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The Expert Who Says Israel Is Overreacting to Coronavirus

Prof. Michael Levitt's theory that Israel is not risking much with coronavirus made him an instant star among worried citizens

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An employee sprays disinfectant at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, Israel, on March 15, 2020.
An employee sprays disinfectant at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, Israel, on March 15, 2020.Credit: Adina Wellman / Knesset
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Prof. Michael Levitt is the new hero for thousands of scared and frustrated Israelis. Levitt, a Nobel laureate and expert in computational biology, had already delivered his doctrine on the coronavirus to the masses last week in the financial newspaper Calcalist. On Wednesday, after meeting Tuesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he was interviewed by Kan Reshet Bet radio, and recordings of the interview spread on social media faster than the coronavirus.

Michael Levitt smiles in Stanford, California, October 9, 2013.
Michael Levitt smiles in Stanford, California, October 9, 2013.Credit: Robert Galbraith / REUTERS

Levitt, who advised the Chinese government after the virus erupted there, offers a forecast that is decidedly different from the apocalyptic scenarios governing the state’s response to the health crisis. He is less concerned with the rise in the number of newly diagnosed cases, which he says stems from both changes in definitions and the increase (albeit too slow) in the pace of testing.

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The main statistic that interests him, and which he believes can be an indicator of the way COVID-19 is spreading, is the growth in the rate of patients who die from it. China, he told Kan, curbed the virus through intense isolations and closures, but the Israeli event is very different from the emerging disasters in Italy and Spain, and the relatively small number of patients in Israel so far doesn’t point to a widespread epidemic. In fact, Levitt said drily, he would be surprised if more than 10 Israelis ended up dying from the virus. When the newspaper, television and online headlines look like a daily count of the dead abroad and threaten much harsher results in Israel, it’s no wonder people are hanging their hopes on people like Levitt.

After the damage the virus has done in China, Iran and several European countries, hardly anyone would dare say that the coronavirus is “just flu with good public relations.” No one is questioning the need for the elderly to take special precautions. The focus is on the balance between two things: the growing paralysis of the economy, which is moving toward a full lockdown that would cause enormous damage, and the gloomy casualty predictions of the Health Ministry on which the increasingly stringent restrictions are based.

The interview with Levitt was fascinating. The professor, who isn’t an epidemiology expert, spoke quietly and confidently. Is he the only one seeing things correctly? We’ll know better in a week or two. Meanwhile, as a senior associate of Netanyahu’s put it, “When I want some encouragement, I read Prof. Levitt’s analyses, but when I have to work, I work with the Health Ministry scenarios.”

Bennjamin Netanyahu boasts in his appearances about the speedy decisions he made in the weeks before the crisis. An expert from the World Health Organizationwho had been in China told the Israelis to decide quickly and make adjustments later. There was no time to waste, he said. Given this, there have emerged two huge and disturbing gaps in country’s readiness that apparently could have been handled more effectively: broadening the testing for the coronavirus and acquiring protective equipment for medical personnel.

There are doctors and scientists who argue that contrary to what the Health Ministry thinks, Israel can and should be conducting 10,000 tests a day, rather than the 1,200 recently conducted. Even if the tests aren’t totally accurate, these experts say, they would provide information on where the virus is spreading most quickly. As for medical personnel, they are on the front lines of this battle. The threat to their well-being is an enormous and ongoing mishap despite the procurement efforts now being made. No initiative like a national minute of applause for the doctors (something like that is being proposed) will make up for this.

When Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov said at the daily briefing Tuesday that thousands of Israelis could die from the coronavirus, it rang a bell with people who know Netanyahu well. This wasn’t just an effort to shock the public into following the ministry’s restrictions. This was Netanyahu using the professionals to help protect himself for future criticism. Bibi prides himself on being the first to see what’s coming, and so it is this time.

Netanyahu is well aware that no matter how this crisis plays out, when it’s all over it is likely to be followed by an investigative committee. People attending recent meetings with him say that a lot of his statements are meant for the record in anticipation of an inquiry.

During the situational assessments, Netanyahu tends more toward the more alarmist position represented by the health establishment. But in the end, his decisions are a bit more flexible, in response to the treasury’s warnings. Professionals are always at his side during his public appearances. True, there is a public need for this, but it also provides him with a level of defense against future criticism.

When the virus is eventually overcome, there will be a lot of issues that will be revisited. It won’t just be the methodical neglect of the public health system, whose precarious state is dictating many of the extreme measures being taken. Israelis will ask, justifiably, if it was really necessary to spend 12 billion shekels ($3.1 billion) preparing to attack nuclear sites in Iran, and even more pointedly, how many respirators could have been bought with the more than 700 million shekels that has been invested in a new plane for the prime minister.

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