Opinion: While the quarantine has so far proven to be effective in at least slowing down the infection rate, Israel needs a more daring, and informed plan if it is to survive the economic downfall that threatens to swallow the global economy

A few weeks into the coronavirus crisis, and we still do not have an exit plan of any sort to fight the outbreak and get back to normal and pandemonium reigns supreme.

There are university think tanks, high-tech think tanks, a requisition operation room led by the head of the Mossad intelligence agency, an operation room run by the IDF’s special units, and teams who have information to which nobody else is privy.

A man walks past the shuttered stalls in Tel Aviv's normally bustling Carmel Market
A man walks past the shuttered stalls in Tel Aviv’s normally bustling Carmel Market (Photo: EPA)


There is also an ongoing fight between the heads of the healthcare system. Hospital managements are waging war on senior officials at the Health Ministry, and the Health Ministry officials are fighting among themselves.

One day they say we will get more daily virus tests, another they say there is no real need for tests.

Masks? There is no need for masks, says the head of public health at the ministry, Dr. Siegal Sadetzki, only to suddenly declare a day later that masks are a necessity after all (something already known around the world).

Ultimately, one solution keeps cropping up: stricter regulations and stricter quarantine.

חיילי צה"ל עוזרים למשטרה באכיפת הנחיות משרד הבריאות בצל התפשטות הקורונה
Police officers enforce the quarantine in Jerusalem (Photo: Shalev Shalom)


Here are the plain facts: The coronavirus mortality rate in Israel is among the lowest in the world, since the country did right to order quarantine for everyone returning from abroad when the crisis was in its infancy.

The credit for these precautionary measures goes to the heads of the Health Ministry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who identified the threat early.

Mortality rates are low for another reason: Those Israelis who are over 70, the ones who built this country, are a cautious and settled lot. They acted to protect us early by avoiding social events, and, surely with heavy hearts, avoiding seeing their grandchildren.

Except for children, who are not tested, they are actually the sector of the population with the lowest infection rate. Where else in the world has a similar situation? Germany – where the death toll is also low.

The Israeli health system, lean and weakened as it is, is also robust and has come through. The number of critically ill patients in the hospitals is rising, but for now the system is managing to cope with the crisis.

The quarantine works, to a large extent, as it is supposed to work: If the country is closed down, the economy suffers and people stay in their homes, and ergo the rate of infection will decrease.

The curve has indeed flattened quite a bit in recent days, but unfortunately we currently have no idea by how much. The data provided to the Israeli public is incomplete. We know how many daily tests are conducted, but not how many tests are actually analyzed every day.

We also don’t know when the new patients became infected. It sounds technical, I know, but it’s the difference between knowing and not knowing the true situation.

חוף ים ריק תל אביב
Tape keeps people out of one of Tel Aviv beach’s playgrounds (Photo: AFP)


Something else has also happened. As the crisis has unfolded, people have begun to mutter about commissions of inquiry, given the authorities’ constant talk of grim scenarios in which there are thousands of dead and tens of thousands of cases.

But if thousands do indeed die in Israel, it will be a catastrophic failure on part of the Health Ministry and Netanyahu. And us saying “we told you so” will not help.

Alternatively, decision makers fear the credit of success just as much. Netanyahu has consistently refrained from handing over more powers to Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, for fear that any successes would probably be credited to the latter.

Medical and research experts say that tightening the quarantine in recent days would no longer be beneficial.

“The quarantine so far has been effective, and we have reached maximum benefit from it,” they say. “The economic damage is not worth it.”

The experts point to the way in which the infection has largely spread.

“Has an epidemiological report been presented to the government that shows people being infected in the workplace, and therefore a shutdown of factories is required?” they said, adding that there is no need to further hurt people’s livelihoods, “as most of the infection is currently happening within families.”

בנימין נתניהו יעקב ליצמן מאיר בן שבת משה בר סימן טוב
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the public, alongside Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, right, and Health Ministry DG MOshe Bar-Siman-Tov (Photo: Shalev Shalom)


In recent months, Israel has wielded a five-pound hammer called quarantine, and now that hammer has police and IDF patrols out on the streets. While the quarantine buys time, there are a myriad of other responses to be used.

These include extensive tests to detect clusters of infection (rather than waiting for patients to be screened), logistic deployments that help the isolated population remain in the house, pinpoint closures to help reduce infection and creative alternatives for minor coronavirus patients.

Creating a program to reduce the rate of infection will yield realistic goals, help the healthcare system bolster the country’s medical understanding, and help return the economy to at least partial functionality.

No such plan exists while this entire crisis is without a captain to steer the ship.

The decision-makers, all with the best of intentions, act as if they led a disaster-stricken European country or the United States, where there is no universal health care.

But they are in Israel, a small high-tech state that is relatively wealthy. It has a chance to be better than the rest of the world, and so it is disappointing to see them making choices that could lead to the most dire consequences.

מחלקת הקורונה בבית החולים רמבם בחיפה
Treating coronavirus patients at Rambam Healthcare Campus in Haifa (Photo: Rambam Healthcare Campus)


Netanyahu has not defined what victory would look like, while his subordinates have been too slow in heeding the lessons from Asia – temperature checks, masks, tests and enforcement.

They have turned a blind eye to the monumental economic damage suffered by millions of Israelis, the parents who don’t know how they will pay the rent, the independent business owners and the employees forced to take unpaid leave.

Instead of acting quickly, taking charge, making speedy decisions that while costly would save billions of shekels down the line, they have staggered along, slowly, bogged down in bureaucracy and process.

Israel has thus far braved the crisis heroically. All the credit goes to the decision-makers, who must now ensure they don’t ruin the economy in the meantime.

The weight of responsibility for managing the crisis is heavy, and it rests on Netanyahu’s shoulders.

Israel needs a national plan,one that weighs the risks and take us out of the position we are now in, because currently all we have is quarantine.

As reported by Ynetnews