Four essential steps that need to be taken immediately to fight the virus

Ehud Olmert's coronavirus message.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu encourages Israelis to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, during a press conference in Jerusalem on March 12.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu encourages Israelis to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, during a press conference in Jerusalem on March 12.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
The lockdown we have been experiencing for a number of days now will not change a thing. Just like the first lockdown, which was declared before Passover, this one will not lead to any new developments. The new measures that are being formulated won’t help slow the spread of COVID-19 or help us combat the pandemic.
For some reason, there is almost unanimous agreement among people who support the closure, as well as those who are against it, that Israel was tremendously successful in dealing with the first wave of the virus. This also includes people who believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed all along, though there are not many of them. This, however, is an illusion that has no basis in reality.
Like many of Netanyahu’s other “successes,” the way he dealt with first wave was almost exclusively through his impressive media performances that took place every evening on all Israeli TV channels during peak hours of television viewing. The speeches were well rehearsed, Netanyahu’s makeup was impeccable, and no questions were asked afterward. These performances took place every single night, ad nauseam.
But, as usual, Netanyahu went too far. First of all, he began fielding phone calls from leaders the world over who were calling to congratulate him for his impressive achievement, and to ask him for advice on how they should proceed. Public opinion in Israel tanked, however, after this hypocritical behavior. Had Bibi Netanyahu taken a trip around the world in a private jet, with dozens of suitcases of dirty laundry in order to teach world leaders how to overcome the COVID-19 epidemic, I’m sure that many of his supporters would have enthusiastically supported him.
Netanyahu, as is his style, started believing his own fake show, and this is when he made his second mistake: He addressed the public directly, suggesting that everyone go out and have fun.
Netanyahu was smug. The rate of contagion, the economic crisis, the intra-office conflict within the Health Ministry and other governmental offices, the arguments held within his own nuclear family – all of this together, which seemed like a tremendous achievement, turned out to be a categorical failure.
At no point, from the onset of the pandemic until today, has there been even one spark of achievement in the way Israel’s leadership has dealt with the crisis. On the flip side, our doctors, nurses, hospital medical staff and emergency rescue teams have become our country’s heroes. Two young medical volunteers were even honored to light torches at this year’s Independence Day ceremony.
Medical professionals have become our medical warriors. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, these hardworking people were deserving of the moniker “medical heroes,” and they will continue to be considered as such even after the crisis is over. Israel’s healthcare system is among the best in the world. It’s better than the one in the US and is higher quality than those in many developed nations.
TRUE, THERE have been quite a few problems, even in our best hospitals and among our most outstanding doctors, but the quality of the medical care in Israel is truly commendable. This is true, especially in view of the lack of resources allocated to medical institutions, the gap between the number of staff people needed and the number that actually work in hospitals, and the embarrassingly low salaries young doctors receive.
Even during ordinary times, managing such a system is a great achievement. The war against the coronavirus has not changed the system much. What it has done is highlight and overemphasize what people who care have already known for a while. In practice, the burden on Israel’s healthcare system, at least at the onset of the pandemic, was marginal compared with normal levels. Even today, as the rate of contagion is peaking and the number of people infected is at an all-time high, the burden on our hospitals is still significantly less than what they are capable of handling.
At no point during the spread of the contagion has the number of patients infected with COVID-19 dropped significantly. Anyone who attempts to make this claim that the numbers did drop plays into the hands of those who supported a lockdown in the past, as well as others who are responsible for the helplessness in the way we’ve tried to combat the contagion all along.
Anyone who claims that the first lockdown was a success is simply ignoring the fact that almost no tests were given, and some Health Ministry experts were explicitly opposed to increasing testing. When we didn’t have any tests available, no one was reported as being sick. When we didn’t have any people who were officially sick, there was a semblance of “success” in how we handled the virus.
The reason government leadership was concerned from the beginning was because it had lost its senses. Neither level-headed and reserved Barsi (Moshe Bar Siman Tov) nor hysterical Bibi knew what to do. Neither of them did anything tangible that could have disrupted the “chain of infection,” as they called it.
I believe that the number of people infected with COVID-19 during the first lockdown was higher than reported. Imposing a closure on densely populated neighborhoods where religious, ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews live, or in Arab neighborhoods, did not prevent the contagion from spreading. In fact, it exacerbated the problem. Granted, there were other factors involved, such as incoming flights with people who had been infected abroad and were not required to remain in isolation upon arrival, extremely large weddings in certain communities, and massive post-lockdown parties celebrating their freedom.
None of these, however, was the main factor. The number of people who had been infected was directly related to the number of tests being carried out. When there were 60,000 tests being carried out every day, we reached the peak we’ve seen in the last few days, which brought about the closure. Now, during the closure, fewer tests will be done, which miraculously means that the number of people infected will also go down. As a result, all of us will feel tremendous relief, we’ll end the closure, and then the number of tests will increase and consequently, the number of people infected will rise again. So another closure will be imposed, and we will be trapped in this endless vicious cycle.
I AM AWARE that the main argument is that the percentage of positive results from the tests that are being done has risen, and that this ratio is what has led to the anxiety among the government leadership. My theory is that the rise in percentage of positive tests from 6%-7% up to 10%-12% is mainly a function of the number of tests being carried out, and the more tests that are done, the more the rate of infection will increase. If we were to carry out 100,000 tests a day, the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 would rise to 12,000 people a day, but we would still not have learned anything about how to deal with the pandemic.
We know close to nothing about COVID-19 nor about how to deal with it, for the simple reason that we have failed to create a professional, scientific system that can identify the variables, symptoms and syndromes that will identify the higher risk groups that need to be isolated. The Israeli government has made no efforts to do this, and this failure is shocking.
In one of Netanyahu’s most memorable moments of panicking, he said that this was the biggest crisis the world had experienced since the Middle Ages. In my opinion, the Israeli government’s failure to deal with the coronavirus crisis is the biggest failure since the establishment of the state.
There are four essential steps that need to be taken immediately:
1. Strengthen Israel’s healthcare system and increase the number of medical personnel working in our hospitals.
2. Establish immediately a network of laboratories located throughout the country that will provide test data; aid the country’s main research institutions; create an accurate map of the disease’s characteristics; and identify significant risk factors, at-risk populations and hot spots, which will enable the authorities to better prevent the spread of contagion.
3. Establish absorption centers for populations that are required to enter into isolation. These can be in holiday resorts, army bases or quarantine hotels. There may be 250,000 high-risk citizens who need to be housed in isolation.
4. All other Israeli citizens should be allowed to return to normal life under the condition that they wear face masks, abide by social distancing and refrain from touching one another. The economy should by operating normally, schools should be in session, and all cultural and business operations should be allowed to be open.
I’m aware that there’s very little chance my suggestion will be endorsed. And anyway, the prime minister will show no interest in it since he is completely focused on one sole issue: preventing further demonstrations against him from taking place. The gang of Bibi supporters, with Netanyahu at its head, claims that these demonstrations are not harming him politically. This could conceivably be true. But they are succeeding in strongly upsetting his lunatic family members, and driving him crazy too.
Netanyahu’s target is not to cope with COVID-19, but to prevent demonstrations. But nothing will be able to prevent them from taking place – not the current lockdown and not the next lockdown either.
They won’t stop until we get rid of Netanyahu. Then we’ll be able to get rid of the coronavirus, too.
The writer was the 12th prime minister of Israel.