‘Netanyahu brought Israel increased mortality, a third wave and lockdown’

Telem’s Hagai Levine to ‘Post:’ Throughout COVID-19 crisis, political considerations and personal interests determined the decision making

Magen David Adom medical workers perform COVID-19 tests to Arab residents at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, August 17, 2020 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Magen David Adom medical workers perform COVID-19 tests to Arab residents at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, August 17, 2020
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
“The State of Israel is on a crooked path, and it is time to set it straight again,” Hagai Levine, the former head of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
An epidemiologist and public health physician, Levine has spent the last 10 months at the forefront of the fight against coronavirus. He attended hundreds of Knesset and government meetings battling against politics and populism and for the health of the State of Israel.
Accusing the current government, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of decision making that cost people’s lives, he joined Telem earlier this week and said that now he aims to “make sure that political decisions are based on professional reasoning.”
Telem leader [Moshe] Bogie Ya’alon (left), and Hagai Levine (right), former head of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians (Credit: Itamar Shaul)Telem leader [Moshe] Bogie Ya’alon (left), and Hagai Levine (right), former head of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians (Credit: Itamar Shaul)
The Post asked Levine how he can go from a research lab at the Hebrew University to hopes of a seat in Israel’s 24th Knesset. With answers altered only for length and clarity, this is what he said:
Have you ever been involved in politics before?
Definitely no. No one knew my political stance and I always kept a non-partisan, non-political position. But I realized, in order to promote health, we need political power. That was always clear, but during the last decade – and to a much greater extent in the last year – I was heavily involved in the public sphere, advocating for public health in Israel.
How were you involved?
I attended hundreds of parliament hearings and tried to promote legislation and decision making that would be beneficial for public health. But what I saw throughout the COVID-19 crisis is that again and again political considerations and personal interests determined the decision making over professional considerations.
Just Tuesday, it was published that one-third of the coronavirus cases from abroad coming into Israel were from Dubai. The professional recommendation was that the emirates should be labeled as red. But because of political reasons, it was delayed... This decision, based on political intervention, cost the lives of people.
I felt I must go into politics to make sure that political decisions are based on professional reasoning.
Why did you choose Telem?
Telem is the Center party of Israel, and I am moderate in the extreme. I don’t think we should automatically make decisions on the Left or the Right. We should make decisions based on data. We should make decisions that are good for the country, not good for this sector or the other sector. Those are the values of Telem and of [Moshe] “Bogie” Ya’alon. He is an impressive leader who throughout his career as chief-of-staff or as defense minister always and courageously made the decisions that were best for the country.
I hope that we will get enough political power to make sure the government votes for the people of Israel, and especially the health of Israel.
You have had a lot of complaints about how the coronavirus crisis was handled. What were your specific concerns?
It starts with the system through which ministers are nominated, based on political reasoning and not expertise. It is completely wrong and it is uncommon in developed countries. You want the health minister to have some background and relevant knowledge in health. You want the finance minister to understand commerce.
Even before coronavirus, but specifically during the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, we all saw how [former health minister Ya’acov] Litzman knew nothing. He did not even acknowledge science. He did not understand basic issues and he was making decisions about our lives.
Even before politics, ministers just need to have enough credentials or abilities to do their jobs.
This government has 36 ministers and almost none of them are eligible for their office, except for maybe Minister Izhar Shay, who really knows about science and technology. [Shay joined Telem this week, too.]
And if you do have to make decisions based on politics, then the ministers should at least listen to the professionals who work with them.
Are there other examples?
At the beginning of the event, we – the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians – called to train as many labs as possible to test of COVID-19. In Israel, at the beginning, only the central lab got permission to conduct the tests and the test results were given first to the health minister and only afterwards were the physician and patient notified. It was outrageous. In medicine, you first notify the patient and then the politician. They wanted to control the data for political gain, to use it to control the agenda.
They did not allow epidemiologists access to the data, either.
It was clear in early March that cases were coming from the US – a lot. There was a crucial need to do something about it. But because of political considerations between Netanyahu and [US President Donald] Trump the decision was delayed and then they closed all the borders, including not allowing people in from countries where there was no morbidity at all.
Has this continued through the third wave?
Now, with the vaccine operation, Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu is the only one who knows how many vaccines will arrive and when, and he can play with it, without transparency, without informing the public.
Lockdowns, too – the decision to lockdown is a crucial life and death matter and is being based on political considerations.
I was part of the cabinet of experts that gave advice to the coronavirus commissioner and there was a consensus around specific recommendations, like not opening malls. We knew the level [of infection] was increasing and that opening malls would bring us to lockdown. Because of political pressure, the government opened the malls.
Look at the ultra-Orthodox community: The government was afraid to take the necessary steps to make sure there was not widespread transmission for political reasons.
Just a couple of months ago, you yourself did not believe that we could acquire as many vaccines as we did or that Israel would successfully administer them. Today, the two millionth person was inoculated. Can you respond?
The rapid approval of vaccines by the Food and Drug Administration and the rapid [campaign] in Israel surprised not only me, but everyone. When I said that [I did not think it could happen], I was quoting the health minister and the director-general of the Health Ministry who said vaccines would not arrive soon. If Netanyahu knew something different and hid it from his own health minister and the Israeli public, then shame on him.
Reality, though, has proven I was right. I said infection would not go down when you start the vaccine operation but when you end it. Now, even as we vaccinated two million people in Israel, we are still in the [throws] of the pandemic, still under lockdown.
Netanyahu’s bragging that he got vaccines brought us to complacency, brought us increased mortality, a third wave and the lockdown.
In the past, top military personalities were the stars of Israel’s political parties. But this year, our army has changed. Our front-line officers are medical professionals, like yourself. Is that your role in the party?
The coronavirus crisis has taught us that we deserve to have leaders who come from the fields of society and science as part of our political system. In the face of environmental-health-social challenges, such as epidemics and the climate crisis, we need political leaders who understand the scientific and social complexity and know how to operate within the framework of civil society.
Hopefully more doctors and scientists will follow me.
Health, politics go together?
Political commitment to health is an essential condition for maintaining public health.
Unfortunately, in the last decade, and even more so this past year, there has been a great lack of political commitment by the Israeli government to health.
The lack of access to medical services in the periphery has created a shocking difference in life expectancy between those who live in the Negev and Galilee as compared in the center of the country.
My commitment to public health is what led me to join Bogie Ya’alon and the Telem Party, which is committed to promoting public health and reducing disparities.
You think you will even cross the threshold?
There are currently 20 seats in the center of the Israeli map that voted Blue and White and now they have no one to vote for. I believe that in the coming days, we will gain momentum. If the vote is based on quality and values and not on political calculations, I am confident that we will receive tremendous support, even more than 10 seats.
As a doctor, if you do make it in, what is the first thing you will want to do?
As a doctor, I will first make a diagnosis. I have learned quite a bit about the Knesset and the government from hundreds of meetings in recent years. Even before I enter, God willing, I will examine the gaps and where I can be influential.
Specifically, the coronavirus crisis demonstrated the need to update the Public Health Ordinance, which I tried to promote as chairman of the Association of Public Health Physicians.
Of course, I will work to prevent specific health risks like smoking, harmful foods and environmental pollutants.