In the Red Zone

Earlier this week, the Israeli Government, via the Coronavirus Cabinet, adopted Prof. Ronni Gamzu’s plan, which is officially called the rather dramatic “Shield of Israel plan” but everyone just calls the traffic light plan.

If you’re a regular, you know I’m sceptical about the plan because it currently calls for a significant easing of social distancing restrictions in all but the worst-affected towns, and relaxing restrictions now seems very risky. Yesterday, Israel identified a record 2,183 new cases and also saw 20 deaths, the highest death total in a single day.

Yesterday, the list of ‘red’ towns, with the highest rates of infection, was released. This list is NOT the same as the towns which the Health Ministry listed as red in its regular data, because it is calculated differently. The old Health Ministry list gave a lot of weight to absolute number of cases, which made big towns look disproportionately bad. The new system looks at the per-capita number of new cases, the growth rate of the cases, and test positivity percentage.

The full list isn’t out with every town’s classification, but the red towns were named. They are mostly Arab towns and cities, with several Haredi towns included too, as well as the city of Tiberias. After the list was released, the coronavirus cabinet finally voted to keep schools closed in these towns (though, of course, the Haredi schools had already reopened a week ago).

Anyway, it made me wonder: maybe the real plan is for much more significant measures to be imposed on red towns. Since the plan was voted through, Gamzu himself has now acknowledged that full town lockdowns are an option, complete with travel and entry restrictions. Maybe he knew he could never successfully pass a plan that openly called for such measures from the beginning.

And then there’s Bnei Brak.

Bnei Brak isn’t Beitar Illit; it’s one of the capital cities of Haredi life in Israel, maybe moreso even than Jerusalem. Much of the Haredi leadership, its Rabbis, Rebbes and fixers, live there.

Throughout both waves of Covid-19, Bnei Brak was consistently a virus hotspot in both absolute numbers and rates of infection. Bnei Brak was locked down with additional measures in early April, which proved extremely unpopular with the Haredi leadership. In July, as cases skyrocketed, Bnei Brak was left alone even as other towns were briefly locked down.

Bnei Brak isn’t on the red list right now; it’s actually had a bit of a drop in new cases over the last two weeks. But I’m pretty sure that if it had been included, the Government would never have agreed to shut schools in red towns.

But the coronavirus cabinet doesn’t control the traffic light list itself. The list is drawn up based on (theoretically) open and objective criteria compiled by the Health Ministry.

So perhaps this is the plan behind the Gamzu plan:

  1. Get the framework of the traffic light scheme adopted while the list of towns doesn’t include very many Haredi towns, especially not Bnei Brak.
  2. Impose stricter measures on red towns because it’s politically possible to do it now, eventually coming close to local lockdowns.
  3. Expect that many Haredi towns, which are probably orange areas at the moment, will dip into red status in two weeks when the list is recalculated, and will inherit the tougher measures.

This is a long and inefficient way to stop a pandemic. But it’s all we have.