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Experts: Second Israeli Lockdown Represents Failure – but Also Opportunity
A shuttered restaurant is shown in Tel Aviv on September 21. (Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Experts: Second Israeli Lockdown Represents Failure – but Also Opportunity

Top economic, public-health professionals tell The Media Line that if government maintains, exits pandemic closure wisely, it can avoid further shutdowns

In the four months since Israel’s ostensibly pandemic-oriented government was sworn in, the number of coronavirus cases in the country increased 11-fold to one of the world’s highest infection rates per capita. Noting that officials differed on what to do, experts point to the result: the current lockdown, the country’s second.

On May 17, when the government was sworn in, the Ministry of Health reported just 11 new cases, bringing the total number of infections to 16,617. By Tuesday of this week, the fifth day of the new lockdown, the total number of cases had risen to over 193,000 after the ministry reported some 4,000 new infections over the previous 24 hours.

In all, 1,285 deaths have been reported.

Top Israeli economic and public-health experts interviewed by The Media Line say that the government eased restrictions too quickly after the first nationwide quarantine, leading to an increase in cases. The current closure is necessary, they say, while emphasizing that it must be done right to change course.

“The new government decided that they didn’t want to manage the pandemic,” Meir Rubin, executive director of the Kohelet Policy Forum think tank, told The Media Line.

Rubin also serves as secretary of an ad hoc group of epidemiologists, other experts and former high-ranking army officers established by Naftali Bennett, an opposition lawmaker who heads the right-wing Yamina party. Bennett is a frequent critic of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his so-called coronavirus cabinet.

Rubin told The Media Line that the cabinet and entire government were focused only on removing restrictions, instead of, for example, working to build a capacity for contact tracing and preparing for the coming winter.

“We [Israel] did crazy things, thinking that we already managed to curb the pandemic. And it was wrong,” he explained.

Israel did crazy things, thinking that we already managed to curb the pandemic. And it was wrong

Rubin emphasizes, however, that responsibility does not lie solely with the government. He notes that people need to understand that the pandemic is a once-in-a-century event and that their actions have serious consequences.

“People need to take responsibility to try to keep away from other people. Keep away from closed places. To wear masks properly. To limit the amount of people in the place to a certain level,” he said.

Israel was in good shape after the first lockdown, Benjamin Bental, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Haifa, tells The Media Line.

Currently chair of the Economics Policy Program at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, a Jerusalem-based research institute, Bental wrote a paper at the time comparing Israel to Austria, which has a similar population. Israel, he says, was much better off when accounting for age differences.

“All of it has reversed totally. We are in terrible shape. And all of this is because the government simply wasted time,” he said.

Israel, he says, should have been using the time following the first lockdown to take advantage of the latest tools for containing the coronavirus. He was referring specifically to the TTT (testing, tracing, tracking) strategy recommended by the World Health Organization and which has been implemented in many countries undertaking rapid testing, speedy tracing and quick isolation.

Bental says that Israel is only now setting up such a system, using manpower from the army, which says it will be ready by the beginning of November.

“The technology about how to cope with this particular pandemic is well understood, well known, well documented,” Bental said. “It has been implemented everywhere in the world basically, except for one little country on the shore of the Mediterranean. This is not only a shame, this is a scandal.”

The technology about how to cope with this particular pandemic is well understood, well known, well documented. It has been implemented everywhere in the world basically, except for one little country on the shore of the Mediterranean. This is not only a shame, this is a scandal

Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s School of Public Health, told The Media Line that the current nationwide quarantine could be blamed on the failure to curb daily infection rates.

“Currently, with the situation of widespread transmission in all sectors [and] the rise in severe cases and deaths, we had no choice but to delay the implementation of differential measures,” he said, referring to a so-called traffic light system that puts cities and neighborhoods under restrictions as needed.

“We need to see that current measures are based on epidemiological data, with the logic that will prevent social gatherings while maintaining options for physical activity, as learned from the previous lockdown,” he explained, citing a “circular mistrust” between the public and the government.

We need to see that current measures are based on epidemiological data, with the logic that will prevent social gatherings while maintaining options for physical activity, as learned from the previous lockdown

Noting that there probably will not be a vaccine until the spring of next year, Davidovitch stresses that solidarity is all-important, saying it could lead to a reduction in new infection rates, enabling Israel to return to the more targeted approach of the traffic light system.

Rubin emphasizes that Israel cannot afford to waste another lockdown, saying his recommended goal for the government is zero new transmissions.

“We failed after the first lockdown, so we have to be in the second lockdown,” he said. “The second lockdown is an absolute failure. It doesn’t mean that it’s not necessary. It is necessary. We actually have no other choice right now.”

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