Ethiopian Blood Affair in Knesset a Political Ambush

The refusal of blood donations from specific groups happens every day, far from the news cameras and without shocking a single cabinet minister.

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

There should be no doubt: MK Pnina Tamano-Shata was neither naive nor surprised when she was turned away from a Knesset blood drive on Wednesday because she was born in Ethiopia. Her actions were intentional, calculated to increase awareness of an issue she has been fighting for years.

She not only fully knows the restrictions on giving blood, she also discussed them with Health Minister Yael German at least twice in the past few months. And if this were not enough, Tamano-Shata was a reporter before she was elected to the Knesset. She knows a good image, an attention-getting story, when she sees one.

This was a planned ambush. And it succeeded, putting the issue at the top of the news cycle for perhaps the first time since the story of the dumping of blood donated by Ethiopian immigrants broke in 1996.

But the legislator from Yesh Atid did something else as well, no less important. She exposed the hypocrisy of our elected officials, possibly unwittingly: Throughout the evening on Wednesday, politicians competed in issuing “shocked” press releases.

The staff of the Magen David Adom blood drive was asked to leave the Knesset in a well-publicized move. In other words, they were kicked out. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, the chairman of Yesh Atid, went even further. Writing on Facebook, of course, he promised, “Whoever needs to be fired, will be fired.”

The uniform and numerous reactions of the politicians raise sad questions about the honesty of their shock, and their degree of comprehension. It seems that in the “new politics,” only an event that was made public really happened. But once it is, it becomes a burning issue worthy of urgent Knesset meetings.

But this “event” — the refusal of blood donations from specific groups because of the risk they supposedly pose — happens every day, far from the news cameras and without shocking a single cabinet minister. It happens as the result of complying with the recommendations of epidemiologists and experts in public health. These guidelines were not motivated by racism or prejudice, but rather based on public health models that calculate the risk of infection with HIV and hepatitis B, which are more prevalent in men who have sex with men and people from certain African states.

They also apply to people who spent more than six months in England between 1980 and 1996, and therefore more likely to be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. The unpleasant consequences of protecting public health are borne by entire groups in the population.

Ironically, the first decision that German made after being appointed health minister, earlier this year, was to reevaluate these guidelines, and an announcement of certain relaxations is expected soon.

But a total solution to these difficult problems is unlikely. Even throwing more money at them won’t help: Every blood donation is already tested, at great expense and effort, for infectious diseases. When politicians crassly interfere in such complex professional and ethical decisions, the result is a discussion with the headline, “Who should be fired.”

I wonder who Lapid really wants to fire: the paramedic who followed instructions, or the health minister from his own party, whose first decision was to reexamine these instructions? It’s hard to say whether the responses of Lapid and his cabinet colleagues are funny, or simply sad. One thing they’re not is serious.

MK Pnina Tamano-Shata.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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