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How weddings are bringing Israel’s COVID-19 victory undone

“You have people coming from all over the county,” said the official. “They hug each other; they sing, they dance. That’s the ultimate opportunity to infect people.”

Israel has begun to alert other governments about the perils of weddings. A shutdown of wedding halls also was among the new restrictions announced on Monday, along with closing concert venues and public pools. Restaurants have been limited to 20 indoor diners and 30 outside, while houses of worship are capped at 19 attendees.

Hospitals are scrambling to accommodate serious cases, which have started doubling every day, according to figures cited by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has begun pleading with citizens to wear masks and avoid crowds.

Health and policy experts, while crediting the government for dampening the virus’s spread in the spring, cite the failure to appoint a coronavirus tsar to coordinate the response and set up a national network of testing labs and technicians for tracking the virus as being behind the summer surge.

The government official noted that Israel was averaging more than 20,000 tests a day but acknowledged inadequate contact tracing. “It wasn’t robust enough in terms of manpower,” the official said.

With new restrictions now taking effect, Israelis are again losing the near normality they had thought was theirs to enjoy. The backsliding has unleashed a torrent of criticism against the government.

Benjamin Netanyahu wears a face mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting.

Benjamin Netanyahu wears a face mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting.Credit:AP/Pool

Netanyahu’s approval rating for handling the pandemic is at 46 per cent, according to a new poll by Israel’s Channel 12, a decline of almost 20 points since May. A spokesman in the Prime Minister’s office declined to comment for this article.

“We are the only country in the world that is less prepared for the second wave than it was for the first,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said at a party meeting Monday,

Critics describe the new wave as reflecting a political failure to prepare for the novel coronavirus’s inevitable return once Israelis were given the all-clear to hit the streets, beaches and bars.

“The virus is not going to stop being contagious. What do you expect to happen when you open up?” asked Dan Ben-David, a professor at Tel Aviv University and president of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research. “This was all avoidable, which is what makes it such a tragedy.”

Ultra-orthodox Jewish men wearing protective face masks swim in the Mediterranean Sea on a beach segregated for males three days a week in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Ultra-orthodox Jewish men wearing protective face masks swim in the Mediterranean Sea on a beach segregated for males three days a week in Tel Aviv, Israel.Credit:AP

Israel started with several advantages, including its small population, centralised government and tightly controlled borders. The country’s history of crisis management made it suited to meet the moment. All of that contributed to the country’s success in tamping down infections after quickly shutting itself off and imposing a nationwide shutdown.

Like many Israelis, Ben-David blames politics for what he calls the national “balagan”, a Hebrew word roughly translated as a chaotic mess.

Netanyahu enjoyed a boost in popularity for his early handling of the crisis, which included near-nightly televised briefings and personal demonstrations of mask-wearing and hand-washing. But the Prime Minister seemed loath to appoint someone to oversee operations that ranged from securing ventilators and testing agents overseas to tracking cellphone movements of infected citizens.

He also resisted repeated calls to give the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) a bigger role in fighting the pandemic. The defence minister at the time had been Naftali Bennett, a Netanyahu challenger on the political right.

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A spokesman for the IDF said the military has in fact played a crucial role since early March, transporting tests and materials, helping enforce curfews and lockdowns, and developing new ventilators. The army has run a string of 24 “corona hotels,” where asymptomatic or mildly ill patients can ride out their infections. The number of hotels had declined from 24 to 12, but the IDF is now preparing to open two more.

Sarah Talmor, a restaurateur in Jerusalem, recalled the sunny day a month ago when she moved the tables back onto the terrace. She remembers the hope and relief at apparently escaping the worst of the global pandemic.

On Tuesday, hope and relief had been replaced by “disappointment and sadness”, as she ordered some those tables removed again and prepared to tell customers that new restrictions meant she could allow only a few of them to sit down.

“I wanted to believe life was going to be normal,” said Talmor, manager of the Grand Cafe, one of several Jerusalem restaurants she owns with her husband. “Now we are going backward again.”

The Washington Post

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