Gabi Barbash to head national campaign against COVID-19 – reports

Appointment of former top health official, who will reportedly receive relatively broad authority to fight pandemic, expected to be formally announced later Tuesday

Prof. Gabi Barbash, former director general at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, on April 7, 2020. (Channel 12)
Prof. Gabi Barbash, former director general at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, on April 7, 2020. (Channel 12)

As Israel struggles to contain a powerful second outbreak of COVID-19, former senior health official Prof. Gabi Barbash has agreed to lead the country’s response to the pandemic, according to multiple Hebrew media reports Tuesday.

The reported appointment came after several days of talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. According to the Haaretz daily, Barbash will receive relatively broad authority and won’t merely head the coronavirus testing apparatus, as had been previously reported.

The appointment was expected to be officially announced later Tuesday.

There was no official word on the matter from the Health Ministry or the Prime Minister’s Office. However, Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s office appeared to confirm the appointment, saying in a statement that Maj. Gen. Amir Abulafia had informed Gantz he was withdrawing his candidacy for the position.

“The general wished Prof. Barabash the utmost success,” the statement said.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem, on July 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Edelstein announced earlier this month he would appoint someone to lead the country’s handling of the pandemic, amid growing criticism of the Health Ministry’s ability to contain the outbreak. On Sunday, the Health Ministry dismissed a report that Barbash was tapped for the post as “gossip,” saying Edelstein was still vetting several candidates for the job.

Barbash, 70, was CEO of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital from 1993 to 2015, with a stint as director-general of the Health Ministry between 1996 and 1999. Over the past few months he has become a familiar public figure as a commentator on Channel 12 news’s main evening broadcast, mostly in regard to the pandemic.

There is no single figure currently managing the ongoing campaign, which is being led by the National Security Council and overseen by the government and a special so-called coronavirus cabinet of relevant ministers, as well as the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee.

Since Israel lifted a lockdown that had brought daily detected infections down to low double digits, the country has been struggling to contain a second wave of the virus that has driven that figure to nearly 2,000. There has been increasing public criticism and anger over the government’s handling of the crisis, with cabinet ministers divided over how to handle the outbreak and what restrictions to impose on the public in an effort to curb the spread.

A woman is tested for coronavirus at a site in south Tel Aviv, on July 16, 2020. (Flash90)

Barbash has publicly criticized the government for failing to contain the resurgence of the virus, saying actions could have been taken to prevent the current situation, in which nearly 30,000 people are infected.

Earlier this month, he told The Times of Israel that the government had both failed to take preventative measures and went too far in easing restrictions in late April and early May, because it didn’t stand firm in the face of pressure from the public.

Besides Barbash, several other figures were reported as possible candidates, among them Abulafia, former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot and Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, who was Health Ministry director-general during the initial phase of the pandemic.

Earlier Tuesday, Channel 12 reported that Dr. Salman Zarka, the leading candidate to become the ministry’s new director of public health instead of Siegal Sadetzki, turned down the job.

Zarka, the manager of Ziv Medical Center in Safed and an expert on public health, will notify Edelstein that he is turning down the offer because “he has no chance of being successful in the job,” an unnamed associate of Zarka was quoted by the network as saying.

Prof. Siegal Sadetzki, Health Ministry director of public health, speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Flash90)

The associate said Zarka wouldn’t be granted sufficient authority, especially in light of the pending appointment of an official heading the campaign to contain the pandemic.

“He would have been criticized and wasted his time in battles with officials in the ministry,” the associate said.

Sadetzki announced she would step down earlier this month, criticizing the authorities’ handling of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and describing a chaotic and ineffective approach to tackling the crisis in a lengthy post to her Facebook page.

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