Can Netanyahu still stop second coronavirus tsunami?

But unless Netanyahu and his cabinet act now, anything they do could be too little too late.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin and Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz lead the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israeli prime minister Benjamin and Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz lead the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020.
An IDF intelligence report predicting hundreds of COVID-19 deaths by July begs the question of how Israel, once touted for its pandemic response, has suddenly found itself on the verge of another outbreak.
The initial coronavirus lockdown had a catastrophic economic and social toll on the State of Israel, at the same time as it potentially saved thousands of lives. This closure, according to the government, was intended to “buy precious time” for the health system to prepare to treat critically ill patients and for the country to organize for an exit strategy that would allow life and the economy to resume under a new “coronavirus normal.”
But less than two months since Israel lifted restrictions, there are hundreds of people diagnosed with the novel coronavirus each day and an increasing number of those patients are in serious condition.
Like Japan, which was forced to impose an emergency shutdown to stem additional outbreaks after it eased up restrictions too early, Israel could now face a second closure.
“If the public does not stick to wearing masks and social distancing, we will be bringing back a full closure,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting – words he has repeated over and over again in the last three weeks.
But each time he utters this statement, confusion and mistrust follow at exactly the time that Israel needs clarity. He keeps ignoring his own redlines, keeping the economy open as COVID-19 rates rise.
To conquer this second wave of coronavirus, the government must make decisive and sometimes unpopular decisions and build enough trust that the public will follow its rules.
At the same time, practically, it must step up its ability to cut off infection chains when they start by contact tracing quickly and accurately.
But it is hard to imagine they would get it right the second time, when they failed so miserably the first time. The exit strategy from the first wave was marked by anarchy, improvised decision-making, power struggles and surrendering to protests and pressure groups.
Netanyahu originally announced a four-phase plan that started with the resumption of activity in the hi-tech, finance and import-export sectors, as well as in public transportation and parts of the education system. The second and third phases would have opened small businesses, additional classrooms, hotels, restaurants and cafes.
A fourth and final phase – one that was only meant to occur if the pandemic was under control and the public showed it could adhere to the Health Ministry’s regulations (masks, social distancing, hygiene) – included opening the entertainment industry, culture, sports, malls and the skies.
Over the weekend, the government approved movie theaters and more while the infection rate hit 2% and the average number of new cases per day hovers around 300.
Rather than delaying resumption of these activities, the government gave in to the honest protests of the cultural industry, but appears to be putting the rest of the public’s life at risk with this move. The decision does not align with the data.
Of course, this is no different than when the schools opened around six weeks ago. Then, there was no testing plan in place to ensure that teachers and other staff did not bring the virus into the schools. In less than two weeks, the coronavirus erupted in the classrooms. At Gymnasia Rehavia in Jerusalem, for example, close to 200 students and teachers caught the virus and they shared it with their relatives, colleagues and friends, turning Jerusalem once again into a red zone.
Similarly, when the government decided to allow people to return to work, it offered companies “Purple Ribbon” status, but “in order to cut the bureaucracy,” Netanyahu said, businesses did not have to get permits from the authorities, rather they would just have to declare that they are working according to the guidelines, “and we will monitor that.” There was no enforcement plan in place to ensure these businesses were being reviewed and many of them quickly started to break protocol.
The government zigzagged over a decision concerning restrictions on sport activities, at first approving lifting the 500 meters from home restriction on sports before Independence Day and then explaining that this decision would only go into effect after the holiday. This caused Israelis not to know what to do; so many did what they wanted.
More than once it was reported that the intercity train would resume and the next day it was announced that there “was a misunderstanding” and the train would not run. It is expected to resume on Monday.
Israel built a coronavirus emergency government, but it lacks foresight and credible and transparent leadership, which is essential if the public is to adhere to the guidelines required to stop the virus’s spread.
Finally, if Israel wants to regain control of the pandemic, it should look for global solutions.
Contact tracing protocols and apps have been rolled out all over the world with various degrees of effectiveness. Many countries have looked to South Korea, which conducted its fight against the coronavirus by the three principles that Eli Waxman, a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science who led the team that formulated the National Security Council’s exit strategy, described to The Jerusalem Post in a previous interview. These principles are test, trace, isolate.
South Korea first increased its capacity to test, screening an average of 12,000 people per day, and sometimes up to 20,000.
The country then used a combination of technology and asking people who tested positive to describe their recent movements to trace their contacts. Finally, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued alerts about where infected people had been.
Israel has started this process, too. Under the new leadership of Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, the country is testing an average of 10,000 to 15,000 people per day.
Over the weekend, Edelstein announced that the Finance Ministry approved hiring 300 more contact tracers to support the country’s public health services.
Now, the Start-Up Nation must develop the technology needed to pull this all together and stop the infection chain when it starts without compromising people’s privacy and further degrading trust.
But unless Netanyahu and his cabinet act now, anything they do could be too little too late.