The Jerusalem Post
Is trust enough to win COVID battle?
In what was a déjà vu moment for the people of Israel, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told the public that “we want to reach a kind of agreement with the public” about how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In this new wave of Delta mutation, we want to give a chance to a new path, a different path, a path of trust with you, the public,” he said during a speech on Wednesday. “A way of collaborating and harnessing the public.”
Condemning the Netanyahu administration for leaving “a motorway wide open for mutations,” “neglect” and “disgraceful complacency,” Bennett promised that under his leadership the situation would change.
“In the new government, under my leadership, together with the health minister and top Health Ministry experts, we will try another way
– more transparency and less closures,” he said. “Together, the government and the public can defeat the delta pandemic.”
Is trust enough to combat the COVID crisis?
Just ask Prof. Ronni Gamzu. Nearly one year ago, on July 28, he delivered a speech to which Bennett’s was strikingly similar.
Gamzu had been newly appointed as coronavirus commissioner after months of the public complaining that the virus was being managed by politics and populism. The virus was spiraling out of control as ministers who took office two months prior pandered to their loudest constituents.
Gamzu accused the government of rolling out illogical decisions and slammed the Health Ministry for its ill management of the contact tracing system, and handing over responsibility to the Defense Ministry. He promised things would be different with him in this new position.
“A new contract will be
established between the public and those managing the coronavirus crisis,” Gamzu said as he delivered his maiden address. “We have seen a decline in confidence in recent days, and as such, the virus has spread. The new contract: The government does everything logically, quickly and confidently; the citizens obey and cooperate.
“I am here,” Gamzu continued. “I am in charge. I will not allow there to be regulations that hurt the economy for no reason.”
Both Bennett and Gamzu promised minimum regulations in exchange for maximum adherence, so that they could maintain public health and routine.
The most important rules, they said, are masks and social distancing.
During his speech, Gamzu shared a slide that listed adherence to mask wearing in the US and told the public that in the American states where there was 75% or more adherence the infection rate was on the decline.
“This is real,” he stressed. “It works. We need to get to 100%. The mask protects us, our families, our seniors. Kids, tell your parents to put on a mask.”
Bennett took this one step further, stressing that wearing a mask in indoor events is the law.
“No matter how primitive,” he said, “masks are the best protection against the delta variant.”
Gamzu gave his talk during the Nine Days – the mourning
period before the observance of Tisha Be’Av just ahead of the start of the wedding season. He told the public that if weddings and other mass gatherings did not cease, then the infection rate would not go down.
“Maintain social distance, especially at mass events,” Bennett urged the public. The Ninth of Av is on Sunday and there is fear that wedding season will lead to yet another rise in daily cases. “Stop shaking hands, stop hugging and kissing people who are not your family members – just stop.”
But at the heart of both of Gamzu’s plans was – and of Bennett’s plans is – a new contract of trust.
“On the side of the government, the new contract says transparency, professionalism and cooperation,” Gamzu said. “On the side of the public, I need trust. I need you to follow the regulations.”
“We as a government will talk to you at eye level,” Bennett said. “From now on, the whole public, everyone, will take responsibility… The public will be careful.”
Gamzu was so confident that the public would follow his lead that he told listeners he was “sure of one thing: Israel will succeed” in beating the virus.
Less than two months later, on September 18, the country entered its second sweeping nationwide lockdown.
Bennett seemed noticeably confident, too, when he said “if the whole public is involved, let us win this thing! Let us defeat the virus without closures.”
Which means, the question remains: Did Gamzu simply fail at gaining the trust of the public or is trust not enough to beat the pandemic?
Gamzu in many ways was set up for failure. He took his role at a time when the country lacked confidence in its leadership.
A poll published in August by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that nearly half (45%) of Israelis were pessimistic about the country’s ability to overcome the crisis. Moreover, the majority (61%) of Israelis said they did not trust Netanyahu to manage the pandemic.
Moreover, what exactly Gamzu had the authority to do in his role as corona czar was unclear for most of his three-month tenure.
For instance, his inability to sway the government to roll out his “traffic light” plan in time because of what appeared to be pressure by the haredim, and Netanyahu permitting thousands of haredim to fly to Oman, Ukraine against the commissioner’s directive, gave the impression that he was just a pawn in the prime minister’s hand.
Although Bennett struck a winning deal with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the public did not vote him into office. Bennett’s Yamina Party only won seven seats, meaning that Bennett’s face is not the one that the public expected to be managing this crisis.
Maybe it doesn’t matter anyway, because Israel is a nation of rule breakers. A defiant public, a people who don’t want to be – taken advantage of, puts the country at risk.
At the end of the day, trust is just a benign concept and likely not a good policy for tackling something as complicated and dangerous as a global pandemic. •