43,966 Israeli citizens died in 2016, which is about 0.5% of the country’s population. Many of the people who died, of course, had been afflicted with a cardiovascular disease, even though cancer is the most common cause of death. According to updated government health reports, 11,077 of these people, or 25.2%, suffered from cancer, 14.6% from cardiovascular disease, and 5.8% from infectious diseases.
COVID-19 has become the focus of our lives, as well the lives of most of the people around the world, as we try to stop the virus from spreading. So far, it has taken the lives of 140 Israelis, as of the time of the writing of this article. In 2016, 2,550 Israeli citizens died from infectious diseases. COVID-19 has been classified as an infectious disease in terms of its nature and symptoms. In other words, the number of people in Israel who have died from this virus over the last three months – since the outbreak has overtaken our lives here in Israel – is only 4.5% of the total number of deaths due to infectious diseases, according to Israel’s data on deaths from 2016.
I estimate that for the rest of the year, the number of fatalities due to COVID-19 will continue to increase significantly on a daily basis. In all likelihood, according to estimates and opinions of public health experts, the number of fatalities due to COVID-19 will still constitute only a small portion of deaths due to infectious diseases.
It is not my intention here to downplay, God forbid, the seriousness of the threat the COVID-19 poses, and the need to take maximum precautions as recommended by the Israeli health authorities, which are needed to prevent the spread of the virus and to protect people who are at higher risk of severe illness.
The reason I’m mentioning these statistics is to try to restore us to reality. Lately, we’ve been inundated with unbalanced proclamations about the way the campaign to wrest control of the COVID-19 outbreak is being waged, and in particular, in light of the government’s monumental failure to deal with this threat and the resulting atmosphere of panic and extreme anxiety. In and of itself, this toxic atmosphere can cause more damage than the dangerous virus itself, from which we are trying to protect ourselves.
The time has come for us to return to normal daily life. We have all fallen victim not just to the threat of this dangerous virus, but to the failure of all the governmental branches to prepare our country for the epidemic, as well. Moreover, the actions of the authorities have led to an atmosphere of intimidation that is bordering on panic in their efforts to confine the dangerous virus to a realistic framework that does not justify the excessive emergency measures currently disrupting our lives.
Surely a state commission of inquiry will be formed at some point in the future that will investigate how the COVID-19 crisis was handled from the first day the virus was identified, how the country’s health officials prepared for the danger, and including the never-ending theater of panic, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been conducting with great talent and dedication.
The commission of inquiry will surely aspire to understand why the health ministry’s emergency storerooms were completely lacking the necessary equipment needed to combat this infectious disease epidemic – not after an outbreak occurs, but before. Their job was to be prepared in case an epidemic begins, prepare the logistical infrastructure ahead of time and make sure the proper equipment was in stock so we could be organized and stop the spread of a virus in a timely manner.
If today we were to suffer a severe earthquake, not one citizen would complain about the government not having known it was going to take place at a specific moment. There are many experts who discuss various possibilities of when we might experience a serious earthquake, but not if it will take place. And when it does, we will not blame the government for causing it to occur. But if it turns out that we were not prepared to deal with the aftermath, no government would be able to escape blame for its negligence and disdain for being ill-prepared ahead of time and for not attaining the equipment we would need to help us deal with damage as effectively as possible.
The same is true with COVID-19. We should have been properly prepared and the Health Ministry’s storerooms should have been filled with enough state-of-the-art ventilators, which are essential for treating people who have contracted this plague. We should have acquired plenty of test kits and protective gear, and a pre-emergency plan for dealing with mass casualties should have been formulated. We should have organized centers where people waiting for their test results could reside, where citizens who at the highest risk of contagion could sequester themselves, so that the rest of the country could have continued on with life as usual, instead of everyone’s lives being interrupted and the economy brought to a halt.
There’s no excuse for this unpreparedness. The Israeli authorities had months to prepare before the first case of COVID-19 showed up in Israel. The number of tests currently available is still dramatically lower than what is needed to identify potential outbreak population centers, so that they can be appropriately isolated, while the rest of the population – more than 90% - could continue with their normal lives and continue going to work.
During one of his endless evening performances on television a few weeks ago, Netanyahu promised we would soon be conducting more than 30,000 tests every day. In actuality, though, the number is closer to one quarter of this amount, which is an unforgivable failure.
Emergency measures, closures, children with no school, more than one million Israelis who have been put on unpaid leave, no public transportation, businesses that have gone bankrupt and restricted movement on the roads: These are not the result of responsible, careful and controlled management of the danger associated with the epidemic, but of first and foremost a lack of means to deal with it in the first place. The government failed to formulate a stable national strategy to handle the crisis and prevent an atmosphere of panic and fear. The actions taken serve the political interests of a failing government and allow it to appear as if it is protecting the people from succumbing to a major disaster, which has no basis in reality.
During the time I served as health minister many years ago, I dealt with several public health issues. Nonetheless, I do not profess to have any expertise that can rival or challenge Israel’s top public health experts. It is precisely these individuals, however, who have recently voiced these same concerns I am expressing here. We can only hope the State of Israel will succeed in repairing the enormous damage the government has caused us until now, and perhaps will continue to do in the coming months.
I am well aware that in light of the harsh words I’ve expressed here and that other experts have said publicly, government spokespeople – especially Netanyahu, who has become the de facto health minister and has practically taken charge of all other ministries – have cited examples from other countries where similar measures have been taken. This is true: Israel’s government is not the only government that has failed. Many others have, too. US President Donald Trump initially claimed COVID-19 would not spread to the US, and as a result, did not take effective preventive measures and so did Britain whose prime minister was infected as well as other European countries. Nevertheless, what consolation is this for us?
Anyone looking for excuses can easily cite other countries’ experiences in an effort to cover up our failures. Everyone faces its own country and its own government. We cannot ignore what are the real priorities upon which our government is acting and what is the level of importance given to the health situation. The most important question each country must answer is the level of importance the coronavirus is against the deterioration of the moral foundations of our democratic government which defines most of the efforts of the government when dealing with the situation.
The State of Israel has been functioning for more than a year now without an orderly budget, with no government and without taking the needs of its citizens into consideration. We have held three elections, all of which were just a cover-up for entanglements the prime minister got himself into. It is possible we might be headed for a fourth one within 18 months, just because of a disagreement regarding the authority of the Judicial Selection Committee, which is not even expected to meet in the upcoming year. In the absence of agreement over this and other similar issues, it is impossible to form a government that will be legally authorized by a majority of Knesset members.
Implementing emergency orders, mass closure of entire residential areas in large cities, and all of the other restrictions that have been imposed on the citizens of the State of Israel – especially the almost complete paralysis of the economy, which has led to mass unemployment and will lead to irreparable deterioration of society which is a strategic threat to the country – are not needed to overcome COVID-19. The interim prime minister is doing this in an effort that has no boundaries of integrity and decency whose sole purpose is to undermine the fundamental foundations of our democracy so Netanyahu can remain in power.
This is the only topic on his mind and absolutely nothing else. I am aware that expressing these sentiments involves a fair amount of risk. Government spokespeople who have been hired by the various ministry offices to promote the official opinions of the government will not hesitate to attack anyone who dares to make such accusations.
There is no alternative but to acknowledge that the right-wing bloc’s agenda is not how to survive the COVID-19 pandemic in as responsible a way as possible, but how to shake the balance of Israel’s citizens and to sneak behind the back the annexation of the territories, to weaken our law enforcement agencies and, primarily to make sure that the imperial family on Balfour Street additional time in the palace, with complete disregard for the real needs of the Israeli people.
The time has come to release Israel’s citizens from this unnecessary closure, to engage in mass testing for COVID-19, to return our children to school and most of our workers to their jobs. We need to get the wheels of our economy back on track so the country can return to sanity and normalcy.
And last, but not least, our prime minister must be left to deal with his personal problems at his own expense and not at ours.
The writer was the 12th prime minister of Israel.