What Went Wrong in Israel’s Fight Against Coronavirus?

An employee puts away the furniture of a restaurant in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on September 18, 2020, ahead of a nationwide lockdown to tackle a spike in coronavirus cases. - Israel imposed a second nationwide lockdown today to tackle one of the world's highest coronavirus infection rates, despite public protests over the new blow to the economy. The three-week shutdown will start just hours before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, and will extend through other key religious holidays, including Yom Kippur and Sukkot. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

We’re Curious…

On April 18 — approximately two months after Israel discovered its first case of coronavirus — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in a speech: “We have succeeded in being an example to the world in safeguarding life and blocking the outbreak of the pandemic.”

He touted Israel’s low mortality rate compared to many other developed countries at the time, explaining that the steps Israel’s government took early on — including travel restrictions, mandatory quarantine policies, bans on large gatherings, expanded testing, sweeping closures, and nationwide lockdowns — had worked. 

In May, Netanyahu announced that bars and restaurants were reopening and encouraged Israelis to go out and “have a cup of coffee or a beer.”

At the time of the Prime Minister’s speech in April, 164 people in Israel had died from the coronavirus; this was a significantly lower rate per capita compared to many European countries and the United States. In many ways, it seemed fitting that the “startup nation” — and the eighth most powerful country in the world according to the ranking by US News & World Report — would succeed at flattening the curve and controlling the pandemic.

Netanyahu predicted in his speech that Israel’s successful handling of the pandemic would continue as it rolled back restrictions and reopened the economy. That’s where the story began to take a very different turn. 

Today, only a few months later, Israel has one of the highest rates in the world of new coronavirus cases per capita. The daily rate of new virus cases in Israel soared from low double digits through most of May, to over 1,000 per day at the beginning of July, to nearly 5,000 new infections per day last week.

In response, the government approved a nationwide lockdown, which took effect on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and is remaining in place for at least three weeks. Israelis are prohibited from traveling more than 1000 meters from their homes — with a list of exceptions that includes going to work, shopping for groceries, exercising, and attending a protest.

How did Israel go from being a role model for other countries in its handling of the pandemic to an example of what not to do? And how are Israelis responding to the government’s decision to lock down the country for a second time?

What Went Wrong in Israel’s Coronavirus Response?

There are many positions within Israeli society about why Israel could not sustain its initial successes in handling the virus and what should be done as a result.

Professor Siegal Sadetzki, the former director of the public health ministry, resigned from her post in July over what she described as the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic. 

Explaining her decision, she wrote: “For a number of weeks the handling of the outbreak has lost direction. Despite systemic and regular warnings in the various systems and in the discussions in different forums, we watch with frustration as the hourglass of opportunities runs low.”

Many Israeli leaders and commentators have also criticized the government in the wake of the current statistics. 

Former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said, “We are waking up to mornings with nearly 4,000 new sick people, and this shows a failure in handling [the virus],” adding that the government has lost the public’s trust. 

Nathan Jeffay of the Times of Israel wrote that, among other reasons, the surge in cases is the result of reopening the economy and schools too quickly, a lack of strategic planning and preparation, and Netanyahu’s inability to connect with the public in his speeches.

In addition to many of these same reasons, the Jerusalem Post Editorial Board argued that the pandemic “is not being fought by leaders, but by politicians, more interested in what the virus can do for their political careers and less interested in how they can really eradicate the virus.”

As the country prepared for the three-week lockdown, Israeli president Reuven Rivlin apologized for what many Israelis perceive as the government’s failure to handle the virus. 

“I know that we have not done enough as a leadership to be worthy of your attention. You trusted us and we let you down,” he said in a televised address to the nation. 

“I want to say to the government of Israel — its leaders, ministers and advisors: the trust of the people is beyond value. We must do everything to restore personal, medical and economic confidence to our fellow citizens.”

Announcing the lockdown, Netanyahu acknowledged the economic pain caused by the closure, but said Israel’s economy was doing better compared to other countries’ as a result of Israel shutting down — and reopening — early on during the first wave. He also noted Israel’s achievements, including having among the lowest number of seriously ill patients and deaths per capita in the world.

The prime minister has likened managing the virus to playing an “accordion,” with the government loosening and tightening restrictions corresponding to infection rates.

Speaking in a televised address on the eve of the lockdown, Netanyahu highlighted the government’s initial handling of the pandemic and said other countries were also reintroducing restrictions. 

He said the government had no choice but to impose the lockdown: “The health system has raised the red flag… We did everything we could to strike a balance between the health needs and needs of the economy.”

He added that the government will consider further tightening restrictions if infection rates continue to rise.

How are Israelis Reacting to the Current Lockdown?

In recent weeks, facing a surge in coronavirus cases, government officials have debated what steps to take: a full national lockdown, local lockdowns in cities with high infection rates, or less severe restrictions. 

Israel’s government approved the full national closure last week, making it the world’s first country to impose a second lockdown during the pandemic. 

While Israelis are prohibited from traveling more than 1000 meters from their homes under the restrictions, the long list of exceptions to the rule has led some commentators to doubt the effectiveness of the closure.

Others have criticized the regulations as confusing and inconsistent. While schools are closed, some work remains open, leaving parents to cope. And as Ben Gurion Airport remains open for Israelis to travel abroad on previously-arranged flights, hotels in Israel are not allowed to host guests.

The lockdown regulations have prompted criticism from MKs in both the opposition and the government.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said, “A lockdown isn’t a plan, it’s an admission of failure. Netanyahu failed, this government failed and now they want us to pay the price. More people will die during a lockdown from suicide and heart attacks than coronavirus.”

Lapid said the government should have implemented a plan that had been devised by coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu, which focused on areas with high rates of infections. The plan was called off due to heavy opposition from some Haredi mayors and the Haredi political parties; the list of “red” cities that would have been locked down under the proposal included mostly Haredi- and Arab-majority communities.

Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Yamina party, warned that the closure would deal a “hammer blow” to the economy. “This is the result of a managerial and leadership failure, the likes of which Israel hasn’t known since its founding,” he added. During the coronavirus crisis, Bennett has advocated expanding testing and contact tracing, and transferring management of the virus to the Defense Ministry and military, but has opposed another full lockdown.

Haredi Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman resigned from the government over the plan, saying the measures would prevent Jews from attending synagogue during the High Holidays. The rules cap outdoor services at 20 people; the number of worshippers allowed indoors depends on the size of the synagogue and the local infection rate.

In a letter to the prime minister, top business leaders in Israel warned of “an ‘economic coronavirus’ whose effect will be far more destructive than the medical coronavirus”; they threatened to defy closure orders and keep their businesses open during the shutdown. 

Police said that while they have issued thousands of fines for breaches of lockdown rules, the public has largely complied with the regulations so far.

Meanwhile, Gamzu warned that Israel’s virus rates have reached emergency levels and said hospitals should open new wards. With the current lockdown in place, the country appears to be headed toward a period of even tighter restrictions.

Along with Israel, Britain, France, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Brazil are among countries that also face soaring coronavirus cases, and Europe has seen a fresh spike in cases across the continent.

The Bottom Line

After initially attracting global admiration for its successes in handling the coronavirus, Israel now faces soaring infections as the country is in lockdown. Reopening the economy and schools too quickly, a lack of strategic planning, and prioritizing politics over public health are some of the reasons that have been cited for the recent surge in cases. While a national closure (with many exceptions) is now in place, the government may tighten the restrictions soon. One thing is clear: Israel’s battle against coronavirus appears to be nowhere near over.