Shabbat is the 25 hour period of rest that sees most businesses and public transportation close in Israel, punctuating the week from Friday evening to Saturday evening – when life slowly resumes again. Within ten minutes of the supermarkets re-opening on Saturday evening, shelves with couscous were empty and panicked shoppers were carrying hundreds of rolls of toilet paper and eggs in their arms. Some shoppers wore industrial facemasks, others wore disposable gloves, and one man shouted down the telephone, in English, “there’s no fucking toilet paper here.” They were anxious that Israeli Premier, Binyamin Netanyahu, would announce further public health restrictions to contain Covid-19, the illness caused by the Coronavirus, by closing cafes, schools, universities and libraries. Some feared a complete lockdown. The closures came after restricting entry to foreign tourists, with exceptions for certain nationals able to prove they can self-quarantine for 14 days on 9 March 2020. Whilst the supermarket scenes are also being played out across the UK, by 13 March 2020, the British Premier, Boris Johnson, had enacted much milder public health restrictions. Anybody with Coronavirus symptoms, such as a new, continuous cough, or a high temperature, were requested stay at home for at least seven days ‘to help protect others and help slow the spread of the disease.’ In what follows I briefly compare Israeli and UK public health responses to the Coronavirus pandemic and point to the economic, political and social contexts in which they play out. I want to draw attention to what might be shaping public health responses and welfare at a time of extreme social panic.
It goes without saying that Israel and the UK have very different experiences of risk and public responsiveness. The former is attuned to public (health) risk following Palestinian resistance to an entrenched occupation, including a recent history of suicide violence that saw scores of Israeli civilians killed in bus bombings and attacks. Almost all Jewish-Israeli citizens are raised to enter military service, and continue to serve as civilian reservists. Existential threats to Israel can be situated in these public (health) risks, both contemporarily and historically. At the time of writing there is active conflict planning due to activities in the region, including antagonism by Iranian-backed Quds forces and cross-border attacks by the Israeli Defense Forces. It was not so long ago that former Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said that Israel ‘should be wiped off the face of the earth.’ A brief historical glance reminds us how Saddam Hussein had threatened to use chemical weapons against Israeli citizens, which is materialized in family photos of children wearing gas masks. Indeed, Netanyahu spoke of the Coronavirus in militaristic metaphors. Israel is, he said, at ‘war against an invisible enemy.’ Security services will also be able to track carriers using cellphone data, demonstrating how strategies practiced in conflict are being re-directed to include the entire population as if the scenarios were the same. Despite the supermarket panic, Israelis are familiar with heavy-handed public (health) measures because of this social history, and lived reality, of threat. Responses to Covid-19 will be stratified and take on different forms between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, where public health ‘security’ will likely compound on-going military occupation to control the lives of Palestinians.
The UK has been accused of departing from current global public health interventions against the Coronavirus in ways that can be read as ‘novel’ or rather which revisit the historical, Second World War, approach of ‘keep calm and carry on.’ At the time writing (16 March), Israel has not had a single fatality related to the coronavirus, whilst the UK stands at 35 deaths. The situation is dynamic, evolving and highly precarious, but the value of welfare in each context is consistent and predates the Coronavirus pandemic.
Common to both cases is how public health policies that involve self-isolation for 7 to 14 days, home-working when possible, and closure of schools, are based on middle class valuations. That means the kind of white-collar and more secure professions that can be conducted flexibly with Internet and computers, rather than the service or ‘gig economy’ (read: disposable, precarious). It includes families who have the financial cushions to withstand the temporary economic pressures, rather than families living on the breadline or with the support of food banks. Without additional financial support, the situation will hammer the people living in poverty in both countries – one fifth of the Israeli and UK populations. The reality of unequal access to resources become sanitized in these public health mandates, particularly in the Tory post-austerity era of Britain, where ‘resilience’ is highly stratified.
In Boris Johnson’s address on 13 March, he said, ‘I must level with you, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.’ Let’s hang on his words for a moment, because they vocalize the cost of inaction and a call to accept premature deaths as a social fact. It’s a risk that speaks to those unable to withstand the virus due to chronic or coexisting morbidities, or the economic costs of self-isolation. Yet, Boris Johnson meant exactly what he said, because his response to the Coronavirus is situated in a broader approach to austerity and welfare, where self-responsibility to survive is an expectation put on all – including the most vulnerable members of society.
Let’s look briefly at how welfare fits into the broader Conservative regime. It is worth recalling a recent study looking at the rise of infant mortality in England. Infant mortality basically means child deaths under the age of 1, but on another level child health and mortality is an acute indicator of the health of society as a whole. The authors note, ‘This study provides evidence that the unprecedented rise in infant mortality disproportionately affected the poorest areas of the country, leaving the more affluent areas unaffected. Our analysis also linked the recent increase in infant mortality in England with rising child poverty, suggesting that about a third of the increase in infant mortality from 2014 to 2017 may be attributed to rising child poverty.’ The years 2014-2017 involved Conservative rule and harsh austerity policies that drastically reconfigured welfare policies and payments, affecting the most deprived disproportionately. Basically poverty affects child health very sensitively, and this evidence suggests austerity was killing children. Of course the public health dilemmas posed by the Coronavirus are very different, presenting acute risks to people over 60 years of age, yet there is a consistent and dangerous path of letting people die. Looking at this track record demonstrates how welfare has a lesser value in the Conservative regime, and how public health is less about caring for the population than maintaining economic productivity of the population. Public health inaction – or lack of responsible action – is a striking political choice.
People are trying to make sense of Covid-19 within their social and economic constraints, whilst holding loo rolls in one hand and loved ones in the other. While the pandemic is new and reconfiguring our societies (hopefully temporarily), we should remember that welfare has a longer trajectory and is a reflection of our societies. Welfare is the right of citizens and responsibility of states and statutory services. As the pandemic progresses and further restrictions are enforced, elected politicians must situate public health restrictions within welfare in order to care for people as much as contain the spread of Covid-19.
Ben Kasstan, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem