Governments Face New Set of Challenges Reopening the Economy
Analysts say that polices easing coronavirus restrictions need to be predictable and transparent
A school in the central Israeli city of Rehovot had to temporarily shutter shortly after reopening when a counselor contracted the coronavirus, sending 52 people into isolation, including two students who were infected.
Commuters going back to work were forced to forgo social distancing measures at Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station because of health directives limiting seating capacity on buses in addition to a delay in getting rail service back on track.
Israel’s experience in restarting sectors of the economy such as education and public transportation demonstrate the risks involved, potentially causing fresh coronavirus outbreaks and opening the government to criticism.
“Giving instructions to the public as to what is and what is not allowed has been really messed up in a severe way,” Prof. Benjamin Bental, chair of the Economics Policy Program at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, told The Media Line.
Bental used the opening of the school system as an example of how the Israeli government, in his estimation, is providing confusing and contradictory information.
“There is no clear guideline which tells parents and teachers, the adult population, and also the pupils, what to expect should one of their peers be detected as being a carrier of the virus,” Bental said.
The Health Ministry website states that a distance of at least two meters must be maintained in public spaces, something that was not possible at Jerusalem Central Bus Station on Sunday, as pictures and video of the overcrowding show.
Shimrit Nothman, CEO of passenger advocacy organization 15 Minutes, told The Media Line that the coronavirus crisis in Israel was being replaced by a transportation crisis as seating capacity is limited to 20 passengers on most buses, meaning that three buses are needed for every bus that was in service before the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Passengers stand at the central bus stations without being able to maintain social distancing,” Nothman said. “Others who try to catch the bus en route see buses pass them one after the other without stopping since they are full.”
In the United States, governors are under pressure to reopen the economy with the labor market in dire straits, but that doesn’t mean that people will necessarily follow new guidelines easing restrictions, according to Jennifer Huang Bouey, a senior policy researcher and Tang Chair in China Policy Studies at the RAND Corporation with a doctorate in epidemiology.
“Whether that really helps the economy depends on people’s confidence,” Bouey told The Media Line. “Even when it’s open, it doesn’t mean that the mall will fill up with people immediately. Most of the states have been in stay-at-home mode for about two months, so I think even when there’s an opening policy, we will still see a very gradual movement to recovery rather than immediate, which I think because we are still seeing these new cases coming out every day.”
The push to reopen businesses is even more in focus with Memorial Day activities on May 25 traditionally being the unofficial kickoff to the summer season in the US.
“This is a typical time when people go to the beach, the summer starts,” Bouey said. “So I think there’s lots of anxiety about not being able to open retail during the season.”
In contrast to Israel’s approach to reopening sectors of the economy such as schools, Austria is a model country, according to Bental.
The central European nation by the end of April had announced a timetable and framework for how the educational system was going to be released from the coronavirus restrictions.
“It was a very clearly defined and very clearly delineated program. It gave everyone involved a clear view of what to expect and how this is going to work,” Bental said.
The best way to handle a pandemic is not to have to shut down large parts of the economy to begin with. That is possible with early containment measures through a rigorous program of testing, tracing and isolation. This approach was successfully implemented by East Asian economies, particularly South Korea, according to Bouey.
South Korea introduced a public health law after the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) outbreak there in 2015 that allows the government to use individual location information during a pandemic.
“Using that system they never need to close the business or ask people to stay home, because they always know where the case clusters are,” Bouey said.
There is a unique trust level between South Korean citizens and the government because the public sees the law as a trade-off between losing some privacy rights and earning other rights such as not being forced to close their businesses, according to Bouey.
“So that’s a consensus between the public and they even had an election a couple of weeks ago and that didn’t cause any outbreak,” added Bouey.