Gloomy Coronavirus Report Gets Critical Scrutiny

YERUSHALAYIM -
Buses travel past Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv, Israel June 18, 2020. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

A report that has contributed to worries about a second wave of the coronavirus came in for sharp criticism on Sunday, as health experts questioned its projection of fatalities, as well as its authorship and methodology.

The National Coronavirus Campaign Information and Knowledge Center’s latest assessment declared that “the State of Israel is currently entering a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic no less severe than the first wave. Unless action is taken and the present rate of growth is substantially reduced, within about a month the number of new cases will be 1,000 daily and the number of fatalities will reach several hundred.”

The number of deaths related to the coronavirus since mid-March stood at 306 as of Sunday evening.

The source of the report is the IDF Intelligence Corps. No individual authors are named, nor is the scientific basis of its assessment explained.

Prof. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Association of Public Health Physicians, dismissed it as “unprofessional” and “not serious,” according to the Jerusalem Post on Sunday. He noted that its staff includes no epidemiology or public health experts.

Levine, himself an epidemiologist, leveled a withering attack on the findings:

“Unfortunately, the report contains serious factual errors,” he said. “It looks as though someone set a target and adapted the data to it. Dealing with the pandemic in the best possible way requires professionalism and transparency. Both these elements are lacking in the report. Unprofessional reports of this kind damage not only preparedness for the pandemic but also public confidence. I esteem the capabilities and excellence of Intelligence Corps personnel very highly. Some of them are personal friends from my army service. But like the improper use of Israel Security Agency tools, the use of the Intelligence Corps for public health purposes, without professional epidemiological supervision, is unfortunately also liable to harm public confidence in the Intelligence Corps and the IDF.”

An IDF spokesperson responded to the critics: “The National Coronavirus Campaign Information and Knowledge Center is a national research body that reports to the Ministry of Health and is intended to improve the way the fight against the coronavirus is conducted, through research on the pandemic in Israel, in the surrounding region, and in the world. The center was set up when the pandemic broke out by the IDF Intelligence Division under the direction of the Ministry of Health and the National Security Council. The report in question was distributed as part of the daily distribution of information since the Center was established in March. The reports are distributed to a set list of people in the IDF, the Ministry of Health, the National Security Council, and other decision makers. Since the report is unclassified, it is distributed on the civilian network.”

“When there was confusion in the management of the disease at the beginning, the Intelligence Corps stepped in,” explained Prof. Nadav Davidovitch of the Center for Health Policy Research at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

“They are very creative people with good intentions. They take a subject and study it, and issue a report. It is not clear that any medically qualified person examines it. The document is a strategic document with many implications that go to the core of the matter, and it is inconceivable that it should be released without someone professional reviewing it. It just generates noise and alarm.”

The Association of Public Health Physicians also pointed out that the IDF data was at variance with Health Ministry figures on the spread of the disease.

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, the former chairman of the Knesset coronavirus committee, aimed the criticism at the government: “This is not how a crisis is managed; this is not how a country is managed.”

The IDF report aside, however, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reiterated his warning of renewed shutdowns if the infection rate is not held down.

“This morning, I asked to convene all of the director generals of the relevant ministries, and from the Federation of Local Authorities, along with the head of the National Security Council and various experts, who gave their evaluations. They gave me various forecasts from different agencies, and these forecasts were all harsh. We must flatten the curve now,” he told the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.

“Tomorrow, I will convene the Corona Cabinet and we will discuss the necessary steps to block the spread of the pandemic. If we do not immediately change our behavior regarding masks and maintaining distance, we will bring upon ourselves – against our will – the return of the shutdowns. None of us wants this; therefore, I call upon you, citizens of Israel, to wear masks and maintain distance.”

Netanyahu did not specifically mention the IDF’s report.