“Be Afraid” is 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.

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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.


Israel ending Shin-Bet Corona spying

Israel is stopping surveillance of its population by the ISA, better known as Shin-Bet domestic spy agency, as part of its program to limit the spread of COVID-19. This move was predicted on this page when the surveillance program was started, in response to the cries of foul and dire warnings about erosion of civil rights . The Israel Democracy Institute, a veteran watchdog, praised the decision by the Cabinet not to pass a law to allow the surveillance to continue.
“It is heartening that there are voices of reason in favor of discontinuing the ISA (Israel Security Agency) tracking,” said Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, in response to the decision to halt the ISA surveillance of Israelis who have tested positive for COVID-19. “The ministers understood that there are alternatives, in use by democracies around the world.”
“We now have to prepare for a routine that includes corona, and develop voluntary apps that can benefit our society in these trying times, while simultaneously protecting both public health and personal privacy.” the statement from IDI read.
The proposed law to allow Shin-Bet tracking is still around, and it can be implemented if the Israeli leadership sees a necessity–but clearly, Israel has rejected in principle this kind of internal non-criminal espionage. Now the Shin-Bet can go back to its primary job, anti-terror activities among Palestinians–and that’s already controversial enough.

Numbers don’t add up to Corona wave #2

The trouble with numbers…

Israeli headlines scream about an “Outbreak” of corona virus cases “spreading through the school system,” “hundreds” of new cases, and the inevitable “second wave.”

It could very well happen if people aren’t conscientious about wearing masks and maintaining social distance–but we’re not there yet. A closer examination of the numbers under those headlines shows why:

Indeed, there are a few hundred new active cases. This follows a decision to reopen schools, and start testing asymptomatic classmates and teachers in schools where an active case was discovered. So–more testing, more cases. That’s an easy one.

Corona numbers1Now let’s look at the schools. The table below ran in an Israeli newspaper. It shows the dispersion of new cases in the schools. There’s a total of 303, out of two million kids. And look at the top: Jerusalem, 213. So 70 percent of the new cases are in Jerusalem. Here’s what’s not in the table: At least 130 of the cases came from a single school. There’s no explanation yet as to why that happened, but the fact is–half the new cases in Israel over the week before the table was published on Friday came from a single school. Tel Aviv schools had 19 new cases, and all the other cities and towns show single figures.

This is the place to emphasize that we need to learn how to live with Corona. A permanent total lockdown is unfeasible. We need to learn what we can open, and what needs to remain closed, who can resume semi-normal or “new normal” lives and who can’t. A leading Israeli educator noted that none of the new cases on that list have proved to be serious, and we need to get used to the idea that there will be a handful of cases, a handful of schools that are closed for a short time, and incorporate that into our reality.

It has been shown that young people are less likely to develop serious effects from Corona than old people. That’s not to say that we can sacrifice old people. It means that we can afford to be less stringent about young people. We need answers about what to do concerning teachers who are over 50 or 60. We still need many answers. But here was my reply to a friend who posted a picture of a school being closed down and wrote, in all caps, “I TOLD YOU SO!!!!!!!!”

“Folks, we have to learn how to live with this. It’s not going away. It means some trial and error. So far, taken in a larger context, opening the schools isn’t an error. There are localized outbreaks among thousands of schools, and they’re being dealt with locally. Two of my grandkids are in isolation, so it’s not as if I’m writing this from Alaska. Closing the schools means closing down the economy, and we can’t do that indefinitely. With each step, we’re learning more about the virus and how it acts, and we’ll be able to make better decisions. Stiff upper lip, friends…and meantime I’m staying home because I’m old and I can 😀”

Which brings us to us old folks.

Corona numbers2The same newspaper carried some statistics about people who have died from the disease. Each death is a tragedy, and up to now Israel has had 295 fatalities. My home state of Indiana, which has 3/4 the population and four times the territory, just crossed the 2,000-fatality “milestone.” That’s the perspective aspect. Now the figures from Israel’s Health ministry: The average age of victims here is 80.7. 57 percent had high blood pressure. 35 percent had heart disease. 37 percent had diabetes.

Clearly, then, many had more than one underlying illness. More importantly, these figures do not (that’s “do not”) show that the accompanying conditions necessarily contributed to the deaths. An expert quoted in the accompanying article will go only so far as to say that the occurrence of the above conditions was higher among the dead than in a comparable group that did not catch the disease. That’s all. So we’re still working on it.

And that’s the key. We’re still working on it. This is a new disease. We are still learning. As more data becomes available, the experts know more and more, and we can get better instructions from them. The fact that they change their instructions from time to time does not mean they were wrong and therefore don’t know what they’re talking about–it means they can update their conclusions as new knowledge becomes available. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

Keep in mind the main point. We need to learn how to live with Corona. It is not going away. Neither are we.