How Israel Screwed Up: Anatomy of Catastrophe

By Shlomo Maital

This is the story of how Israel, and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, totally screwed up how it handled the pandemic. This, after congratulating itself for being a “model for all nations”. It is based on an article in today’s daily Haaretz by Ido Efrati. It will take me only 695 words. And they are almost too painful to write. Because it is my country, and it is unbearable to see what our leaders have done to it.

   According to the Israeli government press office: as late as on May 7, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, today, participated in a conference of the leaders of the countries at the forefront of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, [whose leaders] sought to learn from the Israeli model for dealing with outbreak zones.”   Really??

   Ten costly mistakes that cost lives:

  1. Very few nurses have been assigned to do contact tracing. And they are not well coordinated. A new contact tracing center does not yet operate – it hasn’t yet received the necessary authority. It now takes 6 days or more to trace a patient’s contacts – it has to be 24-48 hours to stop an outbreak.
  2. PM Netanyahu decided to open all schools fully for all grades in mid-May. He scrapped the previous system of ‘capsules’, and small groups.   And days later, the new Health Minister Y. Edelstein scrapped the requirement that kids wear masks. Too hot, he said. So much for getting adults to wear masks. Schools spread the virus and soon hundreds had to close and quarantine teachers and kids.
  3. It has taken many months for the Health Ministry to increase daily tests to 25,000. Only on May 31 did the Health Minister say that asymptomatic people should be tested, too, if they came in contact with someone infected. Only on June 22 did Dr. Sadetzki (Health Ministry official) order officials to test those quarantined within 48 hours. Result: Many carriers spread the virus widely before they were identified.
  4. Until a week ago, the Health Ministry used a strategy of declaring ‘red zones’ (local hotspots). But because the virus is now so widespread, this failed utterly. And under pressure, the Ministry backed down.
  5. Israelis are exhausted, hungry and jobless. After the PM and other leaders made empty promises and false claims, they no longer believe what they are told. Police are trying to enforce mask-wearing, with little success. Moreover, both the President of Israel and the Prime Minister of Israel broke quarantine laws during Jewish religious holydays, inviting relatives against then-strict lockdown rules – and the Press reported it. This infuriated many Israelis and led to widespread defiance. Now, only about a quarter of those who should be in quarantine actually do so, according to the Health Ministry.
  6. Five months after the pandemic broke out in Israel, critical information is missing. What proportion of Israelis are asymptomatic, with virus? We don’t know. How long does it take to trace patients’ contacts? We don’t know.
  7. Israel has a well-staffed professional experience organization that can best deal with the pandemic. It is the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front command. It has almost infinite manpower, able to call up trained soldiers for reserve duty. Yet the Prime Minister stubbornly refuses to mobilize the Home Front Command. The reason is transparent. Home Front is under the Defense Ministry, and Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz is Defense Minister. What if, heaven forbid, the Home Front succeeded? Gantz would get the credit. No way. It will not happen. As with Trump, Bibi is only, and totally, about Bibi, and not Israel or its wellbeing.
  8. “Israel’s decision making, from the earliest stages of the crisis, has been influenced by only a handful of professionals. …Many professional associations are furious that they can’t even get a foot in the door to influence decision-making.”
  9. “The coronavirus crisis has laid bare years of neglect in the public health system, including its diagnostic laboratories.” The country’s 37 diagnostic labs have for months relied on student volunteers to help. There are too few doctors and too few hospital beds.
  10. And the previous Health Minister, appointed in July 2015, allowed the healthcare infrastructure to degrade – believe it or not, while most civilized nations appoint doctors or veteran healthcare managers to head the Health Ministry, Israel appointed an ultra-Orthodox Hassid who once came to a key pandemic press conference wearing his bear-fur hat in celebration of the Jewish festival Purim. During the pandemic, while in office, he persistently fought against lockdown restrictions on the ultra-Orthodox – and partly as a result, they have suffered disproportionately many cases and deaths.