Coronavirus and social distancing: what we can learn from Israel

A health care worker at Shaare Zedek Medical Centre, in Israel on Jan. 27. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 photo)

On Saturday, March 7, I was with my family in Israel when a friend there alerted us to an urgent notification posted on the Israeli Ministry of Health website: a person who had been on our March 1 flight from Barcelona to Tel Aviv had been diagnosed with COVID-19. We were asymptomatic but we were now required by Israeli law to go into quarantine.

During our brief time there, Israel never told its citizens to keep calm and carry on. Instead, the Ministry of Health rolled out an impressive website with an organized set of guidelines and directives that were updated constantly in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Every new case was published online and broadcast publicly, with a full report of all the places the infected person visited since the time of that person’s presumed initial exposure to the coronavirus. Anyone in the country who had visited those places was legally required to self-isolate for 14 days, regardless of whether they were exhibiting symptoms. Specialized paramedic teams were mobilized to perform testing at symptomatic people’s homes. Very quickly, tens of thousands of Israelis entered quarantine and the streets of Jerusalem became eerily quiet.

Thankfully, we had no symptoms. However, as tourists in Israel we had no place to self-quarantine. Both the Israeli health authorities and Toronto Public Health (TPH) encouraged us to return home ASAP. We asked our families in Toronto to stock our house with provisions and begged a kind woman at the Ben Gurion Airport information desk for face masks. As we boarded the plane wearing our masks, we felt anxious. We wondered how the other passengers would have felt if they knew we were not wearing the masks to protect ourselves from them, but potentially to protect them from us.

In a prearranged plan, our parents drove two cars to Pearson Airport and waited for us at the Arrivals curb. When we approached  the driver of one car jumped into the other, leaving the former free for us to drive home. We blew them kisses and communicated our gratitude to them over the phone.

When we arrived home on March 8, we were shocked to learn  that we were not actually required to self-quarantine. We were advised by TPH to self-monitor but since we were asymptomatic, we were told that we could go about our normal routines in public and could even send our children back to school.

Rather than follow these TPH directives, we decided to exercise caution and adhere to Israeli guidelines. We stayed in quarantine while we gathered more information. People who heard our story told us they appreciated our decision to be “responsible citizens.”

But why did we choose to be “responsible” and isolate ourselves even when we were advised that it was unnecessary? Upon reflection, the answer is simple: because we had been exposed to a stringent but pragmatic system in Israel in which self-isolation is mandated as an essential way to prevent potential infection before symptoms develop.

During these stressful and unprecedented times, we need to adopt a similar no-nonsense approach to combating the virus. The key to controlling this pandemic lies in preventing the spread of the disease within the population. Once symptoms are expressed, it is already too late. Let’s work to change our behaviour and practice prudent social distancing even before symptoms develop. Let’s educate our children about the importance of changing their behaviour. Let’s use this as an opportunity to act in the best interest of both ourselves and others, including the strangers amongst us who may be most vulnerable to the effects of contracting the virus. Let’s embrace a communal rather than individualistic mindset about the consequences of our actions on others: while for many of us, the implications of contracting COVID-19 will be mild, the consequences of transmitting the virus to others could be fatal.