Analysis

Netanyahu Mulling Full Lockdown to Slow Coronavirus Spread – and Protests Against Him

Coronavirus czar was appointed as a fig leaf to hide the government’s failures in managing the crisis. In the current environment, he could very well end up as a scapegoat

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A coronavirus patient is treated at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, July 20, 2020
A coronavirus patient is treated at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, July 20, 2020Credit: Emil Salman
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Look surprised. Barely 10 days have passed since the official appointment of Prof. Ronni Gamzu as the national coronavirus czar, and the attacks on his work have begun. On Tuesday, ministers from the coronavirus cabinet were quoted on Army Radio as saying that Gamzu’s conduct during the coronavirus cabinet meeting on Monday were “embarrassing” and that he “looks clueless.”

If the criticism spills over into a frontal attack and we hear familiar words from Army Radio’s evening news show host, we will know that this is not just a matter of individual concerns, but rather an intentional attempt to make him fail, dictated from above. Gamzu was appointed as a fig leaf to hide the government’s failures in managing the fight against the virus. In the current environment, he could very well end up as a scapegoat.

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In the meantime, at least, the project manager is working hard. Gamzu toured on Tuesday the centers of the coronavirus outbreak, where 20 percent positive test results are recorded daily – compared to about a quarter of that rate in other cities. It is not a coincidence that in almost all these communities and neighborhoods, designated as red zones, residents are in the bottom 20 percent of Israel’s economic scale. These residents live in crowded conditions, in less comfortable circumstances and sometimes find it difficult to isolate themselves when sick – whether because of the large number of people living in their apartment or because of difficulties with making a living. Most of these communities are clearly either Haredi or Arab, or they have a large Haredi population. As Benjamin Netanyahu once said in a different context about the Israeli economy, it seems that after subtracting the Haredim and Arabs our situation is excellent, once again.

The other common denominator for the red-zone communities is that most of them have city halls and councils that are struggling, some of which suffered from the virus outbreak during the first wave and have not yet been able to recover. These cities, which had limited resources and were characterized by mediocrity even before the crisis, are finding difficult to handle the coronavirus burden over the longer term.

The stronger cities, such as Tel Aviv, and less well-off but tough cities such as Ashdod and Lod, handled the challenge well when outbreaks of the coronavirus were discovered there. Weaker cities and councils needed outside help, mostly from the military, or from temporary project managers who were reserve generals. However, the problems still remain, and they may very well get worse and extend the period of the large-scale outbreak.

Shoppers at Azrieli Center during the coronavirus crisis, Tel Aviv, August 4, 2020
Shoppers at Azrieli Center during the coronavirus crisis, Tel Aviv, August 4, 2020Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Another, possibly more critical, vulnerable point has to do with the preparedness of the HMOs and hospitals. Here, too, the burnout is palpable after five months of coping with the coronavirus, which requires unwieldy protective gear and constant vigilance to prevent an outbreak among medical staff. The hospitals are still far from being overwhelmed; the current situation – 330 patients in serious condition, fewer than 800 hospitalized – resembles an ordinary winter flu season. Still, there is still plenty of reason for concern. Due to its low placement on the national list of priorities, the health system is stretched thin to begin with, and its abilities are limited from the get-go. And winter isn’t here yet. The peak of the Covid-19 season may well be ahead of us, and it could hit in tandem with the flu.

While Gamzu toured the red-zone cities, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz visited the army’s new coronavirus task force dedicated to cutting the chain of infection. This group is implementing a contact tracing system that is the very same one that all the experts have been saying since May is urgently needed, without the government having done anything about it. Now, it is finally being established within the Home Front Command, with the army creating hundreds of positions for contact tracers for this mission.

Part of the debate within the coronavirus cabinet revolves around how this system will begin to operate. Public health officials were surprised by the speed with which the military is organizing for the mission, which it only received after significant delay. But the success of the effort to identify, test and isolate people who were in contact with confirmed carriers will also be affected by where the morbidity rate stands when the process gets underway.

Though the steady rise in the number of newly confirmed cases halted a couple of weeks ago, the daily tally remains high (with nearly 1,800 more carriers were found two days ago). This is one reason behind the idea floated by Netanyahu, which also has backers in the defense establishment, of re-imposing a total lockdown for several weeks from late August or early September. The idea is to get the morbidity rate down to 400 new cases per day, a threshold below which contact tracing can supposedly be conducted effectively.

Gamzu, who, interestingly, is showing more sensitivity than most of the ministers to the severe economic, psychological and health-related harm caused by the first lockdown, wants to avoid such a drastic step. Netanyahu is apparently also being swayed by what he’s hearing from other world leaders. They no longer call him in a bid to emulate Israel’s success, as he liked to brag back in May. But they do regularly share assessments and data with him. A few have expressed astonishment that Israel is not returning to lockdown given that it has such a high number of new cases.

And there’s another consideration as well. Despite his denials, the prime minister is apparently quite worried about the way the protests have recently been gathering momentum. Another lockdown could help him quell the protest movement somewhat, as happened to some extent during the first lockdown in March. In an interview Tuesday with Radio 103 FM, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen (Likud) hinted at this when he said that, with a lockdown, “there will be uniform rules for everyone and mass protests will not be able to take place.”

Cohen’s statement, which surely reflects Netanyahu’s view, would probably not stand the test of the High Court. In such a case, a petition against the government and the police would likely be filed.

Hovering over all the urgent problems cited here is one problem that outweighs the rest: the lack of public trust in the leadership’s judgment, and therefore in its policy in combating the pandemic. The public seemed to receive positively the belated appointment of Gamzu. However, the continuing outrages – like the decision to permit thousands of yeshiva and university students from abroad into Israel, the policy of leniencies and exemptions from isolation for ministers who were in contact with confirmed virus carriers and the latest scandal courtesy of Yair Netanyahu – all increase hostility toward the government and detract from the public’s willingness to comply with its directives.

For now, the main address for public criticism of the government is Benjamin Netanyahu, and to a lesser degree, Benny Gantz. However, Professor Gamzu will need to be a highly skilled political player if he is to successfully separate himself from Netanyahu and simultaneously secure the prime minister’s assistance in combating the virus.

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