Israel needs to let coronavirus 'czar' Gabi Barbash succeed

Because the virus is spreading so swiftly, Barbash will not have a grace period, and will immediately have to deal with a number of critical challenges.

GABI BARBASH headshot (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Finally, some potentially good news on the corona front.
Some five months after the coronavirus first washed up on our shores, two months after a corona emergency government was established, and a month and a half after Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said he would appoint a coronavirus “czar,” the government is expected to appoint Prof. Gabi Barbash to this job.
Better late than never.
Barbash, a former director-general of the Health Ministry who also served as the CEO of the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv, will be taking over the job as national anti-corona coordinator at a time when nearly 2,000 people are being diagnosed each day with the virus, when public confidence in the government’s ability to deal with the pandemic is at a low point, and with winter – and the seasonal flu that annually taxes the country’s health system even without corona – just around the corner.
Talk about entering a lion’s den.
And it is because Barbash’s task is already so formidable that he will need the help of the entire government system to succeed. This is not the time for bureaucratic turf wars, for fights over authority or squabbles over jurisdiction; this is the time for the system to lend a hand to Barbash so he can do an effective job.
And while that seems obvious enough, it isn’t. The appointment of a corona “czar” was delayed for weeks because of bureaucratic turf battles – what would his authority be, to whom should he answer, and whether the job should go to a health professional or an IDF general with managerial experience heading large organizations.
Now that Barbash has been selected, those fights must end and all energies must be channeled toward ensuring he has the necessary tools to do his job. And the most critical tool is that he be given authority. With the title comes responsibility, but that responsibility is meaningless if not accompanied by the authority to make critical decisions.
An absurd situation has developed over the last couple weeks whereby government regulations were overturned overnight. Whether it has to do with the opening of gyms, of restaurants, or going into a semi-lockdown, one person needs to be mandated with making the assessments of what is and what is not needed, based on professional – not political – considerations. The country’s politicians have shown they are too vulnerable to the demands of the public, and this has resulted in corona chaos.
Because the virus is spreading so swiftly, Barbash will not have a grace period, and will immediately have to deal with a number of critical challenges.
The first is testing. While in comparison with other countries Israel is testing at a pretty high rate, Barbash needs to ensure the high rate of tests continues and even increases. This becomes especially important with the approach of winter, since flu symptoms and those of COVID-19 are similar, and it will be vital for hospitals dealing with both to be able to differentiate between the two.
Barbash also needs to oversee more effective epidemiological investigations. These investigations – contact tracing – are critical in breaking the chain of infection, since they identify people with whom infected individuals have been in contact, so they can then be quarantined even before corona symptoms appear.
Hi-tech Israel has been conducting these investigations in a very low-tech manner, with far too few people. Earlier this month Israel had only one epidemiologist per 300,000 people, whereas in New York the ratio is 1:6,200; in Germany, 1:4,000; and in the UK, 1:2,200. While some improvement has been made in manpower over the last few days, the country still has a long way to catch up.
Perhaps most importantly, Barbash must act swiftly to rebuild public confidence. The way for him to do that is to be transparent in his decisions, and to provide the public with accurate and reliable information.
Presently, the public does not know whom to believe. Barbash will go far toward succeeding in his daunting task if he can persuade the public that it can trust and believe him. That way, when he speaks, people will both listen and heed what he has to say – a critical step in getting a handle on the crisis.