For most of the month of May, Israel had fewer than 50 new coronavirus cases daily and by the end of the month numbers were reduced to single digits. Then localized outbreaks, particularly linked to schools, began to bring back the threat of the virus. Israel is now undeniably into its second wave, with the number of daily new cases reaching over 300 for the first time since April 23rd. Over the course of the pandemic, three measures have emerged as key in controlling the spread of COVID-19: testing, contact tracing and lockdowns. Israel was among the top countries in the world on these three fronts, which largely explains the management of the first wave. How will these measures stand up to another increase in cases?
Israel was one of the first countries to master widespread testing and for a long time had testing per capita rates which were multiple times higher than Western Europe and the US. That gap has now narrowed as other nations have gained ground on their own testing goals. A useful metric for testing is the test positivity rate – this is the percentage of tests conducted that come back positive. The World Health Organisation has said that this should be below 5%, with the latest figures showing Israel’s rate to be at 1.3% and just over 5% in the US. This proves a continued effective testing strategy in Israel, indicating the country has sufficient testing to combat a second wave.
Tracking by Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, was a key feature of its contact tracing program until it was deemed illegal by the courts and shut down. Since this move, the government has not prioritized contact tracing. Currently, there is no evidence of any serious attempt by the government to set up a system that features enhanced security and human rights protections. In other countries, such a system has been in the form of a contact tracing phone app used by citizens. During much of May and June, the need for such a system certainly did diminish but the threat of a second wave has always been very real. This period of relative calm could have been used to set up a new secure system. Instead, Netanyahu is considering reinstating the Shin Bet contact tracing – the legal basis for which is unclear. Public health and human rights are not mutually exclusive and as such, Israel should continue to work towards a system that is secure and legal. (is an “opinion” warranted here?)
Israel imposed a strict lockdown throughout its peak of the pandemic, which was more restrictive than any part of the US. Israel has now almost entirely reopened and Netanyahu’s plans for stopping a COVID rebound is an alternative to a return to the previous lockdown. The government plans to impose a targeted lockdown of ‘restricted areas’ such as the city of Elad if and when a hotspot flares up. This approach of implementing localized lockdowns has worked to some extent in places such as South Korea.
If a localized approach does not work in suppressing a second wave in Israel, success will depend upon the government’s willingness to implement a broad lockdown. This, coupled with investing in a contact tracing system - one that preferably does not unduly infringe on the human rights of Israelis - can hopefully combine to quickly contain the second wave and save Israeli lives.
Source for all COVID-19 numbers, unless otherwise indicated: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
Prepared by Thomas Sweeney, APN Intern
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