'Lockdowns Work': Israel Taps Ex-chief Military Doctor as New Coronavirus Czar

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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Nachman Ash.
Nachman Ash.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

Professor Nachman Ash, the former chief IDF medical officer, will replace Ronni Gamzu as Israel’s coronavirus czar after his appointment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, a joint statement from their respective offices said Tuesday. 

Ash, formerly head of the Maccabi HMO and chief IDF medical officer from 2007 through 2011, which included the period of the three-week Gaza offensive Operation Cast Lead, is set to begin his role on November 15.

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Gamzu, the director-general of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, was due to step down on November 1, but has agreed with Edelstein to serve through November 13 to ensure an orderly handover, when he is due to complete his appointed term in office.

“This is a particularly challenging period in light of the need to return gradually and safely to routine," Gamzu said following the announcement, "while continuing to curb the spread of infection, focusing on dozens of complicated processes in the hundreds of communities across Israel."

He also said he was "happy" with Ash's appointment, and pledged to continue to help him after a formal training period.

Ash, 59, was selected in recent weeks, but has not been a high-profile public figure despite his prominence and respect in the healthcare establishment and his military history. His military past may help in the efforts to get the IDF more involved in the war on COVID-19.

He will be forced to navigate the political minefields that Gamzu faced in attempting to forge a connection between the government and the wider public as part of the effort to curb the spread of coronavirus infection.

Ash's recent public activity suggests that he supported the latest restrictions to curb the virus, such as on September 20 when he tweeted that “lockdowns work,” accompanied by a list of studies backing up the assertion, and challenged those who thought lockdowns were deadly for the economy in another tweet.

However, Ash has expressed opposition to some of the government's policies. In one radio interview, he defended the right to protest, describing it as a "basic civil liberty in any democracy." He continued, "Pushing off the [Hasidic pilgrimage to Uman] is a possibility, and its cost isn't so high," supporting a position that enraged many in the ultra-Orthodox community.

In another tweet on countries that have handled the pandemic poorly, he pointed to the "sin of arrogance," before asking: "Is that true of us as well?" 

One of the key, unanswered questions surrounding his appointment is the fate of Professor Gamzu's traffic light system for combatting local spikes in infection. It is also unclear what will happen to Gamzu's working groups, among them Gamzu's cabinets of experts and citizens on coronavirus.

The Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians "warmly welcomed" the appointment, and highlighted Ash's "extensive experience in dealing with emergencies." They also thanked Gamzu for his "dedicated service to the people of Israel."

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