Israel’s Coronavirus Strategy Is About Making Life Bearable Until a Vaccine Is Found

The government will focus on limiting gatherings and economic pain. Meanwhile, Israelis aren’t getting a full picture of the rate of infection

Amos Harel
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A passenger travels on the light rail in Jerusalem amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on July 7, 2020.
A passenger travels on the light rail in Jerusalem amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on July 7, 2020.Credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters
Amos Harel

Nathan Eshel, a long-time close associate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, explained to reporters Wednesday that actually, it's all the Israeli public's fault.

LISTEN: Bibi's bonanza, arresting activists and the death of God TVCredit: Haaretz

The government, he claimed, is not responsible for its undisciplined citizens. If they would only comply with the Health Ministry’s directives, we wouldn’t currently be facing a second wave of the coronavirus. 

“And now we are all going to pay the economic and personal price,” Eshel said in one of his frequent briefings, which some media people regularly repeat without naming their source. This time at least, it was Channel 12 News staffers who presented the remarks as they were. 

Other people with better access to official decision-making are focusing on a change in attendance policy for event venues as the reason for the current COVID-19 outbreak. On June 14, approval was given for events of up to 250 people.

On that date, there were 136 new confirmed patients. At the beginning of July, the daily figure exceeded 900 and over the past 24 hours, there were more than 1,300 new cases (even if more of the patients, as usual of late, were relatively young and had mild symptoms or none at all).

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The government and the Health Ministry don’t have accurate information, or even a good estimate, of the rate of infection at weddings and other celebrations, but there are increasing reports that event halls might have worked as petri dishes of infection. It’s clear that something very Israeli and very unexpected happened here. 

Bride, Osnat Baron, and groom, Yaniv Jenger, kiss during their wedding party with a limited number of guests in a private house garden in Jerusalem, April 27, 2020.
Bride, Osnat Baron, and groom, Yaniv Jenger, kiss during their wedding party with a limited number of guests in a private house garden in Jerusalem, April 27, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

In many cases, the venues and the happy couples conspired to get around the health directives. Events attended by 750 or even 1,000 people were held by dividing up a facility into three or four purportedly separate spaces. Guests were asked not to cross the lines dividing the spaces, but no one enforced the separation, just as no one asked the guests to be meticulous about wearing face masks.

The combination of dancing, food, drink, hugs and kisses to mark the happy occasion ensured without a doubt that the conoravirus would rise again, both among different age groups at the event, and among guests who went back to their neighborhoods and workplaces, spreading the virus around the country.

There are now small coronavirus fires burning at a distance from one another. The merrymaking has pushed up the rate of infection, which down the road may also result in increased deaths. In other words, a wedding and many funerals.

Weddings have been branded by the government and the Health Ministry as a public enemy. This week it was decided to again limit attendance at weddings. It looks like the period of the coronavirus pandemic will have to be totally over before weddings can again be held as they were in the past, with large crowds.

Events workers stand under Jewish wedding canopies colored black to protest the economic cost of coronavirus restrictions Tel Aviv, May 7, 2020.
Events workers stand under Jewish wedding canopies colored black to protest the economic cost of coronavirus restrictions Tel Aviv, May 7, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Other indoor events and schools have also turned out to be infection hot spots, although when it comes to educational institutions, the number of those infected isn’t particularly large
compared to the huge number of students. Still, the data on the subject is not complete or detailed.

The same can be said for the controversy that erupted Tuesday over the claim that in some hospitals, the criteria by which COVID-19 patients are deemed seriously ill have changed (which allegedly explains the increase in the number of seriously ill patients). 

It has been quite some time since the ages of patients who have died of the virus were released. What is their average age? How many had serious underlying conditions? Such figures are not made public on a regular basis and are not even provided to independent research institutions outside the health care system.

At recent emergency meetings of the special interministerial coronavirus cabinet, and at full government meetings, an approach, a purpose and a goal were spelled out. The approach is to deal with the individual outbreaks of infection and to limit people from congregating, while at the same time trying to limit the economic damage as much as possible. The purpose is to permit a reasonable routine to continue during the pandemic until a vaccine is developed. The goal is to again lower the rate of infection below 100 new cases per day. 

The deliberations did not include consideration of a possible immediate lockdown. At the moment, the thinking is that it’s still possible to gradually achieve the goal with the new limitations that have been imposed, and that there is still time. Unfortunately, as is usually the case with this virus, the results of any policy step are only apparent about two weeks down the line.

It’s possible that the scope of infections and the patient load at the hospitals will increase in the interim – and that the government will again shift to a full lockdown. That could be a death blow to many businesses and even entire economic sectors, and it’s very hard to predict how the public would react. Would they follow the directives, given the lack of trust  the public has shown in the leadership?

A check-point set up over the coronavirus pandemic in the northern Israeli city of Tiberias, on April 18, 2020.
A check-point set up over the coronavirus pandemic in the northern Israeli city of Tiberias, on April 18, 2020. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Searching for a corona czar

While cabinet ministers debate the minute details of every limitation and ponder which towns should be placed under lockdown, they are overlooking the most urgent matter: Breaking the chain of infection.

Entirely ignoring every professional advisers saying that this issue should be urgently dealt with as the first wave waned helped fuel the sharp rise in infections we are now seeing.

Successfully getting off this crazy seesaw, perhaps without a total shutdown, requires improvements to the system of epidemiological investigations. 

Health Ministry director general Chezy Levy has interviewed several candidates over the past several days to head a new national coronavirus control center, which is due to bring together the collection and analysis of data, coronavirus testing and the epidemiological investigations. Although the Prime Minister’s Office expressed support a few days ago for the appointment of a coronavirus czar, it now appears that whoever is appointed could have their wings clipped. 

Levy, who was in the Israeli army for many years, is well aware of the military rule that there is no authority without responsibility. It is only by giving the head of the control center broad authority, along with the proper resources, that we can get out of our current predicament. 

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin during a visit to the southern Israeli city of Eilat, whose tourism sector was badly hit by the pandemic, on July 6, 2020.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin during a visit to the southern Israeli city of Eilat, whose tourism sector was badly hit by the pandemic, on July 6, 2020.Credit: Mark Neiman / GPO

The person who as usual says what needs to be said when the government is beating around the bush is President Reuven Rivlin.

In a speech Wednesday, he said the country has still not developed a clear, coherent combat doctrine against this virus. We don’t have a single entity, he said, that is coordinating the knowhow, the battle and what he described as “the dialogue with the public.”

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