Virus czar says infection rate in Arab areas a ‘catastrophe,’ opposes lockdown

Ronni Gamzu also reiterates opposition to Hasidic pilgrimage to Ukrainian city, indicates he may resign if government doesn’t heed his advice

Coronavirus czar Roni Gamzu during a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the Jerusalem city hall on August 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Coronavirus czar Roni Gamzu during a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the Jerusalem city hall on August 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the top official directing Israel’s coronavirus response, warned Tuesday that rising infection rates in the Arab community were a “catastrophe” and that a similar scenario could play out among the ultra-Orthodox if a mass annual pilgrimage to a rabbi’s grave in Ukraine is allowed to go ahead.

At a press conference, Gamzu noted that Arab-majority areas have been seeing a large spike in coronavirus infections.

“Weddings and events are being held in Arab society. Local authorities see it and feel very very unsettled, because this is creating infection cycles,” he said. “I call on Arab society and leaders to act. This is a catastrophe.”

He noted his continued opposition to lockdown measures, but said that Israel’s infection rate is among the highest in the world, creating a “complicated situation, perhaps among the most complicated in the world.”

Health Ministry figures Tuesday morning showed that 1,888 new coronavirus infections were detected on Monday, the highest figure since July 29. Some 21,000 Israelis are currently active carriers of the virus and an estimated 58,000 people are in isolation.

Worryingly, the figures also showed 424 patients seriously ill with COVID-19, the highest number yet, marking a steady rise over the past month, from 315 on July 27 to 358 on August 6, and 379 on August 16.

Another 12 people died of the virus between Monday evening and Tuesday morning, bringing the death toll to 856.

It is too early to determine whether the rising infection rate is a statistical blip or a significant turnaround for generally steady detection rates over the past month.

Shamir Medical Center personnel at the hospital’s coronavirus ward in Be’er Ya’akov, near Tel Aviv, August 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gamzu said Israel has reached a point where it is expecting to see 400 COVID-19 deaths a month. “We don’t want to reach a situation where we aren’t in control,” he said.

To avoid that, Gamzu said that the Israel Defense Forces is due to take over the country’s epidemiological investigation and contact-tracing duties in about two weeks.

“When it is in operation, this will be a big help,” he said. “Combining the IDF with the contact-tracing headquarters is the way to go, and this is a process that will be built over time.”

Gamzu also said he would “do everything” to prevent tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews from flying to Uman, a Ukrainian city home to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, for an annual pilgrimage on Rosh Hashanah — celebrated this year on September 18-20.

Illustrative. Ultra-Orthodox men seen praying in the streets of Uman, Ukraine during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, September 4, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

“I respect the worshipers, and the harsh messages they are sending me pain me,” said Gamzu, who has vociferously opposed approving flights to Uman. “But I’m not considering [abandoning this] position. If I see I’m not given the tools to bring down morbidity, I [will] have [no reason to stay] in the post.”

Gamzu’s remarks came shortly before Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said that at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request, his country would “significantly” limit the number of worshipers allowed in Uman, without going into specifics. Netanyahu in response denied that he had issued such a request

On Monday night, the coronavirus cabinet extended the current raft of virus restrictions by another week, voting to extend social distancing limits barring large gatherings until August 31.

The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee has 24 hours to overturn the decision or it goes into effect.

Under the extended rules, open-air gatherings are limited to 30 people. In closed spaces, the limit is 20 people. Individuals are required to stand two meters apart in public spaces and businesses.

Those numbers apply to all conferences, festivals, organized trips or parties, as well as religious events and ceremonies — including in private settings.

Workers disinfect a classroom at the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem on June 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Anyone experiencing a fever or respiratory symptoms is not allowed to walk around in public spaces. Cars are limited to three people at a time, including the driver, with the exception of members of the same household.

If the infection rates do not stabilize in the coming week, stronger restrictions are likely to come into force on September 1, the start of the school year.

Monday’s meeting of the coronavirus cabinet was delayed over disagreements between Haredi lawmakers and Gamzu about distancing rules for synagogues and religious seminaries during the coming holiday season.

The heads of the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, respectively, agreed to new restrictions proposed by Gamzu on synagogues. These would see the prayer halls divided into groups of 10, with four square meters of floor space per worshiper.

But disagreements remain over the stiffer restrictions Gamzu is demanding for cities with higher infection rates, many of which are areas with large Haredi populations.

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