Israel’s Cautionary Coronavirus Tale

A country that stopped the virus cold now faces an ominous second wave.

An Israeli protester lies on a banner showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a demonstration against anti-democratic measures to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak in Tel Aviv on April 19.
An Israeli protester lies on a banner showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a demonstration against anti-democratic measures to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak in Tel Aviv on April 19. Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP

TEL AVIV, Israel—Israel had been one of the early success stories in the fight against the coronavirus, using high-tech surveillance for contact tracing and enforcing strict curfews that quickly brought down the number of active cases across the country. In late May, when that number dipped below 2,000, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory, telling Israelis they could get back to normal. “Have a cup of coffee or a beer,” he said. “Have a good time.”

Now, two months later, the country is facing an aggressive resurgence of the virus, with daily new cases per capita second only to the United States among developed nations and critical cases rising fivefold over the last month.

But instead of reprising Israel’s vigorous response to the first wave, Netanyahu’s government has waffled, announcing restrictions and then backtracking, as Israelis protest in the thousands against any measures that would deepen their economic woes. In the past week alone, Netanyahu has faced strikes by social workers and nurses, a rebellion by restaurateurs who vowed to flout any new restrictions, and clashes between protesters and police outside his Jerusalem residence.

The result has been a disaster for the Israeli leader, whose approval rating for his handling of the pandemic has dropped almost 30 points since May. It has also been a cautionary tale about governance that responds well to emergencies but fails to organize for a sustained fight and about the distractions of politics and populism.

“Our rapid success—globally recognized—was to our detriment,” said Ran Balicer, the chief innovation officer at Israel’s largest HMO, Clalit Health Services, who advises the government on the pandemic response. “There was a false sense of assurance … and there was impatience in following the recommendations of [health] professionals, present company included, to have a two-week assessment period after every step of the easement.”

In some ways, Israel was uniquely positioned to fight the pandemic. War-weary Israelis are accustomed to swiftly transition to an all-hands state of alert. When the government announced an early travel ban and lockdown in March, Israelis obediently went into quarantine.

Israel benefited from its geopolitical isolation, a relatively efficient national health care system, and digital health care records that allowed officials to warn at-risk individuals to take precautions.

The measures kept Israel’s hospitals from overflowing and its mortality count low. (It remains under 500 even now, as the cases spike.) Netanyahu used the state emergency and warlike warnings of mass casualties to successfully pressure his political rival, Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party, to join his government.

In May, Netanyahu had his “mission accomplished” moment, announcing the reopening of bars and restaurants. In short order, his attention turned to other things, including a plan to annex Palestinian territory in the occupied West Bank and his ongoing corruption trial.

With the virus relatively contained, public health experts said, Netanyahu’s government had a chance to build a long-term coping strategy by bulking up contact tracing, data collection, testing capacity, and synchronization among government ministries and local authorities. Instead, issues related to the virus were relegated to the government’s back burner.

“It’s always shock and awe, quick wins, and not necessarily taking into account the long-term ramifications,” said Peter Lerner, the former chief foreign spokesperson for the Israeli military. “Everybody thought there was going to be a second hit, but no one knew how to plan for it. In the time that Israel had, you didn’t see a huge shift in getting ready for the next wave.”

An early mistake came with the reopening of some schools in May. Within two weeks, the government largely abandoned a plan to divide class size in half and use a hybrid of distance learning and in-class instruction. High schools and middle schools resumed activity too soon after elementary schools, leading to outbreaks among pupils that spread to adults. Sigal Sadetsky, who this month resigned as the top public health official in the Israeli Health Ministry, blamed the resurgence in part on the lack of discipline in reopening.

Though the number of daily cases was ticking up, the government went ahead and lifted restrictions on catering halls and locales hosting large events. The virus spread at weddings and parties and helped send Israel into a second-round “tailspin,” Balicer said.

All the while, Israel’s government failed to bulk up investment in its underfunded health care system. Though considered one of the most efficient in the world, it has shortages of hospital beds and nurses. Public health experts also complain that the government did not enhance the data collection and analysis necessary to assist in daily policy.

“Many of the processes that were started to be put in place for data for analytics and contact tracing were abandoned midway when it seemed like the war was over,” Balicer said.

“Command and control centers were really successful but were all but taken apart.”

Taking a cue from the government and eager to get back to normal, Israelis became complacent and played down the lurking threat.

In recent weeks, frustration over the botched reopening has fueled a wave of anti-government protests among small-business owners. The demonstrations have drawn aggressive crackdowns by police.

With Israel unemployment exceeding 20 percent, public opinion has turned against Netanyahu. According to polling by Channel 12, 49 percent of Israelis believe his handling of the pandemic has been poor, compared with 46 percent who believe it has been good. In May, the numbers were 23 percent and 74 percent, respectively.

“Public health communication, and risk communication, was lacking,” said Eyal Leshem, the head of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center. “When the public was warned that tens of thousands of people would die and millions would be infected, they lost trust. Now that people are warned about the second wave, they mistrust the government.”

The protests have included a cross-section of Israelis. Some Orthodox Jews, traditionally supporters of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc, took part in the Jerusalem rallies. In secular Tel Aviv, a strip of restaurants and bars on one main thoroughfare hung signs criticizing government policies. “The government is killing us and not corona,” one said.

“For two months, it wasn’t a priority for Netanyahu. He was pursuing the pipe dream of annexation and attacking the judicial system, and he wasn’t on top of things,” said Amos Harel, a military commentator for the liberal Haaretz newspaper. “He is less popular than he was at any stage in the last two years.”

Highlighting the government’s chaotic response, restrictions on restaurants were announced and then lifted within a few hours last Friday. Separately, a legislator from Netanyahu’s party refused to approve a government plan to shut down public swimming pools and beaches. To ease criticism that his government had been insensitive to the economic pain of the lockdowns, Netanyahu announced $1.7 billion in stipends for all Israelis—a plan criticized by economic analysts as ineffective.

“We haven’t reopened in the best way. We opened too fast. We need a closure—a partial closure,” Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel conceded in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio.

Balicer and Harel predicted that Israel would eventually gain control of the pandemic, but government officials remain at odds over whether another lockdown is needed.

“It all seems a specific Israeli failure,” Harel said. “This is supposed to be the start-up nation, we are supposed to be good with data. … Compared to other developed countries, we are doing very badly.”

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick