By Cliff Keller — The malls have closed in Israel. As of March 15, 2020 and recent regs passed to hinder the spread of COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus, so have all Israel’s gyms, public swimming pools, discos, bars, restaurants, movie theaters, heritage sites and hotels. Public transportation remains functioning but Israel’s Health Ministry has urged the public to avoid it. Schools and universities have closed as well. Assemblies of more than ten people anywhere is forbidden (20 people may meet if they stand at least 2 meters apart). All visitors to Israel are required to spend two weeks in “home quarantine.”
Three days before the announcement of Israel’s unprecedented hygiene measures, I hopped a bus from my home to Jerusalem’s popular Malcha Mall. It was clear from the outset that Israelis had already begun to take precautions against the spread of the virus. Seats at the front of the bus, normally reserved for seniors, were cordoned off, ostensibly to limit the driver’s exposure to passengers’ germs. Some people aboard wore masks. Vehicle traffic was sparse. No one on board dared cough.
At my next stop, a health system pharmacy, those waiting to be served kept their distance from one another, many of them, myself included, choosing to wait for their numbers to be called while sitting in an overflow area.
“We are at war with an enemy, the coronavirus,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said, “an invisible enemy.” So far, while there has been some outcry, most Israelis we know have avoided panic, perhaps because most of them are war veterans.
Netanyahu added that the Israeli Justice Ministry had given its approval for the Israeli government to employ intelligence tracking tools to digitally monitor coronavirus patients without asking them. Netanyahu acknowledged that the measures infringe upon personal privacy, but, “we will be able to see who [coronavirus patients] were with, what happened before and after [they were infected], and we will be able to isolate the coronavirus and not the entire country.
“We are one of the few countries with this capability, and we will use it,” he said. “We must do everything, as a government and as citizens, to not become infected and not to infect others.”
The restrictions will be in effect until after Passover unless the situation changes. More restrictions could be on the way, Netanyahu added.
The prime minister expressed confidence that essential services will continue in Israel, particularly regarding food arriving by sea and air for day to day life and the upcoming Passover holiday.
“I know there was hysteria,” Netanyahu said, “[but there] is no reason for this. We have ways to fill the shelves.”
Supermarkets, pharmacies, ATM machines and gas stations will continue to operate in Israel, Netanyahu emphasized, but “a new lifestyle needs to be adopted” during this crisis.
When I got home, my neighbor and her four children stepped into our building’s tiny elevator. “Would you like to come in?” she asked me. (After almost four years of our living in this neighborhood—where everyone speaks Hebrew—almost all our neighbors now try to speak English to us, a triumph of empathy.)
“No thank you,” I answered, and, of course, she laughed.