As High Holidays near, harsh judgment looms for Israel’s handling of COVID-19
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Op-ed

As High Holidays near, harsh judgment looms for Israel’s handling of COVID-19

Having initially tackled pandemic well, Israel’s leadership failed to strategize, and lost public trust with incoherent, politicized decisions. Lessons need to be learned, and fast

Nathan Jeffay

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells Israelis to be sure to use tissues when they cough and sneeze, at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells Israelis to be sure to use tissues when they cough and sneeze, at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

The country that won global admiration for its performance at the start of the coronavirus crisis is now drawing attention for its woes. Half a year after the first cases, Israel has around 3,000 people a day confirmed infected, and during the week ending September 9, had the highest rate of daily new coronavirus infections per capita in the world.

This country idolizes stories of lightning-fast successes: the Entebbe Raid, the Six Day War. With COVID-19, it was lulled into a false sense of security after initially faring well, and reopened the country after the lockdown of March and April too quickly.

To sustain the successes achieved under lockdown, the nation needed to have all the right infrastructure in place, including testing and contact tracing, and the public also needed leadership inspiring it to feel like integral players in an ongoing fight. Since its initial success, Israel’s leadership has neither strategized effectively nor inspired public trust and cooperation.

Quarantine as reserve service

Love him or loathe him, you have to admit that Benjamin Netanyahu is a world-class wordsmith and magnificent motivator. He gets his message across whether he’s set out to galvanize the US Congress against the Iranian nuclear deal, or more cynically, motivate his voters to counteract the influence of the Arab “droves” or convince them that the corruption charges against him are unfair.

His speeches on the coronavirus were authoritative and statesmanlike, but they didn’t connect with the nation. They didn’t make us feel, as they should, like anyone observing quarantine is engaged in a form of national service, just like a citizen who performs miluim, reserve duty. They made us feel we’re expected to follow the rules, not that we’re empowered to make a difference.

Israelis wear protective face masks as they shop for food at the local market in Tzfat, northern Israel. June 24, 2020. (David Cohen/FLASH90)

Show us the science

And where was the science in his and his colleagues’ messaging? While Israel’s leaders rightly and routinely laud the nation’s brainpower around the world and kvell at Israeli intellect, they’ve treated its citizens like simpletons during the pandemic.

Netanyahu had initially assured the public that masks would not be necessary. Science showed that approach to be wrong, and Israel changed tack. But in the thick of efforts to convince people to wear masks, a massive study established that they protect the wearer, cutting his or her infection risk by 85%. This study, published in a prestigious journal, had major potential to motivate mask-wearing, as previously it was seen mostly as a step that protected others, not the wearers themselves. Was this, or research of similar importance, trumpeted by leaders? No.

Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman castigates the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, at the opening of his weekly faction meeting in the Knesset, September 7, 2020. (Yisrael Beytenu)

Instead of creating a dynamic based on sharing knowledge and information, one that would befit a state dominated by the People of the Book, the power dynamic here has said that leaders make rules, and the populace follows. But the rules have changed frequently, have not always made sense — some have lacked epidemiological basis and were an unnecessary burden, like the restriction of staying within 100 meters of home during lockdown — and have been increasingly impacted by political pressures and interests. This has fueled rising public mistrust and disinclination to comply — a trend itself now being exploited by politicians, hitting a nadir Monday with Netanyahu nemesis Avigdor Liberman encouraging the public not to follow guidelines it judges to make no sense after Netanyahu zigged and zagged abut lockdowns under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition allies.

While Israel’s leaders rightly and routinely laud the nation’s brainpower around the world and kvell at Israeli intellect, they’ve treated citizens like simpletons during the pandemic

Netanyahu could have been the world’s best science educator-prime minister. He is happy to step outside of the box in his oratory. To make his point about the Iranian nuclear threat at the United Nations, he took out a cartoon bomb and drew a red line on it with a marker he pulled from his pocket.

He is a master of theatrical gimmicks to make his point. Had he blown or pumped smoke through a face mask to illustrate how well it blocks the droplets that come out of your mouth, wouldn’t you have wanted to see the clip? It would have made every newspaper and news site, and become a lesson that no one could have ignored.

All the prime minister’s men

Prof. Siegal Sadetsky, then head of public health services at the Health Ministry, speaks at a press conference about the coronavirus, in Tel Aviv, February 27, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Beyond questions of Netanyahu’s leadership, there is a glaring problem with the picture of who is in the driving seat. It’s almost exclusively men. The most prominent woman, Siegal Sadetsky, head of Public Health Services at the Health Ministry, resigned in July saying that Israel was on a “dangerous” path.

Israel may believe that maintaining a male elite is still acceptable for defense, but that doesn’t wash in a crisis that shakes society to its core. In this pandemic, leaders need to motivate people to live differently, and force their kids to live differently. The instructions weigh heavily on women, more heavily given that it’s still the norm in Israel society for mothers to take a bigger role in childcare than fathers.

The current setup creates a sense that men lay down the rules. This is a fail. To maximize the sense of motivation in a fight that men and women undertake together, we must see both genders taking a prominent role at the top.

The epic early fail in getting Haredi communities on board with social distancing precautions, which contributed to their disproportionately high virus levels, also reflects a fiasco in establishing representative leadership.

Then deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman, left, shakes hands with Ronni Gamzu during a press conference at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on January 3, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90/File)

The fact that Israel had a Haredi health minister, Yaakov Litzman, at the start of the crisisbcould have boded well. With the right attitude from Litzman, a collaborative attitude from his cabinet colleagues, and smart thinking in his ministry, he could have ensured that the the necessary messaging got to his community. Any notion that there was a clash between health priorities and a religion that puts ultimate value on human life could have been avoided.

But Litzman got sidetracked with sectarian interests, lost credibility after allegedly flouting his own ministry’s rules on indoor prayer and getting infected, and resigned in April.

Litzman was the wrong man for the job, but Israel desperately needs other high-profile Haredi voices involved at the top of the virus fight, whether inside government or outside. This is especially true today, when COVID-19 is rife in the Haredi community, and virus czar Ronni Gamzu has shown he needs guidance in his diplomacy there, after acting like a bull in a china shop with comments about a senior rabbi.

Israel needs smart figures who can move the dialogue away from sectarian arguments and toward achieving the common good for Haredim and wider Israeli society.

A false sense of victory

Overall, one of the most utterly frustrating aspects of Israel’s coronavirus experience is the story of the reopening in May. Suddenly virtually everything, including large weddings, was allowed.

The damage wasn’t just felt in spiraling infection rates, but psychologically, in the attitudes of the nation. We were still talking about the virus and supposed to be wearing masks, but in our heads, victory had been achieved and we were back in business. Netanyahu, after all, had encouraged us to go out and have fun, “and get life back to normal.”

Elementary school students on September 1, 2020, their first day back at Tel Aviv’s Gabrieli school (Courtesy Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

From that point on, new limits proved very hard to swallow. The government should have stopped confining people to homes and opened schools — with strict capsules — but left most other restrictions in place.

Psychologically, we would have been in Phase II of the fight, working to show that the country can succeed even with liberalized rules, and aiming to show that further rollbacks are possible. Instead, already celebrating victory against the virus, we were allowed to do almost everything we desired, and came to feel that restored rules now would be an imposition we shouldn’t have to face — especially given the staggering economic consequences of resumed restrictions.

Startup stutters

Authorities didn’t just need to manage the reopening better, they needed a stronger overall plan for the respite between waves. The quiet time after the first wave was dominated by self-congratulation and navel-gazing on the part of leaders, instead of strategic planning and preparation for the ongoing fight, which many fear will only get more challenging when colder weather arrives.

Staggeringly, the “startup nation” that sells technology to the world didn’t rush to get an accurate civilian cellphone app to warn people if they had been near a carrier, as a more efficient and less controversial alternative to surveillance by security services. This app was only ready in July.

Clalit Health care workers take test samples of Israelis to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus in a testing center, in Modiin Illit on September 7, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

The post-first-wave respite should also have been used to appoint a coronavirus czar, something that ideally should have happened on Day 1. It was late July before virus point-man Gamzu gave his maiden speech, promising to improve contact tracing and other aspects of the the virus fight. Many of his steps take time, and there are still nowhere near enough professionals to conduct investigations to ensure that people who have encountered a carrier are quarantined.

The quiet time after the first wave was dominated by self-congratulation and navel-gazing

Gamzu should have been installed in late April, when the country felt it was winning, to prepare for the challenges ahead. His work is three months behind where it should be.

Today, Israel is in better shape for having him, but still, glaringly obvious steps are being overlooked. School restarted a week ago and teachers are dropping like flies, showing up as coronavirus positive and sending numerous other staff members into quarantine.

Why wasn’t there blanket testing for teachers before the return to school? Even if it meant that schools would have needed to stagger their start dates so that the testing system could manage the capacity, it would have been worthwhile.

The worry of teachers spreading the virus is very real. But infected teachers are also leading to a domino effect that causes children to be sent home, classrooms to be closed, and parents to struggle to work, just days after the long summer vacation. Infected teachers put colleagues into quarantine and there is a lack of substitute teachers.

Constant testing isn’t realistic but a blanket test for teachers before the school restart would have gotten things off on a better footing.

The Uman barometer

One of the most burning questions today is whether we have learned from past mistakes.

Watching Gamzu speak most of the time, it’s easy to conclude that we have. Or at least, if politicians listen to him, stop maligning him, and aren’t setting him up as a fall guy, we will have.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews from the Hasidic Breslev sect protest against PM Benjamin Netanyahu, demanding a solution which would allow them to fly to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. August 29, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But looking, with foreboding, toward Uman, a more pessimistic conclusion present itself.

Back in May, Tel Aviv University researchers found that seven out of every 10 Israelis who caught the virus to date were infected with a haplotype — variant — that arrived in the country from the United States. There had been much-publicized failures in enforced quarantining of new arrivals, and the scientist behind the study, Adi Stern, said the figure may reflect poor enforcement with regard to American flights in particular.

The government knows the danger of importing the virus, and also knows the dangers of mass gatherings. Yet it now looks likely, due to heavy political pressure, to back down on its insistence that there be no pilgrimage from Israel to the Ukrainian city of Uman for Rosh Hashanah. According to reports plans are underway to allow for 5,000 to 7,500 pilgrims to make trip.

Whatever rules or capsules are officially put in place, the reality on the ground will give rise to virus transmission, and there will be a high chance of cases being brought back to Israel. Will pilgrims be allowed to travel, and if so, will their return home actually be handled in accordance with strict precautions?

If people bring the infection back from Uman and spread it among friends, family and communities, we will quickly start to see the impact. Yom Kippur could prove to be a bitter judgment day for the government’s coronavirus decision-making.

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