Israel has managed to deal with epidemics and epidemiological crises before. Just in the last decade the healthcare system has had to deal with bird flu, polio, measles and other diseases that endanger public health. Now it is facing the coronavirus – or by its official name, COVID-19.
The question of whether the public panic over a potential coronavirus outbreak in Israel or abroad is overblown has yet to be answered, because of the large gaps in knowledge and unanswered medical questions. Although more than two months have passed since the outbreak began in China, and the number of confirmed infections has reached 70,000 people worldwide, we still do not know how long the incubation period is, among other things. The development of a vaccine against the virus is also quite a long way off – a year or more.
Because of the uncertainties, Israel must prepare for the worst-case scenario. The Health Ministry has accepted the conclusions of experts that the arrival of coronavirus in Israel “is apparently only a matter of time.” Moreover, the ministry has declared coronavirus a contagious and dangerous disease and has issued orders giving itself powers to take a variety of steps to prevent its spread. The ministry has also launched a PR campaign about the virus.
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But the most important part of the preparations depends on proper infrastructure, detailed plans and drills of emergency procedures in the healthcare system and outside of it. The more time that passes, the more criticism emerges, and the great neglect of the public healthcare system in recent years is revealed. So are various other disturbing failings, beginning with unpreparedness at Ben-Gurion International Airport, which according to experts lacks essential infrastructure for testing for corona and bringing in suspected patients to quarantine – and no plan of action exists in that area. Family doctors in the community also lack knowledge and are fearful. There are doubts about the functioning of the trains, public transportation in general, the school system and other essential services, and about the readiness of the economy for a situation in which corona keeps many people in isolation.
The Health Ministry is leading the preparedness effort, but the crisis has significance that extends well beyond the area of healthcare and medicine; it touches the economy and the public in many ways. Israel must use the time it has left before the coronavirus gets here to improve readiness. Preparedness for a corona outbreak must be a national mission. It is essential to reduce and close gaps that remain so that an outbreak can be faced with maximum readiness. To this end the prime minister and the health minister must invest themselves fully in the matter and raise the issue of preparedness and facing a corona outbreak to the top of the national agenda.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.