Will Israel’s gov't stop the COVID-19 powder keg from blowing? - analysis

The powder keg is about to explode. The question is whether Netanyahu and his ministers will decide to cut the fuse.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu  (photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu
(photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/POOL)
Political disintegration is the plague that is really killing the Israeli public – and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers have lit a fuse that, if left to burn, could ignite the country like a powder keg.
The novel coronavirus came to Israel in late February, encountering a health system that had been neglected for decades. But it was only after May 26 that the coronavirus crisis struck the nation down.
On that day, Netanyahu appeared on prime-time TV to deliver a message: “Return to normalcy, get a cup of coffee, a glass of beer – first of all, have fun.”
The government allowed restaurants, pubs, large parks and swimming pools to open – and Israelis followed instructions, returning to life as if there was no pandemic.
But as Dan Ben-David, an economist at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy and head of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, told The Jerusalem Post, “After the number of new COVID-19 cases nearly bottomed out by the date of the prime minister’s May 26 announcement, the number of new cases began to soar almost immediately thereafter.”
Three months later, Israel’s largest-ever government, with 36 cabinet ministers and 16 deputy ministers, is in a state of complete and extensive dysfunction. Patchwork and often contradictory policies confuse the public, which has led to noncompliance. This is especially true among the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Arab sectors, which already showed signs of distrust for the government before the pandemic.
Now, six months since coronavirus emerged in Israel, the number of COVID-19 deaths per capita places the country in the middle of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member states, Ben-David said, with 108 people per million population dying from the disease.
And according to coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu, there are many more deaths to come.
Over the weekend, Gamzu visited the Druze town of Daliat al-Carmel, where he told local leaders that according to statistics, half a percent to 1% of COVID-19 patients die within three to four weeks.
If Israel has 2,000 new cases per day, then according to the half-percent figure, at least 300 people are expected to die in September.
Before the outbreak of the current pandemic, hospital occupancy rates in Israel were the highest in the developed world. Israel’s mortality rates from infectious diseases, which doubled over the past two decades, were 69% higher than the second-ranked country. As such, when the coronavirus reached Israel’s shores, the government quickly and extensively shut the country down.
The epidemic peaked during the first half of April and then receded as quickly as it had initially escalated: While 198 people died from the virus in April, only 69 died in May and 35 in June.
While the prime minister and president personally violated the government’s nationwide lockdown over Passover, the public broadly complied, which ultimately proved vital.
While this nationwide closure battered the economy, it proved “relatively effective health-wise,” Ben-David said. It also served to buy Israel’s hospitals time to prepare for any future influx of new coronavirus patients by learning best-treatment practices, building new units and training staff.
“Although Israel was caught unprepared in March, its quick, nationwide lockdown thwarted the kind of major surges in deaths experienced by other countries,” Ben-David said.
However, while Israel’s hospitals used the time to prepare for a second wave, the government did not. Rather than use the time it had bought with the lockdown to prepare for the future, when the numbers got low enough, no strategic plan of action was considered.
Just the opposite happened: As the country’s new ministers took office in May, they competed with each other in reminding the public why having a government is so important. One by one, minister after minister announced they were lifting coronavirus restrictions controlled by their new office.
To review: Transportation Minister Miri Regev lifted coronavirus restrictions on the number of passengers on buses during peak hours, allowing unlimited numbers of parents and children to board inner-city buses from 7:00-8:30 a.m. and 1:00-3:00 p.m.
Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper confirmed that museums could open immediately and swimming pools soon after.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant expanded school hours, allowing parents to drop their children off as early as 7:30 a.m.
Interior Minister Arye Deri, who had already held his position for a number of years but undoubtedly wanted to start out with a win, scored the opening of synagogues.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, who was involved in all of the above decisions, informed the public that they did not have to wear masks in open spaces or at school during the heat wave, and restaurants, bars and even hotels would open, too.
These moves led to that fateful May 26 speech.
“The share of positive test results shot up to about 7.5% by the first half of April and then fell close to zero by May 26,” Ben-David said. “Following the prime minister’s public green light for the population to return to its daily routines, the share of infected people shot up once again, reaching 8% on August 1.”
On Sunday, 9.5% of those screened for the virus tested positive. But the real percentage is even higher – probably closer to 12% or 13% – when seniors and staff at senior-living facilities tested under the Magen Avot v’Imahot (Parent Guard) program are removed from the total, since being tested so often, they are more likely to be negative.
Moreover, Israel’s July death toll very nearly reached April’s first-wave peak of 198 COVID-19 fatalities, and over twice as many Israelis died in August than in April, Ben-David pointed out.
But as the numbers climbed, populism further plagued our politicians, who haggled over who should be appointed to oversee Israel’s fight against COVID-19. Finally, nearly five months into the pandemic, the government appointed Gamzu.
The so-called coronavirus commissioner has yet to receive a formal mandate, at least one that the public is aware of. More importantly, he seems to have little clout and often appears to serve as an adviser to the prime minister than the one who makes the decisions himself.
Politicians who feel threatened that they will lose votes in a future election are making “illogical decisions” in the way Israel is fighting the spread of COVID-19, Gamzu told the Post.
“There is illogical judgment here,” he said in an interview with the Post last month regarding many of the decisions that have been made by Israel’s leaders since the start of the second wave of the pandemic.
“Why do ministers have difficulty doing the right thing?” he asked. “For political reasons.”
Some politicians have even gone so far as to call for Gamzu’s resignation when they have disagreed with his policies.
The public then mirrors the government’s noncommitment to professional decision-making.
“Most Arab-Israeli municipalities… had much lower infection rates during the first wave, despite relatively high population density,” Ben-David said. “The situation has changed in the second wave. The difference between the first and second waves may be rooted in behavioral changes.”
People are noncompliant because policies are inconsistent and contradictory, and it is unclear to whom the public should listen.
“Compliance in the haredi sector was far from perfect during the first wave, and it became even worse during the second wave, with haredi leaders exacerbating the situation even further,” Ben-David said.
While Edelstein and Gamzu called for increased testing as death rates skyrocket, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky urged his followers to avoid getting tested for fear that high COVID-19 contagion rates among the haredi sector could lead to lack of Torah study.
The prime minister never publicly censured the rabbi’s comment.
Last Thursday, the coronavirus cabinet finally agreed to put closures on the reddest cities – those with the highest infection rates. By Sunday, Netanyahu, Deri and Housing and Construction Minister Ya’acov Litzman undid that decision after haredi mayors protested in a letter to the prime minister.
“With pain and restrained rage, we see day after the day how the honor of the great men of the Torah, the life of the Torah... are trampled on by you in an unparalleled way,” they wrote. “We hereby announce that we will stop cooperating with the various authorities regarding the lockdown.”
And to these pleas, once again the prime minister acquiesced – preferring votes in a future election to ensuring that the number of haredi people sick with coronavirus will decrease.
“This is the current state of affairs as Israel heads into its new year,” Ben-David said. “The degree of governmental dysfunction is unparalleled at a time when Israel faces one of the worst crises in its history.”
The powder keg is about to explode. The question is whether Netanyahu and his ministers will decide to cut the fuse – and with it the chain of infection.