How Israel's Health Ministry Is Inflating the Coronavirus Crisis

The rise in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases is directly connected to an increase in number of tests ■ Despite vaccine successes, a tough winter lies ahead, and Israelis' privacy remains under threat

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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People walking on a busy street in Jerusalem, November 22, 2020.
People walking on a busy street in Jerusalem, November 22, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Some Israeli news broadcasts opened last week with severe warnings from senior, unnamed Health Ministry officials, regarding a sharp rise in the incidence of coronavirus infections. There were indeed more confirmed cases per day, the first rise since the sharp drop that occurred due to the lockdown imposed during most of October. It had been expected, after preschools and lower grades reopened and some of the restrictions on the economy were lifted. A second reason was a sudden spike in cases in the Arab community.

However, simply counting the number of daily cases, and even calculating the daily infection coefficient (that famous R number, which was estimated Sunday at 1.06), can be a bit deceiving. Practically speaking, as is clear from data the Health Ministry itself is producing, the rise in the number of confirmed cases is directly connected to the increase in the number of tests. On Monday through Wednesday of last week there were between 45,000 and 55,000 COVID-19 tests done per day, compared to less than 40,000 a day during the previous week. The number of confirmed cases rose accordingly – actually, somewhat below that. The rate of positive tests among all tests last week ranged between 1.5 percent to 1.8 percent a day, nearly a percentage point less than the previous week (this past Saturday the ratio was 2.8 percent, but the statistics from Shabbat are generally different than those during the week).

Nazareth, September 23, 2020Credit: Rami Shllush

The increase in the number of tests is the result of a change in policy. At the initiative of the Health Ministry and the military, more testing is carried out at workplaces, including at defense contractors. This type of testing raises the number of the daily tests and thus marginally reduces the rate of positive tests. Almost all carriers revealed in such survey testing are asymptomatic and the defense industries don’t have Arab employees. The rate of morbidity in the population of that community is more than double the rate in the national population.

The best statistics to help ascertain the real situation without being misled are the numbers of patients in serious condition, numbers that have indeed gone up a bit over the past few days. There is apparently also “concealed morbidity,” primarily in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities, among people who have very mild symptoms, if any, who are not coming to be tested. This trend could later bring about a sharp rise in the number of seriously ill patients (and such a development would be evidence that mild sufferers who weren’t diagnosed in time infected older people who came down with serious cases that can’t be missed).

The Health Ministry’s concerns are understandable. Compared to where we were when we came out of the lockdown of April-May, the rate of new daily cases is high, ranging between 700 and 800. Under these circumstances, the road is short from an error in policy to a new, broad outbreak that may result in a third lockdown during the winter. The change in weather is already forcing people to spend more time in closed and crowded places, which also increases the risk of infection. There’s also logic in the ministry’s complaint that the coronavirus cabinet isn’t observing the full waiting period between the exit stages and is easing too many restrictions at once.

But the headlines about the sharp rise in infections are still misleading. A truly adverse change could happen later, but for now it’s not unequivocally predictable from the data. And it certainly cannot be used as an excuse for totally ignoring those children in grade 5 and up, who have barely seen the inside of a classroom for eight months, while ultra-Orthodox youngsters have been studying unimpeded for a month and a half in deliberate disregard of the state guidelines, which they can do simply because of coalition politics.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein explained Sunday on Radio 103FM that secular and religious-Zionist children are still at home because their parents aren’t putting enough pressure. There is no doubt that the current government is setting new records with regard to the way it perceives its responsibility to the public. Many Western governments are having a hard time dealing with the second wave of the virus, as evident by the record-breaking levels of infection seen in Europe and the United States. Nevertheless, Israel excels in its unique combination of panic (as in predicting hospital collapses that in retrospect probably weren’t close to realization, even at the height of new outbreak in September), with erratic and unprofessional management.

Dr. Netanyahu

Over the weekend we learned of progress in negotiations with a third vaccine developer, AstraZeneca, whose vaccine, developed with researchers from Oxford, is in the late stages of the approval process. The third agreement, after the agreements with Moderna and Pfizer, should assure a sufficient supply of vaccines for all Israeli residents and possibly for some parts of the Palestinian population, whose incidence of infection is linked to what goes on in Israel. In recent days there has been a sharp rise in morbidity among the Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip.

Every announcement about progress in vaccine negotiations is disseminated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s propaganda machine as if Netanyahu himself had been slaving in the laboratory and this was some amazing personal achievement. It’s clear that Netanyahu views the vaccines as political salvation. He plans to convey to the public that the end of the health crisis, and with it, economic relief, is just around the corner, and that only he can manage it. This will be the card he’ll play if there’s an early election, which at this point he seems to have a pretty good chance of winning.

But in the end, every Western country will be procuring vaccines, and most of them committed earlier than Israel to buying large quantities from a number of manufacturers. In the United States they hope to start vaccinating medical personnel and maybe even some of the more at-risk populations by the end of December. Israel will apparently get its first, limited number of vaccines only in January (at least according to Netanyahu’s declarations) or March (according to the Health Ministry). It seems that large quantities will only start accumulating in the middle of 2021.

This is all good news, of course, but there is apparently still a tough winter ahead. The effect of the vaccines will only be felt here with the approach of spring, at best. In any case, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines will require two inoculations, three or four weeks apart. The social distancing rules will have to be enforced for a good while yet, until the Israeli population reaches a sufficient level of immunity.

Vials with a sticker reading, "COVID-19 / Coronavirus vaccine / Injection only" and a medical syringe are seen in front of a displayed Moderna logo in this illustration taken October 31, 2020. Credit: DADO RUVIC/ REUTERS

Apathy over invasion of privacy

On Monday, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee will hold one of its periodic hearings on the coronavirus crisis. On the agenda once again will be the proposal to reduce the number of quarantine days required after coming into contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient. This is a welcome initiative, something very much desired by committee chairman Zvi Hauser (Derech Eretz). Since the government is dragging its feet on implementing it, the committee is doing well to follow it up.

There is continued apathy, both in the Knesset and the security cabinet, about extending the authority of the Shin Bet security service to track residents’ cell phones. It continues to be renewed automatically every three weeks despite the many developments that have occurred during the past few months. The establishment of the military's Alon command center to cut the chains of infection, the clear reluctance of the Shin Bet itself to continue this monitoring, and the questionable efficacy, not to mention controversy, of this “tool” for such broad surveillance is not being discussed at all. Representatives of a number of civic organizations made this point in a letter they sent to Hauser on Sunday.

Israel continues to be the only Western country using such an invasive measure. At the same time, it has totally failed in its efforts to get the public to voluntarily download a tracking app (the Health Ministry’s Hamagen, in both its versions). As in too many other realms, it seems as if Israeli citizens, and the organizations meant to protect their rights, are indifferent to the continuous and increasing state-sponsored invasion of their privacy. Most times these measures are not justified nor sufficiently monitored, and the coronavirus excuse is making it worse.

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