News Digest — 4/7/20

Israelis Prepare For Nationwide Lockdown As Death Toll Hits 60

The number of Israelis infected with the coronavirus passed 9,000 Tuesday (7th) as the country prepared for a nationwide curfew forcing people to stay home during the start of the Passover holiday.

Health Ministry stats show 9,006 people have tested positive for the virus with 708 hospitalized.  113 of those are on ventilators and the death toll is at 60. 663 Israelis have fully recovered from the virus.

Israelis started lining up early Tuesday morning (7th) at supermarkets across the country in advance of the curfew, announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who told the nation Monday evening (6th) the country was “in a fateful week.”

According to a draft document, approved by the cabinet Tuesday morning (7th), intercity traffic will be banned from 2:00 p.m. Tuesday till Saturday evening (11th), longer than Netanyahu had said in his earlier televised speech.

The week-long Passover holiday begins Wednesday evening (8th) and traditionally millions of Israelis get together with extended families for the Seder, a festive meal at which the story of the biblical exodus from slavery is told.

In order to stop the spread of the virus, the government decided to enforce the travel ban and curfew, keeping everyone at home.

“Every family will have the Passover Seder on its own,” Netanyahu said.  “Celebrate only with the immediate family members who are now with you at home.”

“I know that this is very onerous but there is simply no choice.  We will strictly enforce this lockdown.”

Health officials said the steps taken so far had proven effective in fighting the pandemic.

“The rate of increase in patients and those in serious condition is moderate and lower than we feared, so this means the steps we have taken so far are successful,” Health Ministry Deputy Director Prof. Itamar Grotto told Ynet, emphasizing the public had to continue following guidelines over the holiday.

The education system has been shut down and businesses have either been closed or have been working with minimum staff for the past few weeks, but news of the impending curfew drove Israelis out to supermarkets to stock up.

“I was simply in shock,” said Dana, 42, from Tel Aviv.  “The line-up was from the front door to the end of the huge parking lot…it took two hours to get in.”



Israeli Team Designs Emergency Ventilation System In 10 Days, Shares Source Code Online

A Haifa-based team led by an Israeli Air Force officer has invented a cheap, emergency ventilation system that has garnered high ratings from organizations working to combat the coronavirus pandemic, reported Israeli breakthrough technology website on Sunday (5th).

Maj. Dr. David Alkaher, the chief technical officer of the IAF’s electronic Unit 108, worked with colleagues from over 40 companies and hospitals to create the AmboVent 1690, 108 system in 10 days of almost round-the-clock efforts.

Magen David Adom, Rafael, Israeli Aerospace Industries, and Microsoft-Israel’s Garage program are some of the prestigious names who lent a hand to the project, along with various robotic groups and doctors from the Ichilov and Hadassah Medical Centers.

After the hospital tests looked promising, all source codes, parts lists, electronic specs and engineering designs were freely released online last week on GitHub, a platform that hosts software development.  Dr. Eitan Eliram, the project’s coordinator of communications and cooperation with global “makers, hackers, and engineers,” told the website that in just three days, it had already garnered tens of thousands of views and requests for more information.

The AmboVent was rated highly by Public Invention and among dozens of ventilators being designed globally in an effort to quickly increase the supply of these life-saving machines as the number of critically ill patients rises by the hour.

According to the website, “it received a rate of 4 out of 5 for buildability, testing, Covid-19 suitability, and clinician friendliness, but received 3s for reliability-testing and manufacturability by the thousands.”

One huge advantage of the AmboVent is its cost.  Whereas the price of a standard hospital ventilator is about $40,000, the team estimates that its invention would probably cost less than $1,000.

Twenty prototypes are being sent to clinicians and developers around the world so that they can be inspected by their countries’ regulators, refined and tested.  There is no thought to profit from this venture, said Eliram.

“All the Israelis in this project wanted to save lives,” said the former director of news media at the Prime Minister’s Office.  “They don’t care about money – they just wanted to be part of the network of innovators fighting the coronavirus.”

Animal trials will hopefully begin in the very near future in Jerusalem’s Hadassah-University Medical Center, he said. 



Israel Among The First To Try Experimental Japanese Coronavirus Drug

Israel is among the first countries to receive an experimental Japanese drug to treat coronavirus, for testing at hospitals throughout the country, the Foreign Ministry announced on Monday (6th).

Israel received a first shipment of the drug in recent days, after weeks of work by Israeli Ambassador to Japan Yaffa Ben-Ari, together with Prof. Ran Nir-Paz, an infectious disease expert from Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem and Dr. Esti Sayag, a deputy director-general of Ichilov Medical Center in Tel Aviv.

The committee on clinical trials on humans met in Hadassah on Monday (5th) to review a number of promising drugs being tested on coronavirus patients and authorized experimenting with Avigan.

The hospitals plan to test the drug on a total of 80 patients at Hadassah, Ichilov, Poriya Hospital in Tiberias and Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, together with researchers from Hebrew University.

Nir-Paz explained that the medicine, developed for pandemic influenza, is meant to shorten the duration of the illness, and thus decrease the likelihood of other patients in the hospital catching the coronavirus. 

“The medicine is being used in the frontlines of care in Japan,” he said.  “The goal of Israeli research is to examine if the medicine is effective for this indication.”



Jihadists Describe Coronavirus As “Allah’s Soldier”

Jihadists have been gloating over the health restrictions enacted in the U.S.  “They used to mock women wearing the Islamic niqab – now they are doing the same,” read a March 17 post on the jihadist al Tawhid Awalan  channel on Telegram.  Balagh, a monthly magazine published in Idlib, Syria, by clerics with al-Qaeda sympathies, calls the virus “one of Allah’s soldiers” – the “corona soldier.”

On Hamas’ al Aqsa TV, Imam Jamil al Mutawa boasted that Allah “sent just one soldier,” the virus, “and it has hit all 50 states in America, driven Israel into lockdown, but left the Palestinians mostly unaffected.”

Syrian jihadist commander Asif Abdul Rahman suggested that Iran could use corona virus patients as a biological weapon – like the Mongols reportedly did in the 14th century when they catapulted the bodies of plague victims into the city of what is now Feodosia, Ukraine.  

“Iranian authorities could certainly persuade patients to die as martyrs,” said Abu Rahman.



A Passover Unlike Any Other – Adam Kirsch

How is this night different from all other nights?  That question, which Jews ask every year as part of the Passover celebration, will get a new answer in 2020.  According to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, the Seder is the most widely practiced Jewish tradition in the U.S.: only 23% of American Jews regularly attend a synagogue, but 70% go to a Seder.

In the age of Covid-19, however, bringing together old and young in a small space to share food is simply too dangerous.  In Israel, the Health Ministry has urged Jews to limit their Seders to their nuclear family. This advice is in keeping with the traditional Jewish principle that the preservation of life overrides almost any other duty.

Covid-19 also gives new concreteness to the section of the Seder dealing with the ten plagues.  For most people alive today, the idea of a plague that strikes a whole nation was until recently hard to imagine.

For the Jews of Europe, times of plague were doubly dangerous, since they were often blamed for “deadly epidemics” by their Christian neighbors.  During the Black Death of 1348, hundreds of Jewish communities in Western Europe were attacked, despite the intervention of Pope Clement VI, who pointed out that Jews were dying from the plague just like everyone else.