Netanyahu on coronavirus: Despite numbers falling, they will rise again

The lockdown "brought the numbers rapidly down, but they’ll climb back up because the virus is the virus is the virus."

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press statement at the PM's office in Jerusalem, on August 13, 2020.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press statement at the PM's office in Jerusalem, on August 13, 2020.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participated in a virtual panel of the World Economic Forum on Wednesday, together with Colombian President Iván Duque and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
The panel dealt with the ongoing "Fourth Industrial Revolution: and was moderated by WEF President Børge Brende.
Netanyahu spoke on several topics including the coronavirus lockdown and the impact it has had on the education system, technology and investment.
The following is Netanyahu's remarks at the forum:
"It’s a pleasure to be with you and my friends President Duque and President Kagame and all of you. And my staff is moving around here. I’m actually in my office here at the Prime Minister’s Residence.
I stopped a coronavirus cabinet meeting where we’re dealing with some of these questions that I’ll address that you asked me to address. I regret that I have to go back there because we’re in the midst of these discussions on how to stem the tide.
Israel was in a very high position [regarding] infections. We are now I think probably the lowest in Europe, but we were the highest a few weeks ago.  We have to take a decision that was very tough on a general lockdown and we did it. It is a very hard political decision to make. It brought the numbers rapidly down, but they’ll climb back up because the virus is the virus is the virus.
So one of the things that we’re considering is education. What do we do with the schools? How do we open them? The reason that is an acute question is not merely because of the virus but because of the digital divide. Because if you don’t want to open them up and you use e-learning, what about those who don’t have e-learning? For example, that’s prevalent in the Orthodox community or the Arab citizens of Israel.
So one of the things that we decided to do, just now five minutes ago, is to allocate money to buy computers for these kids so we can cross first of all the digital divide inside the country itself: To give everyone the opportunity.
That’s the first thing that I would like to address, since these were the questions that were afforded to me.
How do we at least reduce the digital divide? One is infrastructure. It’s computers. It’s fibers: some of these fast fibers that go to more of these remote places in our country, even though we have a tiny country. We have central places where the 5G companies will go and other remote areas where they won’t go because it’s not profitable.
We’re actually – in order not to be held back – we told them OK, we are reducing the universal requirements of spreading fiber everywhere: Spread it to where it’s profitable, which is most of the country. But those that are not there what we’re going to do is create a special fund so that we can have fiber reach everyone. Fiber, computers – number one – it’s simple. It’s not obviously but it is actually conceptually simple. You have to make sure that the physical wherewithal of the modern digital world reaches everyone.
And that enables us e-learning both in corona and in the future. It’s clearly where it’s going. My son is a university student and he just told me that he finished his first day in e-learning. They’ve been doing e-learning for the last six months and he says – I’m not sure I should say this – but he says, "Daddy, it’s better.” It’s better in one sense because you know they can get very good teachers. I think that’s the way to go. You have to get the physical infrastructure out there so that everybody, every girl and boy, every teenager and every university student can have these capabilities. So we have that.
THE SECOND thing is we have a deliberate program to increase our technological cadres. That means for example the number of IT first-degree students in our universities has increased by 70% in a few years. That’s a deliberate strategy that we’re doing. Because you say "wait a minute – these guys are at the top: What about those at the bottom?" But they’re pulling everyone else and also you’re educating also educators.
So we’re constantly increasing the number of skilled hi-tech workers per capita. We’re still the highest in the world – actually by far. The number of R&D that’s spent per person is actually the highest in the world. We’re continuing that because we don’t see that as creating a digital divide: We see that as creating a digital world for all our people and our economies.
Definitely second point after infrastructure is basically technological education. It starts below, it starts at the bottom, but you really have to make sure that you have that at the top. Don’t forget the top. There’s e-learning at the top, e-learning at the bottom but there’s got to be a very highly skilled top. Don’t lose out. Don’t try to erase the divide by lowering the top. You can raise the bottom but don’t lower the top. If you lower the top, you’ll get nothing – so don’t do that. That’s the second thing we’re doing.
The third thing that we’re doing, which I think is important, is to reduce and adapt regulation. You know our economies and our educational systems, our social systems, are geared to yesterday. They’re not even geared to the present and we have to gear them towards tomorrow.  So you have to deregulate. Regulation is a very, very big thing.
I heard Paul Kagame speak about drones. That’s a perfect example. Right now we’ve got drone delivery in the country. We’re doing a pilot on this. We have a driverless car pilot and we’re going to change regulations to fit that. So that’s the third area and that applies to many, many areas. Three things: physical infrastructure for the digital age, preparation of personnel – basically, human resources – and third, deregulation. I can say that these are the three things that I can point to.
THE FOURTH I would say is international cooperation. We are cooperating with Africa, Latin America, Australia, Singapore, Britain. These corporations are very valuable. I can tell you that there is a new cooperation and one that is giving enormous hope to everyone here and that is with the Arab world.
We have just signed peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates. We’re signing peace agreements now with Bahrain. The first delegation – formal delegation of ministers from the UAE – visited Israel yesterday along with the American Secretary of the Treasury Mr. Mnuchin. And we signed agreements that are going to also share technology, also share technology in corona, and in everything else. This is a very, very important thing. I can tell you that I discussed with these ministers: How about Israeli-UAE cooperation in third countries? For example, in Africa, or for that matter in Latin America. Why not? I think this is the fourth element that I put forward.
I think the task is enormous. Corona is an enormous challenge but we’ll get behind it. I think soon we’ll have vaccines. They’ll be applied. We’ll have to live with that for probably a very long time but I think the world is already changed. The only question is how fast do we change to this changing world? And I believe knowing the people, knowing you and the good effort that the World Economic Forum is putting forward, I think this is a challenge to which we are all up to.
Of course, there is one other element. A fifth element that I mentioned that I think Israel excels in and that is cyber-defense. I say cyber-defense because the more we move into the digital world – the more we put out this infrastructure, the more we have e-learning, the more we have a dependence on these systems – the more we need to protect them. I think that in this regard, Israel has forged important breakthroughs and we share them also with our friends.
These are the things that I think we can bring forward. And again, I wish I could stay more with you but I have to go back to dealing with corona.
Thank you and it’s good to see you all."
WEF PRESIDENT BØRGE BRENDE:  "Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister. If I may, just a short follow up question before you go back to your cabinet.
You know what the three heads of state and governments here have in common – President Duque, President Kagame and you Prime Minister? [It] is that in these three countries we have established the fourth industrial revolution center of the World Economic Forum. So you’re already connected in the network. And since you mentioned also the UAE, that’s the fourth country where we have now established in Dubai for the fourth industrial revolution. So we already have a great ecosystem.
Thank you for also updating us about the COVID situation. As you know, we’re also in the second spike here in Europe so you’re not alone in Israel.
But I think what I’ve seen from all the participants and CEOs being part of this conversation is that of course they acknowledge that Israel is one of the most innovative countries in the world. But how will you, Mr. Prime Minister, secure that you stay that way so that there is no complacency? How will you also in the years to come be cutting edge? Is there part of that success you can tell the rest of us?"
NETANYAHU'S RESPONSE: "Invest, invest, invest. Invest, just invest a lot. Invest in R&D. Invest at the bottom and invest at the top. We have an investment at the top that is at sunk cost because of our military expenditures. They are increasingly knowledge-based. Therefore, necessity forces us to constantly invest in information systems and cyber-defense and so on.
I would say that our big challenge now is to invest in the bottom. To make sure that we lift the bottom. The top will keep rising – that’s just a fact. The top will rise: Invest in the bottom.
I want to wish you much success. I welcome this cooperation with the World Economic Forum and the opportunity to see my friends at a distance. But I do hope, believe and pray that we will get beyond this epidemic quickly. Maybe it shows us how we’re all connected in ways that we may not have wanted but we now realize are there. We have to cooperate to secure our common future. I want to thank you all."