Netanyahu’s Covid management a ‘humiliating failure’ - GulfToday

Netanyahu’s Covid management a ‘humiliating failure’

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Journalists film as Israeli police spray protesters (clad in masks) with water cannon during an anti-government demonstration in Jerusalem. Agence France-Presse

Israel’s second wave of coronavirus infections should serve as a warning to global governments seeking to open schools in coming weeks. Israel’s Covid-19 cases have soared to 50,000, with nearly 400 deaths.

Anticipating the arrival of Covid-19, Israel took decisive measures. In January it suspended flights from China and other Asian countries. On February 21st, the first case arrived: an Israeli woman who had been on a cruise ship trapped by quarantine in Japan. From March 9th, returning citizens were quarantined and on the 18th Israel banned all incoming travel for non-citizens.

By mid-March near complete lockdown was imposed. Most businesses and public places closed. Unemployment rose from 4-24.4 per cent but the government struggled to forge a strategy to deal with the economic fallout of a lockdown. In early May, well aware of failure on the economic front then acting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu proclaimed that Israel was defeating the virus. He was right at that point in time. Two weeks later, he changed course.

Israeli epidemiologists argue Israel’s current spike in coronavirus cases and deaths is due to the May 17th decision by the just-formed government under Netanyahu to reopen schools by the end of the month. While he solemnly proclaimed that the government’s “first mission is the coronavirus and the health” crisis, he had switched his focus to the economy. He thought this was justified.

Until May 17th Israel had weathered 10 weeks of strict lockdown. On that day it was assumed that the virus had been contained since Israel reported only 10 countrywide cases after a week of low double digit infections.        

Schools, where classrooms held 30-40 pupils, reopened too rapidly without careful planning, social distancing, masking.  By June 3rd, more than 244 students and staff tested positive. The virus spread rapidly throughout the entire education system. Thousands of students and hundreds of teachers were infected and quarantined.

Once children were back in school, Israelis gained the impression that their lives could return to pre-Covid days. Netanyahu told them, “Return to normal — get a cup of coffee and a glass of beer…have fun.” They flocked to the beaches, restaurants and malls; attended parties and weddings; went to work although there was no “herd immunity” or vaccine or, even, reliable treatment for seriously infected people. Israel now has a daily average of 1,600 infections.

Although mandating reopening, Netanyahu had warned that “as long as the virus is here and there is no vaccine, it can come back overnight,” rising to a second wave.”  He did not heed his own warning.

Epidemiologists say he reopened schools and the society for political rather than Covid-19 reasons. Netanyahu promised to appoint a knowledgeable Covid  “czar” but took charge himself.  He did not consult scientists on how to manage the pandemic. Lockdown was expensive and unpopular. Netanyahu relies on popularity to keep him in power and out of jail on charges breach of trust and bribery.

The opposition slammed the abrupt rise in cases. Liberal Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid called Netanyahu’s Covid management a “humiliating national failure” and claimed Israel is “the only country in the world that is less prepared for the second wave than it was for the first.” On July 14th, angry Israelis protested against Netanyahu’s mismanagement outside this official residence in Jerusalem.

A rattled Netanyahu has re-imposed restrictions.  He said the new rules are “a step away from a full lockdown.” Gyms, public pools, event halls, bars, and entertainments have closed again.  A limit of 20 people can ride a bus and eat in a restaurant while 19 can worship in a synagogue. Children from fifth grade upward cannot attend school or summer camp.  Israel is also locking down and deploying police in neighbourhoods where infections swell, prompting criticism from the Ultra-Orthodox who have resisted restrictions from the start of the initial outbreak.  Israel has been overwhelmed by the second wave. Instead of being praised for handling the virus challenge properly during the first wave Israelis have called on Netanyahu to resign because they now face the second wave.

Although Israel’s example should have warned off others, Netanyahu’s good friend in the US, Donald Trump, is determined to reopen schools with in-person pupils as soon as the academic year starts and has threatened to deny schools tax exempt status and withhold federal funds if school districts do not obey.  Unlike Netanyahu who, in mid-May thought Israel had contained the virus, Trump knows full well that this is not the case in the US in mid-July. Instead of Israel’s double digit infections a day, the US has more than 70,000 a day and rising.

Trump is doing this despite the advice of the epidemiologists who warn that unless infections are flat for 14 days, schools, in particular, should not reopen. Teachers can infect students and students teachers, each other, parents, grandparents and the wider community exactly as happened in Israel. In Israel nine million people have been partially locked-in again by Netanyahu’s wrong-headed policy, in the US the number could be 330 million.

“We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it,” the American Association of Paediatricians, American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the School Superintendents Association said in a joint statement.

Like Netanyahu, Trump is in a hurry to open schools because he wants parents to get back to work so that the economy begins to revive. His administration does not have a national plan for reopening and he expects local authorities to make their own plans and carry out the task. Consequently, this is what they are doing.  Governors in Texas and California have already announced that in-class schooling will not take place in communities where there are rising virus cases and proper preparations have not been made for reopening. Eleven million children will have to make do with virtual learning in these states, the two most populous in the US. To make matters worse for Trump’s ambition to reopen schools, these states are likely to set a countrywide trend as local authorities realise the risk to children’s and teachers’ lives is just too great.

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