News Analysis: Israel at crossroads, contemplating exit strategy as COVID-19 lockdown gradually lifted

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Xinhua, October 15, 2020
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by Keren Setton

JERUSALEM, Oct. 14 (Xinhua) -- Israel is emerging from its second nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, with the government deliberating on the steps needed to avoid a renewed surge in cases.

On Tuesday, cabinet ministers voted to extend the lockdown for a few days until a final decision is made on how to lift the strict measures gradually. Israelis are anxiously waiting, as they are eager to return to some form of routine.

With a population of approximately 9 million, Israel is among the leading countries in the world in terms of infection tally, nearing 300,000. Over 2,000 Israelis have died from the virus since its outbreak in March.

Israel's economy has taken a major hit, which has put the government under pressure to ease restrictions. Unemployment rate is at almost 25 percent, with many sectors wiped out by the impacts of the pandemic.

Israel was one of the first countries to close its borders and go under complete lockdown. The move had won international praise, but when restrictions were lifted weeks later, a heavy price was paid.

So, the government is trying to adopt and implement a gradual lifting of the measures with at least two weeks between each phase in order to avert the resurgence of infections that was witnessed after the first lockdown.

The cabinet will likely try and reinstate the "traffic light" plan that was approved in the summer, aiming to curb the spread of the virus with a differential approach that allows areas with a lower infection rate to live with less restrictions. "Red cities" will be the first to have strict measures enforced upon them.

"Israel must adopt a differential approach," said Yoav Yehezkelli, an expert on internal medicine and medical administration. "The treatment needs to be in very specific areas, neighborhoods and even streets."

"The localized approach is critical not only for medical reasons, but also from a social and economic perspective," said Cyrille Cohen, vice dean of the Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences at Bar-Ilan University. "It just doesn't make sense that places with very low morbidity should be under restrictions."

With a shaky coalition government, the rival parties have accused each other of different political interests clouding their decisions, rather than letting health considerations take precedence.

Many of the cities with a high morbidity rate are Jewish ultra-Orthodox. Their political parties are part of the coalition government, and opposed attempts to impose restrictions solely on their cities and their rituals, many of which entail mass gatherings.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been accused of favoring political stability and caving in their demands. Netanyahu's political rivals question his motives, as he faces trial for serious corruption charges.

Almost one month after the second lockdown was enforced, it appears that Israel is on the way to making the same mistakes it did last time. The lockdown did bring to a drastic decline in the daily infection rate. But, a rushed return to a pre-pandemic routine would quickly erase the achievement.

"I am very concerned that mistakes will be repeated," Yehezkelli said. "I don't think we learned the lessons. The education system was opened in an uncontrolled manner and there was not enough attention to potentially hazardous areas."

Netanyahu and his government have come under harsh criticism for the handling of the crisis. Protests against the government have been widespread in recent weeks, even though large demonstrations have been prohibited under the lockdown restrictions. This ban is expected to be lifted in the first stage.

Several violations of the lockdown by senior cabinet ministers and government officials have also contributed to the public lack of faith in its leaders.

Israel's path to success in fighting the pandemic is unclear and fragile. Cohen urged that decisions need to be based on scientific facts, not on politics. Enditem

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