Three key government blunders are to blame for the intensity of Israel’s new COVID-19 wave, a former Health Ministry chief has claimed.
“We could have [had] a smaller second wave if we would have treated the situation better,” Gabi Barbash, a former director-general of the Health Ministry, told The Times of Israel.
And he cautioned against pointing fingers at citizens for their conduct, suggesting that the buck should stop with leaders. “The public is not clear of responsibility, but I was raised in the army, with the saying ‘there are no bad soldiers, there are bad commanders,’” said Barbash.
His comments come as the number of new daily virus cases, which had dropped to low double digits through most of May, is soaring to some 1,000 per day, and the number of active cases is at an all-time high of more than 11,600. New restrictions reducing gathering sizes at synagogues and event halls to 50 went into effect Monday morning, and the cabinet is to consider further restrictions on Monday evening.
But Barbash, professor of epidemiology and preventative medicine at Tel Aviv University and former CEO of the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, says the government could have prevented things getting this bad. He said that while the current government brought together Likud and its former foe Blue and White ostensibly so they could deal with the emergency, “it didn’t help in any way, it didn’t do anything good.”
Barbash added: “It’s a corona government that is really not about the corona.”
In his view, the government both failed to take preventative measures and went too far in easing restrictions in late April and early May, because it didn’t stand firm in the face of pressure from the public. “As a result they have taken steps they shouldn’t have taken,” he said.
The intensity of the second wave has largely been caused by “management issues,” according to Barbash, who added that Israel “should have responded more and earlier.”
In his view, these are the three main mistakes that account for Israel’s current situation:
1. Dangerous gatherings
Barbash says the government unnecessarily rushed to allow a resumption of gatherings — in synagogues, at event halls and elsewhere. “I’m talking about gatherings of high density people in closed environments,” he said. “Wherever this happens, this is dangerous.”
He added: “They should have not opened these things.”
He said there is no need for protracted discussions over which places should be open and which shouldn’t, as one simple rule should govern all decisions. “The issue is not the place; it’s gatherings of more than 10 or 15 people,” he argued.
2. Testing neglected
Israel has “neglected the development of efficient testing,” according to Barbash.
He said: “We’re still waiting two to four days to get answers for tests and not enough of the people [who test positive] are being subjected to an investigation by an epidemiologist to trace their contacts.”
If people they have encountered aren’t tracked down and quarantined, part of the potential benefit of testing is lost, he noted.
Barbash acknowledged that thousands of tests are performed per day, but said that the long turnaround time means that valuable time is lost in putting people who encountered carriers into quarantine. He also believes that it makes some people hesitant to get tested, given than the wait for results can be long, and they are expected to self-isolate as a precautionary measure while their sample is in the lab.
3. Schools mismanaged
When schools reopened in early May, children studied in small groups, smaller than regular classes, as a measure to stop the spread of the virus. But this so-called capsule arrangement was quickly stopped, and regular class sizes were restored.
According to Barbash this was a major mistake. “Schools should have either stayed closed or allowed only 15 kids in classes,” he said. “Kids who are above nine should be treated like adults, and shouldn’t gather in groups of more than 10 to 15.”