Prof. Nachman Ash started training as the government’s coronavirus czar on Tuesday, a role that doesn't even have a 100-second grace period. Eight months into the pandemic, with most of the economy still shut down and children stuck at home, the public has no patience or desire to give him a chance. The prevailing sentiment is cynicism, with no faith that anything could change for the better.
Suffice it to learn from the experience of his predecessor Prof. Ronni Gamzu, who assumed his role with much hope and a very important declaration about the need to forge a new contract between the public and its leaders. Within several hours he received his baptism of fire, having to swallow a decision to allow the entry of 17,000 yeshiva students from abroad under special conditions. Then came the pilgrimage to Uman, starting the school year in cities with high infection rates, and much more. Soon after he received his warm welcome, cabinet members and associates of the prime minister started giving briefings countering his positions behind the scenes, and sometimes in media interviews out in the open. There was no grace here, not even a hint.
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And yet, Ash and Gamzu entered the role of coronavirus czar under very different circumstances. Gamzu preached the gospel of “no lockdowns,” later understanding that there was no choice but to impose one, while Ash, who doesn’t give many interviews or express himself on social media, apparently believes in reducing infection rates through restrictions and closures, based on the little that he’s said. Gamzu entered an undefined role that didn’t exist and built it up from scratch, whereas Ash is entering shoes that have already been filled, even if he does make some changes.
Ash is a quiet and relatively introverted person. People say he has almost no ego, but emphasize that he’s no fool. Without political smarts, it would have been hard to reach the roles he attained – chief medical officer of the Israel Defense Forces and the head of health services at Maccabi Healthcare Services. In order to reach the goal of controlling the epidemic without a third lockdown or a health catastrophe, he faces immense challenges. He needs to establish his status as a professional and a leader within the health system to the prime minister and the cabinet. He must overcome his reluctance to face the media and talk to the public. Ash needs to create a sense of trust and build bridges with the various communities comprising Israeli society, without making dangerous concessions or turning a blind eye to violations, and without corroding trust and relationships.
Ash will obviously have to maneuver the shark-infested waters of politics. This is a particularly challenging task considering the fact that Ash, in contrast to Moshe Bar Siman Tov (former director-general of the Health Ministry) and Gamzu, has no prior experience with the workings of government. This makes him less threatening to politicians, compared to the latter two.
Ash brings with him two great advantages. The first is his intimate knowledge of the military and its organizational culture; in light of the central role played by the army in handling the crisis, and due to the often overt inter-agency distrust, this is a major asset. His second advantage is his deep familiarity with health maintenance organizations, which are playing a major role in managing the epidemic, but whose voices are hardly heard by decision makers.
Lessons from Gamzu
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Gamzu is returning to Tel Aviv's Sourasky Medical Center after three stormy months as coronavirus czar. One can say many things about him: He didn’t manage to prevent a lockdown, he sometimes didn’t manage to convince decision makers of his professional opinions, and he quarreled with Haredi community's politicians and leaders. But there's no denying that he unconditionally assumed the most complex role in the country. He was undeterred even while he was being dragged through the mud or his suggestions were rejected. He went onto the battlefield, and didn't run the system through a screen.
Gamzu also built some important systems which hopefully will remain after he’s gone, such as the “barometer” committee that monitors the health care system and the advisory cabinet of experts. He also created the “traffic light" plan, which may not have been able to block the spread of the epidemic, but will serve as an important basis for returning to routine after infection rates are brought down.
The lesson from Gamzu’s term must be studied well: the coronavirus czar is not a magician; he’s not a one-man show who can replace a malfunctioning government. Ultimately, he can only do the best he can within his sphere of responsibility, which is being a professional who presents his professional opinion, seeing to its implementation on the ground.