Israel and the rise of health technocrats

The rise of health officials as policymakers is an unhealthy development.

A worrying development in Israel's current management of the ongoing pandemic has been the emergence and rise of health professionals as policymakers.

Unlike military officials, who, in a representative democracy, do not make policy, but rather advise civilian decision-makers, health professionals have taken over the public discourse with daily doomsday scenarios, press briefings and finger-wagging. 

The global mortality rate for the virus is 0.13% according to latest data from WHO, - and much lower for children - with most infected children showing no symptoms, and evidence suggesting children are not superspreaders.

With zero real evidence to back his position, Gamzu, Israel’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu is against opening schools, calling it dangerous. Israel’s Health Ministry released a new report recently apparently showing high coronavirus rates among kids, and warned that sending children back to schools at a time of high COVID-19 morbidity “may accelerate the spread of the virus.” It also claimed that children are superspreaders “since 51% to 70% of them do not show symptoms of the virus, and said that in 17 cases tracked by the Health Ministry, children managed to infect over 10 of their peers”. 

However, Ronit Calderon-Margalit, a Gamzu adviser, said the Health Ministry drew the wrong conclusions from the report. She told Times of Israel that the report “seems to misinterpret data in a way that blames children in the propagation of disease,” and that “the report reflects a misconception that schools are behind the latest outbreak.”

“The reopening of schools on September 1 was not the vector for the outbreak, and you cannot assume that closing them on the 17th was the reason for the decline in morbidity,” she said.

A paper published in the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics in August  suggests that “SARS-CoV-2 transmission in schools may be less important in community transmission than initially feared. This would be another manner by which SARS-CoV-2 differs drastically from influenza, for which school-based transmission is well recognized as a significant driver of epidemic disease and forms the basis for most evidence regarding school closures as a public health strategy.”

More importantly, continued school closures risk “scarring the life chances of a generation of young people,” according to an open letter published last month and signed by more than 1500 members of the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).

A study released in early 2020, showed that a full third of Israeli children live below the poverty line and among the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities, nearly two-thirds are considered poor. 

Few seem to appreciate the consequences of continued school closures. Lower-income children who are entirely dependent on school meals go hungry and there’s mounting evidence that children are suffering increased abuse in the absence of school staff identifying and reporting signs of domestic abuse.

Perhaps experts like Dr. Gamzu are the problem.

The cognitive science literature suggests that the highly educated and intelligent are unable to rethink or reformulate their beliefs, or to adjust viewpoints when presented with evidence that contradicts their prior beliefs. Helen Dale, writing in CapX, observed that this is “because they are typically better equipped to poke holes in data or arguments that contradict their views.”

All of this begs the terrifying question: are health officials actually interested in, or even capable of addressing the validity of their own beliefs, even in the face of new evidence? The rise of health officials as key decision-makers behind destructive lockdowns and school closures is unhealthy, and a development unbecoming of a country that has a proud tradition of sanctifying life.