Analysis

Israel Has a Promising Coronavirus Exit Strategy. There Are Just Two Problems With It

In the thick of the crisis, the government's lack of transparency and condemnation of the lockdown policy have undermined the fight against the coronavirus

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Police on horses patrol the streets during the Passover lockdown, Tel Aviv, April 10, 2020
Police on horses patrol the streets during the Passover lockdown, Tel Aviv, April 10, 2020Credit: Eyal Toueg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Throughout the coronavirus crisis Prof. Sigal Sadetsky, head of the Health Ministry’s public health services division, has played the proverbial bad cop of the story. She repeatedly expresses disappointment with Israel’s high incidence of illness and sounded the alarm that the worst is yet to come. But for a minute or two during an interview with Channel 12 News on Friday night, Sadetsky allowed herself a bit of optimism. “We managed to flatten the curve,” she said. “I’m happy to say that we’re in good shape.”

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Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

Israel isn’t the only place taking pride in how it’s coped with the pandemic. Even in New York state, which is still seeing nearly 800 deaths a day from the virus, has had talk this weekend of a bending of the curve  an admission that, at least for now, the blackest forecasts are not coming true. In Italy and Spain, two of the hardest-hit countries in western Europe, the number of new cases each day has been in decline; the number of deaths each day has been in a decline for two weeks. Nevertheless, every day more than 500 people continue to die from COVID-19 in each of these countries.

The figures in Israel, of course, are much, much lower in terms of fatalities, the number of people in critical condition and the number of those on ventilators. But while the most pessimistic forecasts have not come to pass, there is reason to fear that lifting the increasingly tighter lockdown imprudently and without proper controls could set off a more widespread outbreak. A group of consultants to the National Security Council said in a document, whose contents were reported by the Kan public broadcaster, that the first steps toward easing the lockdown can begin once the number of new COVID-19 cases reported each day falls to around 10.

There are only two problems with this promising theory. One: At present, even with all the restrictions in place, there are still a few hundred new cases each day. Two: The low number of tests and the continued slow pace of testing undermines the credibility of the numbers. The only way to get close to the goal is by expediting the entire testing process so that people who came in contact with a patient can be tracked down within hours after the results come back.

Emergency regulations have reduced the workforce at most workplaces to 15 percent of their pre-pandemic levels. The Finance Ministry plans to lift that to 30 percent, with the approval of the cabinet. Some sectors, such as aviation, tourism, leisure and entertainment, restaurants and conferences, will remain closed. And unfortunately for parents, schools won’t be reopening any time soon. (If it’s any comfort, New York City announced Saturday that its public schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year.)

The Finance Ministry’s exit plan would keep old people in their homes indefinitely. That would be very difficult. And what about younger people with conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to the virus? The gradual return to economic activity increases the risk to them and will keep many of them out of the workforce for as long as the coronavirus continues to affect Israelis.

In the United States, as in Israel, a wide range of exit strategies are under scrutiny, even though the pandemic is far from being over there. All of them call for a gradual exit over a period of around 18 months and include harsh restrictions on freedom of movement and violations of individual privacy, justified by the need to collect information about the spread of the virus.

The picture in Israel is not very different. A critical component in any such plan concerns the development of a vaccine for the coronavirus. Scientists are optimistic about this possibility, but they all say it will take at least another 12 to 18 months.

But the story doesn’t end there. The global capacity for manufacturing vaccines is limited. Large countries, such as China and the United States, want to make sure that their own citizens are the first in line. Israel is largely on its own. If the experiments being conducted at the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona, are successful, there might be an Israeli contribution to the global effort. And who knows, maybe it could help improve relations with other countries in the region.

Zigzag policy

The government’s zigzags over the Passover closures continued over the first part of the holiday, from Wednesday evening to Thursday evening. At first there were proposals to impose additional specific curfews on Haredi communities, whose rates of coronavirus infection are far above the national average. Pushback from the ultra-Orthodox cabinet members caused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to retreat.

In the midst of this came news of an egregious breach in the bulwark the state erected at Ben-Gurion International Airport against the pandemic. Days after media outlets warned of the problem and the cabinet promised to address it, flights from New York, Ukraine and other destinations continue to land without anyone to meet the passengers, check on their condition and see to it that they enter isolation for two weeks, in accordance with emergency regulations. As expected, the news set off a round of finger-pointing among officials, and Netanyahu ordered the suspension of all incoming passenger flights until a solution can be found.

Then there’s the tragedy unfolding at many of the country’s nursing homes. More than a month after identifying the first person infected at Jerusalem’s Migdal Nofim, the coronavirus continues to rampage through dozens of assisted living facilities, whose residents account for nearly one-third of all deaths caused by COVID-19. No agency has assumed responsibility for addressing the issue, and in the meantime the Health and Social Services Ministries and the army’s Home Front Command trade accusations.

To the list of this year’s maddening Passover plagues we can add the respective violations of government emergency regulations by Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, each of whom celebrated the seder Wednesday night with family members who do not live with them. (Rivlin at least issued a kind of apology, while Netanyahu merely sicced his attack trolls on the reporters who disclosed his transgression.)

Israelis are being asked to make an enormous sacrifice as part of the effort to flatten the infection curve. Many have forgone their lifestyles, given up their communal religious rituals, curtailed their family ties and consented to unprecedented infringements of privacy. In addition, many are paying a huge economic price that will only increase over time. When the country’s leaders openly flout the directives, they send the message that there is one law for them and another for ordinary citizens. The success of the virus mitigation policy depends above all on the cooperation of the public.

In the thick of the crisis, the state is not being transparent about how it is dealing with the pandemic and is not providing sufficient data about the incidence of illness. The latest incidents, which further erode public trust in the government’s considerations, are liable to keep the battle against the virus from succeeding.

Some good news from Gaza

In a sea of bad news, one good thing was reported over the weekend, by the Kan public broadcaster: Dozens of nurses, physicians and other medical personnel from the Gaza Strip were recently trained at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon and at the Erez crossing in techniques to treat coronavirus patients. The fact that the Hamas government in the Strip permitted this proves two things: that the threat posed by the virus is more important and more urgent than ideological enmity, and that perhaps in spite of everything there is a chance to strike a humanitarian deal that could eventually bring about the return of the Israeli civilians and remains of soldiers being held in Gaza.

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