The Israeli government deserves high marks for how it dealt with the first wave of the coronavirus. While there is obviously room for criticism of specific ministers and specific moves made, overall, an unprecedented virus with unknown variables was handled well. Regular briefings were held by the prime minister, and then-defense minister Naftali Bennett shared even more information during his many press conferences, when he answered question after question demonstrating a command over the information.
But after the establishment of the unity government – which was supposedly created in order to confront corona – and the virus’s subsequent new wave following the country’s re-opening, there has been a lack of coordinated strategy, direction and communication.
This is a failure of leadership.
The only person laying out a clear vision is Bennett, who cannot take any action because he sits in the opposition. Regardless whether one agrees with the head of Yamina politically, and would never consider voting for him in an election, it is clear that Israelis need to support his call for a change in the government’s handling of corona.
In a Knesset speech earlier this week, Bennett laid out his criticism and plan.
He rightfully acknowledged that a lack of communication is currently the greatest failure. When I am bombarded daily with requests to clarify the ever-changing rules, I then turn to the wonderful people in the Health Ministry for clarification, and they help me give answers. But citizens are still confused, because there is no clear mechanism to convey the information and for questions to be clearly asked and answered.
The failure to communicate played out right before me on Thursday night when Netanyahu announced the new rules limiting indoor gatherings to 20 people. I was inundated by rabbis and synagogue leaders asking if this also applied to houses of worship, so I immediately made contact with Health Ministry officials and received contradictory answers. This is on a night when synagogues had less than 24 hours to prepare for Shabbat services. In the end I received official clarification that houses of worship were not included, remaining at 50 people. But why the confusion? Why the lack of clarity?
The lack of one clear voice on the virus led people to claim last week that there was an outbreak in Tiberias. Word spread that the whole city was put on lockdown, and thousands of Israelis cancelled their plans to spend the weekend there. It turned out that just three blocks in the city were locked down, but that lack of clear information from one central source led to significant damage to the city’s businesses.
The same lack of communication impacts the hundreds of thousands who are not earning an income due to corona. As I was entering the Knesset for a meeting this week, I stopped to talk to protesters from the entertainment industry. Not the stars and performers, but the sound, light and behind-the-scenes technical staff.
One of the demonstration leaders said that their biggest complaint is not knowing what’s happening. That question mark on the macro and micro level faces us all, to be sure, but if someone’s profession won’t be able to recover – and many won’t – then these people need to be told, and be given help with retraining for a new profession. The government must provide them with sustenance until they find new employment, just as it must for all who have gone through these months with zero income.
That itself is part of the stress: people do not know how long they will be given help.
Summer camp directors tell me that no one is talking to them, and they have no idea what they are supposed to do. Of course, no one knows what will happen in the coming months, and that leads to some of the confusion and tension, but decisions have to be made. Moreover, where citizens are going to suffer financially, they need to know what they will be given and for how long.
The lack of strategy to contain the virus manifests in testing and tracing. Bennett has noted that only registered nurses are allowed to do epidemiological testing. If we train a few thousand medical students – something that would take just three days – we can increase the critical testing dramatically, and have a better handle on where the virus is spreading and how. That would give leaders the critical information they need to make educated, thought-out decisions.
Knowing that the key to limiting the virus’s spread requires massive testing, the government should apply the Weizmann Institute 2.0 method for testing, which would allow 70,000 tests to be carried out in a short period of time. Afterward, instead of allowing those who carry the virus to live at home – where they could expose others and thus spread it – all who test positive should be sent to hotels, as they were during the first wave.
These are clear strategies to contain the disease during the current wave, but the government is simply reacting on the fly and not following any strategic plan.
This lack of long-term planning and policy also impacts the race for a vaccine, which private companies are currently not allowed to pursue. That’s wrong. The government should create incentives for private companies to get involved.
When Israel was first considering reopening the country in late April after the lockdown, Bennett as defense minister presented a clear procedure, including regular checks to see if we are opening too fast, coupled with a willingness to pull back if necessary. That approach was not followed, and now we seem to have opened the economy based on the businesses and industries that make enough noise and put enough pressure on the government to force it.
Sadly, we are now seeing the result of that failure. But it isn’t too late. The government can still designate clear conditions for re-opening the economy, lay out a detailed plan to contain and defeat the virus – and inform the country of those conditions and plans.
A month ago, Bennett offered a strategy to attack the second wave based on the experience of the first, and with all the new information we now have. The government should implement that plan or create one on its own.
But something has to be done.
Israel is suffering.
The numbers are setting all-time highs, beyond even what they were during the first wave. We cannot begin to understand the full scope of the economic damage and the health situation that seems to be spiraling out of control. This is the time for leadership to step up, strategize and plan, and give Israel’s citizens solutions and a sense of calm that the government knows what it’s doing. Politics must be put aside. Accept Bennett’s recommendations or put forth another own well thought out plan, but the government must do something to show command of a critical situation at a critical juncture.
There isn’t a minute to lose.