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Coronavirus crisis management: A national lapse

Israel need to stop running sprints and prepare for the long haul of a marathon. - that begins with 'coronavirus CEO' in charge of coordinating efforts across our society

Anyone who still needs proof of the failed management of the coronavirus crisis found it this week at the Knesset Coronavirus Committee and in the government’s refusal to grant Maj. Gen. Roni Numa the necessary authority to manage the crisis on a national level. Other features common to a chain of daily events are confusion, contradictory directives, fire-dousing instead of long-term planning, and an absence of strategic vision.

With each passing day, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Israeli government’s failure in managing the coronavirus crisis has reached the dimensions of a national lapse. In May, we at INSS recommended that a debriefing be conducted — not to assign blame, but to learn the necessary lessons and prepare for a second wave. By now, however, an official National Commission of Inquiry is in order.

Rather than looking at the coronavirus crisis as a marathon, the Israeli government ran it as a sprint. There was a strong and correct beginning, with a swift and strict lockdown, but at the 100 meter line, the government lost interest and took a break while the virus raced ahead. Resisting a proper organizational structure for management of the crisis, including solid staff work, cabinet-level decision making, and an effective control-and-execution mechanism, what was achieved was a temporary and now-lapsed flattening of the morbidity curve, alongside a protracted flattening of the Israeli economy and the national learning curve. We thus found ourselves facing the second wave with an organization and readiness level recalling the outset of the first wave.

Meanwhile, the government lost the public’s trust due to poor role-modeling by the leadership and a slew of directives that were contradictory, elusive, unreasonable, and tainted with political motives. The use of the confusion to weaken the Knesset, the judiciary, and the right to privacy, and enforcement that was at once aggressive and selective, also eroded public trust. The formation of a “Coronavirus Government” preoccupied mostly with a range of non-coronavirus issues — from the over-splintering of government roles to a point of dysfunction, to annexation, to tax breaks for the Prime Minister’s family — has not helped persuade the public that the government has Israel’s best interests at heart.

And so distrust of the political leadership deepens steadily. Many Israelis fear for their basic subsistence: health, education, livelihood, housing, and of course, employment. There is a widespread sense that what preoccupies decision makers is totally disconnected from what preoccupies the public.

Fear of Appointing a Strong Figure to Manage the Crisis

From the outset of the crisis, I called for the challenges posed by the pandemic to be managed like a national security crisis in every respect — with an integrative strategic vision based on data and systemic operational learning, and with a differential approach that seeks the optimal balance between reducing morbidity and preserving the economy and society. This must be driven by a long-term vision, rather than an assortment of pinpoint measures.

No fewer than three response plans have been presented since the beginning of the crisis. None has been coherent or sufficiently professional, and even what has been decided has simply not been implemented. Despite all the rhetoric, at this stage, there has been no appointment of a “Coronavirus CEO” who can craft, plan, and execute policy and projects at a national level and in an integrated manner, and who can respond to the urgent challenges with actions coordinated among overly sub-divided government ministries that currently actively obstruct critical processes. Several worthy names have been mentioned for this position, which is a vital national mission, but even the best of candidates will be of little use in the absence of real authority, and it is not clear who might assume the mantle.

It seems that there is a fear of appointing too strong a person, so when such a person is found, there are those who seek to curb his authority. This is clearly not a serious approach. Decision-makers must decide what is more important for them at this time: politics and the centralization of power in their own hands, or the public good and national well-being.

Needed: A Plan for Years Ahead

It is good that the country is digging into its pocket and creating a safety net for salaried employees and small-business owners — though here, too, there were lags and a lack of clear logic. An effective plan creating growth engines that will allow a million unemployed individuals to return to the workforce and adapt to a changing labor world has yet to be presented. What is the Israeli government’s “New Deal” for 2020-2021? Not clear. Monetary allowances are needed, but these are not what will extricate the economy from the deep crisis.

Exacerbating all of this has been elected officials’ ceaseless fixation with their perks, tax returns, and official residences. In such an atmosphere, it is no wonder that the masses are taking to the streets. They fear the economic disease, spreading under the aegis of governmental obtuseness, far more than they do the health pandemic.

It is not too late. While Israel missed a golden opportunity to prepare in advance, which would have prevented the renewed health curve spike and the economic nosedive, it is still possible to arrest the deterioration by implementing strong, constructive recommendations by many to build a response mechanism, jumpstart necessary processes, and manage the crisis as warranted by its severity and complexity.

What is now required is an immediate and comprehensive economic, health, and societal plan – not designed for the 8 o’clock news today, but for one, two, and five years hence. Leadership is required; management is required; oversight is required. Also critical is the right public messaging, from people concerned only with the actual matter at hand, free of politics and free of manipulation — people who will restore the lost public trust in the decision makers and their directives.

About the Author
Amos Yadlin, Maj. Gen. (ret.), a former head of Israeli Military Intelligence and one of the country’s best known defense and foreign policy experts, is executive director of the nonpartisan Institute for National Security Studies.
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