Gamzu to ‘Post’: Lockdown isn’t working, let people go back to work

Former coronavirus czar says Israel left Dubai flights open for political reasons, which led to an increase in infection.

Former coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Former coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu.
Flights to  Dubai that let loads of infection into Israel were allowed for political reasons, former coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. He said that the most recent lockdown did not work because Israel’s leaders do not empathize enough with the public.
Sitting in his office at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, where he serves as director-general, Gamzu said that when Israel and the United Arab Emirates normalized ties, “there was too much enthusiasm for travel to the Emirates. It was madness.”
At the time he had completed his role as czar, which lasted from August to November, and returned to the hospital. But he recalled how he watched as Israelis flocked to Dubai.
“The mutations came from Dubai – not only, but from Dubai,” he said, adding that the flights remained open despite the increase in infection for political reasons: “We know that.”
Although he did say that the British and other mutations would have entered Israel anyway because “you cannot really escape the nature of the disease.”
But speaking to the Post at the same time as the cabinet was meeting on Thursday night to discuss a Health Ministry plan to once again extend the lockdown by a few days, Gamzu said he was “furious” by the government’s inability to see that the closure is not working and that “you have to have balance.”
Gamzu said that the lockdown is not achieving its goal and the people of Israel are paying a huge price.
“This is the fifth week that commercial [businesses] are closed,” he said. “If you open street shops, it will not really make such a huge difference. Let them return to their lives; let them return to their businesses.”
Gamzu became coronavirus czar in August. He was in office when the High Holy Day lockdown was initiated and when it was tightened a week later. He admitted he was part of the decision to lock down then and that the closure was needed. But he said that the lockdown did what it was supposed to do.
“We dropped from 9,000 [daily cases] to 1,000 in four weeks,” he explained.
He said that if the lockdown was working, then it could be argued that it is worth the price. But he said people are not following the rules and the disease is spreading anyway. As such, “the only ones who are suffering are the ones that cannot go to make their living.
“Our political leaders are detached,” he continued: “Our political leaders do not understand.”
He said that the lockdown can be lifted despite the number of new cases per day because the vaccinations are working and the number of severe cases is gradually declining.
Gamzu said that when the government called the third lockdown, it was also necessary. However, at that time, Israel had only started vaccinating a few days before. But from the first jab on December 27 until now, it has been almost six weeks.
The Health Ministry showed that 3.34 million Israelis have already received at least one dose of the vaccine and some 1.95 million have received both. Moreover, preliminary data from the health funds and hospitals show that few people who get the vaccine contract coronavirus and, if they do, they tend to have mild cases.
On Thursday evening, Maccabi reported that only 254 out of the 416,900 people for whom a week had passed since they received both shots had been infected and they only “suffered from mild symptoms.” Just four people were hospitalized in mild condition.
“The effect of vaccination is clear,” Gamzu said. “We can see it.”
HE ARGUED that the reason the lockdown has not been working has less to do with the British mutation and more to do with the fact that the people are no longer inclined to listen to the rules.
The country’s leaders “do not speak to their feelings,” Gamzu said. “If you are going to ask someone not to see his parents, his grandmother or grandfather, he needs you... to be authentic. He needs to see your eyes.
“It is not a cabinet resolution, it is not the prime minister in a press conference – it does not work like that,” he continued. “There is no empathy with the population and that is why they are not” adhering to the rules.
Gamzu said that serving as coronavirus czar cost him hours of sleep.
“In any decision you make, you have a high degree of uncertainty, and you see that more than nine million people are being affected by your decisions,” he said.
The former corona commissioner said he saw how the public takes everything personally.
“The ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs... they feel like whatever you decide you are for them or against them,” he said. “You are touching their open nerves – the delicate nerves of Israeli society. The things you say or do really affect people in a wide way.”
Gamzu said he felt that he was successful in doing the job he was hired to do, that the core objective of the czar was to put a strategy and infrastructure in place to manage the virus.
He said that under his watch, Israel built the infrastructure to test as many as 100,000 people per day for coronavirus. He rolled out the traffic light model, even if it was never properly enforced. He recruited the IDF to carry out as many as 10,000 epidemiological investigations per day, and enabled the Home Front Command to enter cities with high infections and run an operation that quickly brings down their number of sick.
WHAT ABOUT events that others saw as failures, like the number of hassidim who flew to Uman on Rosh Hashanah despite his objection?
“There were supposed to be 80 charter flights,” he said. “We saved lives.”
On an average year, around 30,000 hassidim travel to the grave site of Rabbi Nachman of Breslau. Last year, he said, less than 10,000 went.
Gamzu also said that he believes opening the skies was the right thing to do for Israel. The country “is not an island,” he told the Post, noting that some 100,000 Palestinians work in Israel, there are new immigrants who have a deep connection to the Diaspora, and staying put is simply not in the Israeli people’s nature.
“I understood why we opened the sky for flights,” Gamzu said, but “I cannot understand why Israel did it irresponsibly, without tests.”
It was Gamzu who pushed to open a coronavirus testing lab at the airport – according to him against the position of the Health Ministry at the time. The lab was meant to serve people coming and going from Israel and make it safer.
So why didn’t it work?
“Some say because people did not test and did not keep the quarantine rules,” and the testing was never made mandatory and quarantine was never properly monitored or enforced.
Despite the current challenges, Gamzu said he believes that Israel will surface soon from the pandemic.
“Israel is going to reach vaccination of about 60% [of the population] in around a couple of months,” he explained. “Once we reach that, we will reduce the dynamic of the epidemic to a sporadic one. We will still have a lot of coronavirus cases, but the hospitals will be able to manage.”
Whereas currently there are around 1,000 seriously ill patients, he predicts that by March or April, Israel will see only a few hundred at a time.
“It will be like influenza,” he said. “People will get sick, but we will be able to continue with our regular lives.”