Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu, together with the heads of Israel’s top hospitals, are fighting not only the novel coronavirus, but also politics and populism, aiming for professional management of the crisis.
Edelstein took on his role in May, after serving in various parliamentary and government leadership roles – including as speaker of the Knesset – since 1996.
Despite being a politician himself for more than 20 years, he told The Jerusalem Post that “too much politics is involved in decisions about how to combat coronavirus. No. 11: Israel's adult >>>
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“Part of it is because some ministers are just thinking about their responsibilities in their ministries, without thinking about the general picture; some are just thinking about their constituencies; some of them are members of Knesset who want to be kind of Robin Hoods,” he continued. “Unfortunately, the impression that some people are getting is that there is no logic in the decisions the government is taking.” Edelstein’s right hand in the battle against coronavirus, Gamzu, told the Post that he felt similarly. He said that ministers have difficulty doing the right thing, because politics gets in the way. He said he sees them under “huge pressures, almost violent ones, from many streams of people,” and that the threat of losing votes in a future election “makes them lose all logical judgment. There is a lot of illogical judgment here.” It is up to these two men to navigate this complicated reality – on the one hand to draft a strategy that will see an improvement in infection rates and at the same time, to do it in a way that does not get stopped by Israel’s populist government.
Gamzu, who was tasked by Edelstein and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with reducing the country’s rate of infection, has fought many battles since taking up the role in July and in almost every case, he was forced to compromise.
He pushed to stop thousands of hassidim from traveling to Uman, Ukraine, for Rosh Hashanah, because he felt that the large gathering would lead to a dangerous spike in coronavirus cases both in Israel and Ukraine. He said that such an event could put the entire country under lockdown.
At first, it appeared that Netanyahu would back his commissioner. Ultimately, the prime minister caved to haredi (ultra-Orthodox) pressure and determined to allow several thousand Israelis to pray in Uman.
Within days, after the ministers approved Gamzu’s ‘traffic light’ program that involves closures on the country’s reddest cities, Netanyahu – once again amid pressure from haredi ministers – altered the plans. Closures were canceled and curfews were put in place instead.
“Sometimes, I feel like politicians are saying, ‘It’s your duty to reduce the numbers, and it is our job to do what is popular. And if you don’t succeed, we will just lock down,’” Gamzu told the Post.
But Gamzu, who joined Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center’s management team in 2002 and served as director-general for the Health Ministry between 2010 and 2014, has maintained the need to handle the virus through a professional lens. He has a professional board that includes the heads of most major hospitals. He also has a barometer board of hospital emergency departments and intensive care unit doctors who have their fingers on the pulse of the day-to-day running of the health system.
“I do not need some members of the Knesset telling me what is right or wrong,” he said. “I am coming from a professional standpoint.... I am not looking for someone who strengthens me every day. I go with my professional truth.” Behind Gamzu are a team he calls his “coronavirus professional board,” which is made up of a list of top healthcare professionals. On the board is the well-known chairman of the board of directors of Assuta Medical Centers Network, Prof. Shuki Shemer.
He told the Post that Israel and the rest of the world are operating a policy of “risk management in an uncertain situation. The country can do nothing and maybe it won’t work out, or maybe it can take dramatic steps and we will find out later they will be unnecessary.” Shemer said that he supports Gamzu’s traffic light program and even called it “excellent,” but he said that the government made a mistake in pushing off its passing - a mistake that led the country to a near closure.
“All over the world there is political strength,” he said. “Professionals bring their professional recommendations, but in the end, politicians make the decisions.”
Another person that Gamzu consults with is Prof. Zeev Rotstein, who during the first wave fought against the Health Ministry. He encouraged them to test more to consider the long-term implications of lockdowns and to allow his hospital to collect plasma.
When it came to collecting the plasma, he ultimately won and the rest is a new “passive vaccine” that his hospital developed with the Israeli biopharmaceutical firm Kamada. So far, multiple patients who have been treated with the vaccine have demonstrated rapid, clinical benefit and have been released from the hospital to their homes.
Rotstein told the Post in previous interviews about coronavirus that “right now, everything is political” - but one cannot cure coronavirus with politics.
Edelstein said that when he comes to cabinet meetings as health minister, he, too, brings with him “logical decisions. Then they are cut into slices.
“I think we really have to get our act together,” he continued. “Coronavirus is totally apolitical. It does not care if someone is left-wing, right-wing, coalition, opposition, religious or secular. We all have to combat it together.”