Home / World News / Opinion | Israel’s Lockdown Feels Pretty Different the Second Time Around

Opinion | Israel’s Lockdown Feels Pretty Different the Second Time Around

TEL AVIV — When Israel imposed a coronavirus lockdown in March, I walked home after raiding the supermarket and was able to hear the birds chirping on Dizengoff Street, one of the busiest arteries here.

The next day I spoke to my father in Jerusalem, where the country’s first death from coronavirus had just been recorded. We both danced around the fact that, since his age made him more susceptible to complications from the virus, it would probably be a long time before we could see each other.

Movement was restricted to within 100 meters (about 330 feet) from one’s home. I taped to our fridge a “schedule” for my children, who were 3½ and 1½, which included assembling puzzles in the living room, coloring on our tiny porch and tent-building in their room. Five days later, I scrapped the “schedule” because every unfilled task felt like a personal failure. When my husband got off work (our dining table became his home office), I would lock myself on the porch with the shutters down to write.

On May 26, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, eager to score a win after barely scraping by in the latest election, declared that we had managed to flatten the curve. Israel had suffered 281 deaths and more than 16,000 people had been infected, but the new infections had dropped to a few dozen cases. “Go have fun!” he said.

The government reopened schools, allowed indoor dining, stopped enforcing social distancing in shopping malls and permitted large weddings. These reckless decisions reversed the public health gains of the first lockdown.

Cases started to spike to over 8,000 a day and hospital beds filled perilously close to capacity by September, and it became clear that another closure was inevitable. On Sept. 18, the government imposed a second national lockdown. But it did not feel like déjà vu.

Whatever trust Israelis had had in the government to lead us through the pandemic has evaporated. The sense of national solidarity — the kind of wartime singleness of purpose that characterized the first lockdown — has been replaced by what can only be described as a free-for-all.

Soon after the new restrictions were announced, I started hearing of shortcuts. Family friends booked a flight to Greece the next day; another couple went to Italy. The workshare office where I rent a desk, which had been closed for much of the first lockdown, is staying open this time around. A friend’s marijuana supplier took to riding around town in the uniform of a food delivery service. (Deliverymen are the only people allowed to move freely.)

“Fake lockdown” was the headline of one newspaper article. The WhatsApp groups at both my children’s preschools were flooded with questions: Could we keep the preschool open if we divided the kids into two groups? Into three? Could we parents just cover whatever fine the center might get?

Soon, it also became apparent that the virus wasn’t respreading uniformly. Dr. Ronni Gamzu, Mr. Netanyahu’s coronavirus czar, carved the country into red, yellow or green zones depending on their virus rates. He intended to enforce lockdowns in the hardest-hit places.

But his plan, which became known as the “traffic light plan,” turned into political dynamite: The red cities were found to be overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox or Arab, attesting to the crowded conditions in which these communities live. Mr. Netanyahu, for whom the ultra-Orthodox parties are a crucial coalition partner, balked. We became the country with the highest rate of new coronavirus cases per capita in the world.

The second lockdown was set to coincide with the Jewish holidays, when the economy would have slowed down anyway. But the timing has meant that for weeks all we heard from the Knesset was wrangling over prayers: Should synagogues be open? Should there be quotas? Will there be mass prayers outdoors?

Mr. Netanyahu used the eventual decision to limit public prayer to also restrict the weekly protests against him outside his Jerusalem residence. The so-called battle between “prayers” and “protests” has so thoroughly dominated the news in recent days that it is as though Israeli life can exist only on one of these axes.

We are now two weeks into Israel’s second closure, which has now been extended until at least mid-October. My children will soon be back from a bike ride with my husband to a nearby park. Movement this time is limited to 3,300 feet.

The cafe around the corner from us is open for takeout, though it is not supposed to be. The bike shop down the street has a handwritten note with a mobile phone number: “Call and I will open the door,” it says. Close friends continue to send their daughter to her kindergarten, except that it is now held in the instructor’s home and paid for off the books.

That the restrictions are more scattershot this time doesn’t make them any easier. As shocking as that first lockdown had been, the knowledge that we were all in this together had at least made it bearable. Maybe it is the workarounds that I see all around us now — the creeping sense that we are the only “friyers” (“suckers”) abiding by the rules — or the general exhaustion of having to go through this a second time.

Maybe it is the desperation I hear from friends who have now been furloughed twice or the uncertainty over whether this watered-down version will even make a dent in the infection rate, but the mood is that much bleaker. On Thursday, 7,039 new cases were reported and more than 1,600 overall deaths have been recorded.

Israel may be the first country to go through two national pandemic-related lockdowns, but, sadly, it won’t be the last. To the people living elsewhere who are about to experience a similar ordeal, I offer my condolences and a single thought: If you’re going to do it, do it right.

Ruth Margalit (@ruthmargalit) is a writer.

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