Israel's 'Coronavirus Cabinet' Faces a Tough Dilemma – and Public Disobedience

Economic pressure on one hand, fears of renewed outbreak on the other ■ Israelis may not take kindly to a new lockdown ■ Has Netanyahu lost interest in the pandemic?

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Newly appointed Health Minister Yuli Edelstein in Jerusalem, May 17, 2020.
Newly appointed Health Minister Yuli Edelstein in Jerusalem, May 17, 2020. Credit: Israel's Health Ministry

It’s hard to shake the impression that Israel has lost its direction in the battle against the coronavirus. The past three weeks have seen a significant, almost continual, rise in the daily number of newly infected people. The true severity of the phenomenon is not yet known. It’s also a contentious issue: The majority of the newly sick are young, some are asymptomatic, and the surge in the numbers is also related to the increase in the number of tests. It will take another few days before we know whether these data will be translated directly into a genuine increase in the number of those hospitalized, the number of seriously ill and the number of those on ventilators – which are the important indices for estimating the spread of COVID-19 in Israel.

The coronavirus cabinet, which was established as part of the new unity government, has to navigate between the pressures of the economy and the fears of a new eruption of the virus. The ever louder outcry of the self-employed and the unemployed reflects a true difficulty among a growing population that needs governmental intervention to return to making a livelihood. But the cabinet’s recent behavior does not reflect systematic thought; what we’re seeing is improvisation, power struggles between pressure groups and a vague hope for better times ahead.

At the outset of the crisis Israel adopted a very clear policy. One can argue about whether it was exaggerated, and it’s important to take note of harmful hitches (above all the continued flights from the United States, which “imported” into Israel a large number of Haredim who were sick). However, the state imposed a lockdown, which in the opinion of many of the experts helped saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. Later, when the scale of the morbidity diminished, an exit strategy was devised. The trouble is that the strategy was implemented hastily, without a patient hand at the wheel.

Home Front Command officer directing arrivals at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, April 14, 2020.
Home Front Command officer directing arrivals at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, April 14, 2020. Credit: Meged Gozani

The number of sick young people is not in itself disturbing, because it’s unlikely that their condition will worsen and that they will need hospitalization. The question is what’s happening in the second circle, around them, notably the older family members. It was essential to reopen the kindergartens and schools, because otherwise young parents would not have been able to return to work. Most studies also show that young children are less likely to become infected and to infect others. But it quickly became apparent that some of the crowded middle and high school classes, where there was no division into “learning capsules,” had become infectious hothouses.

At times it looks as though the new education minister, Yoav Gallant, a retired major general, is treating the teachers and pupils like soldiers in a campaign against the coronavirus, in which you’re not allowed to retreat even one centimeter from the frontline. That is a mistake. School is in any case not effective in the second half of June. The unnecessary wrangling with the high-school teachers’ union, in the hope of forcing nine more days of work on them, will be of no benefit to the students. What it will do is heighten the risk of infection.

In the meantime, the epidemiological investigations being undertaken in the regional health bureaus seem to be collapsing under the load. The Health Ministry is not reinforcing them properly, and at the same time is also restricting the work of the external contact tracing team, which was established at considerable expense during the epidemic. The laboratories are also finding it difficult to meet the required rate of analysis, given the increase in the number of daily tests.

Students study while wearing face masks at Ziv High School in Jerusalem, June 4, 2020
Students study while wearing face masks at Ziv High School in Jerusalem, June 4, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

On Wednesday, the coronavirus cabinet, which heard gloomy forecasts from the Health Ministry about the rising morbidity, decided to remove more restrictions: the trains will start running again, and cultural events with an audience of up to 250 people may be held. A similar easing was earlier applied to banquet halls. The Israeli leadership seems to have given up. At most, it’s relying on preaching to the public and extending enforcement of the emergency regulations, in the hope that the spread of the virus will somehow be contained. But it has no idea whether and how that will actually happen.

There will be no lockdown in the near future, unless there is a dramatic rise in mortality. The economic distress is simply too acute, and the government will not take the chance of issuing decrees that the public cannot obey. If, nonetheless, a lockdown is decided on, that might be the first time we will see a civil revolt against the directives since the epidemic erupted.

Ripple effect

Prof. Dov Schwartz is a member of an interdisciplinary team of experts at the Aaron Institute of Economic Policy in the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, which is monitoring the development of the disease. He told Haaretz that at the height of the epidemic Israel made a decision to act in coordination with Austria, a country with a population of a similar size where the morbidity resembled that in Israel. Austria also had another advantage for Israel: The rate of the virus’ spread there regularly preceded Israel by about 10 days, so it was possible to learn from its experience.

Austria articulated a detailed, orderly plan for exiting the lockdown, but Israel decided to hasten the transition between the exit stages, instead of waiting two weeks in each case (the time frame for identifying a rise in morbidity) before proceeding to the next stage. According to Schwartz, when Austria discerned an increase in morbidity after opening the stores and malls, in mid-May, it halted the planned reopening of the high schools.

Israel behaved differently. On May 17, studies resumed in the upper grades of the high schools. At the same time, the learning capsules method, in which pupils are separated, was abandoned in the lower grades. The results were visible at the end of May. At the beginning of June, Schwartz says, the effective infection coefficient – the average number of people each sick person will infect – rose to an exceptionally high 2.5, though since then it has actually fallen, to 1.5 approximately. The decline was caused not by governmental measures but by the public’s behavior.

People at the beach in Tel Aviv, May 30, 2020.
People at the beach in Tel Aviv, May 30, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

“The parents, the principals, the mayors grasped what was happening and allowed middle school and high school students to stay home,” Schwartz explains. “Many localities even shut down schools at their own initiative. The attendance and the crowding in the classrooms decreased, and the rate of infection declined commensurately. The Austrians spared themselves a similar development, because they stopped in time. But we insisted on getting ahead of them, instead of following them and learning from their experience.”

Despite the latest developments, Schwartz is not yet talking in terms of a second wave in Israel. “At the height of the disease, in March, the number of newly infected people doubled about every three days,” he says. “That created an exponential morbidity curve. The doubling rate now is more moderate, about nine days. At the moment, it still looks more like a ripple from the first wave than like the onset of second wave. It is still susceptible to restraint, if Israel behaves more cautiously, takes steps to prevent mass gatherings and stays in daily touch with the Austrians.”

This week, too, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the coronavirus cabinet, said very little publicly about the virus and its implications. There were no night press conferences, only a short declaration Thursday: “We have concluded with the opening of the economy; we need to flatten the curve again.” There’s no escaping the conclusion that Netanyahu has lost something of his interest in the coronavirus at this time. Perhaps his critics were right: When a prime minister has to conduct a complex defense in a trial involving charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, the urgent matters of state are lower in the order of priorities.

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