Tel Aviv
Odeh Bisharat, Author and Publicist

The Coronavirus: Battling it, Taking Advantage of it

​Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took advantage of the exceptionally extensive media visibility to tout his self-proclaimed achievements on the one hand while simultaneously calling upon his opponents to join him in an extended cabinet, thus crushing the widespread coalition of opponents to his corrupt regime. As a result of the blatantly cynical use of the virus by the accused prime minister, for the first time in Israeli history, at its helm is a person accused of criminal activity.

By Odeh Bisharat

Odeh Bisharat © Odeh Bisharat

Even funerals were happy!

During the lockdown, I recalled the funeral of my 82-year-old aunt, which took place one month before the government-declared state of emergency due to the coronavirus outbreak. The funeral was respectable. Extended family, friends and neighbors all gathered in the living room, the kitchen, as well as the balcony and in the tiny yard - each group and the conversation it buzzed around. In the living room we talked about organizing the funeral procession, the advertisements we would paste on billboards and publish on social media. The younger group talked about their beloved aunt and as usual, the conversation overflowed into more distant areas, and at a certain point even jokes were told. Young people.

Just a month before the lockdown, life felt different. The famous Lebanese singer Fairuz once sang: "The taste of the olives was different. Even you, my love, are not as you were." Yes, we used to have happy funerals, until we were sent into quarantine under doomsday prophecies of the apocalypse about to come.

At first, I thought it wasn't so bad. I even looked for a challenge; an adventure that would release us from the tedium of life's daily routine. After all, what was so scary about the situation? We weren't under threat of some chemical or biological danger, like we were thirty years ago during the Gulf War, when our faces were covered by thick, cumbersome rubber masks and we were equipped at all times with an atropine syringe to be used if, god forbid, toxic gas penetrated the lungs. Some people were so anxiety-riddled they injected the atropine immediately upon hearing the sirens.

Meanwhile, the corona lockdown grew tighter, as the number of meters we were allowed to navigate decreased and the excursions in cars grew less frequent. Then we entered the waiting period. First, wait till the storm passes. Then you forget the storm, and all that's left is the waiting. We wait for something that's supposed to come but doesn't - something that is supposed to happen but doesn't. Everything repeats itself, there's nothing exciting on the horizon, any remaining adrenaline is gone, and all that is left is the resonating echo of the wonderful days that used to be.

Meanwhile, as we wait for something, the first death knocks upon the door, the first patient dies in Israel and the dam breaks, that first death heralding the beginning of the bitter, bone-piercing rain of deaths; one drop and another, with many more drops and many more deaths, and one is overcome by the feeling that this is no longer a vacation, when our beloveds begin to leave us without any parting rituals.

During coronavirus days, idleness is the stuff of life, and withdrawal is heroism. And alongside with this crippling heroism, the boredom we once craved - that island of silence in the midst of our daily blizzard – becomes boring, and come evening you are dead tired because of too much rest. And then, I tell myself, if we cannot find something to help pass that endless amount of time on our hands, the catastrophe will be far greater than any damage the virus might wreak.

Our lives are based on filling the expanse of time on our hands, primarily with work. Work, like air, is the secret to life, as it kills time for us; on one hand we kill the time, but on the other hand, when time dies, our lives are over. That is the absurd cycle, we kill time and thus destroy our lives. Yes, work is, after all, the ultimate weapon of murder for killing the time we have.

Open Sweden and Sealed-off China

As I made myself busy killing time, I found occasion to compare the two primary approaches to battling corona: I compared Anders Tegnell, Sweden's Chief Epidemiologist, to Xi Jinping, President of the People's Republic of China. Tegnell refused to shut his citizens behind locked doors, allowing life to play out on the streets to the greatest extent possible. He relied on an effective medical system that held its own even at the height of the outbreak. On the other hand, Jinping enforced a terrifying emergency regime on the citizens of Wuhan, including home lockdown, isolation of neighborhoods and cities, and even the closing of all entries into the giant nation.
Support for these two opposing approaches swung back and forth like a pendulum: when death rates climbed into the thousands and tens of thousands, people were willing to sacrifice their freedom to save their lives, and the Chinese giant was looked upon admiringly. But when the lockdown led to a rapid financial-economical avalanche, all eyes turned upon Sweden's refreshing expanses. In Israel, for instance, over one million civilians are now unemployed as a result of the social distancing policy, with everything this unemployment entails: financial ruin, emotional distress, domestic violence, proliferation of black-market activity, and increased crime.

Moreover, it's important to explain that success in battling the coronavirus is achieved on two levels. The first is correct crisis management by government officials. The second level is the general public's readiness in face of crisis, which is supposed to be a process that is carried out over decades. Thus, in each country, the efficacy of the battle against corona - along with the current leadership - is also a result of that country's socio-economic policies.

Take the United States, for example – the ultimate model of the free market – a country that is extremely rich in resources, but also very stingy to its citizens, especially regarding social services and in particular medical services – the United States was immobilized by the crisis. As an example of the free market, the American system experienced a colossal failure, and the ground results attest to this. The American system is not built on the principle guiding many nations, Israel included, according to which all citizens are entitled to medical care. Immediately after taking office Trump cancelled the healthcare reform created by his predecessor Barack Obama. 
On the other hand, over seventy years ago Israel's founders laid solid groundwork for the welfare state, and despite the efforts of all free market enthusiasts, one can say that the local medical system, in spite of all its barriers, provides care for nearly anyone in need. The citizen of the welfare state may, without hesitation, request medical services, and we can only assume that the vast majority of these people are unaware of the cost of these treatments. All citizens know is that the state is required to provide health services even for severe illnesses, whether these are complex treatments, oncological care or other services.

The DNA of the healthcare systems in countries that have adopted welfare as a policy is built to provide services for the masses and not the elite, and therefore, in times of crisis, functions far more effectively than a system designated to provide treatment only to those who pay. Public healthcare means the deployment of public clinics throughout the entire country, almost everywhere – even in the most remote of villages, and if there are any flaws in the existing Israeli healthcare system, they bear the hallmark of Netanyahu and his approach – the free market approach, manifested in the shortage of hospital beds, medical equipment, doctor and health professional positions, and topped with the ridiculous remuneration healthcare employees receive.

The Cynical use of Corona

Any glamour in the coronavirus era was found in the people battling on its front lines, employees of the medical system: doctors, nurses, paramedics, pharmacists, lab workers, cleaners and sanitary workers at medical facilities, and many more… This public comprises Jews and Arabs. The proportion of healthcare employees of Arab origin far exceeds their number in the population, and side by side with their Jewish counterparts they provided treatment for thousands under difficult circumstances. One could expect a responsible regime to leverage this truth into a deepening of an inter-cultural solidarity within Israel. Not so under the current Israeli regime, which flourishes on its separatism and the constant incitement of racism, and thus tried to diminish the resonance of this noble reality. To complement this, the government's well-oiled propaganda machine, driven by court-fed pseudo-journalists and newspersons, exacerbated the hatred of Arabs and their Knesset representatives, calling them "terrorist supporters" on the backdrop of the political crisis. This is nothing new. Netanyahu will use any and every opportunity to incite against Israel's Arab population – it serves his electoral purpose.

The Prime Minister also took shameless advantage of the coronavirus crisis to avoid his impeding trial. The Minister of Justice, under the guise of "preventing the dangers of corona", shut down the Israeli judicial system and all its courts a mere day before the trial was to begin - one day before Israel's Prime Minister was to be tried on grave allegations of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

As if this weren't enough, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took advantage of the exceptionally extensive media visibility ostensibly warranted by the virus to tout his self-proclaimed achievements on the one hand while simultaneously calling upon his opponents to join him in an extended cabinet, thus crushing the widespread coalition of opponents to his corrupt regime. Which led to the establishment of an expanded emergency cabinet – argued for as a necessity of the threat of coronavirus, while in fact not even one clause in the coalition agreement addresses the coronavirus. As a result of the blatantly cynical use of the virus by the accused prime minister, for the first time in Israeli history, at its helm is a person accused of criminal activity.

But this cynicism is not only in Israel. Instead of working incessantly to unite countries around the world to battle the virus, US President Donald Trump was hostile toward any global collaboration, lashing out with accusations - most of which were unfounded – of China and the WHO. China is not the ultimate model of transparency and openness, yet this crisis requires all countries to look for the common factor and enhance all collaborations in sharing medical research, exchanging vital information, and coordinating border controls. Such a collaboration could open the horizons to a battle against other forces of nature in the future.

Has humanity missed that chance? I believe that despite the obstacles, global collaboration is growing stronger, because there simply isn't any other way, except to join forces. A man infected in a remote Chinese city has infected millions around the world.

If the coronavirus does not distinguish between nations, we shouldn't do so either.