For several months Jorge Diener, Associate Director of Hadassah International, has been regularly briefing the South American media on the COVID-19 pandemic. He brings the perspectives and achievements of the Hadassah Hospital and Israel to a Latin American audience that is hungry for reliable information in Spanish as they face their own battle with the coronavirus. Born in Argentina, Diener has a deep understanding of the Latin American culture and can relate the information in a way that resonates with his audience.
Diener was interviewed by the Argentinian Jewish News Agency (AJN Agency) on June 19th about the current COVID-19 situation in Israel, and the lessons that can be applied to countries in South America. He emphasized that the concerning growth of the number of infected in Israel can be attributed to “a lack of discipline in the three basic measures: masks, two meters away distancing and hygiene.” In addition, he stressed that in vulnerable areas “the authorities failed to understand that the communication mechanisms had to be different from the traditional ones.”
The conversation was published in the Iton Gadol, AJN’s Spanish online publication that has a large following across South America. The interview has been translated below.
AJN Agency.- The Argentine-Israeli Jorge Diener, Associate Director of Hadassah International, was interviewed by the AJN Agency about the coronavirus pandemic. He stressed that currently in Israel “there is a worrying growth in the number of infected people.”
However, Diener thinks that it is not necessary to reverse the measures taken to open economic, cultural, and educational life. It is however necessary to look for mechanisms to ensure that the basic rules are complied with: “masks, distancing and hygiene”.
In the last 24 hours, 349 infections were registered in Israel. According to the daily report of the Ministry of Health, there are 4,372 active patients, of whom 28 are being ventilated. The death toll has reached 304.
Q: Where are we now regarding the pandemic world-wide?
-We are in a moment of uncertainty. The scientific world is still trying to understand this virus and what the implications are for the pandemic in the short, medium, and long term. Will it be possible for us to have a vaccine? Will the virus mutate? Do the antibodies that are generated have memory and last for a prolonged time, or do they only last two or three months, so a person can re-infect? Will the virus continue to strengthen or weaken on its own?
It is true that we already have some information; primarily how to map the infected and identify them; how to test and isolate the infected; and how to use this information to be able to contain the spread of the virus.
Q: Regarding the Latin American region, are we just getting strongly into the pandemic?
-When one looks at the problem in terms of geography, we are in two different situations when we compare the northern hemisphere to the focus in the southern hemisphere, which is South America. In the winter here it is an uphill battle, with a very high risk of not only those seriously ill with COVID-19, but also those seriously ill with regular winter illnesses. The risk of serious hospital overflow in South America, similar to what happened in some parts of Europe and New York, is a very high risk. I believe that all responsible governments, like the government of Argentina, see that the risk exists.
Q: What is the situation in Israel?
-In the northern hemisphere, and that includes Israel, we have entered a plateau of infections. Thanks to the success of the isolation, quarantine and closing activity policy in Israel, we lowered the numbers to a minimum. We have now moved to a situation of being able to restore economic and school activity. The pressure for this is important, as we cannot leave people without work, resources, and education. We have started an experiment, and we are finding out what happens when we reopen. It is true that the numbers went down, but it is also true that the virus has not been defeated. It is still all around us, in the community. We closed the borders, but inside we have not neutralized it. Even New Zealand, the only country that succeeded in eliminating the coronavirus, has already imported two cases from abroad. In China they thought they had won, and now the virus has reappeared in Beijing and there is a terrible epidemic.
Q: What is happening in Hadassah, one of the most important medical centers in the world, right now?
-We have gone back to general activity, which was very important, because spending several months without health care for people who have chronic diseases or need treatment, also has a very high health risk. We are working 100 percent. Hadassah created very important protocols on how to resume regular Hospital activity, while at the same time preventing the spread of the virus within the Hospital.
Q: In Argentina, many cases are appearing among doctors …
– Hadassah was a pioneer in this area, and we have already shared our breakthrough with Latin American countries. Hadassah implemented a policy of permanent testing of all hospital personnel. Not just doctors and nurses, but everyone who must enter any area of the hospital. This testing policy allowed Hadassah to have permanent control, and to know whether the virus was present in the hospital.
On the other hand, Hadassah developed certain specific protocols. For example to specify what to do when a pregnant woman who is positive for COVID-19 has to give birth.
We created a protocol manual, which is now in its second edition, which includes, for example, the return to regular surgical activity in a room where there may be patients with COVID-19.
Q: In the wake of the pandemic, does Hadassah have a strong presence in Latin America?
-Yes. Governments, embassies, communities, and hospitals in Latin America can testify to this. When the pandemic began, we decided that our role should be to share with the world the experience that was being gained by Hadassah in order to help. In Latin America we started in Mexico and Argentina, a little in Brazil, then we expanded to Uruguay and Chile, and we will also work with Peru and Paraguay.
Q: What analogy is there between the religious communities in Jerusalem and the deprived neighborhoods in Latin America?
-There are similarities in that they are both vulnerable populations, although in Latin America there is a level of poverty that does not exist in Israel. They live in conditions where many people live in very small spaces, very large families with little income. On the other hand, it must be understood that to work with vulnerable populations, different communication mechanisms must be found. In Israel, one of the mistakes that was made at the beginning, where the Orthodox communities were criticized for not having followed the isolation guidelines, was that the authorities failed to understand that the communication mechanisms had to be different from the traditional ones. One cannot use television and the Internet in a community that does not use them. You had to talk to the community leaders and work with them to get into the community.
Q: That was achieved?
-That was accomplished. Today there is a worrying growth in the number of infected — we have already passed the level of 300 new cases per day, when we had only a dozen patients three weeks ago. This time the situation has to do with a lack of discipline in the three basic measures: face masks, two meters away distancing, and hygiene. Discipline is very low mainly in areas of Israel that are not orthodox. In Tel Aviv one always sees a complicated situation on the beaches.
Q: Argentina, which has already been in quarantine for more than 90 days, always looks at Israel, where the prime minister warned that they may have to reverse some of the measures. Is it a mirror at different times?
-We are working on parallel lines. It is not necessary to go backwards or forwards. It should be seen that part of the challenge of pandemic control has a variable that must be moved back and forth. We must take measures to control the new contagion, but try to maintain economic, cultural, and educational activity. There is a very high risk in all this. We saw that in the last few weeks with the infections in schools and other places. We are going to have to learn how much the variables can be modified. There are two control axes, and perhaps one can go backwards and the other forward. This explains why, despite the increase in the number of infected people, next Sunday trains will be permitted to run in Israel. There are a whole series of very important measures that allow moving forward but also apply the brake to control the pandemic.