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PM: 'The potential number of deaths is very high'

Israel closes schools, universities as Netanyahu issues dire coronavirus warning

Decision doesn’t include kindergartens, special education and boarding schools; PM warns of ‘a global event unlike anything’ the country has seen, calls for emergency government

Students arrive to Hadar Elementary School in Kfar Yona, on March 12, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)
Students arrive to Hadar Elementary School in Kfar Yona, on March 12, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Thursday that Israel would be closing schools and universities effective Friday as part of measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, calling the pandemic “a global event unlike anything” the country had ever seen.

“We are closing the schools and the universities,” the premier announced on live television.

He said the closure didn’t include preschools and kindergartens, special education and boarding schools, adding that a decision would be made for those institutions soon.

In a prime-time speech from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Netanyahu warned that “the potential number of deaths is very high and we must take action to prevent that.”

He said the mortality rate from the virus, which he put at between two and four percent, was “very high.” There have so far been no deaths from the virus in Israel, where there have been 109 confirmed cases.

“We are in the midst of a global event unlike anything else in the history of the state’s existence,” he said, offering a dire warning of the potential death toll if most of the population is infected and even comparing the situation to the 1918 Spanish Flu, which infected some 500 million people — 27% of the world’s population at the time — and killed between 17 and 50 million people, according to estimations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

He said Israel’s efforts were focused on slowing the spread of the virus so that it doesn’t cause masses of sick to require medical attention at the same time and overwhelm the healthcare system.

Stepping up the current ban on gatherings of more than 100 people, Netanyahu called on the public to “refrain as much as possible from gatherings in general.”

Education Minister Rafi Peretz, center, during a situations assessment regarding the spread of the coronavirus at the Education Ministry in Jerusalem, March 12, 2020. (Education Minitry)

He repeated health authorities’ recommendations to keep personal hygiene, wash hands frequently, avoid shaking hands or touching one’s face — and to keep a distance from one another. He said the minimal recommended distance was one meter and preferably two meters.

He called on families to avoid having grandparents babysit children, saying that, instead, “the big children will take care of the smaller children.”

Netanyahu said he was committed to fighting the virus and said he was cooperating extensively with world leaders on the matter. “All of humanity is in the same boat,” he said.

He called on his political rival, the Blue and White party headed by Benny Gantz, to join him and immediately form an emergency government following a year-long political deadlock.

“It would be an emergency government for a limited time, and we will fight together to save the lives of tens of thousands of citizens,” he said.

Hebrew-language media reports said Netanyahu had invited Gantz to meet with him Thursday night.

Israel has had three elections in less than a year, with the last vote last week seeming to yield yet another stalemate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After Netanyahu’s speech, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman took the stage and said his ministry was aiming to greatly expand the number of Israelis tested every day for COVID-19, from the current 600 to 2,000 and more.

On Wednesday Netanyahu announced the 100-person limit on gatherings as part of increasingly strict measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus in the country. The ban includes synagogue prayer and weddings, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov elaborated.

The new restrictions were announced as the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.

There have so far been 109 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Israel, many of them contracted by travelers who recently returned from abroad.

Worldwide, there have been over 118,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and nearly 4,300 deaths.

Prior to the new restrictions, public gatherings in Israel had been limited to 2,000 people, including for religious events.

To curb the spread of the virus in the country, all Israelis returning from overseas are required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Non-Israeli nationals were barred from entering the country on Thursday at 8 p.m., unless they can demonstrate an ability to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The quarantine measures are among the most dramatic to be introduced by any nation in the intensifying battle against the coronavirus. On February 26, Israel had become the first country in the world to advise its citizens against all non-essential overseas travel.

Ireland on Thursday announced the closure of all schools and colleges, and recommended the cancellation of mass gatherings as part of measures to combat the spread of the virus. In the US, dozens of colleges have suspended classes and told students to stay away from campuses, with some offering online learning instead.

AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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