Israel faces ‘greatest crisis’ as it loses control of coronavirus spread

Health officials say country in ‘dangerous place’ after early success in curbing epidemic

Pedestrians in the centre of Jerusalem on Tuesday.  Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

Pedestrians in the centre of Jerusalem on Tuesday. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

 

Infections are surging, the government has reinstated a partial lockdown and the country’s top health bureaucrat has quit in frustration – hopes that Israel had successfully contained the spread of coronavirus have this week been dashed.

More than 1,000 people were confirmed ill on Tuesday, the second day in under a week that new infections topped 1,000 – ten times the figure that Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, had earlier maintained was manageable for the country’s underinvested health system.

On the same day, Israel’s top health bureaucrat Siegal Sadetzki quit, warning that government inaction and delay was leading the country to “a dangerous place”.

“For a number of weeks now, the handling of the outbreak has lost direction,” Ms Sadetzki wrote on her personal Facebook page. “Despite systematic and regular warnings in the various systems ... we watch with frustration as the hourglass of opportunities runs low.”

Her resignation came as a surprise, including to health minister Yuli Edelstein, who this week announced the closure of bars, cultural venues, swimming pools and gyms in an attempt to tame the outbreak.

Israel “has lost control of the pandemic”, precipitating the nation’s “greatest civilian crisis”, Eli Waxman, who heads the panel of experts advising the government, said this week. “In today’s situation, with 1,000 new daily infections, we can no longer disrupt the chain of infection even if there were a working system to do that,” he said in a televised statement.

Early success

Israel has had a total of 31,271 cases and 338 people have died.

This is in stark contrast to the country’s early success in taming the pandemic, which included large-scale self-isolation for tens of thousands of Israelis returning from abroad in February. This was followed by a mid-March to end-of-April nationwide lockdown that brought new infections down to 20 a day. Schools, bars and restaurants reopened and tens of thousands of Israelis flocked to beaches.

But Ms Sadetzki, who could not be reached for comment, and two other advisers to the government, who asked not to be named, said that since then ministries have not had the resources to set up an effective track-and-trace programme, nor have they been able to increase testing to the point where outbreaks could be quickly tamped down.

“We had this period of initial calm and now we realise that we don’t know for a fact where the virus is at any given time – random clusters are testing positive and the patterns are unpredictable,” said a health ministry adviser. “The big concern is not the number, that’s just the headline – it’s that there are new cases everywhere we look.”

The advisers, both of whom had briefed either the health minister or the prime minister’s aides in previous days, said the government had been sluggish in its response to their warnings.

Instead of setting up a civilian track and trace programme similar to Germany or South Korea, Mr Netanyahu has overruled objections from his own security chief to use a recently disclosed national database of mobile phone location data to warn people into self-isolation if they have been near someone with an infection.

“It doesn’t work,” said the health ministry adviser of the Shin Bet security service’s system. Critics say it functions poorly in large apartment blocks and high-rise towers.

Main vector

Meanwhile, political infighting in the coalition meant that synagogues have remained open in the ultraorthodox neighbourhoods, despite having been identified as a main vector for transmission in the first outbreak. More than half of the seriously ill or hospitalised were from the religious minority, said the second adviser.

“You have to react fast, be nimble, or you end up with a nationwide lockdown,” said the official, asking for anonymity because they were criticising government decisions.

Further lockdowns would damage the economy, forcing the government to continue paying billions of shekels in unemployment benefits while tax revenue is expected to dip precipitously. The central bank held interest rates steady at a historic low of 0.1 per cent on Monday and started a programme of buying corporate bonds. It predicted the economy would shrink by 6 per cent.

“The pandemic is spreading; it is as clear as the sun,” Mr Netanyahu warned on Sunday, after earlier boasting that Israel had the outbreak under control. “If we do not act now, we will have hundreds, and perhaps over 1,000, severe cases in the coming weeks, which will paralyse our systems.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020

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