As COVID third-wave threat looms, gov’t plays pinball with people’s lives

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In the past nine months, the government has zigzagged on its coronavirus policies so fast that the public could not follow them.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz talks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi walks by at a cabinet meeting on June 7 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz talks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi walks by at a cabinet meeting on June 7

(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

How many more Israelis will die before the country puts in place a policy for managing COVID-19 rooted in science instead of politics, populism and ego?

The déjà vu decisions of the coronavirus cabinet this week – which included opening strip malls on Tuesday, classrooms for fifth and sixth graders on the same day next week and returning 11th and 12th graders to school the week after – are likely to set the country backward within two or three weeks, the time it will take to see the effects of these actions on the coronavirus outbreak.

If the government and its new coronavirus commissioner continue to establish weak policies (and then break them), the public can assume that Israel will be locked down again by winter, hundreds more people will die and many thousands more will be out of work.

“It’s hard to watch as the Health Ministry presents a responsible, thorough and data-based framework that provides basic principles for a safe exit from the lockdown, and [then] they simply cast it aside,” Health Ministry head of public services Prof. Sharon Alroy-Preis said in an interview with Army Radio after strip malls opened.

On Tuesday, when the stores opened, long lines of people were seen crowded outside these shops, where Health Ministry guidelines allow only four people to shop at a time. The scene led MK Yakov Asher – whose Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Wednesday reviewed the cabinet’s decision – to demand that Alroy-Preis rethink the guidelines once again and allow more customers in larger stores.

“We need to make sure there are no fights outside,” Asher noted. “Maybe we need to think about a correction in this matter.”

To this, Alroy-Preis responded: “Commerce was supposed to open only in the third stage – because the epidemiological data behind it was that in the second stage, the only businesses that would open would have a small number of customers at a time. When they decided to open street shops, we tried to preserve the same epidemiological principle.”

But in the end, the Health Ministry said it would consider rethinking the plans. By the time of this writing, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein had already said he supported allowing one person per seven meters in any store.

Alroy-Preis should not be surprised.

In the past nine months, the government has zigzagged on its coronavirus policies so fast that the public struggled to follow them, and many eventually just stopped doing so.

Israel’s coronavirus downfall began on May 26, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his infamous address to share “some happy news” – the government approved opening restaurants, pubs, large parks and swimming pools.

“We want to help the economy” but also to “ease your lives, to make it possible for you to get out, return to normalcy, get a cup of coffee, a glass of beer as well – so first of all have fun.”

Schools had already resumed in full – a decision that was made so late that some institutions failed to open at the time requested, and as the infection rate had already slowly started to climb.

Around the same time, newly appointed minister Edelstein began in his role, promising that Israel would screen 100,000 people per day by November 1. There were 56,613 people tested on Tuesday this week – just over half of the committed number.

Netanyahu’s focus shifted quickly from COVID-19 to God’s covenant with the Jewish people and dreams of annexation. While the death rate climbed from being the lowest per capita in the world to the highest, the prime minister no longer appeared on the evening news to beg Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz for a unity government that could save the country from the wrath of the virus.

Instead, Edelstein would occasionally speak to the nation, promising that a coronavirus “czar” would be hired to help direct policy and teach Israel how to “dance with the virus.”

It took some months later until August to hire Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the director-general of Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, who committed to do the job for only three months.

Gamzu moved fast, rolling out his traffic-light program within only a couple of weeks. But it took the government three weeks to vote on whether to implement it.

This was because the traffic-light program involved locking down cities with the highest level of infection, which at the time were mostly ultra-Orthodox – a political nightmare for a prime minister who is relying on the haredim to hold his fragile coalition together and help keep him out of jail.

When Gamzu unveiled his stratified plan, Israel still had time to regain control of the infection. But in less than two weeks, the cabinet flip-flopped so fast that rules were broken even before they went into effect.

The traffic-light program passed on a Sunday, August 30. On the following Thursday, the cabinet decided that with the coronavirus infection rate spiking to unprecedented numbers, some 30 red zones would be locked down.

On Friday, the government clarified that not all 30 red zones would be closed, but only the eight to 10 “deepest” ones – which would be finalized early the next week.

The next Sunday, the government retracted its decision to shut down any cities. Instead, amid extreme pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, it approved imposing only “night curfews” on 40 red cities – the same night curfews that all health officials maintain have little to no impact on controlling infection.

Then, less than a week later, the government voted to partially lock down the entire country for at least three weeks. And less than a week after that, the cabinet shut down the country almost entirely.

Between May 26 and September 18, while the government made a decision to make no decisions, 888 Israelis died – an average of 55 people per week.

Once again, the cabinet has taken the country hostage with its indecisiveness.

On October 11, the Health Ministry revealed the detailed plan for the country’s exit strategy, which was voted on by the coronavirus cabinet the next day.

According to the plan, the first stage would begin when the country’s reproduction rate, otherwise known as R, was not more than 0.8 – meaning that one coronavirus patient infects less than one other person – and when there would be 2,000 or fewer new corona patients per day.

The defining factor of the plan was that it would center on data and not dates, the Health Ministry maintained.

When asked by The Jerusalem Post, on the day she revealed the strategy, whether populism would get in the way of carrying out the program, Alroy-Preis responded with a simple answer: “I am not sure.”

And so it was that a week later, on October 18, that non-customer-facing businesses began to operate. Restaurants started providing takeaway service and beaches and nature reserves opened up. At the same time, children between the ages of newborn and six returned to school.

Two weeks after blurring the stages of the original exit strategy, reducing its nine stages to six, the second stage commenced.

But at the meeting that was meant to approve the start of stage three – when the country hoped that students in grades five, six, 11 and 12 would return to school and street shops would open – the infection rate was too high. The R was close to one and there were more than 500 new cases per day – the number required to move on to stage three.

It is likely that infection did not decrease as the professionals had hoped, because the ultra-Orthodox opened up their system entirely and the government failed (or refused) to shut them down or fine them enough to deter them. And also, because the Arab sector continued to hold mass weddings while police turned a blind eye.

Despite the numbers – and as scenes of self-employed, small business owners filled the streets, threatening suicide – the cabinet caved and allowed street shops to open.

On November 15, coronavirus cabinet ministers met again. After seven hours of heated debate, Netanyahu abruptly closed the meeting without resolution. The next day, he presented the cabinet with a plan that he, Gantz and the head of the National Security Council basically came up with on their own. In minutes, the cabinet approved the plan and strip malls were opened.

On the day that the cabinet voted to throw out the staged exit strategy driven by facts and figures, the R was 1.06 – the highest it had been since September.

Now, with the stages blended together – and less than a week between increased openings and a message sent to the public that it cannot trust the government’s decision to be epidemiologically sound – the third wave can be expected to burn through Israel like a fuse on fire, destroying anything in its path.

But whereas it took four months between the start of the second wave and its peak, the numbers of sick and dead are likely to rise much faster this time. In the summer, people were outside; with winter rains and cold and people huddled indoors, the virus is likely to spread more rapidly.

Health officials have been warning for months that “flurona” – the combination of the flu and the coronavirus in winter – could be the straw that breaks the health system’s back.

After the first wave, there was so much hope for little Israel, with its population of 9.5 million, controllable borders and Start-Up Nation drive to beat this pandemic.

Now, the people are being arbitrarily smacked around in a never-ending game of national pinball.

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