Bar Siman Tov to 'Post:' Gov't must move fast in times of crisis

To gain public trust, you have to make fast and professional decisions.

OUTGOING HEALTH Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov appears at a press briefing at the Prime Ministers office last month (photo credit: FLASH90)
OUTGOING HEALTH Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov appears at a press briefing at the Prime Ministers office last month
(photo credit: FLASH90)
As Israel edged closer to 3,000 new cases of the novel coronavirus on Wednesday, former Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov said that if the government was going to keep its threat and tighten restrictions, it needed to do it early and fast.
“I think the fast response, even before the first wave, was a key factor in the success we experienced,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
Bar Siman Tov acknowledged that politics and professionalism have seemed to clash in recent months in dealing with the crisis but, he said, they are meant to complement each other – and they can.
“There are professional and political decisions,” he said. “But the real issue now is that people are burned out. And I understand that burnout. This event is the longest emergency event ever in the history of Israel.
“People cannot say something was done right in the first wave and not in the second – the factor of burnout is crucial,” he said.
Yet, Bar Siman Tov did have some advice for the current leaders: To gain public trust, you have to make fast and professional decisions and create a partnership with the public.
“Make the public your partner, your ally – and talk about the difficulties and the imperfectness of the decisions you are making. Emergencies are fast by design” and therefore the responses to them are “not perfect.”
He also said that the country’s leaders need to acknowledge their mistakes.
For him, the biggest mistake in the country’s handling of the pandemic during his reign was opening up too fast.
“We should have done it differently, and when we saw it was not working in reality and our expectations were not fulfilled, we should have corrected ourselves faster,” he told the Post. “It is not easy admitting mistakes in Israel,” but “for gaining public trust, it is crucial.”
Bar Siman Tov left the Health Ministry in May and now serves as a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. On Wednesday, he presented new research, together with health economist Iris Ginsburg, at the Israel Democracy Institute’s Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economics and Society.
His research centered on lessons learned from the coronavirus crisis in part, but mostly on how to prepare the health system to handle future potential hazards, from other pandemics to natural disasters or even cyberattacks.
The research offered suggestions in multiple areas, from command and control, medical personnel, and hospital infrastructure to information systems, maintaining normal activities during a crisis and communication.
“It is easy to envision missiles falling on hospitals because this has happened so many times,” Bar Siman Tov said. “But it is hard to picture an earthquake at Hadassah [University Medical Center] in Jerusalem.”
What the researchers found was that “no matter the scenario, you have to have resilience and a functioning healthcare system on a routine basis,” he said.
Among their recommendations, Bar Siman Tov and Ginsburg called for more synergy between the Health Ministry and other ministries and professional bodies.
“My personal view is that the health system functioned excellently during COVID-19, but the challenge was collaboration with other systems, such as local municipalities, the education system and others,” he said. “We need a stronger connection.”
They recommended appointing a health officer – or as Ginsburg called it, “an ambassador” – in each municipality who could be the liaison to the ministry, during routine times and emergencies.
Bar Siman Tov equated this to his appointment of Maj.-Gen. Ronny Numa during the first wave to help manage the coronavirus crisis in Bnei Brak. Since then, others, like Ayman Saif in the Arab sector, have fulfilled such roles. But in the researchers’ scenario, these people would be local and operate all the time.
Another aspect of their recommendation would be to develop increased interoperability for better data sharing within the healthcare community.
“The Israeli health system has strong IT systems,” Ginsburg said. “The weakness is that we have limited interoperability.”
In their vision, systems would connect to create a unified data structure that could be leveraged for routine and emergency uses.
“If we had full connectivity between all health organizations, we could use the data more quickly for policy-making. We could see the big picture,” Ginsburg said.
She noted that interoperability would not necessarily increase the risk of cyberattack, as the data would still be stored in silos, just shared centrally.
“We are not recommending having a centralized database,” Bar Siman Tov stressed. But he added that another one of their recommendations is to be prepared for a cyberattack on the health system by ensuring there are recovery programs and sophisticated backups in place.
Many still recall how Bar Siman Tov – in his blue or earth-colored shirts, always with an open  jacket – would appear alongside the prime minister in prime time to talk about the coronavirus crisis. His own research found that hasbara – public relations – is essential.
The researchers recommended putting a team in TV and radio studios during a crisis to talk to the public. But Bar Siman Tov stressed it cannot be just one or two people – it has to be a larger team.
He said the media is so dispersed that "you have to have an army of experts sitting in those studios.”
Although their research centered on collaboration, Bar Siman Tov noted that in emergency situations, centralized management by a strong government is key and is “one of the main strengths of Israel.”
What were their conclusions?
One was that the country cannot expect the health system to operate well in emergencies if it is not optimized, Ginsburg said.
“We need to fill the existing gaps in infrastructure and adjust the resources to the population,” she said.
The plan calls for increasing the number of hospital beds in Israel by 17,000 in 25 years – around 680 a year.
Bar Siman Tov took this even further: “I think that it is not only expanding the investment in health, but seeing health as a crucial component, just like defense.
“If you do not have public health, you don’t have a proper economy; you don’t have a proper functioning society,” he concluded.