Crisis and Opportunity: Network Members Talk About Their New COVID-19 Realities – Yehuda Schweiger

Yehuda Schweiger is the Director of the Efrat Local Council.

“We in Efrat have worked, are working and will continue to work on our emergency preparedness. But our readiness for an earthquake or war is different from how we need to cope with the COVID-19 crisis. During every emergency, we – not to mention the entire country – rely on a specific defense mechanism: partnership, togetherness and unity. But that which has always been the cure – our proximity to one another – is now the danger itself.

Looking back a month ago, we were in the process of developing the council’s work with MAOZ. Also only a month ago, there was something else we were busy with: Purim festivities. There were many happy and colorful holiday parties in people’s private homes and in the neighborhoods; we ran an Adloyada (traditional Purim) parade and a community-wide megillah reading in the local council.

It was still possible to celebrate in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s guidelines at that point. Today, we call what we did then ‘gathering’. And today I can say that that was probably when the epidemic reached us.

Two days later, almost all the residents who had attended the parties began feeling unwell. A family doctor who saw many of them called me and informed me that a lot of residents had symptoms of COVID-19.

Efrat had the largest concentration of diagnosed patients in Israel for days. Entire neighborhoods were in quarantine and many residents had come down with the symptoms. We had a big mess and a lot of distress on our hands.
We knew that one of the most important things we could do was to take control: we needed to figure out who was infected and how many were infected where. We needed to understand what needed to be done. We wanted to start conducting as many checks to determine who was sick in order to prevent further infection.
On the one hand, the Ministry of Health was unable to keep up with our testing needs; on the other hand, we knew we had a great responsibility on the local level. We needed to step up our testing and reporting system in order to reduce infection within our local community.

So we opened an operations room within the council. We trained our medical teams to conduct the tests, partnered with Magen David Adom volunteers and set up two vehicles that could transport tests to the Ministry of Health to be checked.

Within a few hours, it started working. Telephone upon telephone, resident upon resident: hundreds came to be tested. We carried out over 400 tests within the council and quickly transferred them to Jerusalem for examination.

It was at this point when we decided to take another important step. Everyone who came to be tested received a form. We explained to the residents that if their coronavirus test returned positive, we’d want to publish their names and the places they had been over the last few days. Most of them agreed. For every test that came back positive, we published the person’s details within the council in order to raise awareness.

It’s seemingly simple, and today everyone understands that it’s better to do this more and more. But we found this to be a complex step. It gave us a medical luxury, as residents’ familiarity and shared responsibility helped promote awareness.
We accumulated a great deal of knowledge about our residents who had been infected, as well as where they had been. We were able to tell a lot of residents to quarantine themselves. At a breakneck pace, we were able to act extremely diligently and efficiently.

We realized that the knowledge we had acquired, together with the practices that worked for us, could be useful in many other places. So I had a few conversations with MAOZ team members and Network members on how to take the model of coronavirus testing we had created in Efrat and apply it elsewhere. By the next morning, I began seeing pictures of an operations room set up at the entrance of an Arab local authority. A few hours later, I received a recording of another Network member who was a guest on a radio show and spoke about his decision to replicate the model we had created in Efrat.

There are a lot of other things going on; Network collaborations that help things move fast. For example, we have a Whatsapp group for local authority CEOs and directors. There was lots of talk in the group when the Prime Minister announced that the workforce would be reduced from 30% to 15%. Everyone panicked and was concerned – ‘How should we proceed’, we all asked. ‘What should we do?’ I messaged a Network member who works in the Ministry of Interior, asking her to look into the option of the Ministry offering an explanation, something to calm people down. She replied within a few minutes and I forwarded her message to the Whatsapp group. Just like that – in one moment, dozens of CEOs felt that they had a connection with the Ministry of Interior; they felt that the central government listened to them and was in this fight with them. This is not something that necessarily feels obvious or clear-cut.

This is not the time to take note of the things that don’t work and complain about them, even if the complaints may sometimes be justified. This is the time for collaboration.

In local government, central government, nonprofits and the private sector – we’re suddenly seeing how small connections have a big impact. And they will eventually help us beat this, too.”