Israel Grapples with Pandemic Re-openings
Schools, economy hit restart – and citizens struggle to make sense of health regulations.
As the government sets out regulations for safely reopening schools and other sectors of society, some Israelis are unnerved by how the new rules play out in practice.
Public transportation plays a big part. Many grow anxious upon seeing pictures in the media of people crowding bus stations and waiting until – if there is enough room – they can practice social distancing once they board.
“The bus stations symbolize the need for professionalism, which is currently lacking,” said Hagai Levine, associate professor of epidemiology at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School of Public Health in Jerusalem, and chairman of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians.
“It’s not for the government to [just] give instructions; it has to invest in finding proper solutions, working with the community and transportation authorities,” he told The Media Line.
“We need more public transportation, not less,” Levine stressed. “If you have fewer buses, there will be more crowding. This logic is not being translated into action.”
Responding to the scenes of crowding at central bus stations, Dr. Asher Salmon, head of international relations at Israel’s Health Ministry, told The Media Line: “It’s hard to enforce social distancing and it makes sense to [issue fines] and instruct people to keep two meters apart from each other and, of course, to properly wear [a] face mask. People tend to wear it half-way, which doesn’t protect you or others.”
Education is another sector where the government seems to be sending mixed messages. Some parents are unnerved at seeing teachers posting photos of themselves on social media, seemingly unaware that they are not wearing their masks properly or are holding cleaning sprays that are not proper disinfectants.
As a result, Chavie Fuchs, a marketing strategist for small businesses and non-profits, said she preferred to wait another two weeks before sending her children back to school. She explained that she wanted to see if the “curve remains flat,” referring to the graph of COVID-19 infections.
“Teachers and principals aren’t being properly educated on the products and tools they should use to follow the safety measures,” Fuchs told the Media Line. “Part of my concern isn’t just the government reopening schools, but that it is starting to reopen everything. If the schools had opened first, before other things, it would have made me comfortable.”
Emma Gutman, mother of a 16-year-old, feels more comfortable about sending her youngster back to school.
“My daughter is in a smaller class of only 15, so I feel less worried,” she told The Media Line.
“I would prefer the [students] wear [masks] also in class… and [that] the school check temperatures before people enter,” she said. “Even though the parents are supposed to [check in and] sign a health form every day, I still think the school should be responsible [for] this as well.”
The Health Ministry’s Salmon says the focus should be on maintaining adequate spacing between children.
“Masks are still questionable for younger children,” he explained. “In our view, in the cases where masks are difficult [to use, school authorities] should insist on distance between the students, even when playing during breaks.”
Levine, the epidemiologist, said the manner in which schools were reopening indicated a lack information on health and “epidemiology in action,” such as tracking and surveillance, two areas where he said Israel’s health system had far to go.
“It seems like there is a disconnect between the decision-makers and what is going on in reality, and you see this today, with the opening of the kindergartens, where there was so much confusion,” Levine said, referring to the first day back for preschoolers.
“When you make a decision, you have to evaluate it in terms of surveys and studies conducted in schools now. We need to work [in a way that is] evidence-based, and to evaluate and use common sense,” he explained.
“The Health Ministry needs to not only tell the public what to do, but also what not to do,” he stated.
One reason schools are reopening is to allow parents to go back to work and help fire up the economy.
Grades one through three reopened last week on a voluntary basis for parents, and pupils are in class every day. But kindergarteners and preschoolers are going for just three days a week, making it difficult for their parents to go back to work.
The plan is for all schools to reopen fulltime by the end of the month.
“The municipalities are mainly responsible for getting the businesses and the economy back on track…. It’s mostly about giving people the confidence to go out and participate,” Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum told The Media Line.
“If people are sensible about staying away from crowds, [if they] wear masks, keep social distancing rules and practice good health hygiene, I think we have a shot at getting back to normalcy very soon,” she stated.
“I think that people in general are willing to go out,” she explained. “There are a lot of unemployed people, and people going out and buying is one quick way to get the economy back on track, and more people employed again.”
Asked about the mixed signals seen in some of the safety guidelines, Hassan-Nahoum advised looking at the government’s positive track record in keeping the infection and fatality numbers low so far.
“This is the first time the government has faced a situation like this, and in general, I think it is very easy to think some aspects of the regulations are nonsensical,” she said. “However, Israel’s results, when you look at how [it] has fared to date, [are good, so a willingness to] trust in the system that has seen us through the worst is warranted.”
She added that if there were a resurgence of infections, the government would shut things back down, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said he would.
“The government has adopted the strategy of going two steps forward and then one step back if the numbers go up again,” she said, “which I believe is the proper way to go about it.”