Historian Yuval Noah Harari said recently that the world’s learning curve when it comes to the coronavirus is the fastest in history. Experts from multiple fields are taking part in the feverish project: Physicians and economists, entrepreneurs and statisticians – all are part of the massive international effort to cope with the crisis.
Even before coronavirus appeared, there were epidemiologists and health-care policy planners who knew that such an epidemic would strike, and amid serious competition over resources and over the attention of decision makers, they tried to prepare. Now that the pandemic has arrived, hundreds of studies are being published at a rapid pace, and thousands of experts are trying to use them as the basis for solutions that will save lives and rescue economies.
Sooner or later, science will triumph over the virus. For years afterward, scientists will continue to study it, to share information, to make progress – just as scientists have been doing for hundreds of years. This is an international operation. There is no such thing as Chinese physics or Israeli virology.
Still, each country has its own policies. The laws of epidemiology may be universal, but considerations of prioritization and management are unique to every country. One of the justifications for the existence of the nation-state is that different nations will respond differently to identical challenges, while having their particular national conversations.
Where were we before the epidemic? What did we decide to do while it was happening, and why? What were the different opinions from which we chose? Which alternatives were examined, which were not, and why? What price did we pay for our decisions? What prices did we commit to pay to reach which goals? Whose voices did we heed, whose did we ignore, and why?
Every sensible person will agree that after the coronavirus crisis ends, we will look at what we did, what we decided, what options we decided not to pursue, and consider how we ought to deploy next time. But how will we go about that whole process? What data will we collect and analyze?
The sad answer, in Israel at least, is that, while it’s not difficult to know which data are necessary and where they’re found – it won’t be possible to access them. They will be boxed up and hidden from the public.
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The data needed to understand our government’s activities during the epidemic include all the minutes of meetings held under the auspices of the prime minister, as well as all the information that was collected ahead of them; all the minutes of all preparatory meetings and secondary meetings and subsequent meetings, held by every ministry or organization involved in or following the meetings with the prime minister; and all the information gathered in advance of those meetings or generated by them. This includes all data, correspondence, presentations, drafts, proposals, investigatory materials and any other relevant documentation, regardless of its format.
The government of Israel does not make material of this kind available to the country’s citizens. There are stubborn individuals who have learned how to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain some materials, but it’s a lengthy, demanding and sometimes expensive undertaking at the end of which, even if successful, only partial data are received. The authorities who are required to supply information eventually release a necessary minimum, sometimes after editing . When the data finally reaches the applicants, it will usually be formatted so as to be useful only for the precise request. Anyone with adjacent or follow-up questions will probably need to start the process all over again. In any event, no government authority possesses the full picture, only those aspects relevant to its own activities.
Someday the state comptroller will look into the way the epidemic was managed, but will focus on the narrow administrative aspects that are of interest to his office, and will ultimately publish a report that won’t include the raw materials that its conclusions were based upon. Any commission of inquiry that may be established will do the same. The government will decide what questions the commission will address, and it will report to the public only on its conclusions. The data it will collect, and the discussions held to evaluate them, will remain sealed.
There is only one institution that possesses the expertise to oversee a comprehensive collection of all relevant information: the State Archives. It alone is capable of enabling the public to peruse all its data independently, in order to find answers to whatever questions any researchers may have. Yet in the case of government management of the corona-epidemic response, two major problems will prevent the State Archives from making public information. First, it will take a long time to collect all the relevant materials. The second reason for the foot-dragging is that there’s no urgency, because anyway the materials being collected will not be available to the public for many years.
The timetables for release of government materials are: 15 years under seal for standard, non-classified documents; 25 years for discussions on civilian matters involving the prime minister; 30 years for cabinet discussions. Moreover, if intelligence bodies are involved – and according to reports they have been involved, either by tracking people’s movements or by trying to bring in medical supplies from abroad – those documents will be sealed for 90 years or more.
Why the long wait? Four reasons. First, inertia. Simply because that’s how things are done. Second, concern about revealing personal information about private citizens. It’s unlikely that such information comes up at meetings of government leaders, but the mere possibility will paralyze anyone who’s tasked with opening the files.
The third reason for the lengthy concealment is fear the enemy will learn about us and adjust its behavior – a baseless claim when the enemy is a virus. And the fourth reason is “protection of employees against exposure of their work and their conversations.” For Israeli administrators it’s axiomatic that officials and elected representatives will express themselves freely only if they’re assured the public won’t know what they said or thought or did. It’s hard to overstate this matter: Administrators are convinced that their right to hide from the public eye is almost absolute.
The current State Archivist and her staff are capable, technically, of collecting all the necessary information, from all relevant authorities, within a few months. They have the methodology, the tools, the infrastructure and the experience. They also know how to make the material available in a form that would serve the needs of the public.
The rapid release of such information for public perusal does not require amendment of any laws or regulations. Knowing the staff of the State Archives, I am certain that they would be delighted to face the challenge, and would succeed at it. But none of this can happen without a clear public demand – one that would divert the system from its traditional routine onto a completely different track, of serving the public.
A change of approach of this kind could save lives and sustain the economy the next time. It might also create an opening for a substantive cultural shift in the government’s behavior in events that are less extreme than a pandemic.
Dr. Yaacov Lozowick was Israel’s State Archivist from 2011 to 2018.