JERUSALEM — Israel’s deft handling of its coronavirus outbreak this spring won praise at home and abroad, but the virus has returned, with cases now increasing faster than ever and health officials warning that hospitals could be overwhelmed by the end of the month.
Israelis across the political spectrum are asking what’s gone wrong and demanding to know how their government could have fumbled so badly after getting it so right.
An Israeli official with knowledge of the pandemic response said government researchers have traced the bulk of new infections to a single category of activity: public gatherings, particularly weddings. The official said an explosion of weddings — some 2,092 between June 15 and June 25 — proved to be COVID-19 incubators.
“You have people coming from all over the county,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the matter. “They hug each other; they sing, they dance. That’s the ultimate opportunity to infect people.”
Israel has begun to alert other governments about its findings on the peril of weddings, the official said. A shutdown of wedding halls was among the new restrictions announced Monday, along with closing concert venues and public pools. Restaurants have been limited to 20 indoor diners and 30 outside, while houses of worship will be held to 19 attendees.
Israel’s flattened curve of cases began to climb again after the government eased its lockdown in late May, opening gyms and cafes and allowing large gatherings. The country Monday surpassed a total of 30,000 infections.
Hospitals are scrambling to accommodate serious cases, which have started doubling every day, according to figures cited by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has begun pleading with citizens to wear masks and avoid crowds.
Health and policy experts, while crediting the government for dampening the virus’s spread in the spring, cite a raft of failures for its summer resurgence. They include refraining from appointing a coronavirus “czar” to coordinate the response and failing to stand up a national network of testing labs and technicians able track the virus.
The government official noted that Israel was averaging more than 20,000 tests a day but acknowledged inadequate contact tracing. “It wasn’t robust enough in terms of manpower,” the official said.
With new restrictions now taking effect, Israelis are again losing the near normality they had thought was theirs to enjoy. The backsliding has unleashed a torrent of criticism against the government.
Netanyahu’s approval rating for handling the pandemic is at 56%, according to a new poll by Israel’s Channel 12, a decline of almost 20 points since May. A spokesman in the prime minister’s office declined to comment for this article.
“We are the only country in the world that is less prepared for the second wave than it was for the first,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said at a party meeting Monday,
Critics describe the new wave as reflecting a political failure to prep for the novel coronavirus’s inevitable return once Israelis were given the all-clear to hit the streets, beaches and bars.
“The virus is not going to stop being contagious. What do you expect to happen when you open up?” asked Dan Ben-David, a professor at Tel Aviv University and president of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research. “This was all avoidable, which is what makes it such a tragedy.”
In April, Shoresh was one of several think tanks to produce research on the steps needed to the keep the virus at bay as economic activity picked up. The basic strategy, as has been seen in Germany, Austria and other countries, is to test widely and control hot spots as they pop up.
Israel started with several advantages, including its small population, centralized government and tightly controlled borders. The country’s history of crisis management made it suited to meet the moment. All of that contributed to the country’s success in tamping down infections after quickly shutting itself off and imposing a nationwide shutdown.
Israel had been ranked in March as having the world’s top COVID-19 safety rating by Deep Knowledge Group, which describes itself as a consortium of commercial and nonprofit organizations. But now, with infections spiking anew, Israel has been consigned to the “Red List” of COVID-19 pariah countries barred from entry into European Union countries, along with the United States, Russia and Brazil.
Like many Israelis, Ben-David blames politics for what he calls the national “balagan,” a Hebrew word roughly translated as a chaotic mess.
Netanyahu enjoyed a boost in popularity for his early handling of the crisis, which included near-nightly televised briefings and personal demonstrations of mask-wearing and hand-washing. But the prime minister seemed loath to appoint anyone else to oversee operations that ranged from securing ventilators and testing agents overseas to tracking cellphone movements of infected citizens.
He also resisted repeated calls to give the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) a bigger role in fighting the pandemic. The defense minister at the time had been Naftali Bennett, a Netanyahu challenger on the political right.
A spokesman for the IDF said the military has in fact played a crucial role since early March, transporting tests and materials, helping enforce curfews and lockdowns, and developing new ventilators. The army has run a string of 24 “corona hotels,” where asymptomatic or mildly ill patients can ride out their infections. The number of hotels had declined from 24 to 12, but the IDF is now preparing to open two more.
“The IDF is ready, equipped, manned and prepared to assist with whatever the government of Israel asks us to do,” said Col. Jonathan Conricus.
Ben-David also said the sluggish response to the new outbreak reflected a government that had become so sprawling after new ministries were created this year to accommodate Netanyahu’s political backers. “We already had a problem with officials in silos not talking to each other,” he said. “With the new government, we divided the silos into new silos.”
Sarah Talmor, a restaurateur in Jerusalem, recalled the sunny day a month ago when she moved the tables back onto the terrace. She remembers the hope and relief at apparently escaping the worst of the global pandemic.
On Tuesday, hope and relief had been replaced by “disappointment and sadness,” as she ordered some those tables removed again and prepared to tell customers that new restrictions meant she could allow only a few of them to sit down.
“I wanted to believe life was going to be normal,” said Talmor, manager of the Grand Cafe, one of several Jerusalem restaurants she owns with her husband. “Now we are going backward again.”