Analysis

Netanyahu Pours Billions to Douse Coronavirus Flames. It May Not Be Enough

Fear of public rage is what drives economic decisions ■ But what worked in Gaza – pumping cash to quell unrest – will not work with Israelis

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An elderly passenger wearing a protective face mask gets off a bus in Tel Aviv, July 2020.
An elderly passenger wearing a protective face mask gets off a bus in Tel Aviv, July 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The six-billion shekel ($1.74 billion) handout Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised all Israelis Wednesday is much more than an about-face on all the economic positions he has fiercely adhered to over the decades. It’s also a clear sign of the panic sparked in Netanyahu by the recent demonstrations, as well as a bid to somehow mollify the angry, anxious public ahead of the seemingly imminent decision to impose another lockdown, given the renewed coronavirus outbreak in Israel.

>> UPDATE: Israel shutters gyms and restaurants, limits gatherings to 10 as cases rise

LISTEN: Protests, pandemics and Netanyahu's day of reckoning

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Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said this week that “only a miracle” would prevent another lockdown soon. HMOs clinics and Health Ministry officials openly support such a move. It could happen as early as next week, though the stricter measures may be imposed gradually and the government will do its utmost not to call it a “lockdown.”

If a lockdown is imposed, the drastic economic downturn we’ve experienced up to now will surely worsen, but the trouble is that even without such a move, at the current infection rate (about 1,700 newly confirmed cases per day), there is no real hope for any improvement in the economy.

It’s important to remember that Israel emerged from the first wave in quite decent shape, all things considered. Were it not for the rash decisions by Netanyahu, Benny Gantz and the unity government ministers to open up the economy (particularly secondary school classes and wedding halls) with little oversight, we wouldn’t have become a cautionary tale cited by epidemiologists worldwide as they warn their governments not to make the same mistakes.

You don’t have to be a writer for the satirical show “'Eretz Nehederet” to imagine what was going on in the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem during the tumultuous protest Tuesday night. The prime minister’s sons’ social media posts made it clear the building’s occupants felt under siege, and probably pictured a scene similar to when the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was rushed by an Egyptian mob in the summer of 2011.

The Shin Bet security service does not plan to raise the level of security for Netanyahu and his family, since it is already at the maximum level and, certainly for now at least, the agency views the protests as no more than a disturbance of the peace, not any kind of genuine threat to Netanyahu’s safety. But fear of the angry mob – composed of all those who came to Jerusalem despite the risk of viral infection, plus the much larger number who as yet are staying home – is what motivated the economic decisions. These decisions are being made in a panic, and over the direct professional objections of top officials at the Bank of Israel and Finance Ministry budget department, who often are only informed about them after the fact.

Netanyahu made a critical navigational error – by neglecting the handling of the coronavirus during the relatively quiet weeks in May and June, and focusing on his legal troubles and on his scandalous attempts to get government coverage for his extravagant personal expenses. Now he’s trying to put out the fire by issuing handouts that don’t differentiate between the truly needy and those whose financial situation have yet to be undermined by the coronavirus. Hard to believe it will be enough to do the trick.

What has somehow worked for two years in Gaza, with the Israeli government’s consent to allow an influx of Qatari money to assuage Gazans and their Hamas rulers, won’t work on Israelis, whose standard of living prior to the pandemic was colossally higher.

Netanyahu in a panic

Like many other leaders who failed to successfully handle the coronavirus, Netanyahu is resorting to two modes of action: Pinning the blame elsewhere and trying to promote an alternative reality. The prime minister has not yet sunk to the same depths as U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been publicly trashing his own coronavirus czar, Dr. Anthony Fauci, but Netanyahu has also come up with a long list of suspects on whom to cast blame. In the past two weeks, accusations were hurled at the Shin Bet for its reluctance to resume cellphone tracing, at the attorney general (out of pure habit, apparently) and, of course, at his coalition partners from Kahol Lavan. And at briefings by Netanyahu associates, another guilty party was singled out – the undisciplined Israeli public.

Two days ago, before the multi-billion-shekel handout was announced, Netanyahu’s Twitter account posted a flattering piece from the highly regarded Financial Times, and crowed, “Once again world figures testify to Israel’s success in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. … Israel is one of just three countries that have not had an excessive death rate since January!” But the chart referencing Israel was last updated sometime back in the waning days of April, and does not take into account the current spike in confirmed cases, which (adjusting for population size) rivals hard-hit countries like the United States, Brazil and Russia.

Netanyahu tried a similar misleading tactic at his press conference two days ago when he claimed that Israel is part of a broad, worldwide second wave. Actually, the places that the prime minister was so fond of comparing us to during the first wave – the countries of Europe – are for the most part recovering well from their bouts with the coronavirus. In terms of the rate of new confirmed cases per million people, the new daily infection rate in Israel exceeds that of Britain, Spain, France, Italy and Germany combined, and by a significant margin.

To be fair, we should bear in mind that Israel was wasn’t as hard hit in the first wave and was far ahead of these countries in reopening its economy and schools. Having reopened to a greater extent now, Western Europe is likely to experience a second wave too. But the rate of increase there is still slow, because the reopening has been more cautious, the public was seriously traumatized by the first wave, and the Europeans also put in the effort to build an effective infection-tracing apparatus, something Israel has neglected.

The increase in the number of new confirmed cases (the majority of whom are young and asymptomatic) slowed a little this week, to where the rate doubles every 15 days. But the really worrisome statistic is the increase in the number of seriously ill patients, which is doubling every seven days now. While the parameters for defining serious illness were modified by the Health Ministry at the start of the month to ensure uniformity, this cannot explain all of the increase.

As of Thursday morning, 545 Israelis were hospitalized with the coronavirus, 117 of them in moderate condition and 204 in serious condition. This is certainly a caseload that the health system can handle – the load is heavier at the height of flu season – but the key thing here is the rate of increase, should it continue rising to a point where the system is unable to cope with the pressure. Just three weeks ago, on June 26, only 189 Israelis were hospitalized with the virus, with 48 in moderate condition and 46 in serious condition.

Contributors to the chaos and confusion include the Health Ministry’s ongoing struggles to implement and manage efficient systems for testing, for cutting off the chains of infection and for gathering the relevant information on the illness rate. Top ministry officials are continually playing down the importance of collecting and analyzing this information. Professor Itamar Grotto said this week that there’s essentially no point in increasing the scope of testing before the winter, when another spike in coronavirus cases is likely to intersect with the seasonal flu.

Professor Siegal Sidetzki, who has since announced her resignation, surprised attendees at a meeting of the National Security Council when the question of whether to close event halls came up. “I don’t need statistics to know that there are infections at weddings, just as I don’t need statistics to know that someone who leaps off the Empire State Building is going to die,” she said. Sadetzki’s intuition may well be correct, but it’s still astounding that the Health Ministry is not basing its policies on comprehensive data. The same problem appeared this week at the meeting of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, where it became evident that the ministry has no real idea about the rate of infection at swimming pools and gyms.

On Thursday, IDF Military Intelligence’s much-maligned Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center issued a damning report summarizing the actions other countries have taken to strengthen their epidemiological investigation capabilities. “Countries around the world are strengthening their contact tracing systems as a tool for uncovering new outbreaks, monitoring infection rates and aiding in cutting off the chains of infection before the illness spreads,” it said. “The idea is to enable a gradual lifting of social distancing restrictions while relying on these systems. … In the West, the rule is one investigator per a few thousand people. The existing system in Israel right now is very limited – at least 10 times smaller, and sometimes more than that, compared to Western countries.”

Just how small? At a session convened by Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman MK Zvi Hauser, it came out that now there are about 200 nurses working on contact tracing, many of whom were recently shifted to that job as reinforcements. In addition, 150 students are working part-time as contact tracers and they will soon be joined by 120 Airports Authority employees who have no other work at present. According to the information center report, the ratio of tracer to citizens in Israel is 1 to 300,000, and is supposed to get down to 1 to 30,000 once all the reinforcements are in place. In Germany the ratio is 1 to 4,000 and in Britain it’s 1 to 2,200.

A couple of days ago, a team of experts from Hebrew University recommended that the government wait until the start of next week to decide between a return to a strict lockdown or further restrictions on gatherings, combined with encouraging people to work from home. Thursday morning, following his announcement about the handouts, Netanyahu called an emergency cabinet meeting. Some of the moves discussed, such as closing the beaches, seem farfetched and are not based on any information concerning the risk of infection. But hovering over whatever moves the prime minister makes is a more serious problem – a lack of public faith in him, which is due to more than just the criminal charges he faces.

Meeting a crisis of this magnitude requires a high level of collective effort and belief in a common goal. This occurred at the start of the first wave, when most Israelis agreed to endure hardships like not visiting elderly parents and holding a seder without extended family and friends. But when a majority of the public is convinced the crisis is being poorly managed, the extent of cooperation with government directives may plummet. In a few ultra-Orthodox communities, such as that of the Belz Hasidim, a phenomenon of coronavirus-denial has lately taken hold: People who have become infected and ill with the virus don’t report it to the authorities to avoid making the Haredim look bad and to avoid having the yeshivas shut down. This sort of thing could spread to other sectors for different reasons and seriously thwart efforts to control the virus.

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