Leadership Saves Lives

View of the Kneeset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

Why are some countries successful at battling the coronavirus and others, like Israel, not?

Take Taiwan, for instance. This is a country of 23 million — more than two and a half times the population of Israel — that is located just 50 miles from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the pandemic. It has had 45 new COVID-19 cases in the past half year, four in the last week.

Israel, by contrast, has been on a coronavirus roller coaster. Lockdown I, initiated last Pesach, brought infection rates down. But a too-hasty return to routine sent them skyrocketing to nearly 9,000 a day, and forced Lockdown II. Infection rates came down enough to allow schools and businesses to open in a limited way, but health officials are already talking about the need for Lockdown III in December.

What explains the difference?

It could be that the Taiwanese are more disciplined. You tell them to wear masks, wash their hands and maintain social distance and they do it, no questions asked. You tell Israelis the same thing and you get a million different reasons for why the rules don’t apply to them.

Another possibility is that Taiwan learned its lesson from the SARS epidemic of 2003, which killed 181 people, and was ready for COVID-19.

But it goes deeper than that. Reporter Michael Tuchfeld of Makor Rishon spoke to an official at the Taiwanese Representative Office in Tel Aviv who attributed his country’s success to three things: “Immediate intervention” on the part of the government; political and professional leadership; and “generous” financial aid to businesses, companies and individuals hurt by the lockdown.

The result of all this was a remarkably low number of coronavirus cases and a minimal blow to the economy, which grew 1%-2% this year and is expected to grow 4% in 2021.

In Israel, by contrast, government intervention has been anything but immediate. There is a Coronavirus Cabinet that regularly postpones decisions on key questions like who to lock down and when, and that is often overruled by a Knesset Coronavirus Committee.

Political leadership? Not in Israel. The prime minister and president ordered people to stay home alone for Pesach — “it’s a matter of protecting our elderly” — and then had relatives over for the chag. A decision to appoint a professional “coronavirus czar” dragged on for months, in part because politicians weren’t willing to surrender control. A unity government formed specifically to deal with the coronavirus crisis is more preoccupied with the coming elections than getting the country through the pandemic in good shape.

Generous aid packages for those hurt by lockdowns? Not in Israel, which recently acknowledged that only some 60% of funding that was allocated for emergency relief was actually distributed.

As a result of all this, instead of Taiwan’s modest growth, Israel’s economy is expected to shrink by 5%-6.5%, according to the country’s central bank.

Israelis may be undisciplined, but they can be inspired by political leaders they believe in, as we’ve seen at times of war. The absence of such leadership has contributed to 2,684 corona deaths, as of last week, more than the 2,656 who were killed in the Yom Kippur War.