Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s renewed burst of activity on the coronavirus crisis apparently shows that he too understands that the public is having a hard time digesting his current policy – or accepting his excuses. Since Saturday evening, Netanyahu has convened a news conference broadcast live to the nation, conducted a situation assessment at the national police control center, and visited the coronavirus command center at the Rambam Health Center Campus in Haifa.
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The prime minister did not manage to convincingly explain why "green" cities, which have a low incidence of COVID-19, were strangely not being rewarded, and instead, the government was deliberately looking the other way when violations happened in "red" cities – all of which have large ultra-Orthodox populations.
In fact, a large portion of students from first grade and up went back to school in ultra-Orthodox communities, with only a few righteous citizens choosing to follow the rest of Israel and respect the regulations that stipulate only pre-schools are allowed to reopen. And the police are barely confronting the principals of schools in violation of the law, making do with citations and fines.
During his visit to Rambam, Netanyahu again called on the public in the red cities to comply with the directives and promised to enforce the law. In practice, the ultra-Orthodox population is obeying its rabbis. They are relying on their political representatives to protect them from a harsh government response. Since it is clear to everyone that Netanyahu’s political survival depends on the two ultra-Orthodox parties, they are likely to be right.
But in the longer term, the ultra-Orthodox public is likely digging a hole for itself. Other segments of the country’s population could harbor bitterness and resentment for years. The frustration is building, with many parents seeing how their children are losing out on another school year in the fog of endless lessons on Zoom. Down the line, that should translate into demands that equal obligations be forced on the ultra-Orthodox population. The limits of imaginary ultra-Orthodox autonomy might have been stretched too far this time.
In the absence of answers to inequality when it comes to government funding, Netanyahu is choosing to focus on the glass being half-full. The prime minister boasts about his decision to impose a second national lockdown before other countries in the West. He touts the drop in the daily number of new coronavirus diagnoses and the decline in the positive rate of infection among those tested. What he doesn’t tell the public is that Israel was forced to take the step early because the incidence of infection went out of control in Israel earlier than in Europe. The second lockdown was the product of failure, before he deemed it a success.
Netanyahu also does not mention the fact that his counterparts in the West are actually delaying imposing lockdowns because they are mindful of the huge damage it wreaks on the country, something he ignores entirely. And perhaps even more serious than anything else, it’s possible that an uncontrolled exit from the lockdown in Israel would sow the seeds of a third lockdown.
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At the same time, the COVID-19 figures in Israel continue to decline. As we are all aware, the consequences of the steps being taken now will only be felt in about two weeks. Therefore, the low numbers being recorded now reflect the limitations on social contacts that were tightened following the lockdown at the beginning of October. Still, the numbers are low even to a somewhat surprising extent compared to earlier projections. The rate of positive tests has been running recently between 3 and 5 percent, and the average number of new daily cases is nearing the 1,000 mark.
Yet, in the middle of all these good news, there is one suspicious figure. According to Health Ministry data, nearly all the coronavirus cases registered on Sunday were outside so-called red cities – 858 out of 892 cases. That supports the assessment, which is gaining backing, that in some of these communities there has been an organized effort to skew the statistics.
The color-coded coronavirus traffic-light plan introduced by COVID-19 policy chief Ronni Gamzu is not officially being applied. In practice, the government is applying the opposite policy of labeling areas “green or worse,” but in the red communities, they are aware of the need to lower the COVID-19 case statistics, in the hopes of being able to ease their communities’ restrictions down the line.
According to health system officials, this has been leading to two phenomena that are notable primarily in ultra-Orthodox cities: Patients are not being tested so as not to boost their communities’ case statistics, and so as not to impose quarantine restrictions on those around them. And municipalities are also sending healthy people for coronavirus testing, to reduce the positive rate of tests in their communities.
Nevertheless, on Monday there was an encouraging development. Gamzu announced that the period of quarantine for people exposed to a confirmed carrier of the virus will be reduced from 14 days to 12 since the last contact with the carrier. It’s a shame that this necessary step, which brings Israel closer to procedures in Europe, is coming with a four-month delay.
Over this entire period, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Zvi Hauser, has been imploring the Health Ministry to shorten the quarantine period, based on research showing that only a very small portion of patients, fewer than 2 percent, show initial symptoms after more than 10 days. The Health Ministry objected, expressed reservations – and has now given in.
It’s a little late for the 1.6 million Israelis who spent the longest period in quarantine since July 1, at a monthly cost of 700 million shekels ($207 million). Incidentally, in most Western European countries, the quarantine period is 10 days, while in France it has even been reduced to a week.