Throughout the coronavirus crisis, Professor Sigal Sadetsky, head of the public health services division of the Ministry of Health, played the proverbial bad cop in history. She repeatedly expressed disappointment at the high incidence of the disease in Israel and sounded the alarm that the worst was yet to come. But for a minute or two in an interview with Channel 12 News on Friday evening, Sadetsky allowed himself a little optimism. “We managed to flatten the curve,” she said. “I’m happy to say that we are in good shape. “
Israel is not the only place to be proud of how it has coped with the pandemic. Even in New York State, which still knows nearly 800 deaths per day due to the virus, spoke this weekend of a turn in the curve – a confession that, at least for now, the darkest predictions are not coming true. In Italy and Spain, two of the hardest hit countries in Western Europe, the number of new cases every day is declining; the number of deaths every day has been falling for two weeks. However, every day more than 500 people die from COVID-19 in each of these countries.
The figures in Israel, of course, are much, much lower in terms of death, number of people in critical condition and people on ventilation. But while the most pessimistic predictions have not materialized, there is reason to fear that the reckless lifting and without proper control of the increasingly strict lock could trigger a more widespread epidemic. A group of National Security Council consultants said in a document, the contents of which were reported by public broadcaster Kan, that the first steps to facilitate the lockdown can begin once the number of new COVID-19 cases is reported each day drops to around 10.
There are only two problems with this promising theory. One: Right now, even with all the restrictions in place, there are still a few hundred new cases every day. Two: the low number of tests and the continuous slowness of the tests undermines the credibility of the figures. The only way to get closer to the goal is to speed up the whole testing process so that people who have come into contact with a patient can be found within hours of returning the results.
Emergency regulations have reduced the workforce in most workplaces to 15% of their pre-pandemic level. The Ministry of Finance plans to increase this rate to 30%, with cabinet approval. Certain sectors, such as aviation, tourism, leisure and entertainment, restaurants and conferences, will remain closed. And unfortunately for parents, the schools will not reopen anytime soon. (If that reassures you, New York announced on Saturday that its public schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year.)
The finance ministry’s exit plan would keep seniors at home indefinitely. It would be very difficult. And what about young people with conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to the virus? The gradual return to economic activity increases the risk for them and will prevent many from working as long as the coronavirus continues to affect the Israelis.
In the United States, as in Israel, a wide range of exit strategies is being explored, although the pandemic is far from over. All of them call for a gradual exit over a period of about 18 months and include severe restrictions on freedom of movement and breaches of privacy, justified by the need to collect information on the spread of the virus.
The situation in Israel is not very different. An essential element of any such plan is the development of a coronavirus vaccine. Scientists are optimistic about the possibility, but they all say it will take at least another 12 to 18 months.
But the story does not end there. Global vaccine manufacturing capacity is limited. Big countries, like China and the United States, want to make sure their own citizens are first in line. Israel is largely alone. If the experiments at the Israeli Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona are successful, there could be an Israeli contribution to the global effort. And who knows, that could perhaps help improve relations with other countries in the region.
The government’s zigzags on Passover closures continued during the first part of the holidays, from Wednesday evening to Thursday evening. As a first step, it was proposed to impose additional specific curfews on Haredi communities, whose rates of coronavirus infection are well above the national average. The retreat of members of the ultra-Orthodox cabinet caused the withdrawal of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the midst of this came the news of a flagrant violation of the city wall that the state erected at Ben Gurion International Airport against the pandemic. A few days after the media warned of the problem and the cabinet promised to solve it, flights from New York, Ukraine and other destinations continue to land without anyone meeting the passengers, checking their state and ensures that they enter solitary confinement for two weeks in accordance with emergency regulations. As expected, the news triggered a series of finger pointing among officials, and Netanyahu ordered the suspension of all incoming passenger flights until a solution was found.
Then there is the tragedy that takes place in many nursing homes across the country. More than a month after identifying the first person infected with Migdal Nofim in Jerusalem, the coronavirus continues to rage in dozens of assisted living centers, the residents of which are responsible for almost a third of all deaths caused by COVID-19. No agency has taken responsibility for resolving the problem, and in the meantime, the departments of Health and Human Services and the Army Home Front Command’s commercial charges.
To the list of this year’s maddening Passover plagues, we can add the respective government emergency regulations violations by Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, who each celebrated the seder on Wednesday evening with family members who did not not live with them. (Rivlin at least issued some sort of apology, while Netanyahu only passed on his attack trolls to journalists who exposed his transgression.)
Israelis are asked to make a huge sacrifice as part of the effort to flatten the infection curve. Many have given up their way of life, abandoned their communal religious rituals, reduced their family ties and consented to unprecedented invasions of privacy. In addition, many are paying a huge economic price that will only increase over time. When the country’s leaders openly flout the guidelines, they send the message that there is one law for them and another for ordinary people. The success of the virus mitigation policy depends above all on public cooperation.
At the heart of the crisis, the state is not transparent about how it is managing the pandemic and does not provide enough data on the incidence of the disease. The latest incidents, which further erode public confidence in government considerations, are likely to prevent the fight against the virus from succeeding.
Some good news from Gaza
In a sea of bad news, a good thing was reported this weekend by public broadcaster Kan: dozens of nurses, doctors and other medical personnel from the Gaza Strip have recently been trained at Barzilai Medical Center at Ashkelon and passing Erez in techniques to treat patients with coronavirus. The fact that the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip allowed this proves two things: that the threat posed by the virus is greater and more urgent than ideological enmity, and that perhaps there is still a chance conclude a humanitarian agreement that could ultimately lead to the return of Israeli civilians and the remains of detained soldiers to Gaza.