivals into the country tend to come through a single airport.

But there might be something else too. Credit here to Jonathan Kestenbaum, who many JC readers will think of as a member of the House of Lords but whom I still think of as my former madrich and an old friend. He shared with me his theory that Israeli decision-makers are simply better at handling a crisis — chiefly because they’ve had so much practice.

What he had in mind is not so much the politicians as the public health officials and bureaucrats who took the lead and took it fast. Their decisions were swift, severe and effective: early lockdown, defined so tightly that no one could go more than 100m from their home; 14-day quarantine for arrivals from abroad; incoming flights halted as early as February; serious protection of the over-70s.

Britain’s decision-makers did not move anything like as quickly or, as the numbers testify, as effectively. Maybe that’s because the last time Britain’s state apparatus faced an all-consuming threat to the nation’s security was 1945. Whereas Israel has seen life-or-death threats strike at a rate of at least one a decade for its entire history. Scrambling onto a war-footing comes naturally.

That’s probably only part of the reason why Oz nominated his home country as the place where it’d be wisest to collapse in the street, but it’s a good one. He understood that however misguided or corrupt its leaders, however incapable they are of addressing the conflict that will ultimately determine the fate of the country, this much at least can be said of Israel and Israelis: they know how to handle a crisis.


Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist


May 27, 2020 14:51

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