Experts present model for learning from coronavirus mistakes

Criticizing the government response to the pandemic has virtually become Israel’s national sport over the last few months.

Israelis are seen waiting at a bus stop in Jerusalem amid the coronavirus pandemic, on December 13, 2020. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israelis are seen waiting at a bus stop in Jerusalem amid the coronavirus pandemic, on December 13, 2020.
As Israel grapples with a rising rate of coronavirus infection and a possible third lockdown, two policy advisers have come up with a model for a new way of handling the virus. — and not a moment too soon.
Ron Tzur, the CEO of Sparks Consulting Group Ltd.  and chair of the advisory board of the Israeli Leadership Forum and Prof. Nissim Cohen, head of the Department of Administration and Public Policy and director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Haifa, will present their study, called, “A National Model for Evaluating Policy in Times of Crisis,” on Wednesday at the Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economics and Society run by the Israel Democracy Institute, which will be held from December 14-16.
Ron Tzur. (Photo credit: Sparkes & Design Studio)Ron Tzur. (Photo credit: Sparkes & Design Studio)
Nissim Cohen. (Photo credit: Einat Lavi)Nissim Cohen. (Photo credit: Einat Lavi)
While criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic has virtually become Israel’s national sport over the past few months, Tzur and Cohen are not interested in assigning blame, only in figuring out how to manage the crisis — and other crises that may arise — better in the future.
“We are calling for leadership,” said Cohen. “A time of crisis is also a window of opportunity... Our leaders use the terminology of war when they are talking about pandemic. It’s natural that Israel would use a military-oriented approach. But if each wave of the virus is seen as a battle, we’ve lost the first two. So isn’t it reasonable that a decision maker would wake up and say, ‘It’s time to do things differently?’”
Given the confused and confusing management of the crisis — such as the policy shifts last week that saw a proposal for a night curfew quickly scuttled and replaced with mall openings all over Israel — Cohen said, “When people understand that decision makers are guided by short-term self-interest, it is very hard for the average citizen to obey the government.”
Another factor that makes it hard for the government to get citizens to comply with regulations is that every sector of society has its own rationale for refusing to follow the rules. In the ultra-Orthodox sector, citizens tend to trust their rabbinical authorities more than the government, while Arabs often distrust or reject the authority of the mostly Jewish government. But Tzur noted that, for secular Jews, “There is an Israeli Zionist ethos of strategies for bypassing rules,” that goes back to pre-state times, when Jews fought the British mandate policies. Tzur said that the leadership seemed to have missed most learning opportunities that have arisen as a result of the crisis.  While it was understandable that no one was prepared for the first wave, “We’ve done hundreds of thousands of tests, but we still don’t have criteria for how to open the schools, whether to allow demonstrations, or how synagogues can open safely.”
Given all these factors, it might seem that the government has no chance of preventing a third lockdown or of making sure that if there is one, it achieves the goal of containing the spread of the virus, unless there is a dramatic shift in the approach used.
And while the vaccine may bring an end to the crisis, locking down until everyone gets vaccinated does not strike them as good public policy. “I hope the vaccine will work, but imagine what will happen if it does not work,” said Cohen. The two are also not putting their faith in new elections. “Our study aims not to change the players, but to change the rules of the game.”
Their three-pronged policy proposes “a specific model for investigating and evaluating policy during the current crisis—a model that can be used without delay and can improve outcomes as we prepare for the anticipated peak in morbidity and mortality this winter.”
This would mean looking at what the government planned for and comparing it to what actually happened. For example, in the first wave, hospitals canceled elective surgeries and screening tests, with the goal of keeping people away from hospitals, but in retrospect, many public health experts have criticized this policy as short-sighted, detrimental to the health of thousands and unhelpful in terms of preventing the spread of the virus.
The second part of their plan “calls for the adoption of this model in other crises as well, given the certainty that another crisis will surely come.”
The third part is a call for “the assimilation in Israel of a culture of policy evaluation (both during crises and in routine times) as part of a broader process of devising and implementing carefully planned and systematic policies.”
Said Tzur, “There is nothing genius-level about this. We are thinking in reverse... We didn’t invent anything here.”
They also noted that the crisis has exposed existing problems in Israeli society, such as income inequality. Tzur said that as they researched their study, he was surprised by “the depth of despair in Israeli society,” but also cheered by how local authorities had stepped in and helped manage the crisis.
Their approach is not about pointing fingers at those who have made mistakes. “Of course people made mistakes, this was all new,” said Cohen. “Everyone wants to hear people admit they made mistakes... But the point is to figure out what we can do better.”