Mass ultra-Orthodox wedding 'drives me insane, angers me'

Israel has world’s highest per capita COVID-19 morbidity rate, virus czar says

Ronni Gamzu says country must reduce number of daily cases to ‘hundreds’ by September, or be forced again into lockdown

Ronni Gamzu attends a Finance Committee meeting in the Knesset, April 23, 2014. (Flash90)
Ronni Gamzu attends a Finance Committee meeting in the Knesset, April 23, 2014. (Flash90)

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu on Thursday said Israel’s relative COVID-19 infection rates were the highest in the world, and warned that the country could face another nationwide lockdown if daily cases were not brought down to “hundreds” by September 1.

“Israel has the highest morbidity in the world per capita,” said Gamzu in a livestreamed briefing to reporters, saying the situation “cannot continue.”

It was unclear what data the health official tasked with overseeing Israel’s response to the virus was basing this assessment on, and whether he was referring to the overall rate or the rate of increase in recent weeks. According to various global rankings, including Worldometer, Israel ranks 16th to 19th in terms of cases per million people — behind the US, Gulf states, and some Latin American countries — with all cases since the start of the pandemic tallied.

“The goal of the Israeli government is to reduce the morbidity to the level of hundreds of patients ahead of September,” continued Gamzu. “This is a very difficult task, but it is the goal. It is important not only for the health situation, but also for the economy.”

In his comments, Gamzu defended the government’s decision to hold off on a nationwide closure for now, though he indicated that if the number of daily cases doesn’t drop by September 1, Israel will have no choice but to take that step.

A man wearing a face mask bikes past shops in Jerusalem’s Old City on August 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The meaning of a lockdown is obvious to us all,” he said, adding that he was pleased the government had unanimously accepted his recommendation to avoid a nationwide closure and impose it only as a last resort.

“After consultations with all the experts in Israel, our direction is that we will wait on the drastic steps, out of consideration for the economic situation,” Gamzu said.

He also condemned mass gatherings in violation of the health rules, specifically a wedding by the Belz Hasidic sect on Wednesday that drew thousands of people in Jerusalem.

“What we saw yesterday is the potential for mass infection. It drives me insane, it angers me,” he said. “We must be more strict. Not after the event — before the event. I turn to the Haredi community and say: Something like this is certain to cause contagion and, if there are elderly people, it definitely will lead to seriously ill people.”

The virus czar also presented his color-coded system, under which cities and towns will see virus restrictions adapted to their local rates of infection. In “red” cities, he said, the highest level, schools may not open in the fall, he said, while “green” cities will see loosened restrictions on gatherings and outdoor events.

His comments came as 1,751 new virus cases were recorded in the previous 24 hours, keeping with the daily trend in the past several weeks. Israel successfully drove down infection rates to the low dozens after a lockdown in March and April, but the cases again climbed when the economy was reopened in May. Some 78,000 COVID-19 infections have been diagnosed overall, and 53,000 have recovered.

At Gamzu’s prodding, the government decided on Wednesday to cancel weekend closures on shopping centers, stores and markets that had been implemented to stymie the spread of the coronavirus, after establishing that the regulations weren’t driving down infection rates.

Israelis, wearing face masks to protect from the coronavirus, shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on July 21, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The so-called coronavirus cabinet announced the move, which will take effect this weekend, after an hours-long meeting that also saw ministers agree to work to resume air travel in 11 days, and lift restrictions on recreational activities in public parks.

In addition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the government will begin implementing the color-coding system.

“No country in the world with a high rate of infection like Israel’s is handling the crisis without a lockdown. The Israeli government is sensitive to the delicate socioeconomic situation and public hardships and gave me trust in a way that does not include a full closure,” Gamzu said after Wednesday’s meeting, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“This is likely the last opportunity for moderation. If morbidity does not decrease within two weeks, we will be forced to consider restrictions including the possibility of local or national lockdowns,” he said.

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