Can Israel learn to dance with COVID-19? - analysis

Has the virus mutated? Is it spinning out of control?

A man carries his shopping bags and wears a face mask in a street in Ashkelon while Israel tightened a national stay-at-home policy following the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ashkelon, Israel March 20, 2020. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A man carries his shopping bags and wears a face mask in a street in Ashkelon while Israel tightened a national stay-at-home policy following the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ashkelon, Israel March 20, 2020.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu misled the country that coronavirus is a disease of the past – and the people of the State of Israel now stand to pay for it with their lives.
“We received a lot of joyful news today,” Netanyahu said in May during one of his near-nightly television briefings; at that one he informed the public about the easing of another round of restrictions. “Drink a cup of coffee and a beer, too,” he encouraged. “Go out and make a living.”
Two months later, Israel – like much of the rest of the world – is reporting record numbers of new patients. The World Health Organization’s director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said during a late Wednesday briefing some 60% of total cases worldwide have been reported just in the past month.
“More than 10.3 million cases of COVID-19 have now been reported to the WHO, and more than 506,000 deaths,” he said. “For the past week, the number of new cases has exceeded 160,000 on every single day.”
America reported 50,000 cases in one day.
Has the virus mutated? Is it spinning out of control?
“I would not try to ascribe to the virus anything new or biological – that all of a sudden it is more infectious or more potent,” said Prof. Jonathan Gershoni of Tel Aviv University’s School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology. “This is simply not the case, the virus is the same.”
Rather, the dynamics of the infection and the behavior of the population has changed, he said. People are tired of wearing masks and social distancing, and they are relaxing their guard. This is partly because they have been taught that these restrictions do not necessarily have to be taken seriously.
IN THE US, where the virus continues to burn across the country, President Donald Trump has told a number of half-truths about the novel coronavirus, from his dogmatic statement it would weaken “when we get into April, in the warmer weather,” which “has a very negative effect on that, on that type of a virus,” to “coronavirus numbers are looking much better, going down almost everywhere,” and cases are “coming way down.”
In reality, as far as scientists now know, the heat is actually not a major factor when it comes to corona and you catch COVID-19 no matter how sunny or hot the weather. Moreover, in more than a dozen American states, cases are still increasing, if not spiking.
“The US is a colossal failure,” said Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “I think we are seeing the challenges of its fragmented healthcare system... the lack of leadership, especially on the federal level, and the big social inequalities.”
The result, said Gershoni, is “misunderstandings” and “a lack of compliance... There is lack of sufficient explanation and education for the public,” he continued. “If you do not sufficiently understand and appreciate the seriousness of the situation, this is what we can expect to see.”
Moreover, he added that many young people have come to the conclusion coronavirus only affects old people, when in reality as much as 10% of people under the age of 55 could develop a serious case of COVID-19. And even those with mild symptoms can take months until they fully recover – if they ever do.
“The ramifications of this virus might be for months and maybe for life,” Gershoni said. And it is still too early to know.
BUT THERE are also some logical reasons why the world may be seeing so many more patients.
For starters, the number of people being screened for the novel coronavirus worldwide has increased substantially between March and today, according to Prof. Amnon Lahad of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In March, Israel tested around 10,000 people per day. This week, it tested between 17,000 and more than 20,000 per day. So, while Israel is seeing more than 900 new patients daily, this does not mean that the percentage of patients testing positive is higher than it was in the spring – it is not.
Moreover, many countries around the world quickly learned that they need at least a partial closure. New York shut down as the virus seared through the state. Now, it has reopened, and people are even coming from other states, so the disease is starting to resurface.
The same thing applies to Israel, Lahad said. He noted, however, that “we went from 0 to 100 miles per hour... and there was no in-between.
“When schools opened, the idea was to open them gradually, in small groups and to have students come with masks,” he said. Security measures weren’t kept well enough, “so we got backlash.”
Davidovitch added that COVID-19 is now spreading throughout South America, which did not have many cases back in March. The crowded countries do not have the resources to control its spread, so many people are being infected.
Additionally, there was a lot of false reporting at the start of the crisis. Countries such as Russia and Turkey reported few people infected in the first month of the outbreak; today those countries have hundreds of thousands of cases.
“They had cases in the past and they did not report them,” Davidovitch said. “When they started to understand that they could report because everyone else was, they did.”
Finally, in countries such as in Singapore, there has been a resurgence because it did not take care of its foreign workers, many of whom are younger, but who live in crowded places. When a few became infected, coronavirus spread throughout the country again.
The coronavirus is spreading like a pandemic because it is a pandemic, Davidovitch stressed. Neither Netanyahu’s l’chaim (toast to life) nor Trump’s sunshine will stop it from spreading. As such, the public and the politicians “need to learn how to dance with this virus,” he said.