Ehud Olmert to 'Post': Rosh Hashanah is Without joy or hope

What logic is this decision based upon? Why is the closure scheduled to last two to three weeks and not two to three months? What public health logic justifies closure in the first place?

BORDER POLICE patrol a nearly empty city center during a partial lockdown in early April (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
BORDER POLICE patrol a nearly empty city center during a partial lockdown in early April
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
The decision to impose a full temporary lockdown does not guarantee that the COVID-19 contagion rate will be altered. This is just another decision made by a government that does not really exist, based entirely on panic, anxiety and loss of sanity that surround the prime minister as he makes his way to the courthouse.
 
What logic is this decision based upon? Why is the closure scheduled to last two to three weeks and not two to three months? What public health logic justifies closure in the first place?

We need to reiterate a number of assumptions that seem to have been lost during the chaos that resulted from the way the government has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s quite clear that imposing closure in red cities, which are known to be overcrowded with apartment buildings full of families with numerous children, is an almost certain recipe for mass infection. Upon what are they basing their assumption – that if they close off all the people living in high-rise buildings in Bnei Brak, the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem or the crowded Arab towns, and don’t let any of the residents in these areas to move around outside their neighborhood – fewer people will become infected? After all, it seems to be the exact opposite.

In the tall residential towers of Tel Aviv, which are inhabited by older people and smaller families, with very little contact between tenants on different floors, there is little chance of the spread of infection. On the other hand, in buildings with four apartments on each floor, where each family has seven or eight children, the chances of mass infection are much, much higher. There’s no certainty that these numbers will be seen at the beginning of the closure when fewer tests are being taken.

Naturally, the number of people reported as getting tested will be smaller. Does this say anything about the effectiveness of the measures that were taken? Most likely not. But, they might give the government some breathing space, some time to cool off, as if the government was able to successfully block the spread of the virus. Then, once again we can start bragging about how we succeeded in blocking the spread of the virus until a third and then a fourth wave arrives.

At this stage in the crisis, there’s some logic in what the haredim are saying, that there’s no health-related justification for limiting the number of people praying in synagogues in one or two minyanim (prayer quorums). There are many spacious synagogues that can accommodate a large number of worshipers. If everyone who enters the synagogue agrees to wear a mask, why should we deprive them of experiencing the joys of the holiday, which has already been severely hampered, by restricting them in a way that has no chance of preventing the spread of disease and reducing the number of people becoming infected?

Of course, there’s a large gap between upholding all the stringencies and completely relaxing all restrictions. Synagogues that can hold thousands of worshipers during normal times should not be allowed to operate in the usual format, but they should be allowed a certain measure of flexibility. The almost spontaneous tendency of many people to place full responsibility for the high infection rate on the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities stems from anger, prejudice and hostility, which are completely unjustified and baseless.
THE FACT that the rate of infection in Israel is the highest in the world per capita is primarily due to our lack of knowledge about the spread of the disease, since over the last eight months the Israeli authorities have not carried out any of the simple and obvious steps that would have provided us with much more information about the nature of the contagion. Neither are there plans currently in place to collect information and enter the data that would help us trace the chain of infection, as the knowledgeable commentators like to call the spread of the virus.

We need to set up laboratories all over the country, from Metulla to Eilat, and staff them with experienced professionals (of which we have plenty) who can analyze the tens of thousands of tests that are being carried out every day. They can diagnose the symptoms of all the people who have tested positive and use this information to help us anticipate complications, characterize groups according to age, place of residence and population density. Afterward, we can take all this data and map out the characteristics of the contagion so that we can isolate the seriously high-risk populations, and move them to temporary housing in holiday villages, isolation hotels or army bases.

This way, all the rest of the people could continue on with their lives as usual, while adhering to the safety measures set out by the epidemiology experts. Admittedly, the only reason for the sense of panic that is currently pervading throughout the country, which led the government to decide to impose a temporary lockdown and will do more damage than benefit, is the growing number of people infected with COVID-19. 

That’s it. There’s no indication that there’s been a rise in the number of seriously ill patients, and the number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators is still less than 5% of the number of ventilators available for use here in Israel. Our hospitals are prepared to receive thousands more patients with COVID-19 if such an extreme emergency were to arise. But that is not the situation we are currently facing. In fact, we are far from reaching this point.

Presently, the number of infections every day is 10 times higher than when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his lunatic predictions that by the end of April, more than one million Israelis would have become infected with COVID-19, and that more than 10,000 Israelis would have lost their lives to this disease.  

When I first heard this projection, I thought surely Netanyahu had gone crazy. And today, when emergency measures are being taken as if that prediction has come true, and not in reaction to the actual numbers, this is clear evidence that the prime minister has indeed experienced a nervous breakdown, has lost his marbles and is overrun with anxiety. This indicates that the decision-makers are not in a position to manage the crisis.
WHEN RONNI GAMZU was chosen to become the new coronavirus commissioner, I wrote in this column that he must be made the coronavirus prime minister, otherwise there would be no point in appointing him to the position. The coronavirus prime minister should be the person who takes all the relevant details into consideration in order to make the appropriate decisions regarding how to handle the contagion, independent of political schedules and any personal, political party or legal considerations. 

I added, then, that if he were not given the full authority to make these decisions, Gamzu, who is suitable for the position and is a decisive and experienced professional, would become a scapegoat who would bear all of the responsibility for a failed campaign. And that’s exactly what is happening now.

According to the government’s definition, this temporary lockdown is not actually a means for stopping the spread of contagion. This short period is exactly the amount of time Netanyahu and his gang need to prepare for the political, legal and perhaps military moves necessary to strengthen their muscles that are quickly atrophying ahead of the big battle he is scheduled to begin in the courtroom in January 2021.

The thing that troubles many Israelis, including myself, is the baseless expectation that perhaps this temporary lockdown will eradicate the cloud of economic crisis that is hanging over us and hurting hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens. Indeed, it’s clear to everyone that the opposite will happen. Not only will this cloud not dissipate, but it’s almost certain that it will grow and exacerbate the difficulties we are already experiencing.

Hundreds and thousands of Israeli citizens are having trouble falling asleep each night as they anxiously worry that Israel’s economy will completely implode, and people will find that the governmental assistance they rely upon has disappeared. In the 1950s, during the austerity period, Israelis were only able to buy essential groceries with coupons.

We are not so far from such a reality. People who are in a more secure financial situation, who have resources available to them, will be able to survive a true economic collapse. But many of Israel’s poorer citizens are likely to reach a point when their refrigerators remain empty and they will have no more money to buy the minimal essential grocery items they need to sustain themselves and their families. 

The government is on its way to wasting these essential resources that could help sustain the weaker members of our country. This temporary lockdown, which is slated to begin this afternoon, will deplete what is left to help those whose very existence depends on these resources.

The eve of the Jewish New Year 5781 was not supposed to look like this. There is no joy, there is no hope, there are only gloomy clouds that are making our lives so sad.

There’s Bibi and Sara and Yair. All the rest of the people can crash and burn, as the prime minister’s wife once said when she thought her husband should be president of the United States and live in America, and not face the other people who believe that his magical qualities are leading the country toward a disaster from which it will be extremely difficult to recover.

The writer was the 12th prime minister of Israel.