Is Benjamin Netanyahu telling the whole truth about coronavirus in Israel?

In his near-nightly briefings, is the prime minister telling the public the whole story? Here’s what you need to know:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a speech at his Jerusalem office, regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the coronavirus, March 14, 2020 (photo credit: GALI TIBBON POOL/REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a speech at his Jerusalem office, regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the coronavirus, March 14, 2020
Nearly every other night like clockwork, the Israeli public and press receive a notice that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address the country at prime time to share an update about Israel’s war against the novel coronavirus.
In his remarks, Netanyahu tells how Israel is holding up in comparison to other states, speaks of innovations that could soon be rolled out to help us and explains new restrictions that the public must adhere to for our health and safety.
The Jerusalem Post reviewed some of the prime minister’s recent talks and here is what we found:
‘Israel is ahead of the curve’
Netanyahu has insisted over and over again since his first briefings that “the State of Israel is ahead of the vast majority of countries” in combating the deadly coronavirus.
However, a report by World ‘O Meters – one the leading coronavirus statistics websites, which pulls data from the World Health Organization – shows how the coronavirus is affecting 188 countries and territories around the world and demonstrates that Israel is not better off than all or even most other countries that have people infected.
If one looks at the total number of cases per 1 million people, Israel is actually one of the worst. There are only 38 countries that have more cases per million than Israel, which means there are 149 countries that are doing better.
‘Israeli hospitals were prepared; we couldn’t have stored equipment in advance’
During a March 17 briefing, the prime minister claimed that, “the hospitals are prepared to absorb these patients, including protection for the medical teams and the purchase of around 1,000 ventilators.”
In a talk two days later, he explained that it is not just Israel, but that, “the world is facing a tremendous shortage of protective suits, face masks and ventilators. Two hundred countries, except possibly for one or two, are competing fiercely for this equipment, including the US. It must be understood that even if there is an expectation that an epidemic like coronavirus will break out sometimes, warehouses cannot be kept full for years with perishable equipment: equipment with a very short expiry date.”
But according to Prof. Dan Ben-David, president and founder of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research and a faculty member at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy, Israel was sorely unprepared for the coronavirus epidemic.
“Before the outbreak of the current pandemic, hospital occupancy rates in Israel were already the highest in the developed world,” he told the Post.
Moreover, Israel is woefully understaffed when it comes to all medical professionals, the statistics show, but especially when it comes to nurses. According to Ben-David, Israel has close to both the lowest number of nurses per capita compared with other OECD countries and the lowest number of nursing-school graduates.
And are our medical staff protected?
So far, more than 3,000 medical professionals are in isolation and more than 40 have contracted the virus. Over the weekend, doctors and nurses took to television, begging civilians who benefit little from protective masks to donate them to the hospitals where they are needed immediately.
“No one can ever prepare for the kind of catastrophe we are looking at,” Ben-David admitted. “But the country should at least have some plan – and that has certainly not been the case.”
‘Israel will be doing more tests than anyone else worldwide’
The prime minister has touted that as Israel increases its daily coronavirus testing to 3,000 people, then 5,000 and ultimately 10,000 people per day, that Israel will be conducting “the highest number of tests in the world, relative to population. Even higher than in South Korea, where they do around 15,000 tests a day for a population that is five or six times larger than ours.”
That might be true. However, as the Health Ministry’s head of public health Sigal Sadetsky explained, “the way you stop the spread of the disease is isolation.”
Testing, according to MDA medical director Refael Strugo is meant to give a country an idea of how much the disease has spread throughout the country and to identify virus hotspots.
“If we want to stop the spread, you have to isolate” people - social distancing, Strugo said.
‘A new blood test could enable Israel to release recovered patients to go back to work’
Speaking in an interview with Channel 12 on Saturday night, Netanyahu told Israeli journalist Donna Weiss that soon Israel could have a blood test to check if those people who had coronavirus and recovered were now immune to COVID-19 and could therefore go back to work without any fear of contracting the virus. This, he claimed, would help the economy.
“Our goal is to find and isolate the sick,” the prime minister said, and "let the healthy out to work."
But Jonathan Gershoni, a professor of immunology and virology at Tel Aviv University, explained that we are talking about very small numbers of people. Currently, there are only slightly more than 1,000 people diagnosed with coronavirus in Israel and even less who have recovered.
“So the prime minister's suggestion sounds promising, but one has to realize that there cannot be more than the total number of infected individuals who might benefit from a detectable naturally gained immunity,” Gershoni explained.
Also, since this is so far only around 1,000 people – who were randomly infected, some of them being very old and others very young, and who represent a spectrum of professions – they may therefore not provide any relief to the economy.
Moreover, we have insufficient knowledge as to whether or not a person who develops antibodies and recovers, is in fact protected from a second round of infection, Gershoni explained. Even if it does provide some protection, we don’t know if it will be long-lasting or potentially transient.
Gershoni warned that proposing what seems to be quick-fix remedies to the economy based on immunological unknowns could in fact be very dangerous.
‘Israel’s economy is set up for success even during the coronavirus crisis’
As early as March 11, Netanyahu explained that “the Israeli economy is in a better situation than most economies in the world: Unemployment is low, growth is high and the debt to GDP ratio is good. What does this mean? It means that we can pay our debts. The financial system is strong. Simply put: We have strong and stable banks. These are major advantages at the beginning of a crisis.”
This is only partially true, said Alex Zabezhinsky, chief economist for Meitav Dash.
“In general, the Israeli market was in a stable place compared to other countries. The unemployment rate was around 4%, inflation was low, the debt to GDP ratio was low,” he said. “But there are things that are not so strong, too.”
For example?
Israel has not had a budget for more than a year because the country has had no permanent government. As such, its ability to act fast and provide emergency funds is hindered.
Additionally, said Zabezhinsky, the deficit budget was high – around 3.5% or 4% – which is not a good place to be when entering a crisis. He said that in 2008, ahead of the economic downturn, Israel had a zero deficit.
Another point: The Bank of Israel interest rate is close to 0% so it cannot lower the interest rate. In 2008, that rate was at 4.25%.