PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with European leaders about coronavirus, March 2020(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
We went from passing out fliers and hanging election banners to in-home isolations, Zoom conference calls and early Passover cleaning.
It may seem like COVID-19 and the dystopian reality that comes with it is the new normal. For many Israelis, the situation is even more surreal. Prior to March, Israelis were preparing for our third election within a year.
Novel coronavirus was first identified only on January 7 and on January 11 China announced its first death from it. On January 12, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported a case in Thailand; by January 16, Japan reported its first case; by January 17, a second death was reported in Wuhan. Other countries such as the US, Nepal, France, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan confirmed cases over the following days. In the span of just a few weeks, we were witnessing the beginnings of a pandemic.
We went from passing out fliers and hanging election banners to in-home isolations, Zoom conference calls and early Passover cleaning. In times like these, we all look towards our leaders for direction.
In the beginning of February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the first step in Israel’s response to the coronavirus by limiting and then barring flights from the East.
At the time, heavy criticism for this “radical” move and for offending China’s honor came hard and fast from international “experts.”
China’s acting ambassador Dai Yuming bizarrely compared the move to WWII and the Holocaust. South Korea likewise took great offense.
There was no public inkling then that this could become a pandemic, yet Netanyahu ignored the outrage and made the courageous decision amidst a bitter election campaign.
By February 24, a travel warning was issued to Israelis traveling to Italy (where there had been five deaths from coronavirus) and at the same time, the Ministry of Health was ordered to begin stockpiling medicines and equipment.
Meanwhile, the news was focusing on the polls and slogans, but Netanyahu did not take his eyes off the ball.When Israel announced in the first week of March that every traveler from abroad would have to go into a two-week-quarantine period when they landed, the precaution was hailed as an exaggeration.
Coronavirus wasn’t considered a pandemic until March 11, but Netanyahu was not risking Israeli lives, even if the precautions were seen as drastic. We will never know what political and diplomatic pressure was put on the prime minister to exclude the US from the quarantine rule, especially a mere few weeks after the unrolling of Trump’s Deal of the Century, but ultimately every country was included, with no exceptions.
Israelis abroad were called home, almost all flights were slowly canceled, and Terminal One was closed. Internally, the numbers of people allowed to gather steadily decreased from 5000 to 1000 to 100 to 10 after Purim (the actual day the pandemic was announced by the WHO) – slowly and steadily acclimatizing people to social distancing, to small crowds and, ultimately, to no crowds at all.
Friends and colleagues from the UK and the US whose missions to Israel had been canceled rolled their eyes at Israel’s “aggressive” response to the crisis and the Jewish neurosis gripping our leaders.Countries that deemed our measures “drastic,” “exaggerated” and “paranoid” slowly followed suit – only they didn’t have the luxury of progression of restrictions that we did.
It came as a shock and, regrettably for many countries like Spain, Italy and perhaps even America, too late to manage the surge.Today, European countries, the US, and Russia are using Israel as a barometer of what to do and how to manage the crisis.
Even the UK, which dangerously toyed with the idea of herd immunity, had to abandon their initial response when it became apparent that the National Health Service were going to have to be making life or death decisions and face hundreds of thousands of deaths.
While cynics in Israel were still touting the notion that Netanyahu was creating directives to serve his political interests, close friends from abroad were flying in as soon as they could, before the country closed its doors to noncitizens, as they knew they were safer here.
I am proud to live in a country where every life is as valuable as the next. I am even prouder that our leaders acted swiftly and wisely to ensure that we do not end up in a situation where we will have to choose to save younger people over older people for lack of medical equipment.Israel is going to great lengths to bring our travelers home at any cost – we are the only country in the world not leaving any man or woman behind.
This is not a given: it requires leadership, courage and experience. Netanyahu’s vision and talents in crisis management have saved tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of lives, and that is what true leadership is about.