Politics and populism — not coronavirus — are making Israelis sick

“Right now, everything is political,” Hadassah Medical Center head Zeev Rotstein said.

Israelis protest against the government new restrictions following the spread of the Coronavirus in Tel Aviv on July 18, 2020. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Israelis protest against the government new restrictions following the spread of the Coronavirus in Tel Aviv on July 18, 2020.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Populism and politics can be as deadly as most serious diseases, and the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a blueprint for how that can occur.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has treated data as an irrelevant nuisance, as he has sought to appease popular demand rather than proscribing necessary but bad-tasting medicine. Worse, his rivals view COVID-19 mismanagement more as a political tool to unseat Netanyahu rather than focusing on the many deaths than might ensue.
The numbers have not been on Netanyahu’s side. Seven percent of people who were screened for the novel coronavirus over the weekend tested positive – a number that continues to rise, as the death toll passed 400 and the number of serious patients climbed closer to 300.
Is the government paying attention to those statistics? It is unclear at which numbers Israel’s leaders are looking, as their decisions since the start of the second wave have not been rooted in data or a proper analysis of risk versus benefits, senior leaders continue to tell The Jerusalem Post.
On Sunday, the data revealed at the Knesset coronavirus committee meeting by Health Ministry professionals – as opposed to politicians – made this dismissal even clearer.
The government voted to close pools, a move that the chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians said was not based on “epidemiological logic.” In fact, only four people in the last week were infected at a pool, the data showed.
Moreover, synagogues are allowed to continue to operate in gatherings of 10 people inside or 20 outside, despite 4.8% of known infections starting at religious institutions. On the other hand, restaurants, where only 4% of infections occurred, will be forced to operate as takeout or delivery beginning on Tuesday.
The strength of Netanyahu’s coalition, the country knows, is dependent on the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, making such a judgment suspect.
Netanyahu’s desire for political control came to the forefront over the weekend. It was reported that the prime minister intended to fire Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton from her position as chair of the Knesset’s coronavirus committee because she said she would oppose the closure of gyms and pools – going against the stance of the government. She said she would stand her ground unless new data was provided by the Health Ministry to convince her committee otherwise.
On Saturday night, a statement put out by the prime minister’s spokesman cited a “senior source in the Likud” as saying “the prime minister will fire Yifat Shasha-Biton from her position. It is impossible to continue working like this.”
The role of the coronavirus committee is to serve as an oversight board for the decisions made by the cabinet. As Shasha-Biton stressed Sunday, “Everyone has the good intentions of fighting the virus, and we are all on the same side. But we are allowed to argue about the ways to fight. The pandemic has many consequences – health, social and economic – and it is necessary to bring the delicate balance between them.”
But it does not appear that Netanyahu’s intentions are the same as her intentions or even that he fights by the same rules. Netanyahu made clear that he would not fire Shasha-Biton because she is failing to do her job – quite the contrary. He wants her out because she disagrees with him, and he brokers no dissent.
On Sunday, it appeared that at long last a coronavirus commissioner had been selected to run a much-needed new authority to help manage the crisis.
In the morning, the media reported that Prof. Gabriel Barbash, a former Health Ministry director-general that senior medical professionals have called “the right candidate for the role,” was appointed and the details of the contract were simply being hammered out.
Hours later, his appointment was called into question, and it was shared that Edelstein favored another candidate: Maj.-Gen. Amir Abulafia.
In a statement, the Health Ministry said both candidates were equally qualified, and one would be selected in the coming days. Behind the scenes, senior health officials told the Post that Netanyahu and Edelstein are now fighting over who should be selected.
“Right now, everything is political,” Hadassah Medical Center head Zeev Rotstein said.
But one cannot cure coronavirus with politics.
The chaos really hit home for Israelis over the weekend, when after the government’s late-night meeting Thursday, it rolled out an incomplete set of directives.
The message from the Prime Minister’s Office said: “Decisions about camps and other educational programs will be determined in the coming days by the prime minister and alternate prime minister, in consultation with the finance, health and education ministers.”
Parents went into Shabbat unsure if there would be camp or summer school on Sunday. By press time Sunday, the prime minister had not even set a meeting to deal with the issue.
Parents and municipal leaders are opposed to shutting down schools and have promised to protest if such a decision is made.
Moreover, also on Friday, after the government announced that restaurants would be closed from 5 p.m. that day until Sunday morning, a 4 p.m. statement released by Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz retracted the decision made by the cabinet. The announcement explained that, pending approval by the government, restaurants could operate for a few more days to give them time to prepare and because they had already invested in food to be served over the weekend.
If it is so dangerous for the public to eat in restaurants that the government chose to shut their seating areas down, then why would the prime ministers retract such a restriction – even for a few days?
Perhaps the move was made because dozens, if not hundreds, of restaurant owners had committed to opening over Shabbat in defiance of the government.
MK Avigdor Liberman wrote cunningly on his Facebook page that day: “Do you know the words ‘civil rebellion?’ If you do not start behaving logically, within a few days you will see one with your own eyes.”
And on Saturday night, Israel’s streets were once again overflowing with angry citizens, protesting the government’s mismanagement of the crisis.
A senior Likud official told N12: “Blue and White is making things difficult [for the prime minister] at every move. They want the coronavirus to continue for as long as possible. They think that if the medical and economic crisis continue, Bibi will fall.”
But while Netanyahu and others choose politics over the pandemic, hospitals may reach a point where they have to choose between who lives and who dies.