An unlikely Israeli election candidate: Coronavirus, says Hebrew University epidemiologist

According to Prof. Hagai Levine, “It will not be Corona that influences the elections, but rather the elections that influence Corona,” with the outcome determining whether it turns into a widespread epidemic in Israel. 

By Benjamin Brown, TPS

With Israel set to head to the polls tomorrow for the third time in a year, debates before election day have been focusing on an unlikely candidate to influence the vote: The novel Coronavirus (COVD-19).

Politicians and analysts have spent the past days pondering over the potential impact fear over the virus may have on voter turnout, with some voicing concern that exaggerating the risk of infection could be used as a political weapon to deter voters in certain regions from going to the polls.

“We are facing an unprecedented event with our third election, people are tired of voting again,” Professor Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist and public health expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told TPS. “Any minor perception of threat may have an impact on people looking for reasons not to go out and vote.”

“In addition, parties may distribute fake news or emphasize available news to affect people going to vote,” Levine said, adding that Sunday’s incident at Givatayim Mall near Tel Aviv provided a perfect example of how fears surrounding the virus could influence people in Israel.

On Sunday morning, reports emerged that a man had visited a clinic inside the shopping complex, complaining of ill health. With the news spreading that the man had come to Israel from the United States via Corona-stricken Italy, panic ensued with two levels of the mall being evacuated. Business at the mall resumed as normal shortly after, TPS was told.

Blue and White leader and Prime Ministerial candidate Benny Gantz soon expressed the fears shared by many in Israel: The use of Corona as a political tool. Gantz took to Twitter to accuse supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party of spreading claims of corona in Givatayim.

“Givatayim is a stronghold of Blue and White,” the former Israel Defense Forces Chief-of-Staff wrote, adding that “[Netanyahu] plans to disrupt election day, to disseminate fake news anywhere that is identified with Blue and White in order to keep you home.”

To Professor Levine, the Givatayim incident exemplifies how fears around the Coronavirus “may be used to frighten people.” It is not only the domestic political rivalry Israelis should be worried about, according to the government. A week ago the Prime Minister made public his concerns of foreign meddling in the election through Corona scares. The government is also concerned by possible false reports on the Coronavirus influencing the elections.

“There could be all kinds of elements, including foreign elements, which could interfere in the elections this way. We have an interest in stopping this,” Netanyahu said last week, announcing his plans to involve the Israeli Police as well the Israeli Security Agency (commonly known as the Shin Bet) in countering the threat.

Aside from fictitious scenarios and exaggerated news reports, Levine believes that, in reality, Israelis should not be particularly concerned by the danger the election poses in regards to the spread of the Coronavirus. “So far, there has been no evidence of local transmission in Israel, so the risk should not be very high. The risk will definitely not be higher at polling stations than at any other gatherings or activities of daily life.”

“If there were widespread local transmission then yes, there would be a high risk, but not right now,” Levine added.

In fact, Levine believes that “it will not be Corona that influences the elections, but rather the elections that influence Corona.” With public health being neglected for years, according to the professor, it could well be the outcome of the elections – and parties’ willingness to revamp the health system – that could decide whether Coronavirus turns into a widespread epidemic in Israel. Levine told TPS that he had been surprised the virus, how to deal with it, and the health system, in general, had not played a bigger role in the political debates leading up to the election.

For some voters, however, the election will undoubtedly be influenced by Coronavirus: For those nearly 6,000 Israelis currently quarantined due to exposure to carriers of the virus or return from countries experiencing high infection-rates. It is an “unusual, unique process” these voters will face, Levine says, with special ballot boxes for those under quarantine.

The Ministry of Health said in a statement, it was in contact with those quarantined and had healthcare officials on the ground to inform voters of any updates.

With the fear of the virus spreading through ballot papers, those counting the votes will use protective gloves and clothing for counting the votes issued by members of the public under quarantine.

In the past, Israeli elections were said not to be over until the soldiers’ votes had come in. For Israel’s third election in a year, however, it may well be the Corona-quarantined voters’ ballot papers to come in last.

Asked if he had one message to Israelis worrying about the risk of infection at the polls, Levine stated that “it’s very important that everyone votes. Go vote without fear. There is no special risk in voting.”