Israel Headed for Second Nationwide Coronavirus Lockdown
(Bloomberg) -- Israel is set to enter a second coronavirus lockdown and become the only developed country to shut down again nationwide, after a botched reopening of the economy sent infections soaring.
An inner cabinet of ministers late Thursday approved a two-week, full-fledged lockdown, to be followed by two more weeks of strict limits on movement and economic activity. After that, if the situation improves, restrictions would be applied only to communities with large outbreaks. The plan is subject to the final approval of the full cabinet on Sunday and faces opposition from some ministers.
The inner cabinet took the extraordinary step after watching daily cases rise from five in late May to more than 4,000 this week. The lockdown is expected to take effect on Wednesday or Friday, according to the Ynet website -- politically fraught timing on the eve of the Jewish holiday season.
The economic damage would be fierce, with nearly one-fifth of the labor force still out of work even though the country reopened by late May. A monthlong lockdown would cost the Israeli economy about 15 billion shekels ($4.4 billion), the Finance Ministry’s chief economist estimated Thursday.
The Bank of Israel forecast last month that the economy would contract 7% this year in case of a further surge in the disease, and has projected a 2020 government deficit as high as 14.6% of output.
A new lockdown would also be a fiasco for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his governing coalition, which was formed in May with the express purpose of tackling a virus outbreak that had been brought under control with swift and decisive action in its initial months. Israel returned to normal life with an abandonment of caution that allowed cases and deaths to climb steadily.
Since late May, the number of cases in the country of 9 million people has surged to more than 145,000 from roughly 17,000, while deaths quadrupled to nearly 1,100. Some epidemiologists have warned that the country’s hospitals are nearly overwhelmed.
Dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s handling of the outbreak, high unemployment and the corruption allegations against the long-time prime minister have come together in a storm of discontent that’s taken shape in mass weekly protests against him.
When Netanyahu hailed the reopening of the economy 3 1/2 months ago, he warned that restrictions may have to return if daily infection numbers passed 100. But as the numbers skyrocketed, disputes within his cabinet of 30 ministers and the political and economic cost of locking down the country stalled action.
Just last week, Netanyahu tried to lock down selected communities with the highest infection rates, but was forced to retreat amid strong opposition from ultra-Orthodox Jewish lawmakers. Large gatherings for life-cycle milestones and for religious study have fostered the virus’s spread, centered mainly in ultra-Orthodox and Arab areas of the country.
Several ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have threatened to pull out of Netanyahu’s brittle coalition if the government goes ahead with a lockdown during the holiday season, which begins Sept. 18 and lasts about three weeks.
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