Ehud Olmert: Netanyahu won't let any coronavirus czar succeed

If a task force chief is to succeed, the person needs to be given complete authority.

GABRIEL BARBASH and Roni Gamzu – either one would be the right person for the impossible challenge. (photo credit: FLASH90)
GABRIEL BARBASH and Roni Gamzu – either one would be the right person for the impossible challenge.
(photo credit: FLASH90)
If a sophisticated computer program was designed to gather all the characteristics, experience, professional knowledge and appropriate personality traits necessary to find the right person to be Israel’s new COVID-19 task force chief, I bet that the name that would top the list would be Prof. Gabi Barbash. Barbash, a successful hospital administrator, is a professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine, and a cardiologist who did a master’s degree in public health at Harvard University. He was deputy director of Sheba Medical Center, and he was the person responsible for turning Sourasky Medical Center into a leading international medical center during his tenure as CEO.
A former director-general in the Health Ministry, Barbash is a smart, experienced, tough, but sensitive manager. In other words, he fulfills the range of requirements necessary to manage the COVID-19 headquarters on a national level during the current pandemic, which is worsening every day and threatening the stability of the entire country.
Barbash also happens to be extremely reliable, a character trait that is rarely found these days. This makes him pretty much everything that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his gang are not. You can agree with Barbash, disagree with him, object to his ideas or completely agree, it does not matter. But you can always trust him.
For all of these good reasons, it would have made the most sense to appoint Barbash Israel’s COVID-19 task force chief. But, of course, why would that be the case? On Wednesday night, just before midnight, Barbash withdrew his candidacy after failing to secure the necessary authority he would need to get the job done. In the end, the people in the dark tunnels of Balfour Street would not approve his appointment leading him to a place that would only end in failure. Anyhow, it was only a matter of time before this good man would have been turned into the prime minister and his social networking bots’ scapegoat, claiming that he invented and spread COVID-19 and infected the entire country.
The same things I said about Barbash can easily be said about Roni Gamzu. A distinguished physician, former director-general of the ministry, the head of Sourasky Medical Center and a very capable manager. Therefore, he is the right person for the impossible challenge that he will now face.
If a task force chief is to succeed, the person needs to be given complete authority to combine all of the managerial roles within the Health Ministry, along with the responsibility to operate the National Emergency Authority.
Our healthcare system is on the ropes. None of the things that should have been prepared ahead of time, arranged and set up in an orderly fashion so that we could deal with a possible pandemic were in place when COVID-19 arrived in Israel. Moreover, almost nothing has been done to carry out preparations for a second wave during the months in which the government was busy with Netanyahu’s nightly theatrical performances. Its main focus was on sowing panic and frightening the public, even at the cost of total closure, which led to the collapse of the economy and shook the foundations of our existence. A task force chief cannot, and will not, be a clerk who has to wait for instructions from the health minister or director-general. He cannot, and will not, be a member of the prime minister’s cheering squad that appears just before his daily TV appearances.
The task force chief needs to be the “prime minister” in the fight against COVID-19. He needs to establish a network of laboratories around the country from Metulla to Eilat that will be staffed by professionals. These labs need to be able to process a total of 50,000 COVID-19 tests a day, of people with or without symptoms. They need to test the elderly, teens, children, pregnant women and residents of nursing homes. In short, we need to be testing as many people as possible. These labs need to be prepared to give test results within a few hours, or even minutes, so that people can know if they’ve been infected or not.
The labs should be required to prepare a detailed and accurate report that includes the details of infected people, including demographics, the nature of their sickness, what symptoms they’ve experienced, their age, location, and any side effects or complications they’ve experienced. Every day, a senior lab professional who works with the task force chief should be presented with a detailed schematic that maps out all of this data. After a few weeks of accumulating this data, a detailed outline of the contagion will become clear.
We will be able to learn the extent of contagion, what its typical side effects are, which population groups are most likely to be affected, and which areas have been hit particularly hard. The task force chief will be able to take this information and formulate an educated method to determine who should isolate and where. The National Emergency Authority, which is in charge of the IDF Home Front Command, can organize in advance military bases that can be used as isolation facilities. In addition, holiday resorts and hotels can also be used to house people who are required to be in isolation.
Mapping out the location and statistics of each person who’s been infected with COVID-19 will enable the task force chief to decide which people do not need to go into isolation and are free to go to work, of course while adhering to strict safety regulations, including wearing a mask and keeping a safe distance from others.
This format will enable us to control the spread of contagion, while at the same time allow a certain portion of the population to continue on with their daily routine, including dining out at restaurants, going to bars, movie theaters, performances and sporting events. In this way, small, medium and large businesses can gradually get back to work as usual at a controlled and careful pace, which is much faster than the way it is currently being done. In order to be able to execute all of these steps, the task force chief must be the person authorized to make the final decisions on all COVID-19-related matters. Not the Health Ministry director-general, not the commander of the Home Front Command and not the head of the National Emergency Authority; none of these individuals can be the person managing this complex system. The task force chief needs to be the sole individual making the final decisions.
And that’s exactly why the task force chief will have no chance of succeeding. He will be expected to achieve far-reaching goals and his credibility will constantly be questioned. Gamzu did not succeed in all of the positions I listed above as a result of his naiveté, lack of understanding how politics work or an unlimited desire for publicity. He never functioned as a fig leaf for anyone – not in Israel’s health system, to which he has dedicated his entire life, nor in any other public institution.
For the sake of transparency, I must point out that I’ve known both Barbash and Gamzu, and I am friendly with them but not close, and I haven’t met or spoken with both of them over the last few months. I know them like I know most of the leaders of Israel’s health system and the country’s best doctors and specialists with whom I’ve remained in contact since my time serving as health minister. There are numerous individuals among them who could fulfill the same role.
In order for a task force chief to succeed in managing the entire health system, fundamental changes need to be made in the way the governmental ministries operate. The Health Ministry, however, is not in agreement about this, as has already been expressed by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. It’s not a coincidence that he’s been searching for a former military man who has no prior status or authority to make health-related decisions. In any case, he would be subject to approval from the health authorities. Therefore, no one from the IDF can take on the position of task force chief. There will be individuals such as Roni Numa, who helped the city of Bnei Brak during the first COVID-19 wave, who will be appointed to manage operations in major cities that have been hard hit by the pandemic. These people will be part of the national emergency authority that will be headed by the task force chief.
Ultimately, the task force chief will be required to follow government rulings. However, he would be subordinate to the government, not to private conversations with the prime minister in preparation for his nightly television appearances.
The question remains: Is the prime minister willing to relinquish his absolute power over Israel’s healthcare system and take a chance that someone else will have the authority to make decisions, manage daily operations and determine policies for all of the relevant bodies that need to dictate the public’s behavior?
I am doubtful. I think that the IDF will not give up its understanding that the emergency authority should not be given to someone who does not hold a military leadership position. I think that, for obvious reasons, the Health  Ministry will refuse to let anyone who is not part of its own hierarchy to take on this responsibility. I also believe that no serious person would want to take upon themselves supreme responsibility for managing the campaign to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, which, according to predictions made by many experts, will continue at least until the end of 2021. Who would want to be at loggerheads with governmental bodies that are fighting with each other, with ministers who are competing with each other and with a prime minister who is battling everyone and for whom the struggle to overcome the contagion is just a means to flee from an even more dangerous plague: the indictments filed against him.
In the social and political reality of the State of Israel in 2020, the chance of doing the right thing that could benefit the public and bring about an effective, beneficial and successful response to the pandemic that is currently threatening our health is incredibly small.
Gabi Barbash knew that. Roni Gamzu also knows this, and if he does not, he will find out soon enough.

The writer was the 12th prime minister of Israel.