After more than a week of deliberations, the new regulations that took effect on Wednesday evening have moved Israel into an almost complete closure. Almost at the same time, there were pictures of policemen urging residents to leave parks in Tel Aviv, London and Delhi. Israel, which is also in the throes of an unprecedented constitutional crisis in which the prime minister is undermining the High Court of Justice while trying to paralyze the Knesset, is now lining up with many countries around the world, taking harsh preventive steps in an attempt to stanch the coronavirus outbreak.
In the Italian scenario, which is mentioned in every discussion held in Israel, the spread of the virus led to the flooding of intensive care units with high numbers of elderly patients who are more vulnerable to the virus, which in turn led to the collapse of hospitals in Italy’s northern region.
However, the numbers in Israel are radically different so far. The number of people tested and identified as sick has exceeded 2,000, but the number of seriously ill people stands at 37, with five fatalities. The incidence of mortality and serious illness is still relatively low, allowing a reasonable management of the disease by hospitals.
This is apparently connected to the lower average age of Israeli patients. The population of Israel is younger than that of most Western European countries, but there is something else at play: the rules for social distancing and the recommendation that elderly people stay at home were given more than a week ago. There are difficulties in emphasizing the importance of these rules and in abiding by them among certain specific sectors (the ultra-Orthodox, the Arab population, and poor people living in overcrowded conditions), but it’s already clear that the compliance of a big portion of the population has saved lives and impeded the rate of infection.
However, fears of an Italian pattern, in which Spain already finds itself, with Britain, France and the United States possibly following suit, dictated the toughening of rules here. In the meantime, Israel may pay a price for its sluggish preparations in other areas, with shortages in vital protective gear for medical teams, respirators and coronavirus testing.
The defense establishment has set up the equivalent of a war room, after the Health Ministry agreed to transfer to it the responsibility for acquiring this material overseas. However, Israel is competing in a wild global market, in which large, spendthrift players such as the U.S. and the Gulf States are beating it, as they are willing to pay any price for the needed equipment. In many cases, Israeli agents have found that deals that were agreed on were broken, with the equipment sold to others.
Israel has 3,000 respirators at its disposal, with half of these currently in use. Now there is a search for more machines everywhere, in the hope that the number of them available grows before the anticipated surge in the number of patients. The defense establishment has several hundred respirators, with efforts now underway to bring these into use. A few more may be collected from unknown sources abroad, but there is no way yet of producing these locally.
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Again, there is no way not to mention the failure in conducting tests. Other than those in the Health Ministry, everyone in the field has concluded that this failure is no less than scandalous. Israel’s excellent scientific community is ready to assist with a challenge that professionally is a simple one, something any Ph.D. student could help with. But the foot-dragging continues.
On Wednesday, 5,000 tests were conducted in Israel for the detection of coronavirus. That number will grow somewhat in the coming days, but there are no preparations underway for conducting tens of thousands of tests, as demanded by some of the people involved in formulating policies. Tests could also help in identifying infection hot spots, and in determining who in a given population has already contracted the virus and gotten better without exhibiting symptoms. This has not been done.
A daily mass of tests would allow, for example, better monitoring of the exposure of medical teams to the virus. Some 3,000 medical workers are in quarantine now as a result of contact with patients. The main point is that if we’re entering a closure for several weeks, the decision on how to emerge from it, and in which regions and parts of the economy to allow a return to work, depends on these tests, which so far are anything but comprehensive.
In preparation for imposing the closure, details of the doomsday scenario presented by the Health Ministry to cabinet members were leaked to Channel 12 News on Tuesday: 1 million people falling ill by the end of April, with 10,000 fatalities. Netanyahu upgraded this scenario on Wednesday: If the current rate of infection continues, he told cabinet ministers, within two weeks hospitals may find themselves having to decide whom to put on respirators and whom not to.
However, participants in those discussions told Haaretz that the state is not working based on a scenario that obligates all its ministries. The Health Ministry and Netanyahu present the most pessimistic estimates, but in contrast to national security emergencies, there is no work being done that’s based on anticipated numbers.
A government source said that “in such events you have to hear all sides, the treasury has to prepare its own forecast, as do the Health Ministry and National Security Council, which have to get ready for another possible development. So far there is no single cohesive approach, so no one is speaking the same language.
“Decisions are ultimately made by two people, Netanyahu and the director-general of the Health Ministry, Moshe Bar Siman Tov,” the source continued. “For many years, Netanyahu talked about Iran in the same vein. There are other opinions, but no one is interested in hearing them since they don’t fit the prevailing conception.”