Coronavirus czar must rise above the cacophony of confusion - analysis

Can Gamzu extinguish them before a raging fire erupts?

Israel's new coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu  (photo credit: FLASH90)
Israel's new coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu
(photo credit: FLASH90)
Newly appointed “coronavirus czar” Prof. Ronni Gamzu unwittingly walked into a political minefield on Monday in the form of his first coronavirus cabinet meeting, thereby ending his brief honeymoon period.
Just last week he was still lauded. Now, around two weeks from when he accepted the role that so many others turned down, sparks are flying.
Can Gamzu extinguish them before a raging fire erupts?
When the new coronavirus project manager made his first speech to the public on July 28, he asked for a new contract between the citizens of Israel and those who are managing the coronavirus crisis: “We have seen a decline in confidence in recent days, and as such, the virus has spread,” Gamzu told the TV screen. “The new contract: The government does everything logically, quickly and confidently; the citizens obey and cooperate.”
But days later – last Thursday – when he, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy agreed that the government should lift the partial closure on weekends, including allowing stores and malls to open, ministers shot down the idea and the status quo remained.
The next day, Gamzu appealed to an angry public: “I have received many requests in recent days regarding changes in restrictions,” Gamzu said in a statement shortly before Shabbat. “These requests – for the most part – are correct and justified, based on the real distress” in which people find themselves. “At the same time... the necessary corrections or changes cannot be realized through hasty or rash decisions. Providing to the Israeli public a correct, professional and appropriate response requires consideration, an examination of alternatives and an orderly presentation of those decisions to the public – one that is transparent.”
He asked the public to be patient, to work with him collaboratively.
“I am convinced that only in this way will we be able to quickly embark on the royal path in the fight against the epidemic,” he said.
But Monday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting came, ended quickly, and no decisions were made, which appeared to be another failure for Gamzu.
Even worse, while Gamzu and the Health Ministry were talking about lifting restrictions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the National Security Council were pushing for a full country-wide lockdown for the last two weeks of August.
“One option, and we are trying to avoid it, is a general closure for the whole country,” Netanyahu said. He also mentioned the possibility of local closures, night-time or weekend closures.
The haredim (ultra-Orthodox) have pushed back at any plan to lift the weekend closures before the amount of people allowed to pray together inside synagogues is increased.
When Gamzu spoke to N12’s Dana Weiss last Saturday, she asked him if he would have the strength to disconnect coronavirus decision-making from politics.
“My strength is my professionalism,” Gamzu said then. “All the ministers understand that I am the answer to this complicated dilemma – social, economic and health. And the truth is that I feel totally supported” by all the ministers and the prime minister, he said.
But as Monday showed, it is one thing to stand up to the public and another thing to speak your mind to a room full of politicians who all have an agenda that centers on advancing themselves, their ministries and their constituencies – and a prime minister who has minimally a trial and maximally another election to consider.
Gamzu was forced to leave the meeting with a statement that they still needed to carry out more work among the professional staff and that the cabinet would reconvene today.
But the ministers had a different story. Scathing critiques from the cabinet were presented by Army Radio on Tuesday: “Gamzu now has to deal with the real numbers and he seems a little at a loss,” an anonymous minister reportedly told the station.
Ministers claimed that Gamzu is not presenting a coherent outline or package of directives to manage the virus and this is why the ministers did not reach agreements. Ministers told Army Radio that, “What happened yesterday in the cabinet was embarrassing. The things that were said were mostly said last week in front of the camera – empty slogans and broad principles without any concrete proposal.”
The situation got so bad on Monday that Levy and Edelstein had to come to Gamzu’s rescue.
“I do not think Gamzu is at a loss,” Levy told Army Radio in a separate interview. He stressed that “we are dealing with a virus and the consideration of relief or restrictions in the face of the chance of an increase in infection is very heavy.”
Edelstein condemned the anonymous ministers who put Gamzu down: “Any attempt to transfer responsibility [for the meeting failing] to someone else and thereby show, ‘I am not connected or not guilty,’ will fail.”
He reiterated that he, Levy and all the ministry’s staff back Gamzu.
Of course, it is unclear if Levy, Edelstein and Gamzu even agree.
In his Army Radio interview, Levy said that “there is talk of locking down red cities” and that “a lockdown is a tool that can reduce morbidity.” But he stressed that “it is clear to all of us that a heavy price would be paid for a complete closure.”
Hours later, Edelstein said it is either full closure or no closure.
“There is no such thing as a half-pregnancy,” he said, reiterating a statement made the day before. “If there is not a full closure… there is no point in partial restrictions.”
Gamzu told Weiss on Saturday that, “right now the situation is manageable in terms of the number of sick and the number of seriously ill.” He ranked the situation a seven out of 10 and said that, “We are starting to have some breathing room – slowly, slowly… This is the time to open. This is the time to ease restrictions. This is the time to get back our income.”
On Tuesday, Levy stressed that the second wave is not over yet.
“Edelstein did not say that we overcame the second wave, but that there is a stabilization in the infection,” he said. “The disease is still with us.”
Close to 2,000 people tested positive for coronavirus in the last day, despite a decreased number of tests. A source in the know from Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer told The Jerusalem Post that 20% of people who were screened at the hospital’s walk-in clinic had coronavirus.
Gamzu has one more day to get it right. On Wednesday, he has to have a serious plan to present to the coronavirus cabinet, and he has to outmaneuver the politicians just enough to get them to back it.
Gamzu has to rise above the cacophony and end the confusion. Otherwise, coronavirus will continue to burn across Israel like a political wildfire.