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11 Aug 2020 8:47
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  •   Home > News > International

    Israelis were told to 'have fun' after lockdowns eased. Now they're facing a coronavirus COVID-19 second wave

    When Israel began unwinding coronavirus restrictions in May, the Prime Minister encouraged citizens to "return to normal". But a recent surge in numbers has reversed its early success and fuelled anger at the Government's COVID-19 response.

    "Return to normal — get a cup of coffee and a glass of beer."

    That was what Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told citizens when he eased the country's coronavirus restrictions in late May.

    "First of all, have fun," he added.

    After weeks of harsh lockdowns that put one million people out of work, Mr Netanyahu was in a hurry to restart Israel's economy.

    So Israelis returned to work, to beaches, to gyms and, critically, to school.

    It was the last move particularly that proved to be a deadly mistake.

    In a country where classes have between 30-40 children, experts have blamed the full reopening of schools for a second wave.

    "When you put youngsters in such a dense situation — and for one week they allowed them without masks — you are seeking trouble," said Professor Gabi Barbash, who is a public health specialist at Israel's Weizmann Institute.

    "And now the trouble is here.

    "The younger age of the initial outbreak, and the wide distribution all over the country, that makes us believe that this is the root of the new outbreak."

    Professor Barbash and other researchers have also criticised the reopening of event halls and allowing large weddings to be held last month, which government officials have now linked to many new infections.

    A reversal of early success

    Israel, a country of just 9.2 million, is now recording up to 1,500 new COVID-19 cases every day.

    It is the third highest total daily numbers in the European region tracked by the World Health Organisation.

    As a result, Israel — along with the United States and Russia — has been placed on a list of "red" countries by the European Union, meaning its citizens cannot travel to Europe.

    Yet Israel had touted itself as an early leader in managing the coronavirus.

    It had even proposed being included in Australia's safe travel bubble and began preparing to reopen for tourists.

    Its travel bans and lockdowns in March and April suppressed new cases to just 16 per day by mid-May. But they came at an enormous economic cost.

    Now, as the government scrambles to lock down hotspot neighbourhoods and reintroduce restrictions, thousands of Israelis are protesting the lack of state assistance after they lost their jobs and closed their businesses.

    What are the hardest hit areas?

    Researchers at Tel Aviv University linked the majority of Israel's initial coronavirus cases to travellers from the United States, who were allowed to return to Israel without quarantine until well after other destinations.

    As in the first wave of the epidemic, Jewish ultra-orthodox suburbs — which are considered Israel's densest and poorest — have the highest concentration of cases.

    Their mayors and members of parliament have been loudly objecting, while protests against the closures turned violent.

    There have also been outbreaks in Arab-Israeli areas, where Nashwa Alrifahie's relatives are in mandatory quarantine.

    "They are pretty much suffering because the Government isn't really supplying them with what is enough for living expenses," she said.

    "Nothing. They're giving them nothing."

    According to Arab-Israeli paramedic Mohammed Zaher Zabarqah, his community didn't take enough precautions against the virus.

    "We saw many people participating in mass gatherings, like weddings and festivals," he said.

    The resurgence in COVID-19 cases has also spilled over into the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority initially contained the virus with tough restrictions on movement.

    But workers returning from Israel have spread the virus throughout major Palestinian cities, which have now gone back into lockdown.

    With many Palestinians depending on work in Israel for their livelihoods — and having been pushed into poverty by the first round of restrictions — lengthy closures are no longer an option.

    It has meant health authorities now have fewer ways to control this resurgence.

    Professor Barbash doubts Israel will be able to contain the coronavirus again.

    "I think we have lost the advantage that we had when we first controlled the outbreak," he said.

    "We have lost the possibility to … totally control, to eradicate the epidemic and we will have to live with that."

    Anger building over Netanyahu's COVID-19 response

    Israel's Government is copping most of the blame for the recent surge in cases, including from its own officials.

    The epidemiologist in charge of public health, Siegal Sadetzki, ended up quitting, saying the Government was not listening to her.

    "The achievements in dealing with the first wave [of infections] were cancelled out by the broad and swift opening of the economy," she said.

    As a result, Mr Netanyahu has taken a battering in the latest polls.

    The Prime Minister has been accused of being focused on other issues, such as his attempt to annex parts of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank.

    His critics say the controversial move distracted attention from the coronavirus response.

    Mr Netanyahu is also facing the resumption of his trial for corruption offences, another potential distraction.

    But he managed to get a tax refund worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for renovations to his private residence through parliament, later apologising for the "unfortunate timing".

    That came as Israelis realised their economic sacrifices during the first wave were in vain.

    "I think we have paid an enormous economic and social price on what was achieved here," Professor Barbash said.

    "And we have destructed that value."


    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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