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Outrage as virus czar likens Arab Israeli infection rates to a ‘terror attack’

Odeh: ‘Arab doctors are at the forefront of the fight against virus’; Gamzu apologizes, says he was referring to pandemic’s effect on Arab community

Prof. Ronni Gamzu speaks about infection rates, August 16, 2020 (Screen grab/Ynet)
Prof. Ronni Gamzu speaks about infection rates, August 16, 2020 (Screen grab/Ynet)

Sparking outrage, Israel’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, said on Sunday that the country’s Arab community had carried out “almost a terror attack” with behavior that he warned would result in hundreds of people becoming sick with COVID-19.

“The Arab community has committed in the past fortnight, since Eid al-Adha, almost a terror attack, with hundreds of sick people,” Gamzu said in an interview with the Ynet news site.

“Gatherings, parties, celebrations, complacency, indifference — the feeling that the coronavirus can’t hurt them,” Gamzu said.

Condemnation of Gamzu’s remarks was swift, with many pointing out the high percentage of workers in the healthcare system who come from Arab communities.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh speaks to reporters outside his home in Haifa on March 3, 2020. (Flash90)

The head of the predominantly Arab Joint List party, Ayman Odeh, called on Gamzu to work with the Arab community to defeat the pandemic.

“It is a pity that, while the Arab doctors are at the forefront of the struggle against the coronavirus, [Gamzu] comes out with a statement that harms an entire society. Instead of such unfortunate statements, I invite him to work together to defeat the pandemic,” Odeh said.

MK Aida Touma-Sliman said that Gamzu was using “racist discourse.”

Gamzu later apologized, calling the interpretation of his words a misunderstanding and saying he was using the term “terror attack” to signify the effect on Arab communities.

“The intention behind the term ‘terror attack’ was stated in reference to the virus that causes its highest infection rates in the Arab community, and not society in general, as the headlines suggest,” he said. “I would like to apologize if things were not understood in this way.”

Gamzu also issued a direct appeal to Arab leaders to act to reduce infection rates.

“You have power, I know you,” he said. “You’ll do it far better than the central government. Don’t wait — get help from the Home Front Command and resources from us. Only in this way can morbidity be reduced.”

Gamzu also said that he wanted more responsibility taken within the ultra-Orthodox community, which has also seen high infection rates.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, some wearing protective face mask amid concerns over the country’s coronavirus outbreak, spend the day at a park in Tel Aviv, August 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The Health Ministry on Friday called on the public to avoid going to the Druze town of Yarka in the Western Galilee, due to its high rates of infection. The infection rate in the city on Sunday morning stood at 197 cases per 10,000 residents. The ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modiin Illit had an infection rate of 144 patients per 10,000.

Health Ministry coronavirus figures released Sunday morning showed that 761 new cases had been confirmed in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total number of infections to 92,404. Testing numbers, and therefore positive results, tend to decrease over the weekend.

Illustrative: Magen David Adom workers wearing protective clothing move a patient outside the coronavirus unit at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on July 27, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/ Flash90)

The death toll grew to 679 and there were 396 serious cases, with 114 of them on ventilators. Another 177 patients were in moderate condition, and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The ministry said 9,246 coronavirus test results came back Saturday, of which 8.7 percent were positive.

Meanwhile, workers at national laboratories threatened on Sunday to go on strike from August 30, amid a breakdown in talks over pay and conditions.

“The ministries of finance and health have been playing ping pong with us for more than five years, throwing the responsibility from side to side,” said Esther Admon, chair of the union of biochemists laboratory workers. “One would expect the coronavirus to end this silly saga and clarify the importance of the stability of the laboratories, but even the brightest warning lights do not move anyone.”

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