Late by a critical few weeks, the cabinet approved Monday a number of new, harsh restrictions to combat the coronavirus, closing bars, clubs, banquet halls, gyms and public swimming pools and prohibiting cultural events. In addition, the number of people permitted on buses, in restaurants and in synagogues was severely reduced.
These measures will have far-reaching repercussions for the economy and for the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. They probably could have been avoided had the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not nodded out in May and June, between the victory celebrations for containing the first wave of the pandemic and the outbreak of the second wave.
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The prime minister is a serial worker, putting his all into achieving one main goal until it’s done and ignoring other issues. That, unfortunately, is what happened to him for a month and a half, when he was preoccupied with the ill-conceived notion of annexing parts of the West Bank (that somehow disappeared completely from his latest declarations). Nevertheless, he still found time to badmouth his new political partner Benny Gantz and waging a war of containment against Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.
But as with the establishment of the Public Broadcasting Corporation in 2014, which “got away from him during Operation Protective Edge” in the Gaza Strip, the coronavirus got away from him. The result, however, was much more serious.
Prof, Eli Waxman, the head of the panel of experts advising Israel’s National Security Council on the pandemic, termed the new situation the most dramatic crisis in the history of the state. Even if that’s somewhat of an exaggeration for the sake of waking the government and the public, the ploy seems finally to have worked. He was summoned to the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, where he gave his diagnosis as well as a series of recommendations that had been submitted to Netanyahu and his cabinet in early May, only to languish, presumably, in some dark and dusty desk drawer, never seeing the light of day.
Netanyahu certainly woke up. He recently returned to invest all his energy in fighting the coronavirus, in addition to probably devoting numerous hours to the rising tensions with Iran. His public statements are once again grim and pessimistic. What they and the remarks by cabinet ministers and their deputies lack is an iota of regret or admission of responsibility for mistakes that were made: the unbridled race to reopen the economy in general, and in particular the green light that was given to large weddings and the like in indoor venues, that became intergenerational infection hot spots.
Back in the day, when the world beat a path to learn from us, the victory over the coronavirus had one father: Netanyahu. But now that Israel’s rate of new confirmed infections is approaching that of the United States, it’s the fault of the disobedient residents, not the fault of the prime minister who in May called on them, smiling from ear to ear, to “go and enjoy yourselves.”
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After the recommendations were long ignored, some progress has been made in hiring people to break the chain of infection, together with the army’s promise to provide 300 soldiers to assist with the epidemiological investigations – an offer the Israel Defense Forces made in March and that the Health Ministry turned down. Waxman offered to return as head of the army’s control center for the crisis. In effect, this offer calls for reassigning most of the practical authority over handling the pandemic from the Health Ministry to the defense establishment.
It won’t happen, presumably because Netanyahu doesn’t want to cede control to Gantz, his defense minister. The military’s fitness for such a big operation can be argued. What is clear is that IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who himself was quick to hand out the coronavirus medals to his forces and be done with the affair in May, will have to return to dealing with the pandemic at full steam. He will have to make the military’s capabilities available to the state: nearly unlimited human and logistical resources, relative to those of the government ministries.
Let’s revisit the epidemiological tracking system, since that is the critical issue. At the currently identified rate of new infections, almost one thousand a day, this system is in any case irrelevant, totally missing its purpose. Lawmaker Naftali Bennett of Yamina, who is turning out to be an independent and vigorous voice throughout the crisis, has conducted a private investigation in recent days on the functioning of these epidemiological investigations. The conclusions are worrisome. Whereas European countries mobilized thousands of researchers, conducting conversations lasting two hours or more with every identified carrier of the virus in order to reconstruct the chain of infection, the picture in Israel is completely different.
Bennett talked to people who are part of the investigative process, as well as with infected people who sent him recordings of conversations in which they were questioned by public health nurses, who are exhausted due to the intolerable burden under which they labor. The talks lasted 25 minutes on average, with results recorded on paper and then transferred for typing, something which was typically completed only after 24 hours. They relied only on the memory of the infected person, who is often worried about the disease or embarrassed by the reconstruction of some of his or her meetings, concerned about imposing quarantine on people he or she were in contact with. The worst thing is that responsibility for notifying the circle of contacts is given to the infected person. The state has no time for that.
This blends in with assigning the Shin Bet security service with tracking cellphones of confirmed patients, which Netanyahu fought for a month to reinstate. Since it was resumed earlier this week, hundreds of citizens who were ordered into quarantine, have complained that they were at home at the time in question and were not in contact with anyone. In addition, they were unable to find someone in order to appeal the order to go into quarantine, since the Health Ministry’s call centers were imploding.
Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman knew very well why he doesn’t want his security service to take on the mission. The terrifying “instrument,” the Shin Bet’s tracking system, is simply not built for such a mission and for such a scope.
When the Shin Bet is looking for a definitive suspect in Nablus, it doesn’t rely on a single cellular signal, but rather on an extensive network of useful intelligence, employing methods that have been developed continuously over the past 20 years. And even so, there were many identification errors in the West Bank. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of messages ordering citizens to self-quarantine at home are sent daily, with some of them erroneous, confusing apartments, floors and even buildings.
Moreover, there is no correlation between the epidemiological investigations and the tracking data. The information gathered by the Shin Bet is not provided at all to the nurses interviewing patients, and therefore it is impossible to make use of it in order to retrace where they were and with whom they met.
All these facts were already known two months ago, when Bennett, the team headed by Waxman and other teams of experts submitted detailed recommendations to the government regarding the establishment of a special investigatory body to facilitate rapid epidemiologic investigations. Nothing was done. Health Ministry officials dragged out the process, the ministers and ministerial directors were replaced, and the government fell asleep on its watch.
And now, a new lockdown might be imposed to prevent the healthcare system from collapsing. Only afterward operating an effective epidemiological system would be possible, if we return to a level of dozens of new cases a day like in the good old days of mid-May. That would be a disastrous outcome for the economy.
This farce also creates complete disbelief among the public. Those wrongfully ordered by the Shin Bet to enter quarantine won’t hurry to obey. Even those who should be in quarantine are liable to violate it, be it due to financial pressure or a feeling that anyway the state’s efforts are failing. It’s no wonder that many people in recent days have preferred to leave their homes for errands and meetings without their cellphones to avoid quarantine.
Netanyahu and his cabinet haven’t provided any explanation for these mishaps, which occurred due to months of apathy and neglect. In contrast, on Monday the prime minister and the government dedicated all their attention to one matter – passing an emergency bill allowing the government to circumvent the Knesset while they impose new restrictions on the public.