AP Interview: Israeli virus czar fights outbreak, politics

September 25, 2020 GMT
Israeli Dr. Ronni Gamzu speaks during an interview with the Associated Press at his office near the central Israeli city of Lod, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. Gamzu is a cancer survivor. It was that personal battle that readied him for his greatest professional challenge: steering Israel's troubled coronavirus response. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Israeli Dr. Ronni Gamzu speaks during an interview with the Associated Press at his office near the central Israeli city of Lod, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. Gamzu is a cancer survivor. It was that personal battle that readied him for his greatest professional challenge: steering Israel's troubled coronavirus response. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

AIRPORT CITY, Israel (AP) — When Dr. Ronni Gamzu, one of Israel’s leading public health experts, was named the country’s coronavirus czar in mid-July, he was hailed as Israel’s best hope for halting a fast-growing number of cases.

Two months later, Israel is suffering from one of the world’s worst outbreaks and heading into a tough new lockdown. Sleeping just four hours a night, Gamzu has faced withering criticism from opponents, pushback from Israel’s notoriously fractious political leadership and the stark fact that the number of new cases shows no sign of declining.

In a wide-ranging interview, Gamzu acknowledged the public’s frustration, accepting some of the blame, while also saying that the Israeli public’s nonchalance and government mismanagement had contributed to the chaos. Ultimately, he took responsibility for decisions that can affect lives and livelihoods.

“There are many uncertainties,” he told The Associated Press. “And you have to make decisions that affect people’s life, people’s habits, social life and living — wages and earnings, businesses. Any kind of a decision that you take, it’s not a medical decision. It’s a social economic decision.”

Gamzu is managing the virus crisis at a bleak time, with the world rapidly approaching 1 million COVID-19 deaths globally.

Israel now has nearly 7,000 cases a day, one of the highest levels in the world on a per capita basis. With 9 million people, it has had nearly 215,000 cases since the start of the outbreak, with 60,000 of those active at the moment. Nearly 1,400 have died.

Friday’s tightening of a nationwide lockdown has deepened the sense of frustration among citizens disillusioned by the government’s often confusing decisions and hit hard by an economic downturn.

But Gamzu is taking it in stride, drawing on a personal battle with cancer just two years ago for inspiration.

“I had my personal crisis with the eye cancer. It was a hard time, really, a crisis, personal one. You see almost death coming,” he said. “But going through a personal experience like I went through, it gives you proportion. And you can handle such hardships and criticism.”

A gynecologist by training, the 54-year-old has served as the director of the Sourasky Medical Center, Tel Aviv’s main hospital, since 2015. Gamzu was appointed coronavirus czar in July, just as Israel was seeing a dramatic uptick in new cases.

The country had just emerged from what appeared to be a successful first-wave battle against the virus, decisively sealing borders and imposing a lockdown. At the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted that other world leaders were calling him for advice. He famously urged Israelis to go out and “have fun.”

Still, the economy was hit hard and unemployment shot up. In an attempt to revive the flagging economy, schools and businesses were reopened swiftly — and virus numbers began to creep up.

Netanyahu became sidetracked by other issues, including an unfulfilled pledge to annex parts of the West Bank, his corruption trial and large protests calling on him to resign. A new emergency government, cobbled together by rival parties to focus on the virus, was plagued by infighting.

Even after the country’s health minister announced he was appointing a new coronavirus “project manager,” it took weeks to fill the post as potential candidates dropped out, fearing they would not have enough authority to set policy.

Gamzu, however, said at the time he was confident he could do the job within its confines. Reality has turned out somewhat differently.

While he is well-versed in Israeli bureaucracy and politics following a four-year stint as director of the country’s Health Ministry, Gamzu has met relentless pushback from government ministers over his strategy.

He cited a three-week “nightmare” he endured over school reopening this fall. Education Minister Yoav Gallant wanted all schools to reopen on Sept. 1. Gamzu pushed to close schools in areas with worrying outbreaks and ultimately prevailed.

He has endured similar wrangling with the country’s ultra-Orthodox politicians. They have fought furiously to allow prayers in synagogues, which are believed to be centers of infections, and a mass pilgrimage to the grave of a revered rabbi in Ukraine.

A powerful ultra-Orthodox Cabinet minister at the time, Yaakov Litzman, accused Gamzu of trying to topple the government and called for him to resign. Litzman himself later resigned to protest restrictions on prayer.

Gamzu has pushed for targeted responses in hard-hit individual communities, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. He said he opposed Friday’s tightened nationwide lockdown because of the tough economic blow it will cause, but also respected the politicians’ decision.

Gamzu works out of a bare-walled office near Israel’s main international airport, bouncing between Zoom calls, media appearances and government meetings. On Thursday, he was up until 5 a.m. taking part in an overnight Cabinet meeting that approved the tightened lockdown. He was back at his office three hours later; by 10:30 he was off to east Jerusalem to meet members of the city’s Palestinian community.

He gives a number of reasons for Israel’s current predicament. After little damage during the first wave, he said Israelis didn’t take the virus seriously as it crept back amid mass gatherings and flouting of social distancing rules. He says allowing older students to return to high schools this month, setting off a groundswell of infections, was a “failure” under his watch. He said there was “bad conducting” by the government, but remained diplomatic when asked about Netanyahu.

“I believe that he as many others didn’t realize that getting out of the lockdown must be very careful and gradual,” said Gamzu. “No real professional within the ministry or within the government raised the red flag. Sometimes a prime minister needs that.”

Netanyahu’s approval ratings have plummeted as the virus has worsened. According to a survey this week by the Israel Democracy Institute, only 27% of Israelis trust Netanyahu’s handling of the outbreak. Faith in Gamzu, meanwhile, is at 51%.

Gamzu expects the current lockdown to bring cases down to a “comfortable” level within the next month. Barring any major developments, he plans to return to his job managing the hospital in November and urged his replacement to view the crisis as a long-term battle with no quick fixes.

“It’s hard work,” he said, adjusting his mask. “Do not declare victory. Do not declare failure. Go ahead and still fight.”