Israel's colossal coronavirus failure - analysis

The public must hold up a mirror to itself.

A protective face mask is seen as curbs to fight the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) have been reimposed after a rise in new cases, at Zikim beach in southern Israel July 21, 2020. Picture taken July 21, 2020. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A protective face mask is seen as curbs to fight the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) have been reimposed after a rise in new cases, at Zikim beach in southern Israel July 21, 2020. Picture taken July 21, 2020.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
The government, the coronavirus commissioner and the public are all at fault for Israel’s pathetic situation.
In a dangerous game of Russian roulette, Israel’s politicians have pandered to populism, establishing weak policies that have allowed the virus to spread.
On a Wednesday last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that allowing Israelis to travel to Uman in the Ukraine on Rosh Hashanah could lead to a spike in infection and that they should not go, as per the recommendation of his self-selected coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu.
Then, on Thursday night, the prime minister said he would ensure that at least some of these Israelis could gather at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslau.
On a Sunday, the coronavirus cabinet passed – three weeks too late – Gamzu’s traffic light plan.
On Thursday that same week, the cabinet decided that with the coronavirus infection rate spiking to unprecedented numbers, some 30 red zones would be locked down.
The next day, the government clarified that it was not all 30 red zones that would be closed, only the eight to 10 “deepest” red zones, which would be finalized early the next week.
Three days later, on a Sunday, the government retracted its decision to shut down any cities. Instead, amid extreme pressure from the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, it approved imposing only “night curfews” on 40 red cities.
Then, less than a week later, the government voted to lock down the entire country for at least three weeks. However, it was only on the Thursday before a closure that started at 2 p.m. the next day, that the public was informed of the final list of restrictions – as passed by the government at 8 a.m. that Thursday and approved by the Knesset about 12 hours later.
Now on Tuesday, in the midst of this second lockdown, the coronavirus cabinet met again to discuss yet another “tightening of restrictions” that is expected to take place right after Yom Kippur.
Some 68% of the public said that it has little or no trust in Netanyahu’s ability to lead the country against the coronavirus, an Israel Democracy Institute survey showed. The survey, seen by The Jerusalem Post, is expected to be published Wednesday morning.
Last week, days before the country locked down, with infections rising beyond 4,000 per day and hospitals raising a red flag, the prime minister traveled to the United States to sign peace deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Perhaps Netanyahu believed that he could redirect the public’s attention from the pandemic with a historic White House ceremony.
However, the IDI poll also showed that nearly 40% of the public believes that “during times of serious domestic problems, such as the coronavirus crisis, the prime minister should deal with them and not handle non-urgent foreign affairs such as signing the peace accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.”
Now, less than a week later, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz has also left for Washington to meet with his counterpart. Of course, he has shown little strength in dealing with the crisis.
ISRAEL’S CORONAVIRUS commissioner, although no doubt a health expert, also bears a good deal more of the blame for the situation than he is being given.
Gamzu failed to stop the increase in daily patients, and he did not raise a red flag on behalf of the country’s hospitals in the periphery and Jerusalem.
When Gamzu started his role, Israel had around 2,000 new cases per day. He sat in interview after interview promising that he would not let politics interfere with his professional decision-making. But he zigzagged along with the politicians – and eight weeks later, Israel has between 4,000 and 5,000 new daily cases.
Rather than tell Education Minister Yoav Gallant that no, Israel is not unique, that worldwide it has been found that opening schools leads to a spike in infection, he let yeshivas open in mid-August and the rest of the education system on September 1. With around 2% of all people who are infected becoming seriously ill, these numbers stand to collapse some of Israel’s hospitals, and are already putting doctors in the difficult positions of being unable to provide optimal care.
On Monday night, Gamzu told Channels 12 and 13 that hospitals should cease providing elective surgery and close down “non-essential” services to open more coronavirus wards – a message that was reiterated the next day by Health Ministry director-general Prof. Chezy Levy in a letter to hospital CEOs.
During the first wave, many people who required treatment for diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes did not receive the health services and medicines they needed.
“The downstream health effects... are being massively under-estimated and under-reported,” read a letter sent over the summer by some 600 American physicians to President Donald Trump. In the letter, they called the coronavirus lockdown “a mass casualty event” that could cost the lives of millions of non-coronavirus patients.
“When diagnoses are not made, treatments start later and people present [themselves at the hospital] with more severe diseases,” Arnon Afek, deputy director-general of Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, said in a previous interview. “The result is that patients will be sicker when they come in for care and [there will be] more deaths.”
How much of the public now trusts Gamzu to get it out of this crisis? According to the IDI poll, some 41% of the public has little or no trust in Gamzu at all.
FINALLY, while it is easy to point fingers, the public must hold up a mirror to itself.
Over the Rosh Hashanah holiday, more than 7,000 tickets were distributed by police to people who broke Health Ministry directives.
A walk through several Jerusalem neighborhoods revealed parents and their children gathering together in parks – without masks. Restaurants were opening in defiance of the rules, mocking police with signs that say they are a protest or shul.
Hundreds of people showed up on Balfour Street across from the Prime Minister’s Residence and ate a holiday meal together. The police did not stop them, leading to additional mistrust of the public, who were asked to eat their meals alone, with only their nuclear families.
Some 63% of the Israeli public told IDI that “a full lockdown should be instituted to overcome the coronavirus epidemic, including banning of demonstrations.”
If 48% of the Israeli public is pessimistic about Israeli society’s ability to overcome the current crisis, as the survey showed, then perhaps they should follow the rules and see if the numbers of sick people change for the better.
Those pointing fingers are correct – as long as they have pointed one of those fingers at themselves. It took a whole village to get to the point where Israel has nearly 700 critical coronavirus patients – and it will take a whole village to get the nation out of this crisis.
The Jewish people are in the 10 days of repentance. Israelis and their leaders must take action before the country’s fate is sealed and the gates of possible resolution are locked on the Day of Atonement.