Politicians not best suited to fight coronavirus – analysis

The tendency of politicians, especially in a political atmosphere when a new election may be lurking just around the corner, will be to take steps that will please the public.

Knesset meeting to pass bills to create coalition government on May 6, 2020 (photo credit: ADINA WALLMAN)
Knesset meeting to pass bills to create coalition government on May 6, 2020
(photo credit: ADINA WALLMAN)
May 17 was an eventful day for Israel: After 18 months of political limbo, a new government was born, and after more than two months of corona-forced closures, the higher school grades reopened.
That the two events took place on the same day was not coincidental. The reopening of schools signaled that life was returning to semi-normal, and that it took place just as a new government was sworn-in enabled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take the credit for doing so. The worst was behind us; happy days were here again.
Except that they weren’t. Yes, Netanyahu adroitly managed the lockdown, but the exit from the lockdown was a different story. The exit came just as the new government was sworn in, and the new ministers – well attuned to the stress the public was feeling, and wanting to please them – did not lead, but followed. They followed where the public wanted to go. And after over two months of a constricted lockdown, the public wanted to work, shop, swim at the beach, party, pray in synagogues, ride the buses, exercise, dine and return to school.
So the ministers, and Netanyahu, let them. The new ministers, keen to please, quickly lifted the corona restrictions under their purview.
Newly minted Transportation Minister Miri Regev lifted restrictions on the number of passengers on buses; Culture and Sport Minister Chili Tropper said pools would open in 10 days; Education Minister Yoav Gallant opened the schools and fought with teachers (unsuccessfully) to ensure that they would remain open into summer vacation; Interior Minister Arye Deri fought to open the synagogues; and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announced that restaurants, bars and hotels would reopen, and that masks did not have to be worn during a heat wave scorching the country at the time.
Even though corona had not been defeated, but only temporarily sidelined, the ministers gave the people what they demanded. The public, for the most part, heaved a sigh of relief and applauded. But the leaders should have known better.
The emergency Likud-Blue and White government set up to fight corona established what many had called for: a coronavirus cabinet to coordinate steps and action. Ironically, since the establishment of that cabinet, the COVID-19 situation in Israel has gotten worse, not better.
One of the problems is that the cabinet is made up of politicians – no less than 16 ministers – and the tendency of the politicians, especially in a political atmosphere when a new election may be lurking just around the corner, will be to take steps that will please the public.
But just as no government would allow the public to dictate how it should wage a war, since the public does not have all the information needed to make informed decisions, so too should the government, for the same reasons, not make its decisions regarding coronavirus based on what the public finds comfortable. In this case, policy should be spearheaded by professionals, not necessarily politicians with political interests in mind.
For that reason, Edelstein’s announcement when he first took over the Health Ministry that he would appoint a corona czar to coordinate policy was welcome. Finally, it seemed, a professional, not a politician, would be in charge of formulating the country’s corona policy.
It is a shame Edelstein didn’t immediately follow through.
On Monday, however, he said he would appoint an “emergency management authority” to deal with the pandemic. And this is what the country needs – a team of professionals, not politicians – overseeing the policy and making the critical decisions based on dry, professional criteria.
Were the decisions being made by a staff of professionals, then the criticism over the Knesset bypass law that flew through parliament overnight Monday and gave Netanyahu wide powers to implement new regulations without the need for the Knesset to approve them beforehand would, perhaps, have been muted.
Netanyahu was accused of a power grab and trying to usurp the Knesset’s authority. To those who see nefarious designs in anything he does, this was just another example of his steady march to authoritarianism. Forget the argument that in this fight with the virus, time is of the essence and new regulations need to be implemented immediately, something difficult if Knesset approval is necessary.
Faith in Netanyahu by that half of the country that has no faith in him is so low that this must be just another Netanyahu plot.
But there is something to the need to rapidly implement new regulations as data changes. Were these decisions to be made by a team of trusted professionals, then the argument that this is a power grab would lose some traction since it would be difficult to accuse a team of professionals determining what regulations needed to be implemented of trying to whittle away the authority of the Knesset.
Tuesday’s public debate over this issue is a sign that now is the time for the country to see more trusted professionals, and fewer politicians, guiding the country’s corona policies.