Netanyahu’s deadly COVID-19 blunders

Here are three mistakes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government is making that could have been learned from the first wave.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Within two weeks’ time, some 300 to 400 Israelis could be in serious condition from COVID-19, putting the country’s health system at risk of collapse if this trend continues.
It’s a shocking turnaround for a country that just one month ago was lauded for its smart and successful response to the pandemic.
These are three mistakes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government are making that could have been learned from the first wave.

1 – Not executing timely evacuations

Over the weekend, Israel learned that not only are most of the new infections in Jerusalem in the past week concentrated in haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods, according to a report by the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center, but some 72% of people caught the virus from their own family members or within their own home.
This should come as no surprise. Back in April, the Health Ministry revealed that a high percentage of haredi patients infect their family members, and for good reason.
In the haredi community, many large families live together in small apartments, making it exceedingly difficult to completely isolate. Sometimes, it is almost impossible.
In the first wave, the government evacuated hundreds of coronavirus patients from their homes in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, among other places, to special isolation hotels set up by the Defense Ministry. In fact, it was the cities’ commitment to transfer these patients outside of their homes that allowed the government to lift restrictions and allow healthy members to return to their normal routines.
At the height of the coronavirus crisis, there were close to 20 hotels devoted to caring for those with coronavirus and those in quarantine.
Late Sunday, the Defense Ministry announced that two new coronavirus hotels were opened and two more are expected to open this week, including one for the ultra-Orthodox community. The ministry said that the four new hotels could collectively accommodate around 2,000 new patients, but with nearly 500 new patients diagnosed in Jerusalem in just the last week alone, it is hard to imagine that these hotels will suffice.
Moreover, many members of the ultra-Orthodox community do not own TVs or Internet and therefore do not receive Health Ministry updates. When the acute problem among the haredi sector was identified in the first wave, the government rolled out an information campaign targeted specifically at this community.
Why has the Health Ministry not launched such a hasbara (public diplomacy) campaign explaining the second wave?
2 – Giving into populism

In the past few weeks, the government has rolled out a series of misplaced regulations.
On Thursday night, Netanyahu announced that synagogue attendance would be limited to 20 people. However, within minutes, his office disseminated a statement that increased that number to 50 people, reportedly having given into pressure by Interior Minister Arye Deri.
In March, the Health Ministry’s coronavirus contact tracing studies showed that as many as 30% of those infected in public spaces visited synagogues and yeshivas or were exposed there to the virus.
In this round, a high percentage of people are catching coronavirus on public transportation, a phenomenon that was expected and the reason that buses were shut down or reduced in the first wave.
People catch coronavirus on buses and trains because they travel for long periods of time in closed spaces. To help reduce that infection, multiple studies have shown that wearing a mask can reduce one’s chances of infection by as much as 85% to 95%.
So where are the officers at the entrance to and on buses enforcing this directive?
Finally, the latest round of regulations still allows gatherings at theaters and other cultural events up to 250 people. However, Israel has known since mid-May, thanks to a study by Tel-Aviv University, that “super-spreaders” were responsible for most of the coronavirus cases in Israel.
According to Dr. Adi Stern of the School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology at TAU’s George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, around 80% of cases were infected by only between 1% and 10% of patients, or at “super-spreading events, such as large parties or other social gatherings.”
On Sunday, the IDF Intelligence Corps highlighted that mass events with the presence of coronavirus patients may result in a significant jump in the percentage of infection.
“Occasionally, a sole patient at a large event can mass-infect tens to even hundreds of people,” the report said.
Despite opposition, reducing attendance at these events is a move the government should know it needs to make.

3 – Failing to contact trace

The government relied heavily on Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) surveillance to help find and isolate potentially sick patients in the first wave.
A report presented to the Knesset’s Subcommittee of Secret Services found that around one-third of all coronavirus patients were discovered via the Shin Bet’s program, although around 93% of Israelis who were sent into isolation never developed the virus.
To follow the internationally accepted protocol for cutting the infection chain (test, trace, isolate), the country does not only need the Shin Bet, it needs a strong and robust team of epidemiological investigators.
Multiple reports over the past weeks have highlighted the country’s failure to prepare for a second wave by hiring and training enough people to perform this job.
The nurses are overworked and cannot stand up to the task of tracing 1,000 patients per day. In an interview with N12, Prof. Eli Waxman, who headed the panel of experts advising the National Security Council during the first wave of COVID-19, said that the Health Ministry only has data on around 10% of infected people.
On Sunday, the Defense Ministry's announcement that it would send 350 troops on top of Health Minister Yuli Edelstein’s investment in around 250 medical students to support tracing efforts might be too little, too late.
The government is right to insist on keeping the economy operating, as just as many or more people stand to die from complications of unemployment and mental health challenges related to a lockdown.
However, as Waxman has repeated in recent days, the government, when it convenes on Monday, must make difficult and possibly unpopular decisions to stop the spread of the infection in its tracks.