Analysis

Israel Loosens Coronavirus Lockdown as Doubts About Netanyahu's Policy Widen

The steady improvement in the coronavirus casualty numbers is stoking the debate on the economic cost of the aggressive lockdown and how it served the prime minister

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Security forces enforcing the coronavirus lockdown in Beit Shemesh, April 26, 2020.
Security forces enforcing the coronavirus lockdown in Beit Shemesh, April 26, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The significant slowdown in the pace of new coronavirus infections in Israel has ignited the debate: Does the relatively low number of deaths and critically ill and intubated patients here compared to other Western countries reflect the success of the lockdowns and restrictions? Or does it show that the panic was unjustified and that lighter restrictions could have been imposed without crushing the Israeli economy?

And what can we learn from this about the proper pace for relaxing restrictions in the future? That is, how much of a risk can we take?

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It seems that the line represented in the broadcast studios by Prof. Yoram Lass – and in a more moderate form by Prof. Eitan Friedman of Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer – is increasingly winning support. Three aspects are key: the sweeping ban on leaving home imposed on Israelis 67 or older, concerns about the economy, and in many cases deep suspicions about the purity of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s motives.

While those who support Netanyahu’s management of the crisis believe that the early lockdown prevented hundreds if not thousands of deaths, opponents say the doomsday scenarios presented by the Health Ministry since the start of the crisis served Netanyahu in two ways. They helped him impose on Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan a governing coalition that was convenient for Netanyahu, and they helped him delay the opening of his corruption trial.

'Black Flag' protest at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv against Netanyahu serving as prime minister while he's a criminal suspect, April 25, 2020.
'Black Flag' protest at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv against Netanyahu serving as prime minister while he's a criminal suspect, April 25, 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Testing troubles

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry on Saturday night issued a more organized exit strategy. The ministry, with what looks like a lack of enthusiasm, is falling into line with the pressure and is expressing support for a relaxing of the restrictions in short order on condition that the number of new patients doesn’t exceed 300 daily and the number of patients in serious condition doesn’t exceed 300. (As of Sunday the number was well less than half that.)

In another critical area, the rate of daily testing, a breakthrough could be in the offing after an agreement was signed with a Chinese company to enable 30,000 tests a day within a month.

The Achilles’ heel of this process is the time it takes to process the tests. The Health Ministry isn’t releasing data, but sources familiar with the issue believe that it still takes three to four days, not 24 to 36 hours, the goal for effectively analyzing the chains of infection and locating and isolating new patients.

There are several reasons for this unreasonable delay. To begin with, the computer systems still aren’t being updated automatically, and the tests are dispersed among a large number of labs. Also, there is still no system to centralize the analyses; there’s a mismatch between the different types of test kits and the analysis methods, and the tests aren’t being optimally routed to the labs.

The director general of the Health Ministry, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, told Army Radio on Sunday that “within days” there will be a system to reduce the time it takes to analyze the tests. He said the Sayeret Matkal special operations unit and Air Force officers are helping his people in this regard.

Actually, what had been presented as a crucial condition for implementing an exit strategy has been pushed aside given the economic turmoil. We have to hope that all these issues will be resolved soon.

Better in Bnei Brak

In Bnei Brak on Sunday there was a passing of the baton. Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa, the head of the city’s emergency coronavirus task force since March 30, handed responsibility back to the municipality that had summoned him to help when the virus was spreading through the city.

The outside intervention was deemed a success. The joint effort by the Home Front Command, the municipality, Numa and the volunteers who came with him has halted the speed of the virus’ spread in that ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb, at least for now.

As of Sunday there had been 2,693 cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in the city, of whom 18 died. There have been 1,017 recoveries. Some 80 people are still hospitalized, more than 800 are staying in hotels and around 750 are recovering at home. More than half of the latter have already had one negative coronavirus test, meaning they’re en route to recovery. (A person is declared recovered only after two negative tests.)

Residents of Bnei Brak, a largely ultra-Orthodox city, which was badly hit by the coronavirus, April 2020.
Residents of Bnei Brak, a largely ultra-Orthodox city, which was badly hit by the coronavirus, April 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

At the beginning of the crisis only a few dozen coronavirus tests were conducted in the city daily. Now the average is 500. One of the main difficulties at the start was the refusal of many patients to leave their homes. But over the past month more than a thousand residents have gone to the so-called coronavirus hotels, and some of them have already recovered.

The number of people declared recovered on Sunday was 142, exceeding for the first time the number of new coronavirus cases, 62. The city leads the country in the number of cases per 100,000 people, but the number of deaths has been fewer than was feared, apparently because of the city’s relatively young population.

Unfortunately, a certain lesson still hasn’t been learned from Bnei Brak: The authorities don’t have to treat the entire country the same way. Given the differences in infection between various cities, it seems one could now implement a much more differentiated approach that would allow a much faster relaxation of restrictions in places with fewer infections.

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