'Coronavirus is a plague of the citizens'

HEALTH AFFAIRS: Health Ministry spokesperson Eyal Basson tells The Jerusalem Post: "When news breaks, it spreads as fast as the virus."

EYAL BASSON: The coronavirus crisis is economic, political, social – and there is no middle ground.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
EYAL BASSON: The coronavirus crisis is economic, political, social – and there is no middle ground.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
In times of war, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit – a team of 300 soldiers and many more reservists – is responsible for the rapid release of factual information. In the war against the novel coronavirus, the man providing the media and the public with accurate and up-to-date information is Eyal Basson.
Meet the Health Ministry spokesman, the person who has been charged with combating fake news about COVID-19 and giving journalists access to the material they need to cover the pandemic since it came to the country in late February.
Basson said that while it sometimes feels like he is running a situation room, unlike an IDF operation in the heart of Iran, the coronavirus is a community event.
“If we were carrying out an operation in a foreign country, the citizens could not really confirm what they were being told. Unlike a Mossad mission with all its appeal, we are the health system,” Basson told The Jerusalem Post.
“If I tell you something inaccurate, tomorrow you can go to the health fund and check it. You can take a coronavirus test and see how long it takes to get the results. You can walk into the hospitals and watch how they are operating,” he said.
“Coronavirus is a plague of the citizens,” he continued. “If some aspect of the operation is messed up, you will know right away, because you live within the community.”
The public and the press are starting to understand this, Basson said, as the country enters its seventh month of the pandemic. The health system is a network of health funds, hospitals and labs, as well as regulatory bodies, academics and researchers. It’s a web of interconnected people serving the people of Israel. There is some hierarchy, but it’s mostly “flat,” he said, meaning that all these parts must work together.
He works closely with a team of spokespeople serving other areas of the health industry and multiple sectors, as well as with the government: the people in charge of messaging for Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu and even for the prime minister. While they try to ensure that their messaging aligns, sources told the Post that this does not always work out – as those who are thirsty for answers know.
This is not to mention the extensive team that works with Basson within his own Health Ministry department, and the many departments that support the ministry’s hasbara (public diplomacy) efforts, such as advertising, social media and units focused on specific sectors.
And this is not to mention that the Health Ministry sometimes plays the spokesman to support other organizations – such as the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), which has been running a surveillance program meant to inform people if they have been near a sick person and should therefore enter isolation.
“People call the Health Ministry when they get an SMS and ask why they got one – and we have to try to answer,” he said.
Mostly, the calls come into the ministry’s hotline, but sometimes they come directly to Basson, or even to director-general Hezi Levi or deputy director-general Itamar Grotto.
“Like I said, we are part of the community,” Basson noted with a smile.
HE ADMITTED it has been hard to keep up with the pace of news about the pandemic, saying that when news breaks, it spreads as fast as the virus. He is constantly trying to keep his finger on the pulse.
Moreover, the pandemic has become the focus of the country, so much so that everyone begins to see their worldview somehow portrayed within it. The health crisis has become an icon for the political crisis.
“If you are for or against the handling of coronavirus, this is a political view. Gatherings? If you can gather or not is somehow a political view,” he said. “The coronavirus crisis is economic, political, social – and there is no middle ground.”
He looks to traditional media outlets to help him disseminate a balanced viewpoint. But he admitted that many of them are also just looking for clicks and sound bites, which can pose a challenge in his efforts to communicate with the public which, according to all surveys, lacks trust in the government and the health system.
He compared managing hasbara during the first and second waves and said that when the crisis was managed by former director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov, former health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat, the forum was “very small.”
“It was a national emergency, but we didn’t know so much – just that we needed to act fast,” Basson recalled, noting that it was a transition government, operating in what was considered an emergency hour. “They made decisions faster and just dealt with it.”
Today, he explained, there is a lot more knowledge about the virus, which makes the team handling it more equipped. At the same time, there are many more players, including all the newer ministers and, of course, the Knesset and its Coronavirus Committee.
“It can get very complicated,” Basson said, “and it makes my job much harder.”
But he said that within the ministry there are not “arguments” but, rather, “discussions.” Medical professionals discuss the options from different perspectives and through the lenses of their various expertises. At the same time, as more is learned about coronavirus, sometimes recommendations change.
“This is not health professionals zigzagging – that’s a political term,” he stressed. “This is science.... These are legitimate debates with a lot of perspectives. I would not want to be the one at the top of the pyramid that has to make a decision for the country.”
BASSON HAS been with the ministry since 2016. Before that, he served as a media consultant for Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and as spokesman for MK Itzik Shmuli and the National Student Union. He graduated with a master’s degree in political science and government from Tel Aviv University in 2012.
When he came to the ministry, he could have never envisioned the coronavirus. He said he kept a journal from the time he learned about the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February, on which 15 Israelis were quarantined and then transferred back to Israel.
“I remember we talked about how this virus was coming from Wuhan and no one even knew where that was,” he said with a chuckle. Then they discovered that Wuhan was a sister city of Ashdod.
Despite all the information that the ministry received from the World Health Organization and the United States, when Basson and his team watched videos of people sick in China that were taken by its citizens, he felt as though they were watching science fiction films.
“It did not seem real – it wasn’t here and we just couldn’t believe it,” Basson said, noting that it has been 100 years since the last similar plague, and people just did not have experience with how to handle something like this.
He recalled those first discussions with the Foreign Ministry about blocking travelers to and from Thailand and Italy and the arguments that ensued. Officials thought the health experts were crazy.
When the pandemic started, it was Basson who started giving the patients numbers, beginning with patient No. 1 – a manager of a toy store in central Israel, who tested positive for coronavirus four days after returning from a trip to Italy.
“I started counting them in my press releases – one, 10, and I just thought, OK, I’ll give them each a number,” he told the Post. “Then there were 100 and 200 and it just kept growing.”
On Wednesday, Israel surpassed 200,000 patients since the beginning of the pandemic.
MANAGING THE data presentation has been one of the hardest parts of the crisis for the Health Ministry, which is calibrating data from all of the health funds, Magen David Adom, hospitals and labs and presenting it to the public and the press.
“It is very hard to get the information in 20 seconds,” he said. “This is a live and dynamic network and the numbers go up and down.”
Another major challenge is fake news, which he said swarms across the social networks, often uninhibited.
“They have a responsibility to better manage this,” Basson said as a citizen and a spokesman who is regularly asked about false reports that are seen by the media and the general public on those networks. “They are power players, and they could do a lot more to control this. There is a plague, and people are dying. I give Facebook a negative review.”
Facebook’s spokeswoman in Israel said she was surprised by the claims and called them “inconsistent with our continued work with the Health Ministry on the fight against misinformation.
“Since COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency, we’ve taken aggressive steps to limit the spread of misinformation about the virus, and have worked with officials in the ministry to launch services to help citizens get accurate and reliable information from the government,” the spokeswoman said. “This includes our COVID-19 Information Center, messaging services on WhatsApp and Messenger, and funding for much of the ministry’s advertising campaigns on our platform.”
She said that from April to June, the social media giant removed more than seven million pieces of content for violating its policies against sharing COVID-19 misinformation that could lead to imminent harm.
THE OTHER challenge is what he called the anti-establishment movement, led by people like former Health Ministry director-general Yoram Lass, who questions basic facts presented by the ministry and even the World Health Organization.
Lass has said the coronavirus is no worse than the flu, and that there is no reason to take special steps to protect people from getting sick with it.
“The world is teeming with information, and not everyone can fact-check it,” Basson said. “Yoram is the result, or a symbol, of the lack of trust of the public in information that the establishment disseminates. This is a very difficult and dangerous situation.”
He said it’s OK to question, but it is almost impossible to compete with rumors about masks with tracking microchips or conspiracy theories that carry the public away. He charged that the government needs to earn the public’s trust and be transparent, but that there should be some basic rules for the information game.
“In the end, there have to be rules that we all agree upon as a community,” Basson stressed. “Otherwise the system breaks and the result will be much worse than coronavirus – it will be chaos.”
It’s all a little exhausting, he admitted, and he does not see an end in sight. Nonetheless, Basson said he plans to stick with it – at least for now.
The silver lining?
“We are building the infrastructure at the ministry to be able to support these kinds of national emergencies,” Basson said, something that was lacking before the pandemic. “Who knows? In a few years there may be another plague like this, and we will need the Health Ministry.
“Next time, we will be ready.”