Quarantined Israelis vote 'like lepers' in age of coronavirus

Jerusalem (AFP) –


"Don't treat us like lepers," shouted the man trying to vote Monday at a special polling station set up for Israelis quarantined because of possible exposure to coronavirus.

The man's roadside outburst was directed at a police officer using a megaphone to give instructions to this new category of voters that could become a phenomenon worldwide.

The election in Israel is the first since the World Health Organization raised its level over the outbreak to the highest level.

The Jewish state currently has 10 confirmed cases, with more than 5,000 others under home-quarantine, many after visiting at-risk countries.

The quarantined, banned from normal polling stations, were directed to 16 dedicated voting centres for Monday's general election in Israel.

- Right of citizens -

At one, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, a white tent had been erected in a car park normally used for motorcycle exams.

When polls opened at 10:00 am (0800 GMT), three hours after the rest of the country, a few dozen voters wearing masks were waiting to cast ballots.

Police forced them into one part of the car park.

Hadas Vinograd, 26, said she and her husband had been under home-quarantine since returning from Italy last week.

"We didn't leave the house until today when they let us come here to vote. It's very important for us to vote because we believe in the right of citizens," she said, wearing a green mask over the bottom half of her face.

"But actually we were very scared because we heard that all the people who might have coronavirus will be here today."

Those voting were met outside the booth by election officials in full protective suits and masks.

They were made to wash their hands and put on gloves before receiving polling cards.

Once inside the booths, they showed ID to other staff separated by a plastic sheet, before making their choice.

The staff were all medics, a Central Elections Committee official explained on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Each ballot was placed in an envelope, which was then placed in a second envelope -- effectively a double-wrapping -- as the virus can remain alive on surfaces for several hours.

- Feels like 'a plague' -

Ayelet, who had also returned from Italy, said quarantine was a "strange" experience.

"We feel like there is a plague and nobody wants to go near us but we are totally healthy," she said. "The police were yelling at us to keep away."

Israel's third election in a year was tipped to be another close race between right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist challenger Benny Gantz.

With turnout key, concerns have grown that party operatives might spread outbreak rumours to scare people off voting in certain areas.

After voting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu urged people to ignore "fake news".

"Go vote," he said. "The coronavirus thing is completely under control."

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said cyber units were monitoring social media to "identify any efforts to cause panic amongst the public and discourage people from coming to vote".

Naama Kalman, 65, voting at a regular polling station in Jerusalem, said she was not concerned about the virus and that it could even increase turnout with fewer Israelis having opted to travel abroad.

"Usually people travel -- they use the opportunity (of election day) to go away for long weekends," she said, referring to the public holiday for polling in Israel.

"So that might be interesting -- the corona actually (leading to) more votes."