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  • Mark Lavie

"Be Afraid"--the wrong message

"Be afraid. Be very afraid."

That appears to be the message of various arms of the Israeli government, warning their people in panic-stricken terms about a "second wave" of COVID-19 infections, with "thousands of deaths." ahead.

Some say we can keep that under control by following the rules--wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. Others say it doesn't matter--sooner or later, most of us will catch the disease, and then old folks will die by the thousands.

I'll admit straight out that I'm not a mathematician, and I don't have a degree in statistics. I do have some basic knowledge of both, and that's all I need to declare that the numbers we're getting at this time do not justify the five-alarm fire we're hearing about.

Here are the latest statistics I have:

Total number of cases in Israel: 20,533

Total active cases now: 4,598

Total patients in serious condition: 39

Total on ventilators (part of the 39): 29

Total deaths from COVID-19: 305

Total new cases on last full day of testing: 349

You can note that the 349 new cases is the highest daily total we've had since April. You can note that the death toll is rising by one or two a day. You can hear the warnings about exponential increases in new cases unless we take immediate action.


You can note that of the nearly 4,600 active cases, only 39 are in serious condition--amounting to a tenth of one percent. The death toll of 305 is 1 1/2 percent of total cases.

Indeed, 324 new cases is 10 times the daily amount from the height of the lockdown. The increase in new cases is linked to several developments: First, the easing of restrictions, allowing people out of their houses and back to work. Second, the reopening of schools. Third, significant increase in testing, especially asymptomatic school kids who happened to be within shouting distance of an active case.

It's actually a wonder that the numbers of new cases aren't significantly higher, because of the last two items on the list--which point to discovery of active cases that might well have gone unnoticed before the reopening of schools and mass testing of classmates.

People my age don't like to go here--but the fact remains that we golden agers are the ones who suffer the most from COVID-19 infections. A stat from a few days ago showed that the average age of fatalities in Israel is 80.7. There are horrendous cases of younger people becoming extremely ill with ongoing, lingering effects, but the breathless news reports are anecdotal, because these cases appear to be exceptionally rare.

This is the place to recall that the original goal of the measures like social distancing and lockdown was to "flatten the curve"--not to eradicate the disease, which is impossible. We have lost sight of that goal. Instead, we have Health Ministry people warning of the system being overrun with thousands of critically ill patients, and not enough ventilators for them.

The reality is quite different. Israel has several thousand ventilators available now and several thousand more on order, set to arrive by mid-summer, though of course there could be delays. But look how many patients are on ventilators now--29. So there's a lot of room for expansion here if we need it.

So is the prime minister's threat of a new lockdown warranted? No, and that's not even the direction the government itself is taking. The new approach is to lock down specific places where there's a significant outbreak, close schools where there are cases (anyway, summer vacation is upon us), and quarantine people who might have been exposed. As we learn more and more about this new disease, it's becoming clear that the best measures are the ones we've been told to take all along: Wear masks, wash hands, and maintain social distancing where possible. Simple, mundane, boring--and effective.

None of this is meant to even hint that the crisis is over. It's not going to be over. What it's intended to show is that we need to learn how to live with it. If we take a breath, examine our lives, and figure out how to live, not just survive, in a new reality that is not going to go "back to normal," then we can begin to plan with cool heads for a new way of life.

I understand that scare tactics are a way of getting people to comply with government policy. But they backfire. When it doesn't all hit the fan, people are liable to conclude that the whole thing was overblown, and they can just go back to the way they lived before.

I wrote this book before the COVID-19 crisis, and its lessons are not derived from the pandemic--but the conclusion is the same: In the long run, keeping the people afraid is destructive, depressing, and counter-productive.

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