At the height of Israel’s battle against COVID-19 last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned several Knesset members from his Likud party that if reports from overseas of patients who had recovered from the virus again testing positive for it were accurate, humanity could be wiped out, a TV report claimed on Friday night.
“There are reports from overseas about reinfection,” Channel 12 news said the unnamed Likud MKs recalled Netanyahu saying. “If this is true,” the prime minister reportedly went on, “the significance could be the end of humanity.”
Others with whom the prime minister spoke to, the TV report said, do not remember him using that precise phrase, but say he warned that the pandemic could lead to “scenarios of global anarchy.”
The extraordinary quotes were part of a report on the warnings reportedly delivered by Netanyahu and Israel’s Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov to cabinet ministers and others handling the crisis in recent weeks. Imposing stringent lockdown policies since March, Israel has kept its death toll down to 245, and 11,000 of its 16,400 cases have recovered. In the last few days, it has been gradually easing many restrictions.
Netanyahu also expressed concern about reinfection on at least two occasions in public forums.
On April 13, in a speech to the nation, he said: “I would like to share with you one detail that the government of South Korea recently published: It said that 91 people who recovered from the coronavirus were diagnosed again as sick. We are checking this. If it is correct, the reality is far more complex than we formerly believed because it would seem that immunity to the virus is not automatic immunity. It could be that the virus can reawaken and cause infection in wide circles.”
And in a video conference hosted by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on April 24, Netanyahu said: “The most important questions I have is ‘do we have instances of reinfection?’”
Netanyahu has won widespread public support for his handling of the crisis, according to recent opinion polls, although there has been heavy criticism of government failures to expedite grants and loans to help the battered economy. Simultaneously, he has also negotiated a unity government with his rival Benny Gantz, after coming close to losing power in three deadlocked elections, and is set to swear in his new government on May 13 and remain prime minister for at least the next 18 months.
According to the Friday TV report, Bar Siman-Tov warned early in the crisis, in mid-March, that Israel could find itself in the same dire situation as Italy and Spain, and was still warning on April 6, when the rate of infection was plainly slowing, that Israel could lose control of the pandemic
For his part, Netanyahu told ministers in a series of Zoom meetings in late March that Israel could have 1 million patients and 10,000 fatalities by the end of April, with hospitals overwhelmed.
Both Netanyahu and Bar Siman-Tov made similar predictions publicly.
Warning of the imperative to “save the lives of tens of thousands” of Israelis from the coronavirus, Netanyahu on March 12 described the pandemic as “a global and national incident the likes of which Israel has never known.” The last threat to which the coronavirus could be likened, he said, was the Spanish flu, “which raged worldwide” in 1918. “Tens of millions of people died from it,” he noted, “at a time when the world population was a quarter of today’s.”
And on March 22, he said the pandemic could turn out to be the worst threat to humanity since the Middle Ages; even the scientists, he asserted, were praying to the Creator for inspiration and salvation.
Accused in recent days of sowing panic and pushing the economy unnecessarily toward meltdown, he insisted on Monday: “We weren’t scaring people; we’ve been saving people… Israel’s achievements are a model for many other countries.”
Had Israel not taken the steps he ordered, he and Bar Siman-Tov have also said that their bleak predictions would have been borne out.
Announcing wide easing of regulations on Monday, Netanyahu noted that Israel’s death toll was extremely low by comparison to other OECD states. Channel 12 noted, however, that many nearby countries have fared even better, suggesting the region had generally escaped the worst of the virus.
The death tolls in Syria (3), Jordan (9), Lebanon (26), Egypt (482), Cyprus (19) and Greece (148), the report said, indicated that Israel’s impressive performance was not exceptional for the region. It is by no means clear, however, that all of those nations match Israel’s capacity to accurately track and record deaths caused by COVID-19.