In the Battle Against Coronavirus, Israel Was Both Early Enough and Too Late

The way things are looking and sounding in Israel, the coronavirus is still the muffled sound of rolling thunder, the effect of which is still relatively limited.

The worldwide crisis has turned the gaze inward, in each and every country. The solution will come ultimately through international cooperation – development of a vaccine against the virus, perhaps development of medications, transparency in reporting and coordinated policy. At the moment, however, each individual country is fighting the battle alone, unable to expect aid from abroad in the near future.

– Bibi’s impossible victory and Israel’s corona blind spots

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

In these terms, the damage to health from the virus is not out of control here. The possible, scary crash point for the health system has been postponed. The effective decisions taken at an early stage – isolation of sick people, social distancing rules and, what is especially important, the call for elderly people to stay at home – have to some extent flattened the morbidity curve and bought a number of additional precious weeks for getting organized. The number of dead is rising steadily, but Israel has not yet encountered circumstances in which there is a deluge of especially vulnerable patients – elderly people and people with pre-existing medical issues – creating heavy pressure on the hospitals and the medical teams in a way that would prevent effective treatment.

The coronavirus in the land of Israel is apparently a bit different from its European kin. Israel has some specific advantages in dealing with the virus, such as a single major point of entry – Ben-Gurion International Airport, though it is not under sufficient supervision – and a younger population than in Europe. However, the number of cases that have been diagnosed does not reflect the real rate in the population, which, according to various estimates, could be double the reported number or more. This is connected to the number of tests performed daily, which is still low, and to the significant, if not precisely known, percentage of asymptomatic cases in the population.

The critical datum is the proportion of people on respirators among the diagnosed cases, which at the time of writing stands at about 1.3 percent. Not only are ventilators lacking – though there is currently a world-embracing effort to obtain more – but sufficient teams that know how to work them are also needed.

The coronavirus department at Sheba Medical Center, March 29, 2020Ofer Vaknin

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is proud of his achievements. The percentage of deaths in Israel is indeed low, less then 5 percent among the diagnosed cases, as compared to 6 to 11 percent in European countries that have been badly hit, from Britain to Spain and Italy. The fear of a slide into the Italian model here in Israel at the beginning of April has not happened so far. The focus, therefore, is on putting out specific fires, first and foremost in the ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods.

This week, though fatally too late, there has been evidence of the Haredi rabbis and politicians coming to their senses. Since Wednesday, the streets of the mostly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak have emptied and the army is gradually stepping into the shoes of the local authority, with the aim of giving aid. There was something symbolic in that this was happening contemporaneously with the unfortunate report that Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and his wife Hava have come down with the virus. The viral infection in Haredi locales will continue to cast a dark shadow on Israel’s fight against the coronavirus.