The novel coronavirus that has spread across the world, infecting more than 175,000 people, has hit the Jewish state too. But according to the Health Ministry, around 300 Israelis have COVID-19, and no one has died. So why is the government shutting the country down?
According to experts in public policy and health, the severity of the measures being taken now is because the country has let its medical system deteriorate for decades, and now it is unprepared.
“Before the outbreak of the current pandemic, hospital occupancy rates in Israel were already the highest in the developed world, while its mortality rates from infectious diseases, which doubled in the past two decades alone, are not only higher than in every other developed country, they are 73% higher than the second-ranked country,” said Prof. Dan Ben-David, president and founder of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research and a faculty member at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy. “We shut the country down to deal with something that we neglected for decades.”
Almost every aspect of the country’s crippled medical system can be understood as the coronavirus crisis unfolds.
With high occupancy rates in hospitals – some are over 100% all year and sometimes during flu season they top 200%, according to Ben-David – then people are treated in the corridors and dining halls under unclean conditions.
“It’s like a petri dish,” he said. “So there is no wonder that people die at such fast rates from infectious disease. Fifteen times more people die from infectious disease than car accidents.
“If we would have occupancy rates like hospitals in other countries, we would be able to hospitalize people at first” before shutting down the country, Ben-David said.
Moreover, even if there had been enough beds, there also is not enough staff, he said. Israel is woefully understaffed when it comes to all medical professionals, the statistics show, but especially when it comes to nurses. According to Ben-David, Israel has nearly the lowest number of nurses per capita compared with other OECD countries and nearly the lowest number of nursing-school graduates.
And what about laboratories? Many more tests could be processed faster if labs were more fully staffed and could dedicate more hours.
What is even worse, said Zeev Feldman, chairman of the Organization of the State Employed Physicians of Israel and deputy president of the Israeli Medical Association, is that the country lacks protective gear needed by doctors and lab workers to ensure they do not become infected when treating patients or checking their polymerase chain reaction (PCR) screening test.
On Monday, the deputy director-general of the Health Ministry’s central laboratory for detecting coronavirus at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer tested positive for COVID-19. The lab was shut down. It had carried out approximately 480 tests on a daily basis.
In addition, two medical professionals at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv reportedly contracted the virus.
According to the Health Ministry, almost 2,600 medical professionals are in isolation, including 862 doctors.The chair of the residents’ organization Mirsham, Dr. Rey Biton, lamented Monday in a statement that “entire wards have been closed, vital medical teams have gone into quarantine, and our most valuable resources – doctors – are going to waste.”
She called on the Health Ministry to provide enough protective gear to medical professionals and to make it obligatory that they wear it when examining patients showing symptoms of the novel coronavirus. Those symptoms include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing.
Hospitals were running low on protective masks, Israeli Medical Association chairman Prof. Zion Hagay said. A large number of masks and protective suits had been stolen, he said.
Hagay said he had been in contact with the Health Ministry, which had assured him a large shipment of equipment from South Africa would be delivered to all hospitals soon.
Feldman said there are holes in the Health Ministry’s guidelines, which only deal with treating patients who are suspected of having the virus.
“The big unknown is the regular patients who come to the emergency room and complain of a headache or abdominal pain or trauma,” he said. “We should assume that some of them are already contaminated with the virus, and we need to take precautions.”
Channel 12 reported that some hospital staff were cautioned to ration protective gear due to its deficit.
Ben-David reiterated that “all of these are things that you need to plan for years in advance, to plan for emergencies.”
“We left ourselves no degree of freedom if we have a major problem,” he said. “Now, it is exploding in our faces.”
Israel, however, is one of the world’s most nimble countries in dealing with crises on very short notice, and the Start-Up Nation is known for its out-of-the-box solutions, Ben-David said. So the country likely will not crumble under the coronavirus.
Still, it should take this crisis as “a wake-up call for more serious strategic long-term policies that won’t require Israel to implement such severe measures in the future,” he said.