Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday that the coronavirus was a pandemic more severe than any disease outbreak in the past century, as a senior official said Israel was likely hours away from placing restrictions on flights arriving from some parts of the United States.
“First of all, this is a global pandemic, whether the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) calls it such or not. It is a matter of days or hours. It is doubtful whether there has been a similar pandemic in the last 100 years. It seems that the rate of infection is greater than we figured.”
He went on: “The assumption that the virus will disappear or evaporate in hot weather is unproven. At the moment, this has no basis that we can build on. The virus is currently spreading to Africa. There is no vaccine and anti-viral drugs are ineffective. Economies are starting to be hurt. Governments are ordering their gates closed. This is important for the supply of products for all economies. Nobody knows how the pandemic will end.”
Twenty-five Israelis are currently known to be infected with the virus, the latest four of whom were announced on Saturday night. One of the 25, a bus driver who ferried Greek pilgrims who later turned out to be infected with virus, is in serious condition. This patient, 38, “is fighting for his life,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu said he was in touch with other world leaders and had discussed international cooperation to stem the spread of the outbreak. The virus hit a milestone Friday, infecting more than 100,000 people worldwide. It has killed nearly 3,400 people.
The prime minister said that the virus did not seem to infect youth and children. He said he wanted members of security forces and youth groups to disinfect public places.
The director-general of the Health Ministry, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, indicated Saturday night that Israel was about to place restrictions on flights arriving from some parts of the US. Israel would not take action against all flights from the US, but would act on a state-by-state basis, he said.
Specifying flights from New York, Washington, and California, he said a decision would be announced later Saturday or Sunday.
Israel has already required returning Israelis from several countries to self-quarantine, and barred foreigners from a slew of European and Asian countries. Some 80,000 Israelis are now reported to be in self-quarantine, and large events such as concerts and sporting matches have been canceled.
Israelis have also been advised against all non-vital international travel.
Over the weekend the Health Ministry added San Marino and Andorra to its list of quarantine countries. Holland is shortly expected to be added to the list.
Channel 13 reported that hundreds of suspected cases in Israel were not checked over the weekend because the health system is overwhelmed.
Air France said on Saturday it had halted all flights between Paris and Tel Aviv until March 28.
Lufthansa, Iberia, Wizz Air and Alitalia have already canceled flights to Israel.
Israel on Wednesday barred entry to almost all non-residents of the Jewish state arriving from France, Germany, Spain, Austria and Switzerland. The measures come on top of restrictions previously imposed on arrivals from mainland China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Macau, South Korea, Japan and Italy.
Netanyahu set out five steps he said he intended to submit to an international conference call with world leaders in the next few days:
First, “we must disinfect public installations. This virus is sensitive to bleach and we must act in an orderly way to disinfect railway stations, bus stations, etc. To this end, over the vacation period, which may be extended, I will mobilize young people, both in schools and in youth movements, in a very meticulous way, to help with the disinfection. I will also ask the IDF to take care of certain installations.”
Second, he said, “I intend to enlist the air force and make certain that we have the essential supply for Israel. I said that the supply chain has been interrupted for essential things as well, including drugs and raw materials for drugs.
“Third, I seek to open a line of credit in order to provide a response for businesses and companies that will feel the pressure.
“Fourth, we will mobilize the best minds in Israel in order to develop a broad test in order to ensure an industrial testing ability that will separate between ill and healthy people.”
Finally, he said, “We will continue to watch over the Israeli economy. Without this, things would bring about a two-fold – economic and industrial – collapse. It is within our ability to change this.”
Netanyahu said Israel was likely better off than any other country and that he would push for intensified international cooperation.
“I’ll continue to do everything necessary to protect the health of the citizens of Israel. I ask that you to strictly follow the directives,” he said. “Don’t shake hands. Don’t touch your face, if you need to, use a tissue or something else. These are the things that will reduce the spread of the epidemic.