Tel Aviv – Life in a new “quarantine” culture, no beautification…

Even though life is coming back to the streets and beaches of Tel Aviv, everyone is aware that new rules will stay for a while. It is sufficient to say that 15 000 people are being tested every day and that residential areas as well as squares, which used to be crowded, are now empty

Words: BKG

Photos: I.L.

We all know the last several months have been challenging for many people around the globe. Information about how dangerous this virus is shocked our lives and permanently occupied our brains and thoughts. Many stories about how each society functions under this threat are similar, but in their essence, they describe multiple aspects of human life in different way.

We had an opportunity to learn one story about the city of Tel Aviv directly from the “field”. We spoke with our friend Rachel who is the citizen of Tel Aviv. She and her husband are passionate worldwide travellers who now have to stay at home and wait for sunny days to come. She spent her entire professional life in educational sector as school advisor and although retired, she is still enthusiastically involved in university affairs.

I read someplace that this pandemic is laying the bare what really matters to diverse nations what may expose a lot about country’s character. Tel Aviv, frequently described as vibrant city, full of energy and as a city of outdoor life, changed its appearance creating its new “quarantine cultures”. Has he changed his character as well?

* Newly adopted terms, idioms and “war” language were intentionally avoided in this interview!

What has changed in your usual “chosen” life and how these “curfew like” measures affected your own family?

The biggest change of our ordinary life is a substantial impact of an isolation, in particular an isolation for those over 65. People were not allowed meeting friends, there were no family gatherings, no shopping – just deliveries (which are always late). Some people had to use them having no other solutions. Biggest problem was not to meet with the grandchildren who are, in this age, the joy of our lives. My son is living and working in UK and we do not know when and how we are going to see each other. If he comes here he has to be self-isolated for two weeks and therefore he has to rent a separate apartment.  And coming back to “home abroad”, he may also need to be isolated again. Now it is hard to rent this short term apartment due to the increasing demand for them. Many of Israeli people live and work abroad and it becomes a serious issue, from time and money point of view. We spent hours on the phones, watching movies and talking to the grandkids-telling them nice bed time stories and playing games with them via ZOOM and SKYPE. May was better as we could meet some other family members and friends.

Otherwise, we miss a lot our cultural life, we used to go often to the cinema or to the theatre. Even they are now partially opened for maximum crowd of 250,  but we have to avoid them anyway. To go to the museum you have to make an appointment in advance. My point is that there are no spontaneous activities anymore. This has changed a lot in almost every segment of our lives. We could also do exercises at home watching special shows on TV. Many artists performed for TV stations for free.

On the other hand, I spent more time with my hubby, endlessly watching movies and series, sometimes even stupid one. I read books more then usually, having more free time during the day and night. I feel the tempo of our life is significantly slowing down. We are not happy with this feeling as we are used to live more dynamic life.

* Newly adopted terms, idioms and “war” language were intentionally avoided in this interview!

The ever buzzling and vibrant city of Tel Aviv suddenly changed its appearance. No cultural events, no music, no outdoor life. Did you ever think you will witness these surreal vision of your city?

None of us saw our city as it was in March and April. So sad to see this lovely city completely empty and quiet. The whole traffic we saw in our area of the city were delivery motorcycles or electric trotinettes and some in the centre or along the coast. Or, the stuff on duty, who were right at place where needed, like ambulance and police and that was all. We had to stay 100 metres from home even doing exercises in the nearest park. Tel Aviv Museum was closed, National Opera, Cameri Theatre, Habima Theatre and other concert halls were all closed as well. Their programmes were postponed and cancelled  and we are going to miss some famous guests like Celin Dion or Enrico Macias who were supposed to come.

Beginning of June some measures were eased. The moment the restaurants, bars and shopping centres opened their doors, people were rushing back to normal life as the danger is gone forever. They organised big parties on the beaches which are now packed again and this week theatres and cinemas are opened for the 250 of crowd. On the other side, we have been witnessing right now the shut down of businesses (and those of self employees) because they were not capable of surviving current crisis. Also, an unemployment rate is rising up to 20%, comparing with the pre-corona period when it was about  4%. That explains many of conflicts and higher depression in society. Domestic violence is also rising up due to these abnormal circumstances for many families. Number of impoverished people is getting high in peripheral areas of the city.

Some images that are illustrating our conversation, show the traffic on the main avenue along the see, but residential areas, popular city squares and cultural halls were practically deserted. Nowadays, this city is “back” to life, streets and beaches are now crowded again, but this persistent virus has never gone away.

Travelling is on hold due to the coronavirus outbreak, I suppose you miss it a lot ?

Of course we are missing it a lot. Just this year we had plans to visit Europe, in fact we wanted to discover Poland, but this journey is not feasible anymore. We had to deal with a lot of cancellations of flights, hotels, tours etc. All was booked and paid already. We spent a lot of time doing this. Also, we are going to miss long time ago planned  Adriatic coast and gathering with our dear European friends. Here we should add the fact that you can travel from Israel only by airplane, rarely by ships. Maybe many of you are not aware of, but to travel by the car over country’s  borders is impossible. Israelis are used to travel by planes as a rule and they did it very frequently. In March, airports were closed completely except for those with Israeli passport who were brought back from abroad, mostly young people. That decision really saved us in the beginning of the pandemic. All of them had to stay in isolation for two weeks. Allegedly, airports will be opened for 1st of August but no one knows for sure what may happened meanwhile.

What was your reaction in early days of this pandemic? Did you get enough information about what is really happening in the country and how to stay safe?

So many information were unbelievably confusing.  From the very beginning we felt feed up and sad, absolutely unhappy, actually we had some mix of different emotions. We felt helpless as we were losing the control of life. No one knew anything, but everyone had to speak his speech. For example, our prime minister predicted thousands of deaths. It turned out that government has done a clever thing by closing the airports (our border). Airplanes were sent to bring travellers back home. Hotels were packed with those who came back, for the two weeks self isolation.

I believe it’s not an easy task  to feel safe and to be properly informed in this ongoing confusion. For example, one of our famous doctors stated that this disease is “flu like”, while other expert claimed it is indeed a serious disease. But, all side effects shown on the people who recovered from this virus are now widely researched by our medical experts and the results are frightening. Mostly because it has shown the recovery is not the end of it! On daily basis we are informed on all statistic, number of infected cases, recovered or deaths. And those statistics are considered as a trusted info. I suppose that this new/old situation of increasing number of those who contracted a virus is the result of increasing number of tests taken. I think it is about 15 000 tests taken per day now but the number may going up and down.

Did your officials issued mandatory recommendations (staying at home, keeping the right distance, wearing gloves, masks…) or emergency state was declared?

There was not a curfew declared, but some obligatory measures were imposed in the beginning. We were not allowed to leave the city, actually no one could leave its permanent residence location. You were allowed to go out only for shopping food. Everything else was closed. Parks and beaches were closed and you had to stay in the area you live using just 100 meters in diameter. So that’s the way we could walk around and doing some exercises. Now everything is up to us, to behave correctly, but we have to wear a mask in public space.Police started to check if you are wearing mask. And of course, they were checking if you are obeying to two weeks of self quarantine. You have to give your personal details and phone number if you go to museums, or even when practising outdoor activity. You have to make reservation, to subscribe to be able to participate. Also, they measured your body temperature when entering any venue. If you go to visit, for example, National park Caesarea, you have to announce your arrival two weeks earlier. Your visiting time is limited for only two hours.

Every evening our prime minister is holding the press conference in which he would said what is supposed to be done, then he would be followed by minister of health, who mostly repeat the same. The public here is not very disciplined, especially when we all see how some ministers’ behavior, they do not obey their own orders. Last days police give fines to those who are not wearing a mask.

Do you think your public health system “survived” this extreme challenge? Did you get enough medical equipment on time and how many medical workers were infected?

At first we all experienced a great fear from the unknown. Officials were afraid that the number of infected people will be much higher and an urgent chase for respirators acquisition all around the world was done, as it was everywhere else. Apparently (and luckily) what we already had was sufficient. In the beginning, we understood we have to buy masks with special filters but somehow, it was changed and now “ordinary” masks are allegedly safe. All the time, medical stuff were available in pharmacy shops, I mean we did not have any problems with getting gloves, alcohol and disinfectant liquids etc. Medical staff was infected but not in big numbers. As far as I know, one nurse died and some doctors were infected (this may be changed up to now). Unfortunately, lot of medical workers were put in self isolation, more then 2500. Most of the deaths were in elderly houses.

Typical medical treatments were not cancelled, hospitals were available for usual treatment of patients all the time. But, patients were frightened and were quite reluctant to visit a doctor in hospitals. In other clinics they ask patients not to come if you have a fever. There were special hospitals opened only for covid 19 patients. Other hospital’s departments worked regularly. We also have drive in checks in lot of places. And that is really painful procedure cause you get a stick stubbed into your nose. And it can take whole week for results to come.

What do you think on how much these diverse measures affected Israeli society in global?

There is a huge crush between economical and medical needs of our society. The moment country opened everything, the numbers of infected increased. But government have to let economy to function, otherwise people would run out of money. Businesses are closed down, people were unpaid or even fired. For getting people back to work they needed to open schools so parents can go back to work and that was a moment pandemic  started to accelerate again. Generally, both parents have to work in order to keep up with the high costs of living. And I suppose it is everywhere else in the world, people need to feel alive, they want their life back. A lot of family problems suddenly arose and a lot of people got depressed.

Numerous habits and routines are changed. There were some important (for all religions) religious holidays in the recent period?

Starting with the biggest family gathering on Passover, we had to do it only with the ones who live in same household. For me it meant only two of us so we could skip it. For religious and for lonely people it was a tangible tragedy. Synagogues, churches and mosques were closed and still are not allowed to a big crowd attendance. Now they are opened, but to limited the number of believers. For us Israelis, it is crucial to be with family and surrounded by friends. Community life is very important for us even if it is your community from some cafe next door. In this I see the main challenge while enduring this hard period. Then, we had holiday of Shavuot in the May being happy we could gather with the family again and celebrate holiday together. It falls seven weeks after Passover and it memorizes the time when the ten commandments were given to the Israeli people, while going out of Egypt.

Many countries imposed tracking applications. Your government approved tracking of all cell phones (by the law) – to inform who were accidentally close to someone diagnosed with the virus. How this was accepted by your civil society and are you aware of any positive impact?

Huge protests were held, but simply we could not win. That law you asked about was in force for the period of time of three months and after its expiration, new law again is in the procedure. You know we had a serial of elections during this pandemic period (three). People were not satisfied and protests were organised on the streets against the government, against corruption, but they say, what they did was “in the name” of the corona. After this last election, millions of people vote for the opposition, for anti corrupted government but current opposition leader used corona emergency period as an excuse to join the coalition. This situation also explains the law on digital tracking of the cell phones. Maybe this massive tracking may help them to make quality research, but personally, I do not like it and most of us are not able to feel any positive impact.

Seems to me that nowadays human communication is ruled solely by applications. Have primary or secondary schools changed their way of work?

In March all school were closed down, including kindergartens. After we achieved better results in the beginning of May, and due various reasons we already talked about, kindergartens and first three classes of primary schools  were reopened. Classes were divided in smaller groups, called “capsules”, to help kids to keep the right distance. Still, it was not obligatory and some parents did not send them at all out of a fear. To my opinion, reopening of junior and the high schools was too early, we couldn’t control if the necessary distance between kids is kept. Or, try to fight with teenagers to constantly wear masks for six hours. So, the virus did its job, it circulates again. I am afraid this will takes us to the next wave of virus infection, what is actually happening right now.

Parents were “forced” to stay days after days with all their kids, one of the rare good things in this situation. In most of the families it was a huge chance to get to know themselves better. They suddenly discovered how to spend quality time together, nobody was rushing anywhere and better family connections were established.

Reactions of the kids after they were allowed to meet again in their kindergarten were absolutely touchy. My grandsons are very well taught not to hug kids in kindergarten, where they are all together without masks. They are aware that this way they also take care of our health, being completely loyal to the “mission”. But, they were so happy to be back in the school and the learning process is running in regular mode.

Universities around the globe prepared themselves to continue with online studies, even for the next academic year. I believe universities in Isreael applied the same methods?

Yes, here students are still learning online. As the academic year is approaching to the end, exams already started. Plan A was that students would come to college, since the classrooms were empty, then they would be divided into a small groups in each class. All the people in the class should sit in a distance of two meters wearing masks. That was planned, but epidemiologic situation was worsening and organisation of exams had to be adapted. Now, students are doing exams from their homes, we are using Zoom application for supervising the entire exam process. But, students are allowed to demand to be psychically present and then plan A can be implemented partially. I do hope online studies will stay after (if ever) pandemic period will be over, at least in some of the aspects of university studies. I believe online education could improve the methods students acquire their knowledge as education here is far behind the 21st century.

Seems there has been an increasing number of new cases after measures were relaxed recently ? In fact, the same is happening worldwide right now, while I am typing this question.

We are “young” country, our families usually have 3-4 kids. Arab families are even bigger, but the Jewish orthodox families are huge with average of 10 children (I assume real numbers were never checked ). Kids are back to school, classes are crowded with approximately 35-40 students per each. Correct distance can not be kept, teacher can not fight with teenagers all the time to force them keeping the mask for 6 -7 hours a day, so spreading of virus started again. Main reason for relaxed measures was the need for country’s economic recovery. In my opinion they should take care about small children and give the possibility for parents to work. Kids over 12 years old could learn from home and stay without an adult, or working in small groups. But it is not for me to decide. Another source for the spread of virus  are foreign workers and refugees who are living in truly poor conditions, packed in small apartments with no health insurance, actually trying to avoid any contact with authority. Also, some of Jewish orthodox families live in substandard living conditions.

I wanted to close our conversation in optimistic style asking questions on “after period”, about your first travel destination, first fine restaurant or first concert after… but, it seems to me we all have to wait to get these responses?

I agree with you. I feel like I stop thinking. It comes to your mind that there is almost no place for people with normal mind anymore. We live, as most of the people on this planet, isolating ourselves, with some exceptions for going for work or getting bare necessities. We can only stay in hope we will go trough this untouched, I mean in literal sense of this term. To my great sorrow, the latest development shows accelerating trend as number of newly infected has exceeded 1000 cases per day.
I would like to add something: thank you for your interest in what is happening in my Tel Aviv. I wish you all good health and I am sending a message from the “HolyLand” for peace on Earth – in Hebrew we say Shalom !!