From Avengers to Talmud

Remember Avengers: Infinity War? We all knew that Thanos was the “villain” because he was gathering Infinity Stones to fit into a gauntlet that would allow him to snap his fingers and eliminate half the population of the universe (randomly chosen lest he be unfair). This was to save the universe because overpopulation was ruining everything for everyone. He would bring balance, and it would be a good and plentiful universe for everyone who was left. I used quotation marks because there are a few who think #ThanosWasRight.

This is fantasy and fiction so the stakes would have to be massive. Half the population? Is it really a “lesser evil” for a “greater good”?

What about Typhoid Mary? She was an Irish immigrant to America in the late 1800s. She just wanted to make a living as a cook, and she seemed healthy. Turns out she was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid. Once she found out, she worked as a laundress, but made a lot less money. Then she was injured. She changed her name and went back to work as a cook. Illness followed wherever she went, and she kept changing her name and working for other families. They confirmed three deaths, but it was never known if that was the total (insufficient contact tracing). Was she evil? I doubt it.

After her second arrest, she was kept in quarantine for 23 years and died of pneumonia. All she wanted was to make a good living and do what she enjoyed. Unfortunately, it made people ill and some died.

COVID-19 is definitely not going to take out half the world’s population. It won’t take out even 0.01%. In a fictional story, these stakes would not be high enough. In real life, the stakes are gigantic when it’s your parent, your sibling, or any other member of your family.

The percent of asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 is unknown. I tried to look it up and saw numbers varying from 20% to 80% of those that have been tested. I’m sticking with unknown because if a person isn’t sick, he or she is unlikely to get tested unless required to do so.

So you’re “healthy.” Everyone you know is “healthy.” You just want to get back to normal. There are certainly dangers to economic shutdown. And, hey, isn’t it (meaning: some people dying) just a “lesser evil” for a “greater good”? People die all the time, so what’s a few more? Especially since a lot of the people dying are old and often have other conditions.

That argument would never work in Israel. Many old people in this country are Holocaust survivors. No person, no matter their political party, would ever think that it could ever be acceptable to value the economy over human life and build business on the bones of people who survived genocide.

Israelis desperately want to get back to normal. But will they sacrifice their elders? No.

This week Israel was pretty much open. You can sit in restaurants and cafes. Stores are open. But we had a spike in new cases (89 and the next day 121) at a couple of high schools. Teachers and students are being tested and put in quarantine. The Health Department specifically asked children not to visit their grandparents.

Israel doesn’t have a magic number of infections or deaths that are deemed acceptable (that I know of). Regardless of the inadequacy of our government (a post for another day perhaps), allowing preventable deaths due to an infectious disease is simply not part of the equation. Asymptomatic carriers cannot be allowed to become superspreaders, and in no version of Israel is the first choice to follow Thanos’s logic.

“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a)

Don’t Panic, Pt. 10: We Shall Be Released

Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released
— Bob Dylan

This will be the last in the “Don’t Panic” series (I hope!). Israel is opening up, and we’re slowly moving toward what will be the new normal.

Israel has twice as many people who have recovered from the virus (more than 11,000) than are ill (fewer than 5,000), and our new cases each day have been in the 10s. We’ve had very few deaths in the past week. The re-opening is happening in stages, and if the infection rates go up again, we can reverse into shutdown mode.

Masks are required outside our homes. In my area, I’d say about 50% are mask compliant. Another 35% are semi-compliant (masks not covering noses or having the mask available under the chin or over one ear). Jerusalemites have been desperate to get back to Mahane Yehuda, the open air market, and chose to wait in long lines in the heat to get in on the first day. It defeats the purpose of limiting the number of people in the market, but there’s no accounting for the human desire to shop at the shuk.

 

I went back to the office this week too. I’m taking the opportunity to walk to and from work instead of taking public transportation. [Read: Begone, damn pounds!] When I arrive at the office, I put on a glove to clock in. The guard takes my temperature with a scanner thermometer. We don’t touch each other and the thermometer never touches me. My temperature is recorded, and I head upstairs.

On the first day back, we had a staff meeting to go over new health precautions with everyone wearing masks and sitting at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart. Obviously our staff room isn’t that big, so all 30 or 40 of us were in the lobby of the building, and we had to set up a microphone so speakers could be heard. Not all of our staff have returned to work, but it was nice to see colleagues I haven’t seen for at least 6 weeks.

The nice thing about being out and about is really appreciating the flowers.

I took a walk along the railroad trail in celebration of my freedom.

IMG_20200507_192305

The frogs were out, but I wasn’t lucky enough to see one. Have a listen!

Don’t Panic, Pt. 6: Swedish factor

The days are all running together, but apparently we had Passover this week, and the Israeli government took the opportunity to temporarily but fully lock down the nation. I know that this is economically, psychologically, emotionally straining (I think the vernacular is “it’s a sh*tshow”), but for now I’m still okay with these extreme measures. The reason I’m okay is Sweden.

I’m trying to scroll less and take news breaks. I find the site that interests me most is featured on The Times of Israel related to the coronavirus.

9pm

9pm, Saturday night

See the Coronvirus Worldmeter? That’s my go-to site.

This week, I saw a little clip about Sweden’s policy of not closing down the nation and allowing people to “use their common sense.” Culturally, Swedes are quite fine with working from home, they aren’t overly social, they don’t have multiple generations living together. It’s not exactly a “herd immunity” argument, but it does suggest that healthy, younger, less-vulnerable people can go about their business as usual while vulnerable people should be isolated.

Sweden is of interest to me because they have a similar population to Israel: Sweden, 10.1 million; Israel, 8.6 million.

**Note: I’m not a statistician or an epidemiologist, and I know the comparisons below are not scientific.**

Israel and Sweden have a similar number of confirmed coronavirus cases. I tend not to follow that number because it’s based on testing capacity. You can see on the site that Israel is testing twice as much as Sweden is.

I follow the number of deaths (no, not because I’m morbid). This number is also a bit flawed. What if someone died but didn’t get tested for coronavirus? If they died of regular flu or pneumonia or didn’t get treatment in the ICU because it was crowded, is it counted in the corona deaths? I don’t think so, but these are the numbers we have.

Ready?

As of this writing: Israel has a total of 97 deaths. Sweden has a total of 887.

Now one might argue that Scandinavia in general has more deaths. Nope. Finland has 49. Norway has 117. Denmark has 260. Lock down nations all, and their populations range from 5.4 to 5.7 million.

The main “herd immunity” experiment was in the UK (67.8 million people). They have since walked it back and locked down (mostly). They even had their prime minister in the ICU this week. How are they doing? 9,875 total deaths with around 900 per day most of this week.

Israel’s first death was March 20, and the “closed case” statistic is 93% recover, 7% die.

Sweden’s first death was March 11, and the “closed case” statistic is 30% recover, 70% die. I can’t even begin to speculate why there is such a huge difference.

Sweden’s death graph tends to be up and down (it’s reality, not a projection, after all). Most of this week saw 75-114 deaths per day, but only 17 so far today. It remains to be seen if in the long term Sweden’s strategy will work.

Israel was ranked number 1 in COVID-19 safety by Deep Knowledge Group. So even though we are going through something resembling a science fiction/dystopian future movie, I feel pretty good about how Israel is doing.

But I have some complaints.

  1. Families around the nation were forbidden from meeting or traveling to other cities and even shut in their homes on the evening of the Seder, and yet somehow our president and prime minister managed to meet with their adult children. Way to lead by example, guys! At a minimum, they should be fined 5,000 NIS like others have been.
  2. Flights were bringing Israelis home from around the world and passengers were not checked for the virus or put in quarantine. They just took taxis home. Way to be organized, guys! So Netanyahu cancelled all flights to Israel.
  3.  The government is not yet formed, and there is no exit strategy for the lock down. Way to put egos aside for the good of the country, guys!
  4. I keep saying “guys,” not because I’m sloppily generalizing, I’m saying it because it’s mostly men in charge of this sh*tshow.

***

Even so, there are still glimmers of light in the darkness.

One of my best scrolling experiences this week comes from the Facebook group View from my window. It’s exactly what it sounds like, and it’s beautiful, inspiring, and reminds us that we are all in this together.

Speaking of sh*tshows, this is the meme that made me laugh the hardest this week (from The Language Nerds on Facebook).

meme

Stay healthy! Stay home!

Stay sane! Stay safe! 

 

Don’t Panic, Pt. 2: Keep your distance

First and most importantly, I wish speedy and complete recovery to all those who are ill with COVID-19 and continued good health for those who are asymptomatic and in quarantine.

I delayed writing because the situation in Israel is changing hourly and while there will be more to come, now is a good time to catch up.

After the third election, there was still no coalition, but because of the coronavirus, elected officials understood that now is the time to act in unity to protect Israel and its people. Corruption and massive egos get pushed aside when Israel is under threat.

On Thursday, Israel closed its borders. Tourists are not allowed in the country unless they can prove they have a home (not a hotel) to self-quarantine for two weeks. Schools were officially closed until after Passover (mid-April).

Also on Thursday night, a huge storm blew across Israel with high winds and chances of flooding in the Dead Sea and Negev. Coincidence or Divine Directive to stay home?

On Friday morning, normally a busy time in Jerusalem even on rainy days, the streets were quite empty. There are images of a nearly empty Western Wall plaza, nearly empty Mahane Yehuda (the open air market), and few people on the outdoor shopping streets (Ben Yehuda and Mamilla).

As of Saturday evening (see sections of Netanyahu’s speech with simultaneous English translation), entertainment and cultural activities are closed, including cafes and malls. Gatherings of 10+ people are no longer allowed. We are asked to keep 2 meters (6 feet) away from others. Netanyahu said we are at war with an invisible enemy.

We are not in lock-down, but we’re getting there.

This is where we are now

The main article making the rounds right now is “Corona Virus: Why You Must Act Now” (available in 19 languages). It’s a pretty scary article backed by a lot of graphs, statistical models, and historical analysis of the 1918 flu pandemic. Bottom line: Social distancing, containment, early action.

I skimmed it and am quite comfortable with Israel’s policies – even if they get a lot more invasive (and they will).

Getting in touch with our humanity, virtually 

My friend in Milan is taking the lock-down philosophically. He can’t go anywhere for a month, so he thought it would be a good time for some self-reflection and life evaluation.

Facebook is filling up with quarantine support groups and offers of small group activities for children.

Asymptomatic but quarantined religious women in Israel are expecting to have more time to clean for Passover.

A Hebrew Ulpan is offering Hebrew classes online (free).

Economic safety nets are showing up using online technology. Tour guides have been hit hard by the closed borders and one company decided to try something different: virtual tours given by real guides on location to families in their homes around the world.

The main Tai Chi group in Israel is offering stress-relieving Qigong meditation classes online (for free).

Thoughts for now

Reasoned, thoughtful action is what will get the world through this mess.

Panic will only lead to irrational toilet paper and hand sanitizer hoarding. Let’s elevate ourselves above that.

 

 

 

 

Don’t Panic

If you have your towel, a Babel fish in your ear, and know that the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42, then you’ll probably be fine.

If not, you might as well quarantine yourself and read the six books in the trilogy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. You’ll be safe from the coronavirus (COVID-19) and you’ll know it’s best not to panic.

***

Israel just had its third election and the government is pretty shaky, but they still have their act together doing everything possible to contain the coronavirus.

As of this writing:

  • Jerusalem Marathon – cancelled (ok, postponed until October, all being well)
  • Public Purim celebrations – mostly cancelled
  • Gatherings of over 5,000 people – cancelled
  • International travelers are not permitted to events with more than 100 people
  • Anyone arriving from mainland China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Italy, Austria, Germany, Spain, France, or Switzerland must go into 14-day home quarantine. If you are coming from Taiwan or Australia, watch for symptoms. This applies to both Israelis and foreign nationals. And the government just made it retroactive – anyone who has been in any of those countries in the last 14 days. As of this writing, somewhere between 50,000 to 80,000 people in Israel are quarantined.
  • Flights have been canceled. Whole airline companies are not flying to Israel.
  • A specifically Jewish note: Chief Rabbis in Israel say not to touch the mezuzah when passing through a door (this is a custom for many Jews).

Israel’s Ministry of Health has a website available in Hebrew, English, Russian, and Arabic giving updated information and guidelines about the virus.

The primary guideline is not to visit your healthcare provider. If you have a fever of at least 100.4F (38C), cough, trouble breathing, or other respiratory problems, you can call a hotline and a medic will come to you.

Guess how many confirmed cases of coronavirus Israel has?

21 (no deaths)

Even more surprising: Palestinian territories are closed to tourists for the next two weeks. Bethlehem closed tourist attractions (Church of the Nativity), schools, universities, and mosques.

Guess how many confirmed cases?

16 (no deaths)

I’ve been listening to the US news and there seems to be so much outrage and panic about the lack of testing. I looked all over Israel’s website and found nothing about testing. If you’ve been exposed or possibly exposed, quarantine.

In fact, there was a press release detailing the itinerary of a woman who tested positive for coronavirus after she returned home to New York. Israelis were told to quarantine themselves if they had been in the areas she had been during that time. (She was near my work, but thankfully we were not in the same place at the same time.)

Apart from that, wash your hands, use common sense, and business as usual.

Israel is a small country with nearly 9 million people. We have one major international airport. Not every country can act so quickly and with such force. This lock-down will protect people, even if it is uncomfortable, restricts travel freedom, and will probably have catastrophic economic repercussions. Losing money and comfort is less important than losing life.

As I write this, I can hear children playing in the park behind my home. In spite of everything, it’s a pretty normal Saturday.

Tomorrow, I’ll grab my towel, take a bus to the office, and it will be business as usual. And most importantly, I won’t panic.