Ending his tenure, virus czar says politicians hamstrung his efforts

At handover ceremony, Gamzu says Israel’s needs as it fights the coronavirus have been ill served by leaders’ politicking

Outgoing coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu speaks at his handover ceremony, November 12, 2020 (Screen grab/GPO)
Outgoing coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu speaks at his handover ceremony, November 12, 2020 (Screen grab/GPO)

On Thursday, his final day in the job as coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu criticized the country’s political leadership throughout the pandemic and said his successor would face an uphill battle in dealing with the government.

“We can’t see medical needs being weakened by politicking. We need a leadership that doesn’t tell the people how they are [acting] wrong — but speaks to them as equals,” Gamzu said at the handover ceremony to his successor Nachman Ash, according to the Walla news site. “The [coronavirus czar] has not received powers, and probably won’t receive them either.”

“When you are called upon to [deal with] a once-in-a-century event, you show up without asking questions,” Gamzu said. “These were a hundred difficult days that demanded all the mental strength I had. I received reinforcements from Israeli society, including Arab society and parts of the ultra-Orthodox society.

“We have great medical teams, the best professional infrastructure in the Western world. We have the best testing and contact tracing system to cut the chains of infection. Despite the violations here and there, we have a disciplined and great nation,” Gamzu said.

Gamzu also said it was critical that the government communicate well with the public. “That is the most important thing here.”

He said that prior to his arrival in July the crisis “was not always fully managed,” and says the formation of a single managerial body separate from the Health Ministry or cabinet was very significant.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset plenum during a vote on Israel’s normalization deal with Bahrain, November 10, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset Spokesperson)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced criticism for enacting regulations and changing government plans in response to Haredi pressure due to his need to maintain a government coalition. Additionally, parts of the ultra-Orthodox community have faced criticism, along with parts of the Arab community, for violations of coronavirus regulations.

Gamzu is returning as planned to his job at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital. He has been replaced by Ash, former chief medical officer of the Israel Defense Forces.

The role of coronavirus czar, which Gamzu was the first to fill, has seen increasing levels of coordination between the ministry and the military, as the IDF has taken over the country’s contact tracing system.

In addition to his medical qualifications, Ash has a graduate degree in Medical Informatics from a joint program of Harvard and MIT, as well as a master’s degree in political science.

Nachman Ash at a welcoming ceremony for an Israeli military delegation in Japan on April 12, 2011. (IDF spokesperson)

Prior to Gamzu’s appointment it took weeks to fill the post of coronavirus czar as potential candidates dropped out, fearing they would not have enough authority to set policy.

There were frequent reports that Gamzu planned to resign from the position before his term was up due to clashes with the government and Netanyahu. Promising to do away with “needless” lockdowns and work to return public trust to the state’s battle against the virus, he at times aired his frustration with politicians publicly. It was under his tenure that Israel became the first country in the world to re-enter a second lockdown, a move he lobbied against, preferring localized restrictions.

Gamzu said in September that his replacement should view the pandemic as a long-term battle with no quick solution.

“It’s hard work,” he said. “Do not declare victory. Do not declare failure. Go ahead and continue to fight.”

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