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Israel Marks Two Weeks of Lockdown With Record Cases, Strained Hospitals and a COVID Czar on His Way Out

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Jerusalem street, September 30, 2020.
A Jerusalem street, September 30, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

This is what Israel looks like as the country marks two weeks since the start of the new lockdown: The sharp rise in the infection rate among the country's ultra-Orthodox population is continuing. Among Israel's Arab population, a trend toward a containment of sorts is discernible, but that may be related to a decline in the readiness of the public there to be tested. Among non-Haredi, non-ultra-Orthodox Jews, there’s stability, and perhaps a slight decline in the daily rate of newly confirmed cases.

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The factor most influencing the tremendous increase in the rate of infection in Israel is the ultra-Orthodox population. Here, too, the phenomenon begins with young carriers, most of them asymptomatic. The first significant surge was recorded at the beginning of August, when the Haredi yeshivas resumed studies. The rise has accelerated in the past two weeks and is expected to show an even greater leap as a result of the combination of the dense crowds in some of the Haredi synagogues on the High Holy Days and during Sukkot, and the mass exodus of yeshiva students heading home for a break at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. In most cases, the yeshiva students violated a prior agreement with the government by going home without first being tested for the coronavirus.

Nevertheless, the director general of the Health Ministry, Prof. Chezy Levy, announced that he would soon consider a resumption of studies at the yeshivas – in spite of his admission that the model that was applied for them “didn’t succeed all that well.” In the meantime, senior Haredi rabbis on Wednesday called on the public to exercise great caution. But the statement was somewhat ambivalent and did not expressly prohibit crowding in synagogues. The events over Sukkot, which begins Friday night, and conclude with Simhat Torah, are liable to develop into another incubator of infection in closed, packed spaces.

Ultra-Orthodox men gather at an outdoor market in Jerusalem to examine and buy the traditional four species in preparation for the Sukkot holiday. Credit: Emil Salman

At the other end of these chains of infections are the elderly and those with underlying illnesses, whose likelihood of contracting COVID-19 in its most serious form is quite high.

This week, too, records were set for the daily number of confirmed carriers. On Wednesday the number approached 9,000, and it’s likely to go higher than 10,000 before starting to fall. At the same time, the daily death rate is also increasing, although still without a significant departure from the rate of mortality among the total number of those infected (about 0.6 percent of confirmed carriers). Not only is Israel leading the world at present in the number of carriers per million population. It is also approaching the top of the list of the number of deaths per million.

Still, it’s important to note that the global mortality rate is currently relatively low and is not approaching the high peaks that were recorded in European countries at the start of the pandemic in March and April. The rate of testing in Israel is also one of the highest in the world, which leads to the identification of a large number of those infected.

Hospitals overloaded

For the first time, voices are being heard in the health system raising the possibility that some of those who have died recently received poorer medical care, because of overburdened hospitals. The past few weeks have also seen a drop in the average age of patients whose condition deteriorates and becomes serious. At the beginning of the week, Israel crossed the threshold of 800 seriously ill patients, which in the past was deemed the hospitals’ “level of incapacity.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that he had directed that the bar be raised to 1,500. That will require the urgent training of a large number of medical teams to treat those patients. Netanyahu did not specify what he intends to do to make that happen, however.

To cope with the load, hospitals are closing internal medicine wards and converting them into coronavirus departments, which require the medical staff to work in heavy, cumbersome gear. With such a large number of carriers, the system of epidemiological investigations, which the army is still expanding, becomes almost irrelevant. Many of those who have been infected report that no one has contacted them, or that they did not receive notification that the Shin Bet security service had tracked their whereabouts through mobile phone data. About 30 percent of those who are contacted refuse to cooperate.

On average, the tracing system is now locating 3.6 “contacts” – people who have been in close proximity with the patient. That very low percentage attests to under-reporting. And the policy regarding the quarantining of those who do come in contact with an infected individual also isn’t working. Among the Haredi and Arab populations in particular, it’s sweepingly ignored.

The “traffic light” plan touted by the national coronavirus project coordinator, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, has effectively been shelved. The consensus in the coronavirus cabinet, as well as in the top ranks of the health system, is that as long as the scale of confirmed incidence of infection nationwide is so high, it is impossible to carry out a plan that differentiates among cities, even if there are large disparities among them in the rates of infection.

It is already clear that Gamzu himself is on the way out. He has been drawing attention to his intention to conclude what he calls his “reserve duty” on November 1, to resume his responsibilities as director of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv.

A coronavirus ward in Beilinson hospital, in central Israel, April 26, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

His relationship with Netanyahu is tense. The prime minister is courting the usual suspects, including two former Health Ministry directors general, Prof. Moshe Bar Siman Tov and Prof. Gabi Barbash, as Gamzu's replacement. Both are probably too smart to fall into that trap. Next time, Netanyahu will look for someone to play the part of the “bad cop,” the tough guy. The “good cop” model, which Gamzu insisted on, with considerable courage, didn’t manage to galvanize the public.

The tumult in the cabinet meeting on Wednesday didn’t exceed what has become its usual level of late. In view of the rise in the incidence of COVID-19, Netanyahu sought to toughen the restrictions imposed during the lockdown. Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Kahol Lavan) objected. Gantz rightly noted that the measures were being toughened without enough time having elapsed to gauge the effects of the current restrictions.

Within a matter of a few weeks, Israel has transitioned from the “traffic light” system to a general lockdown with exceptions for places of employment and then to reduced staffing levels in the private and public sectors, and finally to tough restrictions on movement. In short order, Netanyahu and Gantz found themselves in a shouting match.

Public is fed up

Much of the public’s frustration, which is also reflected in remarks by Kahol Lavan ministers, stems from the dissonance between the absence of enforcement in the Haredi communities, despite the surge of illness there, and the tougher stance being taken toward the general public. The public is being bombarded with restrictions, even though it’s not clear how some of them will contribute to containing the epidemic. So flights abroad have been severely curtailed, for example. A senior official in the Health Ministry explained on Thursday that the decision was made for “reasons of equality.” (The top ranks of the ministry, it turns out, are a wellspring of talent in public spokesmanship.)

On Wednesday, Netanyahu threatened to “take away rights” of people who violate the health guidelines, without making it clear what he meant. The current lockdown was originally planned to last two to three weeks, but in the meantime, it has been extended until October 14 and will clearly continue beyond that date. The prime minister is already talking about a gradual exit that will last for “half a year to a year” (!) before the economy returns to routine.

Police restrain an anti-Netanyahu protester outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, Sept. 29, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The police, too, are contributing, in their own way, to the general mood of depression – by resorting to violence, by getting on the cases of demonstrators for the most minor infractions and by summoning other demonstrators for interrogations of intimidation. The police force’s behavior underscores how dangerous the situation can become when an acting commissioner, Motti Cohen, has been at the helm for such a lengthy period, and when his future depends on the will of the prime minister.

The reports from the demonstrations, and from the nighttime cabinet meetings, are together creating a stifling feeling of dark times. The coronavirus burst into our lives as a pandemic unprecedented in the modern era. But along with that, the comportment of the state, with its failed management and its aggressiveness, is unlike anything that Israelis have experienced in the past.

The leaders of Kahol Lavan are telling themselves that they are the Dutch boy whose finger is stuck in the dike and who is heading off a general collapse. In practice, they (or perhaps all of us) are more like the frog in the pot in which the temperature of the water is going up one degree at a time.

Most of Netanyahu’s efforts are focused on his struggle to end the demonstrations. What began as the spreading of accusations and lies about the protest movement is shifting to practical measures to try to put an end to the protests altogether.

Benny Gantz (L) and Gabi Ashkenazi in the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 7, 2020.Credit: Adina Valman/Knesset

The latest head-on confrontation with Gantz stemmed from Netanyahu’s attempt to decrease the radius within which people are allowed to travel from their homes from 1,000 meters (0.6 miles) to 200 meters – clearly, as everyone at the meeting knew, to quell the demonstrations against the prime minister.

Netanyahu's supporters’ claim – that he believes the demonstrations are actually to his benefit because they place his opponents in a detached, ridiculous light – is inconsistent with the time and energy he’s devoting to the subject. At least someone at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem very much wants them to end.

Netanyahu's pending corruption trial

In the background is Netanyahu’s trial. In the first lockdown, when most of the economy came to a standstill, exceptions were made for the banks, the capital market, high-tech industry and law and accounting firms. In the second lockdown, law firms have been removed from this list of exceptions, other than to carry out “urgent action to preserve the business.” The recess at the courts, which is customary during the early fall Jewish holidays, has been extended for a few days in the meantime.

That’s an interesting coincidence. In the next two months, several deliberations in the Netanyahu trial are scheduled; the most important of them is set for November 15, dealing with the claims of the lawyers for Netanyahu and for the former controlling shareholder of Bezeq Telecommunications, Shaul Elovitch, that they did not receive all the investigative material that they should have. At the moment, the evidentiary stage of the trial itself is due to begin in January.

But the halt to operations at law firms will allow Netanyahu and his lawyers to put forward a new argument: that they did not have time to acquaint themselves with the material and prepare themselves for the court sessions, because their firms were closed. That’s a win-win situation. If the court accepts the argument, the trial could be put off for a few more months, until the spring. And if the court rejects the argument, Netanyahu can go on plying his claim that the judicial system is persecuting him and preventing him from mounting an effective defense.

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