Israel Had the Chance to Eradicate the Coronavirus. But It Knew the Price

Astronomical economic damage and public pressure prevented Israel from marching on the path of New Zealand and Iceland

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Workers disinfecting Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Rehavia high school, where more than 170 students and staff were recently infected with the coronavirus, June 3, 2020.
Workers disinfecting Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Rehavia high school, where more than 170 students and staff were recently infected with the coronavirus, June 3, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel apparently had a chance to eradicate the coronavirus in the way a handful of countries have done, notably New Zealand and Iceland. In the third week of May, the average daily number of newly infected people stood at about 15. The gradual easing of the lockdown had begun on April 19. It’s possible that an extension of the lockdown for a few more weeks, or a more cautious exit strategy, would have produced an achievement similar to that in those two island countries.

But the astronomical economic damage from the lockdown, along with the outcry by the people, put intolerable pressure on the government. Throwing all caution to the wind, the authorities moved rapidly to a broad reopening, including of schools.

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The opening of the preschools and the lower grades didn’t immediately send the number of new cases higher, and reinforced the assessment that young children are rarely infected by the virus. But the number of infections rose when the middle schools and high schools were reopened.

More than 170 students and staff at Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Rehavia high school were infected, but new cases were reported at dozens of  schools. This week the daily new-case average was around 100 – not far from the bar set by the head of the National Security Council that would force a partial lockdown.

On the streets, two different countries are visible. Older people, women and residents of cities outside Tel Aviv usually wear face masks. But younger people, men and Tel Avivians tend to scoff at the directives. Following the Gymnasia episode, schools went back to requiring everyone to wear masks. When the kids leave school, they take off the masks and ignore the social distancing guidelines.

Still, the media panic at the moment seems a bit exaggerated. Most of the new cases discovered are teenagers; there’s little harm as long as they’re quarantined before they infect older people. Experience in Israel and abroad shows that few young children or adolescents require hospitalization, though they can infect others. Coughing teens aren’t clogging the emergency wards.

Since May, there has been no real change in the number of coronavirus patients hospitalized, 100 to 110, or in the number on ventilators, about 30. But the number of schools closed and the number of students in isolation have increased.

The new education minister, Yoav Gallant, declared that a school will be closed only if a person there is infected. Other schools will carry on, in an attempt to somehow complete the school year properly.

In practice, the Education Ministry and the municipalities are leaving the decision to the schools and the parents. Many high schools have moved to a two-shift method; one shift is held remotely. With the Gymnasia episode, the new health minister, Yuli Edelstein, forced a change of policy; now you no longer need a combination of exposure to a confirmed case and the onset of symptoms to request a test. One of the two conditions is sufficient.

The Health Ministry’s previous position was crafted when there was a severe shortage of test kits. The greater number of tests, many of them at schools where new cases have been identified, is stoking the number of confirmed cases, though the percentage of cases among tests remains low, around 1 percent.

As the British economist John Maynard Keynes once put it, “There is nothing a government hates more than to be well-informed; for it makes the process of arriving at decisions much more complicated and difficult.”

This time, though, it was the civil servants at the Health Ministry who took that approach and the minister who forced a different line. Obtaining full information on the spread of the virus and establishing a system to snap the chain of infection are crucial for suppressing the coronavirus. The extensive antibody (serological) testing promised by the Health Ministry for more than a month is only now getting underway.

This week, based on a serological survey by researchers at Tel Aviv University, it was estimated that the percentage of Israelis who have contracted the coronavirus is far higher than previously thought – about 3 percent rather than 0.2 percent, or about 17,000 people. But the sample was small and thus became grist for the spat between coronavirus skeptics and those who believe it’s a frightening danger.

Until the picture becomes clearer, Israel should stop lifting restrictions. In the meantime, the National Security Council is urging that Israel waive the requirement for a two-week self-quarantine for people arriving from a number of countries that will be declared coronavirus-safe. That will be a minor benefit to tourism but risks an uncontrolled outbreak, as happened in March with the flights from New York.

Not a word about any of this was heard this week from the junior partner in the unity government. Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi broke their promise to their voters and hooked up with Benjamin Netanyahu, citing a need to form an emergency government to address the pandemic. But Kahol Lavan has studiously avoided the efforts against the coronavirus. It’s far more congenial to ensure an appallingly expensive security escort for the man declared “the alternative prime minister.”

State of ignorance

The eruption of the virus at Gymnasia Rehavia is also a chance to collect important information, mainly among young people. Who was the first to contract and spread the disease? How did it spread? Will the asymptomatic patients identified in the testing (many of them teenagers) develop symptoms in the days ahead? The logical step would seem to be daily telephone contact with the ill in home quarantine.

But even now, the Health Ministry is in no hurry to collect the information. As far as is known, the ministry isn’t doing testing and follow-up at the Jerusalem high school. Researchers who contacted the school also got a negative answer. This may have to do with an Education Ministry veto, or maybe the teachers’ union is behind it, fearing lawsuits by sick students following reports that the Gymnasia didn’t adhere to the Health Ministry’s directives.

The flawed collection of information on the virus, to the point of intentional blindness on the part of the authorities, has been with us since the outbreak began. Even now, no effort is being made to fix the situation.

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