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As Israel heads into a second coronavirus wave, what went wrong?

Despite initially boasting a world-beating strategy for curbing Covid-19 infections, Israel has seen a dramatic new spike in cases
A medical team simulates treatment for Covid-19 on a volunteer on 9 July 2020, as Ziv Medical Centre's coronavirus section in the northern Israeli city of Safed prepares to reopen (AFP)
Par Jonathan Shamir à Haifa, Israel

On Monday, the Israeli government reluctantly announced a partial second coronavirus lockdown, including the closure of bars, cultural venues and sports facilities.

With a 500 percent increase in Covid-19 cases, surpassing the peak of the first wave and approaching the steepest rates of infection in the world, Israel's second wave is looking more like a tsunami.

When the lockdown ended in May, the daily rate of infection was in double digits. It now exceeds 1,300, with the head of an expert panel advising the government warning that Israel's health service could collapse if the infection rates do not slow down.

Meanwhile, Israel's director of public health, Siegal Sadetzki, announced her resignation on Tuesday, pointing to the government's mishandling of the crisis and warning that Israel was heading to "a dangerous place".

As one of the first countries to emerge from lockdown at the end of May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Israel a "model of success for many countries" in dealing with Covid-19. 

After two months of almost unrestrained freedom, Israel is heading into the uncharted waters of a second wave. What went wrong for the "model" country?

From exemplar to grim warning

Israel was "a victim of its own success," claimed Arnon Afek, the associate director of the Sheba Medical Center and the former director general of the Israeli Ministry of Health.

"The general atmosphere was that we had won, but people were celebrating too early," he told Middle East Eye. 

Israel's early and decisive border closure, their enforcement of isolation, and the nationwide lockdown were all vindicated by the results.  

However, Israeli health experts who spoke to MEE claimed that the lockdown measures were lifted haphazardly, without a broader exit strategy, and that the results were almost inevitable.

Shlomo L Maayan, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Barzilai University Medical Center in Ashkelon, has been one of many health professionals advocating for a civilian track-and-trace system, like that of South Korea or Germany, to prepare for a second wave. 

We had enough time to prepare for an active contact-tracing system. But it didn't happen because we got too complacent

- Shlomo L Maayan, Barzilai University Medical Center

Instead, Netanyahu stuck to his controversial phone-tracking technology, ordinarily used for anti-terrorism measures, and even this was paused between 9 June and 5 July at the orders of the Shin Bet, the country's internal security service. Maayan, however, insists that phone tracing is "not enough" without the human component as it can only approximate contact.

"We had enough time to prepare for an active contact-tracing system," he said. "But it didn't happen because we got too complacent."

He added that any exit strategy must establish an infrastructure to trace infections, allowing the government to tailor its policies and avoid sweeping lockdowns. 

Although the number of tests increased to an average of 20,000 per day, Israel lacked the manpower to study the epidemiological consequences and therefore keep on top of the virus. 

Afek, who previously headed Israeli Ministry of Health, claimed "the worst mistake was the gatherings".

The decision on 14 June to expand permitted event attendance to 250 people seems to have been a turning point. On the same day, there were 136 new confirmed cases, but numbers approached and eventually exceeded four digits by the start of July. 

According to an official talking to The Washington Post, 2,092 weddings were held between 15 and 25 June, and these were key vectors of Covid-19. 

One source speaking to MEE, Khalifa, who owns a catering company that worked at several weddings in the past two months, observed that "after the lockdown, people just wanted to have fun, and they didn't give a damn about the coronavirus. People didn't keep social distancing or wear masks."

Beyond this, Afek and Maayan also point to the premature opening of schools.

A mandatory reduction in class sizes, it seems, was abandoned too quickly, while the Ministry of Education, in consultation with the Ministry of Health, dropped the mask requirement during a May heatwave too readily. 

Sadetzki also identified this a driving force behind the spread in her resignation post on Facebook.

Anything but lockdown

Although there was broad consensus on what went wrong, health experts were split on whether the high-profile Sadetzki's proposals were best for the country.

Maayan, for one, claimed that Sadetzki's belief in "cruder measures," such as a return to lockdown, would "never have been accepted by the public".

The general director of the Israeli Ministry of Health recently contacted Maayan on Israel's next steps. Maayan's response was consistent with his advocacy throughout the epidemic: "We need to train 10,000 people to be contact tracers and then develop a highly sophisticated computer system to analyse the human data."

This solution, he claims, could also help tackle Israel's unemployment crisis.

Why I'm no longer talking to white people about Palestine

With GDP forecast to decline by 6 percent, and unemployment reaching new heights of one million, he claims that "we can't return to forcefully closing down the whole country".

The government support package for business owners, the self-employed, and freelancers is considered by many to be inadequate, ramping up the pressure to avoid another lockdown.

Khalifa, one of the half-a-million business owners in the country who are not eligible for unemployment benefits, was bewildered by the government's compensation plan.

"The government thinks because you are a business owner, you are rich," he told Middle East Eye.

His seasonal catering company, which was almost fully booked for the Spring months, saw "business disappear into thin air" as soon as the first lockdown was announced.

Meanwhile, Yaakov, a freelance packaging designer from Ra'anana, lost all his customers during the lockdown. 

After receiving "meagre" compensation, he is fearful of another lockdown. He asked: "Why implement a lockdown if the economic situation will kill more people than corona?"

Israel was notably effective in its initial response to Covid-19, but it is an open question whether its relapse is a sign of complacency or whether other countries must eventually face these same dilemmas, .

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