Analysis |

Israeli COVID-19 Infection Rate Stabilizing, but Daily Deaths Still at Record High

Coronavirus czar Gamzu puts forth uniform policy and sounds optimistic note – but success in stemming virus depends on public’s behavior

Amos Harel
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People wearing masks in Tel Aviv, August 2, 2020.
People wearing masks in Tel Aviv, August 2, 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod
Amos Harel

After nearly two months in which the situation seemed to be getting out of control, the latest data indicate a stabilization in the incidence of coronavirus in Israel. The infection coefficient (“R” – the average number of new infections caused by each carrier) has dropped to just over 1 and may even have gone a bit below that; the number of new cases a day is somewhat less than it was a week or two ago and the sharp rise in the number of patients in serious condition has halted.

The worst statistic is that we are seeing 10 or more deaths a day, a rate that is unprecedented since the virus arrived here in late February. However, for the first time a senior health official is saying what we had heard months ago from coronavirus skeptics. According to Shaare Zedek Medical Center chairman Prof. Jonathan Halevy, many of those listed as coronavirus deaths “died with coronavirus, but not from coronavirus.” In other words, they were elderly people who had other serious diseases and were diagnosed with COVID-19 before they died.

In the ongoing argument about possibly imposing another broad lockdown, these statistics serve those who argue against such a step. It’s possible that the combination of observing social distancing rules, the increased wearing of masks and the prevention of large gatherings will be enough to gradually reduce the number of new daily carriers.

But at the same time, it’s important to remember: The new rate of infection in Israel is an exception internationally, matched only by what’s happening in the United States and Brazil. The fact that last month we reached 2,000 new cases a day is a serious failure on the part of the government, which mismanaged the crisis during May and June. The incautious emergence from the first lockdown, along with a delay in taking steps needed to improve the health system’s ability to cope, have led Israel to the current situation.

True, other countries, among them Australia, Japan and Spain, are also coping with a second wave. But Israel entered it much more quickly and with much higher numbers in comparison to its population. This has not resulted in as high a death rate as other countries because of the quality medical care here and the relatively young population, not because of anything the government has done. The danger posed by the coronavirus remains – it is too great a burden on the hospitals and medical teams and will undermine the quality of care for all patients, those with COVID-19 and those with other problems.

On the positive side, at least it seems that Israel is finally drawing up a more uniform and explainable policy for fighting the virus. A series of interviews granted by the new coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, made it clear he wants to convey that from now on he’s in charge, ignoring the obstacles that politicians and other interested parties are trying to place in his path.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu presents a part of his coronavirus program at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, July 29, 2020.
Prof. Ronni Gamzu presents a part of his coronavirus program at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, July 29, 2020.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

On Sunday he revealed another part of his plan — having the army prepare to draft 3,000 reserve soldiers from the Home Front Command to assist the health system. Those drafted will conduct epidemiological investigations, boost the staff at the coronavirus hotels, and help in locales where the rate of infection is high.

Despite the justified shock he expressed in Yedioth Ahronoth at the poor state of the epidemiological investigations, Gamzu is trying to spread positive energy around. He has repeatedly said he objects to a full lockdown, calling this a last resort. Halting the spread of COVID-19, he continues to stress, is dependent on people’s behavior. Within a few weeks the number of new daily cases could be significantly reduced, he adds, so that the coming winter won’t necessarily be disastrous. He believes that within three to six months Israel can overcome the virus and resume a more or less normal life.

This is almost infectious optimism. We must hope that it will turn out to be based on something. Gamzu has to have guts to say things like that to Israelis who have been repeatedly disappointed with the way the government has handled the coronavirus crisis. Now he has lots of credit, but maintaining it will depend on his ability to promulgate a policy of permits and restrictions that make sense.

PM’s pity party

It doesn’t seem as if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is too concerned about any of this. The photo-op at the start of Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting was devoted to the premier spending six minutes portraying himself as a victim; he called the demonstrations against him a threat to democracy, accused demonstrators of violence and incitement to murder and compared the Israeli media to that of North Korea. Once again, he insisted that the demonstrations were helping to spread COVID-19.

His pity party makes clear that the most protected man in the country by far is truly convinced that there are people out to kill him. When that’s the situation, it’s no wonder Netanyahu can’t be bothered to express any empathy for the demonstrators, many of whom are terrified by the change in their financial prospects. Netanyahu is essentially saying that the whole story is him, not them.

Protesters carry a sculpture of Netanyahu coming out of a submarine at the protest in Jerusalem, August 1, 2020.
Protesters carry a sculpture of Netanyahu coming out of a submarine at the protest in Jerusalem, August 1, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

There’s no doubt that Netanyahu and his associates are feeling very pressured by the increasing intensity of the demonstrations. It’s not just that the routine in the Balfour Street residence is being disturbed; the demonstrations reflect a growing public frustration of the government’s failure to manage the economic crisis that the coronavirus has wrought. Under such circumstances, Netanyahu won’t be able to justify his apparent intention to dissolve the coalition and go to yet another election over something as petty as a two-year budget.

All Netanyahu’s moves have one goal in mind: trying to avoid having to appear in court several times a week at his trial, whose evidentiary phase begins early next year. These appearances are liable to generate yet another petition to the High Court of Justice on the issue of whether Netanyahu can continue to run the country when he’s busy trying to prove his innocence and avoid prison.

There’s another threat he faces, perhaps even more immediate: A petition by the Movement for Quality Government demanding a reopening of the investigation of Case 3000, which involved the procurement of submarines and other vessels. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, for some strange reason, didn’t require Netanyahu to be questioned in that case. Now Mendelblit will soon have to decide whether accumulating evidence in that case will lead him to change his mind.

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