When the coronavirus initially arrived to Israel in March, the daily cases climbed higher and higher until it reached a peak of 765 new cases on April 2. Since then, probably because of the restrictions, the number of cases went down. By the end of April it was below 100, and Israel started to lift restrictions. On June 14, most restrictions had been lifted.
By that point, however, the numbers had already started to climb again, and at the time of writing in early July the figures are close to 800, some days 1,000 new cases per day. Experts warn that this is not only due to more testing.
At the peak, the restrictions prohibited any type of gatherings, asked all non-essential large employers to lower their on-site workforce to 15 percent, closed all non-essential shops, and prohibited leaving the house further than 100 meters. The economy took a hard hit, and unemployment soared.
For the current wave, there is a reluctance to close workplaces that have reopened, and cause a bigger damage to the economy. This time, the restrictions are more focused on prohibiting large gatherings and higher enforcement efforts on focused areas with higher rates of COVID-19 cases.
Another issue that has come up is that the public has gotten used to COVID-19, and they are less worried than they were at the first wave. From the start, the procedure in Israel was that a person with confirmed COVID-19 must stay where he or she has been the past two weeks, and everyone who has gotten in contact with that person needs to go into isolation, even if they were just in the same shop. Israeli channel 12 news interviewed people who explained how hard it is to ask for this information now. Not only are there many hundreds of new cases every day, but some people are also less cooperative. The interviewed nurses explained their frustration with people who often just answer with “I don’t remember where I’ve been, leave me alone.”
The shin-bet surveillance system which restarted on July 2 is supposed to make this epidemiologic research easier. It passed in the Knesset on July 1st and is valid for three weeks only. Tens of thousands of Israelis received text messages last Thursday informing them they have been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 carrier and need to go into quarantine for 14 days. However, some have reported receiving this text message even though they had not been outside.
Due to a large amount of people trying to get hold of the Ministry of Health to appeal the text message verdict, the waiting times are long. The Ministry of Health clarified that anyone who has received a text message must go into isolation, no matter what, until they receive a different instruction. Anyone who has been put in quarantine but still walks outside is fined with 3,000 shekels.
The general feeling in Israel is that we were able to ride out the first wave better than most countries – but we lifted the restrictions too much and too soon, and now we are paying the price. Just a few months ago people admired Israel for its ability to quickly shut down and handle a crisis, as opposed to many countries who were taken by surprise. But now Israel’s rate of infection is higher than most of Europe, and who knows where this will lead.