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


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 that 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; the country would only move forward if the R was 0.8 or lower and there would be at least two weeks between phases.  

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 the next day. 

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 they 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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