Trembling before COVID: 6 things to know for March 31
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Trembling before COVID: 6 things to know for March 31

Early numbers appear to show a leveling off of cases, but there are caveats aplenty, and questions about what to do about Bnei Brak and other ultra-Orthodox coronavirus hotspots

Security forces arrest an ultra-Orthodox man as they close a synagogue in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem, on March 30, 2020 ( Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)
Security forces arrest an ultra-Orthodox man as they close a synagogue in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem, on March 30, 2020 ( Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

1. Reason for hope? There are early signs emerging that Israel’s cases of COVID-19 may be leveling off — as of last week, the number of new infections per 24-hour period has remained steady in the 400 to 500 range, aside from one blip after the weekend when the number shot up by 650.

  • Far from the three-day doubling period that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned about, Israel is nearing an eight-day doubling period, i.e., its cases only double every eight days, according to Channel 12 news (though part of its data is based on another anomaly that appeared to show less than 100 cases in a day).
  • “It is reason for cautious optimism,” Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunotherapy laboratory at Bar-Ilan University, tells The Times of Israel’s Nathan Jeffay.
  • Public health experts tell him the numbers are most likely a sign that measures in place are working, and not even the strictest measures, but those that were in place over a week ago, when Israelis could still roam somewhat freer.
  • “It’s most likely due to confinement and the measures that were taken. From the moment you cut off social connections, you expect to see a slowing of cases,” Cohen says. “You have to take into account that the incubation period for coronavirus is 7 to 14 days, which means the impact of the more drastic measures won’t yet be seen.”
  • Kan notes that Israel’s rate of spread currently stands at 1.17, down from a high of 1.25, which would mean a doubling of cases every 3-4 days. However it also notes the dramatic increase in the number of people on ventilators, which has jumped from 43 to 69 in just three days (not including those taken off because they are deceased).
  • “Compared to the rest of the world we are managing to veer from the rates seen in Italy, Spain and the US, but it’s still not enough,” the channel notes.
  • The cautious optimism comes after Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov told the press that Israel could see thousands of deaths. On Tuesday Walla reports he said that it is too early to say Israel is trending toward leveling off, and warns that the outbreak could flare up again after Passover if people visit relatives.

2. Getting testy: Throwing further cold water on the possibly hopeful numbers, Army Radio notes that the Health Ministry has not published figures for how many tests it has done since March 25, when the number stood at around 5,000 per day.

  • “If we don’t know how many tests are being done — it will be impossible to know if the slowdown comes from success in stopping the spread of the virus, or whether they are simply not doing enough tests,” notes presenter Meir Marciano.
  • Ynet notes “cautious optimism” regarding the possible slowdown but also adds the caveat about the testing, reporting that Defense Minister Naftali Bennett is continuing to push the Health Ministry’s buttons on the subject.
  • “You’re coming down on us, but the Health Ministry hasn’t delivered the goods to have more than 10,000 tests [a day].”
  • In Haaretz, Yossi Melman looks into why the Mossad has been tasked with procuring tests and other equipment, seemingly utilizing its secret contacts with the Gulf, which he says points to a failure in Netanyahu’s management style.
  • “It is likely that the Arab states bought their protective and diagnostic equipment from China. If this is the case, Israel is the only country in the world known to have mobilized its intelligence agency for such a mission. It reflects Netanyahu’s incompetence in managing the crisis,” he writes, noting the premier’s preoccupation with free market capitalism and accusing him of obsessing with micromanaging in order to claim credit. “He is wrapped up in tactics and not in strategy.”
  • In fact, Israel appears to be alone, with the PA also utilizing its intelligence agency to procure tests from China, ToI’s Adam Rasgon reports.
  • The PA was in an even more dire situation: “Before these test kits arrived, we only had hundreds left,” the official tells him. “Now, we have a significant amount.”

3. Cover-up: Israel’s lack of masks is taking center stage, with Health Ministry officials now pushing hard on everyone who ventures outside to have their mug covered.

  • Yedioth notes that Israel, along with much of the West, has dismissed the masks as ineffective against virus. “But after long weeks of confusion around the need for masks or their effectiveness, the Health Ministry is planning on announcing that people should cover their faces,” the paper notes.
  • “Without masks being used we won’t be able to end the closures, since another wave can hit us and put the population right back in lockdown,” an official tells the paper, recommending they use anything, even a shirt, to cover their faces.
  • According to the paper, Israel only has about 10 million masks, which will not be enough.
  • Speaking to the press Tuesday morning, Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov says people may need to make up for the shortage by making their own makeshift masks.
  • “We’re checking with experts how to use makeshift masks. You don’t need to go out with surgical masks or run to the store to buy masks; it will be possible to also use a piece of cloth,” he’s quoted saying by Kan.

4. Bnei bracketed: The Health Ministry may be mum about tests, but it’s finally released its city-by-city data, revealing where the virus hotspots are and basically confirming what had already been reported — that Jerusalem and Bnei Brak are the worst-hit cities.

  • Though Jerusalem has almost 100 more cases, most of the attention is on Bnei Brak, where much attention has been paid to the city’s large ultra-Orthodox community which is now seeing the effects of refusing to heed social distancing rules.
  • Israel Hayom even goes a step further and crowns Bnei Brak coronavirus king, adding 100 cases to its count, seemingly by accident, and catapulting it above Jerusalem.
  • Channel 12 reports that an order placing a cordon on Bnei Brak has been written up and is just awaiting a signature, though from whom it does not say.
  • According to the channel, a closure will keep everyone in their home except for certain cases, and only those who need to enter the city for work will be allowed in.
  • Army Radio reports that Carmel Shama Hacohen, mayor of neighboring Ramat Gan, is pushing for the closure, blaming the city for the high number of cases in his burg as well.
  • But Bnei Brak deputy mayor Gedalyahu Ben Shimon shoots back that “this would place a mark of criminality on the city. Maybe Ramat Gan has a high number of cases because the population there is older?”
  • Others in the city “are starting to catch on,” reports Israel Hayom, quoting from uber-influential Rabbi Haim Kanievsky who said that “anyone who does not listen to doctors orders is a pursuer,” utilizing a Jewish concept denoting someone who comes to kill you, and who one may do almost anything to in order to thwart.

5. Rabbi rousers: Speaking to Yedioth, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman says the situation in the city is “terribly bad,” and says a recent funeral attended by hundreds there was a “disgrace.”

  • He says he is pushing for the closure, even though it might bite him in the tush politically, and claims it has nothing to do with the fact that the population is ultra-Orthodox.
  • “This is with all places, not just Bnei Brak. Anyplace we need a closure, I’ll seek to lock it down,” he says.
  • But Haaretz reports that political considerations are delaying Netanyahu’s decision on placing closures in certain areas, fearful that it could harm his standing with ultra-Orthodox allies.
  • “There is concern that this would look like discrimination, not to mention what this would cost Netanyahu in his coalition negotiations,” the paper’s Amos Harel writes. “There’s a risk that the ultra-Orthodox public will be harmed twice – once by the rabbis’ apathy, and secondly because of their politicians, who one would think would be calling to take all measures possible to protect those who elected them to the Knesset.”
  • The paper also writes that the issue does appear to be germane to the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, which shuns smartphones and other technology that allow easy access to information from outside the community.
  • “Yeshiva students do not have smartphones,” an official tells the paper. “They certainly are not connected to the internet and television. We are doing what we can through posters on the street, loudspeakers on the streets, letters from rabbis – but all this is in the area of giving information. To reach the individual citizen and inform him that he needs to enter isolation is an operation on a completely different scale.”
  • Meanwhile in Jerusalem, Channel 13 airs footage of police officers raiding an early morning prayer service in the Mea Shearim neighborhood, dispersing people and handing out fines.
  • “Onlooker shouted “shiksa, get outta here, scram,” the channel reports, presumably referring to curses slung at the cops, not the praying scofflaws.

6. Money for nothing: As for the rest of the country stuck at home, with business going down the toilet, help is on the way, thanks to an NIS 80 billion package announced — after long delay — on Monday.

  • Israel Hayom crows about the package, while also noting opposition from those who say it is not enough, and quotes Nir Barkat, who is thought to be a contender for the Treasury role once a government is formed, saying he will push a different plan.
  • Columnist Eran Bar-Tal writes that the plan strikes a good balance without giving in to populism. “Governments need to balance between the need to funnel money into the market to keep the economy afloat and the need to keep fiscal and monetary stability for the government and financial systems.”
  • In Yedioth as well, columnist Meirav Batito writes that the package is at least something: “Though it came very delayed, a bit hesitant … does not actually acknowledge the size of the crisis and is devoid of creative solution — it’s good that we finally have an economic plan for the days of corona.”
  • In Haaretz, Avi Waksman writes that dourly cheering the plan’s arrival may even itself be premature: “Many parts of the plan are only sketched out with general titles, and no details. How to carry out is still shrouded in fog.”
  • Stock traders at least seem reassured, with Army Radio reporting on gains following the plan’s announcement.
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