Former Health Minister Yaakov Litzman chose the day the new government was sworn in to sum up his tenure. Not for introspection of course, but to settle accounts, specifically to stick a serrated knife in the back of his former ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov.
In an interview with the Kan public broadcaster, Litzman explained that the cabinet had panicked in response to the coronavirus, and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had responded to the fears cultivated by the Health Ministry director general. He, Litzman, had yelled during the cabinet meeting that there wouldn’t be 10,000 deaths, “that this was just an exaggeration,” but Netanyahu chose to listen to Bar Siman Tov.
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Litzman’s description of the cabinet meeting at the end of March is accurate, although he is exaggerating the force of his objections. But when reports of the cabinet debate reached journalists at the time, his office categorically denied that this had been his reaction.
The last-minute, public disavowal by the outgoing minister of his own director general is even uglier given the general performance of the former during the crisis. Litzman had basically disappeared from the scene even before he came down with COVID-19 – after deliberately violating the guidelines issued by his ministry – and inadvertently undermined the health of his voters through exemptions he made sure that the ultra-Orthodox were given as the crisis began to unfold.
Moreover, saying such things now constitutes 20/20 hindsight. The team of Bibi (Netanyahu) and Barsi (Bar Siman Tov) may indeed have instituted a stringent policy of minimum risk, which expressed itself in an almost total closure and did untold damage to the economy. But those decisions were made under conditions of extreme uncertainty and great potential danger, as was indeed realized in the United States and some Western European countries. Most Western countries to which Israel tends to compare itself took similar or even more drastic steps. (Sweden was an exception; Britain came to its senses late and is still paying the price for that.) In countries that, like Israel, acted quickly, the virus is in retreat.
Still, it took time until it became clear that in Israel, as in the countries surrounding it, the infection and death rates were considerably lower than in Western Europe. Even now, when the theory that the coronavirus is less contagious in hot weather is gaining some credence, there is no scientific evidence confirming this, because our knowledge of the virus is still partial.
But none of this mitigates the cynical political use Netanyahu made of the pandemic for his own purposes – to delay his corruption trial for two months, to split Kahol Lavan so he could set up a unity government on his terms, despite the stalemate after the third election. But Litzman wasn’t talking about any of that.
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The former health minister is right about one thing: Publishing forecasts of thousands of deaths, and then of 10,000 deaths, was an exaggerated move, as we’ve written here in the past. It wasn’t coincidental, of course. That was how Netanyahu, through Bar Siman Tov, sought to protect himself from a possible future commission of inquiry, by making it clear that he was the first to identify the risk and warn the public.
Time now to prepare for winter
Meanwhile, given the sharp drop in the infection rate (only a handful of new cases are emerging daily over the past few days), the educational system reopened in full on Sunday. The separate “capsules” were abandoned. Instead, pupils were back in their crowded classrooms, with the unrealistic expectation that they would wear masks the whole time, without air conditioning or under the unusual conditions of air conditioners on with the windows open. These guidelines won’t be observed for very long. One must hope that an extreme heat wave really will be enough to prevent another outbreak of the virus.
The break that Israel has gotten could be effectively used to prepare for the possible return of the virus in the winter. The new health minister, Yuli Edelstein, will have to make sure that the health system gets a meaningful boost before then – a continuation of widespread testing even though few people are now coming to the testing stations, speeding up the conduct of serological blood tests to uncover people with antibodies, shortening the time it takes to identify people who were in close contact with confirmed COVID-19 patients, and the training of more teams to operate ventilators.
Medical teams are enjoying the public’s wall-to-wall embrace because of the enormous effort they exerted over the past few months that contributed greatly to the low death rate. But it seems that the results are also a function of the huge amount of resources that were invested in fighting the coronavirus. This is the same health system that almost collapses from the waves of flu every winter, when the TV cameras come to film the elderly woman who must be treated in the hospital corridor for lack of an available bed.
With the work of Sheba Medical Center’s National Center for Fighting the Coronavirus wrapped up, the Israel Defense Forces and Mossad issued a summary report of their work there. The situation described is hardly a compliment to the health system.
The security personnel started their work on March 21, two months after the World Health Organization issued a statement that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus. They found, among other things, a lack of knowledge and disorderly management of procurement, emergency storage rooms nearly empty of protective gear for the medical teams, almost no inventory of drugs and a lack of logistical ability to even take in equipment quickly.
In addition, the report says, there was a lack of material for coronavirus testing and until alternative systems were developed by the army and Mossad, there was no way to formulate a full picture of the spread of the virus in Israel. It turned out that the purchase of ventilators abroad, which was at first described as an urgent national mission, was a complete failure. In the end, fewer than 200 ventilators were purchased, out of the 11,000 for which Israel had signed contracts. Since then, assembly lines have been set up by Israel’s defense industries, so now the Health Ministry is busy trying to cancel some of those foreign contracts.
Those reading the report can figure out the bottom line for themselves, even though it isn’t explicitly stated: Israel was given more than a month between the WHO’s warning and the detection of the first coronavirus case in Israel on February 27. There were some vital decisions made at that time. But in the two months before the defense establishment entered the picture, the preparations didn’t come close to meeting the state's objectives.