In recent days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seized the role of calming the nation. Every evening he addresses the public on national television, introduces new guidelines and repeats the required public safety measures that need to be taken. But he is leaving out one critical component of the message that the citizens of Israel need to hear: “None of you will be thrown into poverty because of COVID-19. The effects of the virus on the economy will not destroy your lives.”
For many Israelis, this is both a fear and a real possibility. For tens of thousands of Israelis who were sent on unpaid leave or laid off, a temporary salary halt means being unable to pay rent and entering a debt trap. For the more than 150,000 Israelis employed in tourism and related industries, their lives are at a standstill. For the nearly half a million self-employed Israelis, some of whom are struggling to survive, a loss of work days could spell the beginning of an economic downturn resulting in debt and insolvency. To all these citizens and many others, the prime minister ought to have said clearly yesterday: "We will take care of you, it will be OK".
Sounds unrealistic? At least two prime ministers around the world have already addressed their public with assuring statements; “No one should have to worry about paying rent, buying groceries, or additional childcare because of Covid-19," said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a speech he made in isolation after his wife was diagnosed with the virus. "We will help Canadians financially." French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron, who has been previously criticized for his steps to undermine the social welfare system, said: "What this epidemic has revealed is that there are things and services that need to be excluded from free market laws."
Are these statements economically viable? This question has two answers. From a purely economic standpoint, the answer is yes. In order for the epidemic not to drag the economy into a deep and prolonged recession, people must believe that things will improve. Fear is one of the worst causes of economic downturn – it reduces spending, slows down initiatives and causes stagnation. People avoid spending out of fear for the future and are likely to severely damage a whole network of manufacturers and service providers, causing widespread economic damage.
But the real answer to this question is that the economy is not a separate mechanism, removed from society, but rather the way in which a given society chooses to sustain itself and face its common challenges. The State of Israel has faced enormous challenges – absorbing large waves of olim (immigrants), numerous wars, scarcity of resources and more. Each challenge required resources, each took its toll, and the way these challenges were met shaped the image of the country. Israel’s economic system must declare that we hold values which are not determined by the free market – that no one will be left behind.
Grappling with an epidemic reveals just how tightly interconnected the fabric of modern life has become. People who choose to ignore the health guidelines not only harm themselves, but endanger many. The citizens of Israel are, and rightly so, required to display personal responsibility and uphold a commitment to social values. The question remains: will the State of Israel show the same responsibility towards its residents and leave no one behind?
Brought to press with the help of the International Relations Division of the Histadrut