Israel Needs a Coronavirus Czar, but the Government Fails on This One, Too

The prime minister claims he supports appointing a coronavirus project manager, while his confidants say there's no need for it, probably because they consider Netanyahu a born manager

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A man wearing a face mask walks toward police officers in Jerusalem, July 9, 2020.
A man wearing a face mask walks toward police officers in Jerusalem, July 9, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The government’s ongoing failure to appoint a project manager for the fight against the coronavirus is an indication of the gravity of Israel’s present failure to deal with the pandemic.

In recent days there have been feverish contacts with Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa to convince him to accept the job. But the Health Ministry (and apparently Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well) is looking for someone to manage the operations room for them, not to head the entire campaign. Numa has decided to waive the honor.

LISTEN: Protests, pandemics and Netanyahu's day of reckoningCredit: Haaretz

Numa is one of the main candidates for the job of head of the national control center for the fight against the virus. He has excelled in a long series of senior positions in the Israel Defense Forces, is very interested in assisting this mission and, what may be most important to Netanyahu, he has no political aspirations.

During the first wave of the coronavirus, Numa successfully coordinated the handling of the situation in Bnei Brak. Now too he is helping the city; recently at his initiative a special rabbinical court was established there, that orders the temporary closure of yeshivas where illness erupted, due to their violation of safety directives to students. Numa is familiar with the coronavirus from trench warfare, rather than from war rooms.

But he also has an orderly worldview regarding what is necessary for success in dealing with the coronavirus. Numa believes the crisis is not only a health issue, but a multi-dimensional national event. The government must appoint a project manager to handle it.

Central Command chief Roni Numa, photographed in 2015
Central Command chief Roni Numa, photographed in 2015Credit: Olivia Fitussi

Such a person would head a national emergency headquarters subordinate to the prime minister, and coordinate activity of the directors general of the ministries, with the National Security Council at their side and the Health Ministry retaining medical authority in the crisis.

That’s a far cry from what’s happening now, when the Health Ministry, which is basically a regulatory body, is preoccupied with the daily management and the NSC sends inspection teams into the field instead of focusing on outlining the alternatives available to the government.

The man who suggested turning to Numa is the new director general of the Health Ministry, Chezy Levy. The two know and admire each other from the time they served together in the Israel Defense Forces (Levy was chief medical officer), but apparently Levy understands Numa’s role primarily as one to open the blockages in the bureaucratic pipeline.

Levy prefers to keep most of the powers in his own hands, as was the case during the tenure of his predecessor, Moshe Bar Siman Tov. The problem is that Israel had more luck than brains during the first wave of the coronavirus, and those improvisations won’t suffice to extricate ourselves from the second wave.

The one who was supposed to get into the thick of things now is Netanyahu. Last week his bureau claimed that the prime minister actually supports the appointment of a coronavirus czar. But almost in the same breath his confidants said there is no need for one, probably because they consider Netanyahu a born manager. But this same exceptional person is still in his summer swoon regarding the fight against the coronavirus, despite his daily promises that he is working around the clock for us, the citizens.

Director General of the Health Ministry, Chezy Levy on July 13, 2020.
Director General of the Health Ministry, Chezy Levy on July 13, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

What’s needed now, according to most experts, is not the sophistication of rocket scientists. The government must bring order into the structure of the apparatus for handling the coronavirus, to finally establish the system for breaking the chain of contagion and ensure an efficient flow of information about the illness, in the hope that the restrictions has already imposed on the economy can halt the pace of the virus’ spread.

None of that is happening, and in the end we will slide back into a full lockdown, with the excuse that the virus is out of control, resulting in greater economic devastation.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, head of the Institute for National Security Studies, reflected prevailing opinion when he tweeted, “The government’s failure in the coronavirus crisis has the dimensions of a national failure. Now there is already a need for a state commission of inquiry.”

Others are comparing the government’s dysfunction to our most traumatic historical failure, the Yom Kippur War. Above everything hovers the lack of public confidence in the government’s steps. In such an atmosphere, it’s no wonder a regional radio station announced Monday it will launch a weekly program presented by Prof. Yoram Lass, the national “pandemic denier.”

This is happening when European countries like Austria are doing a much better job of dealing with the coronavirus. In about four months it will be winter, when there is a worldwide fear of more widespread illness, mainly due to the anticipated overlap between the coronavirus with the seasonal flu virus. The Israeli government has not even begun to discuss this; it is preoccupied with the question of how to stop the present wave.

The situation is not desperate, though. The population is young relative to that of European countries, and thus less likely to die from the virus. Medical teams here function on a high level, despite years in which the budgetary order or priorities pushed the health care system to the bottom. But what we are watching is a train wreck in slow motion, which probably could have been prevented with the help of greater government involvement and a clear chain of command.