Stranded at Home: How Israel’s Travel Precautions Against Coronavirus Affect the Lives of Israeli Citizens and Travelers

March 9, 2020

Some Israelis think the bans are extreme, while others are sympathetic to Israel’s unprecedented precautions against the spread of the coronavirus.

Ravit Luz, a resident of Kibbutz Gevim near the northern border with the Gaza Strip , and her sister Orit Mizrachi of Jerusalem, landed in Berlin on March 4 to shocking news. Upon their return the following Monday (March 9), they would have to isolate themselves for 14 days as part of a new wave of travel restrictions imposed by the Israeli government to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“If I got this message while we were in Israel, I wouldn’t have come,” Luz said from a Berlin café. She and her family were in the middle of a tour of the city, hoping to make the best of their previous few days outdoors.

“I understand it, but I think they’re making the people panic too much,” Mizrachi said.  “There’s nothing here [in Berlin]. In Israel, they pressured us against coming here, but you have nothing.” To date, there are about 1,000 cases of the coronavirus in Germany and at least one death. Gatherings of more than 1,000 people are now banned in Germany.

On March 4, the Israeli government announced that it was expanding its travel ban from people visiting or arriving from Southeast Asia, China and Italy to include Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria and Spain. Foreign nationals would be denied entry unless they could prove a means to self-isolate for 14 days. Israeli citizens returning from these countries would have to quarantine themselves 14 days retroactively from the date of arrival in Israel. Anyone caught violating the quarantine would be subject to fines and up to seven years in prison. A website has been set up to report on violators. The Israeli government is now mulling applying these restrictions to all travelers into Israel.

“They’re blowing this out of proportion,” Mizrachi said. Even her husband urged her to wear a mask while in Berlin. “I told him he was nuts.”

Ziva (a friend of mine who asked that her real name not be used) found out a week after landing in Israel following a trip to Berlin that she had to quarantine herself for four days. Upset about the news, the independent contractor simply decided to cheat — to break the quarantine. Unlike Luz and Mizrachi, who are contracted employees, she is not entitled to any sick leave.

“I just can’t afford financially to stay at home.” She felt no symptoms and said she felt certain she posed no threat.

Ariel, a Tel Aviv-based engineer who also is a friend of mine and who asked that his last name not be used, was told upon returning from a trip to France that he had to stay locked in his apartment for 12 days. He said he wouldn’t have traveled had he known what awaited him. He got the announcement while at work, which means he already could have spread the virus if he were infected.

“I personally think it’s a little bit extreme but, at the end of the day, I hope Israel is doing what it needs to do to protect the general public,” Ariel said. “I’ll follow the orders of the Health Ministry because I think that’s what responsible citizens need to do.” He was tempted to go for a jog along the beach while wearing a mask but decided his civic duty was more important; he has food to last for a few days and friends will help if necessary.

“I’m hoping that they’ll shorten it,” he said of the quarantine edict.

Neither Ziva nor Ariel said they were asked at the airport if they had symptoms, nor was their temperature taken.

As of March 6, there was a reported total of more than 100,000 cases of infection, with more than 80,00 of those in mainland China. There were more than 3,000 deaths in China, almost 200 in Italy and 124 in Iran, with those figures sure to rise.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on March 7 that the Palestinian Authority had ordered the closures of churches and mosques; Air France had canceled all flights to and from Tel Aviv; and that a quarantine compound had been set up in Gaza. Of the 21 Israelis who have tested positive for the virus, nine likely contracted the illness in Italy; three were on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, also the site of an outbreak, Haaretz reported.

Some Israelis and visitors to Israel decided to forgo their travel plans, sympathetic to the restrictions.

David Hazony, executive director of the Israel Innovation Fund, canceled plans to visit Barcelona in order to avoid the mandatory quarantine. He thinks the virus is relatively mild — death toll estimates range from 1% to 4% of those infected — but too many unanswered questions on the severity and transmissibility of the virus is likely the reason behind Israel’s expansive “better be safe than sorry” approach.

“So the question we’ll be asking is: Is all this disruption worth it?” he wrote in a Facebook post. “Will it turn out that the cost (economic opportunity, diverted health care, etc.) was greater or less than the alternative, which is saying, ‘It’s another flu’ and letting it roam freely? And what happens if some countries go one way and others go the other way?”

Sacha Stawski, president of the German-based Israel advocacy organization Honestly Concerned, said he doesn’t resent having to cancel his Passover vacation in Israel.

“Israel is a tiny country and somehow has to contain this terrible virus,” Stawski said. “Already now, thousands of Israelis are (rightfully so) quarantined because of this terrible virus. Even though my Pesach travel plans will likely be affected, like the plans of so many others, the decision to protect the country is absolutely understandable and anything but an over-the-top panic.”

(Disclosure: Hazony and Stawski are two of my Facebook friends. Hazony’s statement was posted on Facebook and is reprinted with permission; Stawski’s comments were to me via Facebook.)

But some Israelis, such as Luz and Mizrachi, think that the ban puts undue strain on their lives, especially for Luz, whose family already is under threat by Hamas rocket attacks. Last year, while on a visit to Berlin, she said that her mother faced regular “red alerts” while baby-sitting Luz’s children.

“The coronavirus didn’t bother me in Israel,” Luz said. “The security situation is not easy. In the last two years, that’s what’s really bothering me. The government is not doing anything for us. For two years, we’re in a war of attrition.”

She wonders how some families will get by.

“I have friends who came from Berlin a day before we came, and now they have to be in quarantine for two weeks, and they have three small children. And since both of them are affected, they have no one to help take care of the kids. They have to be in the house, with masks.”

For Ariel, the engineer who lives alone in Tel Aviv, the quarantine has its upside.

“I’m chilling and enjoying my time off,” he said. “So far I’m really not suffering at all.”

Hazony said he wonders if this may be a dress rehearsal for a more serious pandemic. “And if that’s the case, then countries are gaining a lot of wisdom for that day, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Or it might be a vast conspiracy — choose your favorite theory.”

Mizrachi also is trying to find the silver lining. “We’ll clean the house for Pesach.”

Ziva finds the whole episode rather strange.

“I feel like I’m in the ‘Twilight Zone’ or the end of days,” she said. “Maybe it’s a sign Messiah is coming.”

Orit Arfa is a journalist and author based in Berlin. Her second novel, “Underskin,” is a German-Israeli love story.

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