Coronavirus: Has new ministers’ populism imperiled the public?

The novel virus, SARS-CoV-2, is blind to politicians’ need for popularity, especially those who likely do not understand the dynamics of this pandemic.

Prime Minister Benjamn Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the swearing in of the new government (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamn Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the swearing in of the new government
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
The country’s new ministers have spun a glowing vision of their plans to help the public, including through lifting coronavirus restrictions, even though such a move could endanger people’s lives.
On Tuesday, the day after many of the country’s new ministers formally took office, they competed with each other in reminding the public why having a government is so important. One by one, minister after minister announced they were lifting coronavirus restrictions controlled by their new office.
The 35th government was labeled an emergency government, and that was how Blue and White leader Benny Gantz justified joining Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, despite his charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. Gantz’s message was that coronavirus dwarfed corruption.
But the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is blind to politicians’ need for popularity, especially those who likely do not understand the dynamics of this pandemic. As such, it could be that rather than relieve their constituents, they have put them at increased risk for infection or even death – each in their own way.
To review: Newly appointed Transportation Minister Miri Regev lifted coronavirus restrictions on the number of passengers on buses during peak hours, allowing unlimited numbers of parents and children to board inner-city buses from 7-8:30 a.m. and 1-3 p.m.
Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper confirmed that museums could open immediately and swimming pools on May 27.
Education Minister Yoav Galant expanded school hours, allowing parents to drop their children off as early as 7:30 a.m.
Interior Minister Arye Deri – who already held his position for a number of years but undoubtedly wanted to start out with a win – scored the opening of synagogues.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, who was involved in all of the above decisions, informed the public that it does not have to wear masks in open spaces or at school during the heat wave, and restaurants, bars and even hotels will open on May 27. He took credit for a decision to allow banquet halls to open on June 14 – the date the Health Ministry had already set for allowing larger facilities to open, including theaters and movie houses in its long-term strategic plan.
Perhaps even more puzzling: The night before former health minister Ya’acov Litzman, who now serves as housing and construction minister, passed the torch to Edelstein, he criticized Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov. He said he never agreed with the director-general’s prognosis that 10,000 Israelis could die from COVID-19 and that Bar Siman Tov had instilled fear in Netanyahu, who then acted accordingly.
His statements were bewildering in that there are endless records of Litzman’s statements during the crisis  expressing support of his ministry’s policies. He even approved and defended a lockdown on the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) city of Bnei Brak.
Some have argued that it was the latter decision that led his spiritual leader, Gerrer Rebbe Yaakov Aryeh Alter, to force him to leave the Health Ministry post where he served for almost a decade, and that the condemnations of Bar Siman Tov’s efforts were meant to gain back popularity with haredim.
“Returning to synagogues is a mistake,” said Shimon Rogoway, a haredi doctor and medical adviser who now runs the medical consulting firm Mazor. “We are likely to pay a heavy price… We are not talking about relief, but a move that could cost human lives.”
He said synagogues have three characteristics that experts know could lead to increased spread of the virus: closed spaces, random people and extended timed.
Synagogues rarely have someone “in charge” to turn people away or secure the environment, which adds additional challenges, Rogoway said.
“A second wave may bring with it more infections, new patients and, worst of all, widespread mortality,” he said, noting that after the religious community’s high level of infection, “we have to be even more careful than the doctors tell us.”
Some 22% of all infections in Israel were from ultra-Orthodox towns, and 26% were from mixed cities with large haredi populations, according to a report by the Taub Center.
It cannot be taken for granted that a second wave will not happen.
Nearly 108 million people in China’s Jilin province face lockdown due to a growing number of coronavirus infections – 120 new cases over the weekend – that was triggered as the nation pushed to return to normal. The country’s northeast region cut off public transportation, shuttered schools and started putting people into quarantine.
South Korea recently reported close to 30 new patients who caught coronavirus from a local LGBT bar in Seoul’s Itaewon area. The total number of infections traced to the popular nightlife area of Itaewon stood at 131, the Korea Herald reported last week.
Moreover, political and diplomatic decisions likely led to increased infection at the start of Israel’s crisis.
Prof. Adi Stern of the School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology at Tel Aviv University’s George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences reported this week that 70% of coronavirus patients in Israel were infected by a strain that originated in the United States, likely because of what she called a “gap in policy.”
Flights from Europe and other parts of the world began to be halted between February 26 and March 4 – but not from the US. Only beginning on March 9 did Israel block its borders to anyone who came from abroad who could not complete 14 days of quarantine in Israel.
The Health Ministry began considering adding US states to the list of places from which travelers were required to quarantine as early as March 5. But senior diplomatic analysts understood that Netanyahu could not make such a decision without first consulting with his American counterparts. After a conference call with US Vice President Mike Pence on May 8, he decided to close the country’s borders to all countries, including the US.
“This gap allowed people to return from the US who thought that they could go wherever they wanted, so they probably spread the virus that way,” Stern told The Jerusalem Post.
Similarly, Litzman reportedly pressured Netanyahu not to implement stricter measures on religious communities. He argued with Netanyahu over the closure of mikvaot ritual bathes and opposed the regulation to shutter synagogues announced on March 25.
Synagogues and yeshivas served as major sources of transmission during the early days of the pandemic. A March report by the Corona National Information and Knowledge Center, an advisory group to the Health Ministry, revealed that 24% of Israelis who contracted the coronavirus in Israel were infected through contact with another infected individual in a synagogue, making synagogues the most common place to contract COVID-19 in Israel at that time. Another 5% contracted the virus in yeshivas.
The report, published at a time when the country had less than 10% of its total coronavirus cases, found that 14 people contracted COVID-19 after visiting a mikveh.
“We know that most of the spread we see is within certain localized areas,” Stern said. Her study also showed that around 80% of cases were infected by 1%-10% of patients.
She said the government is making a mistake opening up so much while failing to concurrently screen enough people for the virus daily or in any organized way. Israel was supposed to launch mass antibody testing two weeks ago to see how many Israelis are immune to the novel coronavirus, but Maccabi Healthcare Services CEO Ron Sa’ar told the Post the testing was delayed due to logistics.
Stern said the virus is likely still in Israel, and if the country starts to see outbreaks, without proper testing protocols, “it is going to be very difficult to avoid large-scale closures.”
The ministers’ decision to lift coronavirus restrictions could be compared to giving a child a lollipop. Children like candy, but that does not mean it is good for them.
Just because the public wants coronavirus restrictions lifted immediately does not mean it is professional or proper. Coronavirus is not a game. Israel’s politicians may be seen in retrospect as playing with people’s lives.