Certain sectors, including the Haredim, said, 'Why only us?'

Public pressure, misplaced trust led to virus rebound — deputy health minister

Yoav Kisch tells lawmakers every attempt at targeted closures failed because industries, communities and individuals rejected them as unfair and broke the rules

People wear face masks at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on September 30, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People wear face masks at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on September 30, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The deputy health minister told the Knesset on Thursday that the government was imposing sweeping closures and lockdowns because all attempts at more limited and targeted closures had been rejected by Israeli society.

“The State of Israel and the government of Israel failed in implementing differential restrictions,” he told the Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee.

“Differential restrictions” are targeted closures and prohibitions meant to rein in infections in certain areas or industries in order to avoid the need for a broader shutdown of the country.

Over the last several months the government has abandoned several plans designed to keep infections rates from returning to pre-lockdown levels, including phased openings of businesses and schools and localized restrictions. Most measures fell victim to heavy pressure from either industry groups or local politicians and residents angered that their areas were being singled out.

The result has been a return to a full national lockdown, imposed late last month, as infection rates have skyrocketed to make the country among the most morbid in the world.

The government first tried to implement closures “in certain vocations,” Kisch noted, “but lobbyists in the Knesset prevented us from pushing forward with a closure of certain types of businesses. Gyms, restaurants — you were all sympathetic to their plight, me too. The restaurateurs asked us, ‘Why only us? Why are you closing us?'”

The result, he said, was that those businesses were not closed, and morbidity rates soared.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch speaking by video to the Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee, October 1, 2020. (Channel 13 screen capture)

“We failed also to differentiate between areas. Certain sectors applied certain pressures, including the Haredi community. They said, ‘Why only us?’

“Now you can start accusing or not, but the fact is it was very hard to push through a differential regional [closure].”

A similar thing happened with the Arab community, he said.

“When we said weddings are [epicenters of] contagion and we closed event halls, we thought we were doing the right thing. But now we know that, especially in the Arab community, they defied the restrictions, despite enforcement and despite everything, and put on events that led to uncontrollable outbreaks in their communities.”

He added: “I’m intentionally addressing all the different aspects [of the failure] in order to say that we’re all in the same cauldron here. I’m not grading communities. The responsibility is also on the government. The State of Israel has not shown that it’s capable of fighting this pandemic in a targeted way. Period. We can argue why and how, but we’re at a point where things are the worst we’ve ever seen.”

People walk by closed shops at Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall on October 1, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Kisch’s comments came in response to opposition lawmakers on the committee who criticized the sweeping lockdown of the country and asked why anti-government protests couldn’t be permitted if protesters remained in their cars, observing social distancing rules.

“I’m not saying there’s an epidemiological problem with that,” Kisch replied, noting that current social distancing rules “allow us to continue working in factories or high-tech companies, but we’re preventing that too.”

The problem was trust. “When people are allowed to travel between towns,” no matter the reason, “that’s an opening that will neutralize our ability to prevent infection. If we allow people to leave, we allow all those who will scheme and trick; everyone will do whatever they want.”

Kisch’s comments came shortly after a top Health Ministry official explained that restrictions on flying out of the country were partly imposed for psychological reasons as well.

The ministry’s head of public health services, Dr. Sharon Elari-Price, said the flight restrictions were about “equality” more than genuine coronavirus concerns, in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster.

Medical professionals in full protective equipment work in in the critical care coronavirus unit, which was built in an underground parking garage at Sheba Medical center in Ramat Gan, September 30, 2020, amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

“It is hard to tell people in the State of Israel that they have restrictions and they cannot move, but those who have money can buy a plane ticket,” she said. She clarified that there is a health risk to flying, but said the epidemiological risks alone don’t justify the ban.

The Israeli government slapped restrictions on outgoing flights on Friday as part of a slew of measures to bolster the virus lockdown. In doing so, the government stopped the sale of airline tickets, while allowing those who had already bought tickets to depart the country.

The Health Ministry announced on Thursday morning that a record-high nearly 9,000 new coronavirus cases were diagnosed a day earlier, as infections continued to climb and worries mounted of hospitals being overwhelmed by the runaway surge.

According to the ministry, 8,919 new coronavirus cases were recorded on Wednesday, raising the number of infections since the pandemic began to 248,133. The previous high of 8,385 cases in a single day was notched on September 25, but the last several days saw infection numbers drop to a few thousand as testing levels fell off due to the weekend and the Yom Kippur holiday.

Kisch said Thursday that more than 9,000 cases were diagnosed the previous day, and that 854 patients were hospitalized in serious condition with COVID-19. Officials had warned that hospitals would begin to be overwhelmed once the number of serious patients rises above 800.

The Health Ministry said 65,694 tests were performed Wednesday, which also appeared to be a record high. The ministry said 13.6 percent of cases came back positive.

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