Coronavirus lab
Coronavirus labiStock

On Monday night, the Israeli government authorized tightening the coronavirus lockdown guidelines: No more than two people are now permitted to “gather” in public spaces; communal prayer has been outlawed even in open areas; the number of people participating in a funeral has been limited to 20; and so forth.

On Tuesday, 103 FM Radio interviewed Professor Gabi Barbash, head of the government’s special unit to test for coronavirus, and formerly Director-General of the Health Ministry as well as Director of Ichilov Hospital. Speaking with Golan Yochpaz and Anat Davidov, Prof. Barbash expressed cautious optimism at the current situation: “It is appropriate that when we see that there has been a change in trend, we should tell the public about it. The public needs to know that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

According to him, it is already possible to see “a trend that we had hoped to see six days ago already, a trend that shows a decline in the number of new cases. I think that with appropriate caution, we should make this known to the public. People need to know that the inconvenience they are experiencing is paying off.”

The professor explained that, “We checked to make sure that we weren’t just conducting fewer tests in the last few days, and that this was the reason why we were detecting fewer cases. But this wasn’t what we found.” All the same, he admitted that “as to whether things will continue this way is the question – we don’t yet know.”

Last week, government plans to conduct spot-checks in supermarkets across the country were leaked to the media, causing the government to scrap the plan, due to fears that people would head to the stores with the express intent of being tested. “For the time being, this has been put on hold,” Professor Barbash said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with those plans. We are waiting for the decision of the Health Ministry.”

He also commented on the government’s future plans for the closure, saying, “At the end of the day, we imposed the closure two weeks after we said we needed to, and it still produced results. It’s possible to argue that because of the closure, today we have around 4,000 cases instead of 1,000, but no one can really know that. All the same, I expect the number of serious cases to increase to around 200 in the coming month. These are people who will need intensive care. And I don’t think this can be prevented.”

Professor Barbash then addressed the issue of small segments of the population where the guidelines of the Health Ministry haven’t been sufficiently heeded, endangering not only the people involved but also others.

He admitted that, “We do have our concerns about ‘virus hotspots’ such as in Bnei Brak and parts of Jerusalem. I think that these places have to be dealt with in a very serious, thought-out manner. But it’s complicated,” he cautioned. “I don’t see how we could simply seal off Bnei Brak. It’s not a clearly defined area such as – sorry for the comparison – Gaza, for instance, where there’s a fence around it. These are people who live together with us.”

He argued that, “We have to do mass testing, on a huge scale, in order to identify people carrying the virus, including those without symptoms. If we had the ability to conduct 20 or 30 thousand tests a day, we would be able to go into Bnei Brak and make quick decisions about who to evacuate and quarantine in the special hotels that have been set up.”

Professor Barbash concluded by stating his opinion on the intention of the Defense Ministry to make use of spy technology to enforce the shutdown, when Shabak (Israel Security Agency) is already implementing a program of its own. “I don’t know why they’re getting involved alongside Shabak. I don’t understand why we need two different programs. I believe that if Shabak is involved, it will do what’s needed. We have an epidemic here that we need to deal with, in any appropriate manner, and I trust the Shabak not to use any information they gather about my movements for inappropriate purposes, and so I support their involvement.”