How Israel’s Genius for Quick, Effective, and Inelegant Solutions Helped It Fight the Coronavirus Pandemic

November 22, 2021 | Arieh Kovler
About the author: Arieh Kovler is a writer, political analyst, and consultant living in Israel.

When the world first became aware of COVID-19’s dangers, the Jewish state was one of the very first to take measures to prevent the spread of the disease; it later led the way with vaccination, and many countries continue to look to it as a model. Arieh Kovler provides a detailed survey of Israel’s public-health strategies, their successes and deficiencies, and the national characteristics that shaped them:

Israel’s emergency-powers framework meant that the cabinet could enact major public-health regulations like lockdowns without the need for immediate legislative approval. These powers included the 1940 Public Health Ordinance, a relic of the British Mandate era, and the broad authority given to the cabinet by Israel’s continuous state of emergency, which has persisted since the state was founded in 1948. This was particularly relevant at the start of the pandemic when the Knesset was in recess, due to the forthcoming elections. The government had no need to consult or legislate; it could simply rule by fiat.

On paper, Israel does have a strong central government, but its writ barely runs in Arab towns, which are largely characterized by skepticism toward the authorities and limited law enforcement. The same is true of ḥaredi towns and neighborhoods, which possess both an independent anti-government attitude and significant political leverage. Ḥaredi and Arab areas tend to have larger families and more multigenerational households, both risk factors in the domestic transmission of COVID-19; they are also more likely to have a lower socioeconomic status vis-à-vis the general population. . . . Across Israel’s four pandemic waves, the Arab and ḥaredi communities represented a disproportionate number of cases.

The Israeli genius is to solve problems quickly, minimally, and inelegantly. For precision-engineered solutions that will work flawlessly for decades, companies go to Germany, Scandinavia, Japan, accepting that it’ll be a few years before they see results. If you need something clever by next week, you come to Israel. It will only barely work, and might even fall apart by the end of the month, but you’ll get what you need. This neatly describes the Israeli approach to non-pharmaceutical interventions [such as lockdowns and contact-tracing] for most of the pandemic.

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