After a lengthy period in which the Health Ministry held almost exclusive sway over the coronavirus public discourse, the Finance Ministry on Sunday weighed in with a detailed exit plan of its own. As expected, the treasury is willing to take greater risks than the Health Ministry and is thus prepared to return various sectors of the economy to work more quickly.
The treasury sees the economy reopening quite fully by the beginning of June, with two clear reservations: Limiting the number of people who can be together in the same area, for fear that too many crowds can increase the numbers of those infected, and an indefinite delay in restarting the airline industry. Like foreign tourism, aviation depends on what’s going on in other countries, many of which are in a more difficult situation than Israel.
The treasury’s budget department, which drew up the document, provide a comprehensive plan without pinpointed improvisations based on daily infection data or the fluctuating panic level of the prime minister and other members of his cabinet. The treasury seeks to rely on regular, clear and transparent indices for making future decisions, instead of working with extreme and stringent scenarios that have yet to play out in Israel.
The document is critical of the Health Ministry and cabinet decision-making processes. According to the treasury, the first decisions to ease restrictions were made too quickly, without moving from stage to stage in an orderly fashion and without examining the consequences on the stages that would follow. Thus both residents and local authorities were confused. The Health Ministry imposed a delay on implementing decisions that were already made, like reopening the preschools. Cabinet decisions are still being made without comprehensive and orderly data on how the virus is spreading.
Nevertheless, the treasury document reads like an exercise in positive thinking. The drop in the rate of infected and intubated patients over the past two weeks has been significant, along with the sharp rise in the number of recoveries. These factors apparently allow for implementing far-reaching plans to reopen the economy.
Health officials – and others – believe that the curve was flattened by the comprehensive lockdown imposed before, during and after Passover. Still, not everyone in the Health Ministry has been persuaded that a further easing of restrictions will lead to immediate disaster. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel is pretty low, with half of the cases concentrated in specific cities and neighborhoods. There is insufficient information to ascertain the degree to which people get infected in the open air, or how the summer weather might affect the degree of contagion. The treasury thinks that the 300/300 level the Health Ministry wants to maintain (no more than 300 patients in critical condition and/or 300 new cases per day) is too strict, and that in any case it will be very difficult to impose any further lockdowns on the public.
Moreover, the treasury notes, the health system over the past two months has received billions of shekels in government money to bolster medical teams, make more beds available and acquire more ventilators, supplies that are meant to increase the margins of security even as the economy reopens. Is all this too optimistic? We will know in a week or two, based on the rate of newly confirmed cases. There will be a rise, that’s for sure, the question is to what degree, and how the government will respond.
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At the start of the crisis, ventilators were described as the most critical component to handling COVID-19 in Israel. The cabinet looked worriedly at Italy, where the flood of seriously ill patients forced doctors in the Lombardy region to choose who to connect to a ventilator (and sometimes, who to remove from one).
One of the scenarios in March said Israel would see tens of thousands of fatalities, nearly a million people ill, and may need as many as 7,000 ventilators. At the time, Israel had 2,920 ventilators, with around half of these available for coronavirus patients, and it has since added 426. Israel’s military industries have opened manufacturing lines to produce more ventilators and are working at full capacity. By the end of May, the Health Ministry says, Israel will have 5,100 ventilators and by the end of July, 9,600. On Sunday there were only 83 coronavirus patients on ventilators, and the most that were ever ventilated at once was 137.
As the restrictions were lifted, the government began enforcing a rule that masks be worn outside the home except for when engaging in sports. This has long been a common regulation in East Asian countries (particularly for sick people when they leave their homes for whatever reason), and because of the coronavirus it has been adopted by many Western countries as well. A spot check in one city in the Sharon region, in three shops, found 50 to 100 percent differences in the prices of fabric masks. For a family of five, the monthly cost could come to 400 or 500 shekels ($115 to $143). For many families, particularly during a period of recession and unemployment, this government-imposed outlay is more than pocket change and could go on for months.
Before the 1991 Gulf War, the state issued gas masks to the public, and these were much more expensive than the masks that now required.
As far as is known, the cabinet hasn’t considered providing funding for facial masks a this time. Another possibility is slapping price controls on masks as a vital product. But the treasury feels such a step isn’t necessary and would rather leave the market alone. It’s doubtful whether Israelis will accept this attitude for the duration.