Ruth Tavor has owned a hummus restaurant in Tel Aviv for forty years. Together with her husband and son, Tavor employs another seven people. But the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the family’s business. After three lockdowns, the business has not bounced back. Now, as Israel faces a massive wave of morbidity from the omicron variant of the coronavirus, Tavor isn’t getting much sleep.
“This is a pseudo-lockdown; it supposedly doesn’t exist, but it’s as close to a lockdown as you can get,” said Tavor, who is part of a group of activists called “Restauranteurs strong together,” and has been the voice of small businesses in Israel throughout the pandemic.
When Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said on Sunday that restaurants are packed, he upset many business owners, who claim he is detached from reality on the ground.
“There is no lockdown, therefore there will be no grants,” Liberman said Sunday, adding that "most businesses are in excellent condition, we will not be handing out gifts to everyone.” He later backtracked and promised aid, but only for those hard-hit by the crisis.
“The government does not want to compensate in order to be able to lower the deficit,” said Dr. Assaf Sarid of the Haifa University Department of Economics. Liberman’s goal is to decrease the deficit, which grew, like in many other countries in the world, as governments responded to the global pandemic.
“Increasing the deficit will mean raising taxes in the future,” Sarid explained. “There is also a risk of hurting growth with subsequent potential damage to tax collection abilities,” he said.
Like Tavor, many business owners are reporting a major drop in revenue in recent weeks as cases of the virus rise dramatically.
Every day, a record-breaking number of infections are reported. Experts estimate hundreds of thousands of Israelis will be infected daily at the peak of the current wave before the numbers begin to decrease.
The effect of the surge in COVID-19 cases is being felt everywhere. “My employees are either sick, in quarantine or stuck in line waiting to get tested,” said Tavor, reflecting a reality that is true for many people throughout the country.
Over 8,290 Israelis have died of the coronavirus since the outbreak of the pandemic almost two years ago. The beginning of the Omicron wave in Israel last month has seen infection rates soar. With over 48,000 new cases on Wednesday alone, daily life is increasingly being interrupted.
Shira Greenberg, chief economist at the Finance Ministry, estimates that there will be multi-million-dollar damage to the economy with current restrictions and morbidity levels. In a letter sent to the Health Ministry at the beginning of the Omicron wave, Greenberg said that Israel will face over $100 million in damage a week due to commerce restrictions, and additional millions of dollars in damage due to quarantines and sickness. While some of the commerce restrictions were lifted earlier this week, the spread of the virus is not slowing down and more people are becoming infected.
“There are two major forces at work here,” said Sarid. “On the one hand, the wish to help citizens in need in accordance with the unwritten contract between the state and its citizens, and on the other hand, increasing government expenditure and deficit which in the end we will all have to pay for.”
Hospital directors already are reporting high, sometimes excess, occupancy in their wards. This year, Israel also is experiencing a large wave of flu cases in addition to the coronavirus. In the coming weeks, the number of sick people is expected to increase further.
“We will be seeing more sick people and we expect to see an increase, although so far we are seeing a moderate increase, in the critically ill patients,” said Professor Orna Tal, deputy director of Shamir Medical Center and a faculty member at the Program for Public Health and Health Systems Management at Bar-Ilan University.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who was sworn into office after three COVID-19 lockdowns, vowed to never impose a lockdown on the country again. He has so far delivered on his promise, but the price appears to be increasing.
One silver lining is that traffic jams have decreased. Even if people are not sick or in quarantine, many have begun to work from home. One of Israel’s popular traffic radio stations has started reporting on the lines at COVID-19 testing centers in addition to regular traffic reports.
The owners and managers of cinemas and other cultural venues have reported a drop in ticket sales in recent days.
Schools also are feeling the impact of elevated infection rates. According to data from the Health Ministry released at the beginning of the week, almost 90,000 students are in quarantine, with over 3,500 teachers and staff also at home. Parents of younger children in quarantine are required to stay home with them. Disruption is being experienced throughout the country. Frequently changing instructions have caused confusion in the public, which is growing increasingly frustrated.
“We need to remember, the virus changes and the waves are different from one another,” Tal said. “It is legitimate that policy changes according to the changing reality and messages also change … as an expression of a changing reality,” she said.
“The name of the game is agility. People need to be flexible according to the circumstances, and if there will be understanding of this among the public, there will be more faith in the messages,” she added.
Aharon Natanov owns a bakery in a mall in central Israel. In an attempt to be adaptable, he also sells his products online which helps keep his business afloat. He says that in the last couple of weeks he has lost approximately 40% of his business in the shop.
“People are afraid to go to malls, the streets are empty,” he said. “When there were much fewer people sick, they imposed a lockdown. Now there are tens of thousands of people sick and the government is not giving us any aid.”
A poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 12, showed a majority of Israelis giving the government a failing grade for its handling of the crisis. A majority also was in favor of imposing restrictions, such as limiting large gatherings, in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.
The low score may cause the government to change course. “I have paid taxes all my life, the government needs to help us. In the end, businesses will crash and there will be less revenue from taxes for the state,” said Natanov.
Leaked quotes from the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, showed that government ministers are concerned about public opinion.
“The public isn’t with us,” one minister was quoted as saying. “I understand the confusion, the frustration, and disruption to our daily lives,” Bennett tweeted in response to criticism, “We all need patience and resilience.”
In an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, the government began inoculating people over the age of 60 and medical personnel with a fourth vaccine dose. The response has been good since the rollout began last week. Twenty-five percent of those eligible for the vaccine have already received it, according to the Health Ministry.
“If there will be a good response to get the fourth vaccine, it will reduce the number of critically ill patients who are at risk,” Tal said. “If most of the morbidity will be mild, we will be able to handle this wave mostly outside of hospitals, at the community level.”
Still, Israel, like many other countries in the world at the moment, faces great uncertainty. Only after the dust settles will the full effect of the latest wave of the coronavirus be evident.
The article is written by Mohammad Al-Kassim and reprinted with permission from The Media Line