Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the almost wall-to-wall criticism of his rapid capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox on Sunday by arranging an emergency photo op at the Home Front Command’s coronavirus control center. He arrived there Monday afternoon with great pomp and once again looked the nation in the eye.
In recent weeks, Netanyahu has almost completely avoided talking about the coronavirus outbreak, focusing instead on his diplomatic achievements in the Gulf. But Monday’s press conference was all about the virus.
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As usual in situations where the public is getting sticks rather than carrots, Netanyahu used the word “we” frequently. “I” is reserved for better news. Even Defense Minister Benny Gantz was invited to share the spotlight, though he had already visited the center a week ago.
This was a full-blown Netanyahu show. He used Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman’s call to the public not to obey the government’s zigzagging orders to accuse the entire opposition of sowing anarchy and of responsibility for the public’s lack of discipline. He utterly denied having flagrantly capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox when, at the last minute, he canceled the coronavirus chief’s plan to put 10 cities under lockdown (though civil servants say the media’s descriptions were completely accurate). He even repeated the accusations by his son Yair, the crown prince, on Twitter that the anti-Netanyahu protests are a hotbed of infection whose impact is being concealed by an anonymous gang.
He also lavished promises. The contact-tracing system will be “the best of its kind in the world,” and the government will soon hand out another 11 billion shekels ($3.3 billion) to jump-start the economy.
In reality, the contact-tracing system run by the army will be launched two months after its target date of September 1, having been unnecessarily delayed during the lull between the first and second waves of the virus. And the economic pledge merely recycled old promises that haven’t been kept.
What the alternative proposal that may take effect Tuesday evening will include isn’t yet clear. Netanyahu spoke of something “like a lockdown” in four cities, which apparently means restricting movement, closing schools and instituting a curfew.
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But the experts advising the coronavirus coordinator, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, are very skeptical. This castrated plan seems unlikely to achieve anything other than giving the ultra-Orthodox a false sense of equality. A curfew is considered a minor, ineffective step that won’t reduce incidence of the illness and may pave the way for a full lockdown during the Jewish holidays later this month.
The ultra-Orthodox politicians’ holding action against Netanyahu added another 30 towns, most of them Arab, Bedouin and Druze, to the list of those affected by the new restrictions. Dr. Nihaya Daoud, an expert in public health from Ben-Gurion University, said the high incidence of the virus in Arab towns in the second wave, following a low incidence during the first wave, reflects a systemic failure.
Daoud thinks this failure encompasses every aspect of the fight against the virus – testing, contact tracing, quarantining, explaining and enforcing. Some of these failures are directly related to the government’s conduct, she said.
For instance, the contact tracing failure stems in part from a lack of Arabic-speaking contact tracers. “There’s also a problem of addresses in the villages. When someone in Umm al-Fahm explains where he was, a contact tracer sitting in Afula or Hadera doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. There are also people who are embarrassed to be sick, or who concealed information.”
Daoud thinks the latter problem has worsened in recent months. “Many patients are in financial difficulties and can’t afford to miss work for several weeks. Some prefer to take a risk and go to work with mild symptoms, without reporting it or getting tested.”
The crisis of trust with the state worsened during Ramadan, she added. “Under the rules, businesses in these towns were closed at night and residents went shopping in Jewish towns. There was a lot of anger over this. Later, when the wedding season began, people scoffed at the rules. Some convinced themselves that the coronavirus was just a government conspiracy, or a global one.”
She also noted that the expert panel advising the coronavirus cabinet includes no Arabs.
The Swedish model
Over the weekend, some 120 doctors and scientists urged the government not to impose a general lockdown and instead to adopt a modified version of the “Swedish model.” Predictably, their open letter sparked a storm. A rival group of around 150 doctors and scientists, many of whom hold senior hospital positions, assailed the first group for encouraging “widespread coronavirus infection in population groups that aren’t at significant risk of hospitalization.”
Terming this an attempt to create herd immunity, the rival group wrote, “This strategy hasn’t been deliberately tried anywhere in the world, relies on claims that are scientifically and empirically unfounded and even misleading, and is highly likely to lead to disaster.”
The signatories include Dr. Yaron Bar-Lavie, chairman of the Israel Society of Critical Care Medicine; Prof. Amit Segev, director of the cardiology division at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer; and Prof. Jacob Rubinstein, vice president of the Technion.
Some of the first letter’s signatories had previously written articles or given television interviews, but only as isolated individuals rather than as a group. And when the media presented their arguments against the establishment approach, it often focused on the medical idiocy of Prof. Yoram Lass.
But on Monday, some of these signatories were invited to the Knesset’s coronavirus committee, which was happy to recruit them to committee chairwoman (and Likud member) Yifat Shasha-Biton’s war with the government.
Some of their claims are controversial. Their estimate that only 0.1 percent of coronavirus patients actually die is much lower than other estimates. Their claim that only about 20 percent of the population will ultimately be infected is also vigorously disputed.
Nevertheless, the signatories achieved two important goals. First, there’s now a lively public debate over the medical establishment’s assertions. Second, lockdowns are no longer seen as a decree of fate that people must accept obediently without demanding explanations from the government.