Analysis |

Israel Army Joins Coronavirus Fight, but It's an Uphill Battle

Current rate of infection makes it hard for the army to operate its (growing) contact tracing system ■ What could explain the army chief's cautious approach

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Soldiers patrol Habima Square in Tel Aviv, during the first coronavirus lockdown, April 1, 2020.
Soldiers patrol Habima Square in Tel Aviv, during the first coronavirus lockdown, April 1, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel isn’t yet Italy and isn’t likely to be. The population is much younger, the level of medicine is high and the professional knowledge about how to deal with COVID-19 is more extensive than it was in March.

Recent weeks have indeed seen another steep rise in the confirmed incidence of the disease, even if most of those who contract it are young and asymptomatic.

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Among the country’s Arab population there has been something of a decline in the spread of the disease, but that may be due to decrease in the rate of testing. The most serious problem lies in the neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, where the spike in morbidity goes hand in hand with public disdain for the health guidelines.

The steepest rise of the past few days has occurred in the Haredi population, with the rate of positive tests approaching 25 percent (twice what it is among the general public). Far fewer Haredim showed up for tests during Rosh Hashanah; the concern is that those who were feeling poorly attended services in synagogues anyway, and went for a test only after the two days of prayer ended.

The same story could be repeated on Yom Kippur at the beginning of next week. The police knows that some Hasidic sects intend to violate the format decided on, which would see the faithful pray outside, respecting social distancing, and only limited numbers of worshippers attend services in synagogues. In the meantime, another few days will be needed to know whether the restrictions already imposed have helped lower the incidence of the disease. But any gains made are liable to be offset by infections during prayer services, if there are mass violations of the rules.

The “barometer team” that is keeping track of the situation in the hospitals is focusing on one key figure: the number of seriously ill. On Thursday morning there were 667 people in that category. The red line set by the health system is 800 COVID-19 patients in serious condition, which some term the hospitals’ incapacity bar, above which the treatment of those ill with the virus will deteriorate sharply. However, a senior source in the health system told Haaretz on Thursday that the hospitals’ true capacity is far higher.

“After the pressure communicated by some of the hospital directors at the beginning of the month, the picture is becoming clearer,” the source said. “The hospitals are converting internal wards into corona units and increasing their ability to provide treatment. It will be hard, but the system will be able to cope with even 1,200 or 1,300 seriously ill patients.”

He admitted that the mental erosion among the medical teams, some of which have been working nonstop since March, is high, but claimed that increasing the number of employees in the health system will gradually help in dealing with the growing load.

Israeli soldiers work in the Home Front Command's coronavirus response center in Ramle, Israel, August 5, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A note of caution

On Wednesday, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi visited the headquarters of the Home Front Command’s Alon Unit, home of the epidemiological system for breaking the chain of infection. Even before the decision to tighten the restrictions, Kochavi was presented with quite a gloomy picture about the spread of the virus. It was reported in a situation assessment that there are many gatherings taking place in the courts of the leaders of Hasidic sects, and that the return of the Hasidim from the failed attempt to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in Uman, Ukraine, is liable to generate more infection, as no stipulation has been made that they enter quarantine in specially designated hotels upon their return.

Among the Arab public, some businesses were open during the lockdown, a symptom of “disobedience and growing distrust in light of the new guidelines.” In every segment of the population, there was “exploitation of loopholes in the legislation against a background of mistrust and a lack of understanding of the purposes of the lockdown.” A whopping 103 locales in full were categorized as red cities. There was also one bit of good news: the Triangle – a concentration of Arab towns and villages in the center of the country – has been removed from the list of red locales.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, left, visits troops deployed in the coronavirus hot spot of Bnei Brak, April 5, 2020.Credit: IDF Spokesperson

The chief of staff was given data about the progress in the epidemiological investigations center. On Wednesday, 1,461 investigators were working there. The average number of contacts (people who met with a confirmed carrier) per investigation is 4.6 – still far from the target set of 10 contacts per investigation. And 46.2 percent of the investigations end with zero contacts; in other words, almost half the carriers are refusing to cooperate with the investigation.

A senior General Staff officer told Haaretz that the army intends to have 2,500 investigators, most of them civilians, from the beginning of November, when the unit will be in full operation. Recently, the army has started to set up, within this framework, a unit of 600 regular soldiers who will serve as investigators. These are soldiers with relatively high personal profiles who will come from various sections of the army and be assigned to epidemiological investigations for a year. The unit is headed by a female officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The General Staff admits that at the present morbidity rate, of between 5,000 and 7,000 new carriers a day, it is impossible to maintain an effective investigative system, because there is no way to complete all the investigations in time. The goal is to reduce the number to about 1,000 a day by the end of the lockdown, a level seen as controllable. In practice, that number appears to be a very difficult, almost unrealistic, goal to achieve. The coronavirus is spreading extensively, and the high number of tests – close to 60,000 a day – will lead to the confirmation of a large number of carriers for a lengthy period. On the other hand, the longer the lockdown lasts, the greater the economic damage will be and the more pressure the public will exert on the government to free up the economy.

Soldiers work in a situation room at the headquarters of the Home Front Command, in Ramle, Central Israel, August 25, 2020.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

The army is currently deploying almost 5,000 officers and soldiers in coronavirus-related tasks. Alongside logistical aid to the health system, the army is operating drive-through testing centers, transporting tests, helping out in assisted-living facilities for the elderly and deploying liaison units in hundreds of local and regional governments. The computer service directorate is working to improve data collection and analysis.

Despite the Israel Defense Forces’ efforts, and despite the considerable experience amassed in the Home Front Command, the information service for civilians has not been placed in its hands. The Health Ministry is against this, and Netanyahu has refrained from deciding against the ministry. The deputy chief of staff, Eyal Zamir, is coordinating the IDF’s handing of the coronavirus crisis. The estimate in the General Staff is that most of his time is currently devoted to this mission.

This flood of data, provided to Haaretz on Thursday, is perhaps connected to the criticism that was leveled in the paper about the degree of Kochavi’s involvement in the crisis. The impression one gleans is that the chief of staff is maintaining a safe distance from the tremendous managerial failure chalked up by the national struggle against the virus. The IDF is assisting where it’s asked to, but is not exerting pressure to assume tasks and roles.

The IDF Home Front Command in Ramle, in central Israel.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The General Staff naturally rejects this criticism. They maintain that the army has been intensely involved since the start of the second wave and that its influence will be increasingly felt as the new headquarters continues to take shape and is given more responsibility.

In contrast, a person who has known the chief of staff for many years volunteered the following analysis on Thursday: Kochavi is very much aware that Israel is in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, in which a health and economic epidemic is encountering a government in an exceptionally weak position. He knows the battle is being waged in impossible conditions and he understands that in Netanyahu’s present situation, the buck will be passed, without any pangs of conscience, to everyone engaged in the mission.

Accordingly, Kochavi is activating the army in the campaign against the coronavirus, but is doing so with utmost caution. In these circumstances, there is no chance that the chief of staff will volunteer the IDF to throw itself, in place of the government, on the grenade.

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