Coronavirus Is a Test for Western Leaders. Netanyahu Passed, Then Lost Control

Half a year after it burst into our lives, the coronavirus is turning out to be a litmus test of leadership in the Western democracies. Populist leaders who accumulated their political capital thanks to nurturing a strongman image, bullying rhetoric and spreading hatred during the course of the pandemic are facing a test for which they hadn’t bothered to prepare. Many of them are failing it resoundingly.

That is what has happened to U.S. President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The first two also expressed demonstrative scorn for science, medicine and in fact any expert who has professional knowledge. And all three of them, coincidentally or not, are sworn friends of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Netanyahu made it through the first round of the struggle against the pandemic better than most of his friends abroad. He listened to the experts, he did not scorn science and he took a number of urgent and necessary steps in time. When it turned out that the number of deaths here was relatively low and the rate of identified infection in Israel had dropped to only a few dozen new patients, Netanyahu took a lot of pride in this.

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And then, he and his government lost control of the situation: The economy reopened very fast, the middle schools and high schools reconvened with no restrictions and most Israeli citizens, who had received fairly clear messages from the state to the effect that the crisis was to all intents and purposes over, went back to conducting their lives as usual. The health instructions that remained – social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding crowds – were in effect only recommendations. 

The results began to be felt this week. Possibly they will be felt more strongly in the coming weeks. The number of identified infected persons has soared to about 1,000 per day, exactly as the information center at the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Corps had predicted two weeks ago, at which time it was pelted with criticism. True, the vast majority of the newly infected people are young and many of them are asymptomatic – that is, only carriers – but the increase in their number does not stem only from increased testing. 

The proportion of positive tests has increased fourfold to about 4 percent within a month, so beyond the larger number of tests there’s also a four times higher infection rate. Moreover, although the proportion of the seriously ill is lower (about 2 percent of all those identified as infected, compared to 3 percent three months ago), this only says that the strain on the hospitals will develop gradually and not in one fell swoop, as had been feared  in March. According to one assessment heard by the coronavirus cabinet, the number of infected patients in the intensive care units could climb to 600.

The pandemic skeptics are waging holding actions against the accumulating findings. It is a fact, they say, that the number of those on respirators is holding completely steady, the increase in the number of the severely ill is slow and mortality remains quite low. The answer is that it really isn’t necessary to panic but it is better to look the facts straight in the eye: There is no change in the number of people on respirators mainly because of the decision by the hospitals to decrease respiratory treatments and keep them as a last resort.