As he has been doing regularly of late, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the nation on Wednesday night to justify the latest set of regulations aimed at flattening the curve of the COVID-19 outbreak. The government had put into effect additional restrictions on the public’s freedom of movement four hours earlier, with stricter police enforcement and the imposition of fines for violators.
In a particularly somber tone, Netanyahu said the steps taken thus far have not been sufficient, “since the number of patients is doubling every three days, and in two weeks, we are liable to find ourselves with thousands of patients, many of whom will be in danger of death.”
He then issued a warning that was more like a declaration of a done deal.
“I am already telling you that if we do not see an immediate improvement in the trend, there will be no alternative but to impose a complete lockdown, except for essentials, such as food and medicines,” he threatened. “This is a matter of a few days. We are making all of the requisite logistical and legal preparations for it.”
It appears, then, that a complete countrywide lockdown – which most Israelis have been both fearing and expecting – is inevitable. It certainly is what Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov has been pushing for, to prevent Israel from ending up in a similar predicament to that of Italy and Spain.
In an interview with Channel 12’s Ilana Dayan on Tuesday, Bar Siman-Tov admitted that he had “no idea” when the coronavirus crisis will be over.
“There’s something about an epidemic that is unfathomable to human consciousness,” he said, likening it to Native American Indians observing the approach of foreign ships and not fleeing from the danger because they lacked a conceptual framework. “In some sense, we don’t possess a thought construct for such a powerful pandemic.”
When Dayan suggested a comparison to 9/11 – before which the world could not imagine planes flying into the World Trade Center – Bar Siman-Tov said the current situation is even more momentous, with the “hard part still ahead of us.”
He added that it is not beyond the realm of possibility for Israeli hospital staff to end up having to choose which patients deserve respirators, and which do not. For this reason, he stressed, the time to act is when it feels “too soon,” because “if the extreme scenario occurs, the cost of error in lives and economics is infinite.”
Ironically, Bar Siman-Tov is an economist, not a health professional. Yet he nevertheless disagrees with his counterparts in the Treasury about the “trade-off” involved when so many businesses are shuttered and close to a million people are out of work.
“If public health crashes, so does the economy,” he said. “The economy can be rehabilitated; the loss of life cannot.”
Asked by Dayan if the cure isn’t more painful than the disease – whether the virus is definitely worse than financial ruin – he replied, “If we reach the point at which we have thousands of people in need of respirators and are only able to help a third or a half of them... the economy also will crash.”
Dayan then pressed him about the number of casualties he anticipates.
“Do you really think that thousands of Israelis are liable to die of corona during the coming months?” she asked.
“I am pretty certain that this event will result in many deaths, barring a miracle,” he said, adding that he hopes to be proven wrong and wishes that by this time next year he will have become a “comic figure” ridiculed for his alarmism and apocalyptic predictions.
Regarding the rules and regulations to which the public increasingly has been subjected over the past month, he explained, “Initially, we looked to technology [to solve the problem]. But, epidemics are conquered the old-fashioned way, through social distancing and hand-washing.”
BAR SIMAN-TOV has been criticized by the “anybody but Bibi” crowd for not being a medical professional, and for keeping his many daily sessions with Netanyahu a little too close to his chest for their comfort.
Prodded by Dayan to acknowledge a “political angle” to the prime minister’s handling of the corona crisis, the Health Ministry director-general not only denied the existence of one, but went beyond the call of duty in his praise of Netanyahu.
“I have to say that this event is genuinely impossible to grasp, but [Netanyahu] grasps it,” he said. “As difficult as it is to understand the exponential spread of the virus, he understands it.”
Most Israelis clearly trust this to be the case. According to a recent survey conducted by the Internet-based company Direct Polls, public satisfaction with the way that Netanyahu and Bar Siman-Tov are managing the coronavirus crisis is extremely high.
Even more revealing is the fact some of Netanyahu’s most serious detractors (while quipping that the coronavirus “conspired with the universe to postpone Bibi’s corruption trial”) have conceded that he’s got what it takes to steer the country through this global catastrophe and national emergency.
Take Gideon Levy, for instance. In his Haaretz column on Sunday, the radical leftist Israeli anti-Zionist who supports the Joint Arab List wrote, “Netanyahu is seen as someone who is handling the crisis well, and this is hard to contradict. Only when the thick gathering clouds disperse will it be possible to judge his actions in the face of the coronavirus. In the meantime, the trust of a large part of the public in him is a major asset in times of crisis. The conclusion: Netanyahu continuing to serve as prime minister until the end of the crisis is not a disaster.”
The sound of jaws dropping could be heard everywhere, particularly in Europe, where Levy has been wined, dined and paid handsomely to lecture on the evils of the Jewish state. Or at least he used to be, until COVID-19 came along and put the kibosh on international travel and a temporary end to all conferences, including those funded by George Soros.
The fact is that the soon-to-be 67-year-old Levy must be just as anxious about falling deathly ill to the virus as his ideological opposites. And whatever his view of Netanyahu and Bar Siman-Tov, he seems to believe their admonitions of imminent disaster if the corona curve is not flattened before the number of patients requiring pulmonary resuscitation outweighs the supply of respirators.
And let’s face it, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz can’t even inspire the confidence of close confidants and a large number of now-disgruntled voters. The prospect of his being in charge of safeguarding their health must be daunting, to put it mildly.
That brings us to the way in which Netanyahu first resisted Bar Siman-Tov’s pressure to shut down the country in one fell swoop. Realizing that Israelis would never comply with such an infringement on their civil liberties unless they believed it was in their own interest, he opted for a more gradual course of action.
He turned out to be right. The public did not accept the burden of behavioral changes without promptly trying to break the rules or employ loopholes to avoid them.
Israel, after all, is not China, where a tyrannical regime simply forces the masses to obey its decrees.
Not only that. Israeli society holds chutzpah in higher esteem than many of its Western counterparts. We’re none too fond of standing patiently in line, let alone doing so in an orderly fashion, six feet away from the people ahead, behind or next to us.
Netanyahu may have arrived on the same page as Bar Siman-Tov at a far earlier stage, but he was wise enough to prefer a phased approach, sort of like the frog slowly boiling to death in a pot of initially tepid water. Only in this case, the idea is to keep us alive.