Analysis |

How Israel's COVID School Chaos Turned Into a Leadership Test for Bennett

Behind the scenes, a myriad of political and personal interests played a part in the decision to nix COVID quarantine for Israeli schoolchildren

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset this month
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset this monthCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The government hit a low point this week in its handling of the pandemic following its decision Wednesday to exempt children who have been in contact with a coronavirus carrier from quarantine. The ensuing chaos reported in the media recalled the bedlam of the previous government; this week, too, many personal and political interests came into play behind the scenes.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett drew up and published the changes more than a week ago. Precisely when omicron raced through Israel, setting new infection records, he judged that the damage to children as a result of having to stay home when they aren’t sick outweighs the risk of increased illness.

Under the new model, the state will give rapid antigen test kits to parents, who will have to test their children twice a week, on Sundays and Wednesdays. Anyone testing positive is to tell the school and isolate at home, while everyone else can go to school as usual.

Although this system has obvious flaws (the relatively low reliability of antigen tests, the possibility that parents may lie about test results), Bennett believes this is the way forward. The paralysis that has gripped the education system – disrupted classes; the almost total absence of so-called hybrid learning, where teachers are with students in the classroom and broadcast the lessons on Zoom for those at home); the low vaccination rates for children 5-11 – worried him sufficiently to prompt him to take action.

But Wednesday, things changed. The vast number of confirmed infections (up to about 80,000 a day, with the true number perhaps being far higher) generated serious overload in hospitals nationwide. The high number of sick and quarantined health professionals is severely taxing the system. The Israel Pediatric Association, which last week supported the new plan, changed its mind at the last minute.

The Health Ministry hierarchy, which has instinctively adopted a conservative approach throughout the crisis and usually prefers more severe restrictions, brought heavy pressure to bear in favor of at least a weeklong postponement of the plan. At the same time, reports suddenly surfaced about children with a rare inflammatory syndrome linked with the coronavirus, which placed the doubts about the plan in a new light.

In the meantime, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu added fuel to the fire with a video warning of doom and destruction and calling on parents to rescue their children from the jaws of the government.

Bennett took the pushback as a test of his leadership: If he gave in and canceled the plan, it would confirm the claims that he is not in control of the government and the experts.

On Wednesday evening, he announced that the new system would go into effect as scheduled, but the Health Ministry had another card up its sleeve. The secretary general of the Israel Teachers Union, Yaffa Ben David, declared an immediate strike, on the grounds that the changes would put teachers at risk. Her announcement followed a phone call with the Health Ministry’s head of public health services, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, who opposes the new plan. Both said the conversation was a routine professional consultation and denied a report that it had been a coordinated move.

As usual, the judicial system had the last word. The Tel Aviv Labor Court issued a late-night injunction barring the wildcat strike and ordered the teachers to report for work Thursday. Nevertheless, the ruckus, the seesaw of decisions and the high illness rates had their effect. The roads were almost empty in the morning, in areas where school wasn’t canceled because of snow – some parents presumably decided to keep their children at home.

The circumstances in which the government is acting are indeed bewildering, worrying and different from anything that was encountered here in the previous waves of the epidemic. It’s difficult to draw on events in other countries, where omicron struck before it hit Israel. Confirmed morbidity records were broken in all of them, and hospitalizations soared, but most countries are far from the mortality rates which were recorded in the earlier waves.

At the same time, the wave’s recession is not as sharp as had been hoped originally. In Britain, for example, the daily rate of confirmed cases remains double what it was in the delta period. Yet, Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands are already declaring that they are deploying for a new stage of coping with the pandemic after the present wave. In the light of the reduced mortality rate, those countries will no longer handle the coronavirus as an emergency situation; it will be treated as one more illness that has to be dealt with, without imposing tough restraints on the public.

The present situation is creating confusion and uncertainty, into which quite a bit of panic is being pumped in Israel. Alroy-Preis, who was subjected to savage harassment by people who oppose the vaccine, or regulations around it, usually avoided stirring unnecessary fears throughout the crisis. Bennett already tangled with her in vain, when he boasted in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last September that he had imposed his authority on the experts.

But what happened this time calls for an examination. The professionals need to express their opinion based on the best knowledge and assessments they have – but the final decision rests with the government. In this case there is at least a whiff of a flanking maneuver that involves an external element whose top priority is not necessarily the wellbeing of the teachers and the pupils. Bennett was raked over in the media when his wife and children went abroad for a vacation at the start of the present wave, contrary to his admonition to the public. If senior Health Ministry officials manipulated him, that is far worse.

When all is said and done, there is one authority in a crisis situation: the government. If the chief of staff thinks that going to war will needlessly endanger the lives of soldiers and civilians but is unable to persuade the cabinet of this, he can resign. He cannot subvert the moves of his superiors over time, with the aid of external players. There is no doubt that Alroy-Preis is guided by concern for human health and lives. However, the suspicion arises that some of the actions she takes toward that end are borderline, at least. The time has come for her superiors to clarify this.

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