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Op-ed

Flailing in the face of COVID-19, Israel is now on the brink of catastrophe

The contagion rates, serious case numbers and death toll are dire and worsening. They are not yet exponential, but they will be soon in the absence of a coherent, credible strategy

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Members of the Israeli COVID-19 task force, part of the IDF Home Front Command, attend a meeting at the task force crisis headquarters in Ramla on September 30, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
Members of the Israeli COVID-19 task force, part of the IDF Home Front Command, attend a meeting at the task force crisis headquarters in Ramla on September 30, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

Israel is flailing on the very brink of catastrophe.

Having started off so well in its battle against COVID-19, it finds itself in the last few days with a higher death rate per capita than the United States. A higher daily rate of new confirmed cases than just about anywhere else on Earth. A rate of positive tests rising, with some 40 percent of the most recent cases being diagnosed in the ultra-Orthodox community. More than 800 serious cases in our hospitals — the level, we have been told for months, at which the health service would be fully stretched — prompting an emergency directive from Health Ministry Director General Chezy Levy to free up 1,500 more beds in hospitals nationwide for COVID-19 patients.

** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

So often tactically innovative, Israel has been exposed as strategically hapless in this pandemic, hamstrung by its bloated and dysfunctional government, which spends days bickering about regulations that it then changes week to week — toying with a public that is losing its (physical and mental) health, its income and its freedom of movement. Leaks from these cabinet marathons point to endless arguments between ministers, with relentless allegations that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some of his loyalists have sought to skew decision-making, both to try to focus on restrictions that would thwart the mass demonstrations against him, and to avoid or delay measures that would antagonize the ultra-Orthodox political parties.

Medical staff work in the Covid-19 isolation ward at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem on September 30, 2020. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

I wrote a short op-ed on the eve of Yom Kippur, essentially imploring the public to rediscover the spirit of mutual responsibility that helped reduce the impact of the first wave of the pandemic. In the few days since, the opposite seems to be happening, with the government and Knesset spending yet more time advancing partisan interests, and an embittered citizenry losing ever more faith in its leaders and increasingly reluctant to heed the oft-changing regulations. Some Israelis — including parts of the ultra-Orthodox community, the worst hit by the virus — appear to have decided that they can live, or die, by their own rules.

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz compared Israel’s response to the pandemic to its preparedness, or lack thereof, for the 1973 Yom Kippur War, saying that once again people are dying because the leadership was caught by surprise. “These days we are at war on a completely different battlefield,” Gantz said. “We must honestly admit that this time, too, we were caught unprepared. We have starved our excellent health system for years. We have not responded properly. This time, too, we will pay the price, and the price will be the heavy cost of life.” He added, however, that “this time also we will win, with everyone joining together.”

For that to happen, we need a simplified equation: The public needs to focus on avoiding large gatherings, especially indoors; maintaining social distancing; wearing masks. And the government needs to organize strategically — to present a cogent, coherent path to battling the contagion and enabling a gradual emergence from lockdown, including by expediting the crucial task, belatedly handed to the IDF, of setting up efficient tracking and tracing procedures to rapidly halt chains of contagion.

A lab technician points at results of tests of suspected Covid-19 patients at the Clinical Virology Laboratory of Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem on September 30, 2020. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

It ought to go without saying — but it evidently does not — that it is not for our dozens of ministers to argue for days about the specifics of this route ahead, but rather the strategy should be formulated by a team of experts from all relevant fields, with the recommendations then presented for responsible cabinet debate and approval.

Our daily new cases have risen from around 1,000 three months ago, to 2,000 two months ago, on up through 3,000 to 4,000 and, of late, to as high as 7,000, 8,000 and, on Thursday, some 9,000. Our death toll has leapt from 1,000 to 1,500 in a mere three weeks. Such statistics are profoundly troubling. But they are not exponential. Not yet.

The contagion rates, serious case numbers and death toll will become exponential, however, if our ministers, from Netanyahu on down, don’t put aside personal and partisan interest, and urgently commission, approve and explain a cogent strategy to minimize COVID’s devastation. And if law enforcement doesn’t focus on ensuring all sectors of the Israeli populace heed the key restrictions. And if the public — all of the public — doesn’t internalize, to quote the beleaguered Health Ministry chief Levy, that we are “almost at the point of no return.”

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