Analysis |

A Year of Discriminatory COVID Policy Now Makes It to Israel's International Airport

The government's incompetence in handling the coronavirus crisis, with little enforcement when it comes to the ultra-Orthodox public, led to a Purim show of defiance. But with more than half the population inoculated, infection rates are almost bound to go down

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Gloves hang from a booth at an on-site COVID-19 testing facility in Ben-Gurion Airport, in January.
Gloves hang from a booth at an on-site COVID-19 testing facility in Ben-Gurion Airport, in January.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

There is a link between the realm of preferential treatment, as revealed in recent days in all its glory at Ben-Gurion Airport, and the mass Purim festivities held in city centers, with their demonstrative ignoring of the desperate cries from the heads of the country’s health system. For a year young secular people have been watching the incompetence with which the government has been handling the coronavirus crisis (except for the successful vaccination drive), with zero enforcement or deterrence when it comes to the ultra-Orthodox public, and with hollow and hypocritical rhetoric used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers when appealing to the general public.

One could have assumed that their anger and revulsion would explode at some point. Purim parties, on the anniversary of the arrival of the first coronavirus patient in Israel, became a show of defiance, of almost civil disobedience of government regulations.

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Young secular people have no better reasons for flouting the regulations than their counterparts in the Haredi world. If mass gatherings in open spaces are at least somewhat dangerous at a funeral in Bnei Brak or Jerusalem, they are equally dangerous at parties in central Tel Aviv. In partial defense of the latter, one could say the following: secular cities saw fewer open violations of the regulations over the last year, yet they experienced selective and harsher enforcement by the police; secular cities have fewer COVID-19 cases than Haredi or Arab cities do; secular politicians were not actively involved in paving the way for these violations and in preventing penalties being imposed on their voters, as was the case with ultra-Orthodox politicians.

The state of affairs at the airport, as first reported by Uri Misgav of Haaretz, followed by Friday night’s resounding TV news story, only strengthens the common feelings of discrimination. Out of concern over the entry of new and more contagious variants of the virus, Israel voluntarily imposed a siege on itself. This could have been a legitimate response if it was translated into a strict, organized mechanism involving isolation and coronavirus tests for people entering and leaving the country.

What was revealed was the exact opposite, something that should no longer surprise anyone. Israel is making it difficult for people wishing to leave. For those entering the country, a committee dealing with exceptions became an entry pathway for Haredi citizens and others who are close to government circles. Ordinary citizens can barely get in. Perhaps more seriously, there is a growing suspicion that this discriminatory policy is indirectly connected to the upcoming election. Just like at every other election, thousands of ultra-Orthodox people with dual citizenship are entering Israel. But this time, secular people are forced to remain overseas and will apparently not be able to vote. The fact that all this “bounty” is being orchestrated by Transportation Minister Miri Regev, someone not known for inspiring public confidence in the purity of her motives, only contributes to the anger evoked by this story.

Purim celebrations in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A ‘tie-breaker’

It’s hard to blame the heads of the Health Ministry for everything. They are contending with a growing public weariness after a year of pandemic. Netanyahu has arranged for himself a convenient division: as the election approaches, he’s responsible for the good news regarding vaccines and promises of a nearing economic recovery. The professional echelons are left with the cautionary and intimidating announcements.

Perhaps part of the problem stems from the fact that young people getting inoculated feel, for now, that they are not getting any real easing of restrictions in return. The regulations regarding the “green passport” have not been implemented in an organized manner and many parts of the economy are still suspended, with experts only busy with explaining to the public how many more sacrifices will still be needed. Who would have believed that the head of public health services at the Health Ministry, Dr. Sharon Elroy Preiss, could evoke in many people a longing for the joie de vivre and sweeping optimism exuded by her predecessor, Prof. Siegal Sadetzki?

Regarding positive news, there is still something the public could be told, despite the rise in the contagion factor R. This increase expresses a change in the number of verified carriers of the virus, stemming from the opening of some schools, but it’s also connected to the larger number of daily tests conducted. The Health Ministry is not explaining that the rate of positive tests has been declining in recent weeks, with no increase, so far, in the number of hospitalized or severely ill people.

As long as there is no coronavirus variant that is resistant to the vaccine, even a rise in the number of infections cannot erase the achievements of the vaccination drive. An important threshold was crossed over the weekend. More than 4.7 million Israelis, in other words more than half the country’s population, have received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine. These citizens, according to safety guidelines issued by Pfizer, which manufactures the vaccine, are all over 16 years of age. More than 3.3 million of these, almost 36 percent of the population, have received the second dose as well. The big question mark is over the rate of inoculation. Last week it declined from 80,000 first doses a day to 50,000. But even if it stays at this rate, one can hope that 5.7 million Israelis will have received two doses by mid-April.

That’s not all there is to this story. There are 730,000 people in Israel recovering from the coronavirus. According to all the assessments, the true number is much higher, since many people were asymptomatic carriers who were not detected in real time. This figure is relevant mainly for children, where the incidence of asymptomatic infection is higher. In other words, a rough estimate is that the number of Israelis who were vaccinated or who recovered from the virus could reach 6.5 million in a month and a half. Seventy percent of the population, including almost all of the high-risk group of people older than 60, will be protected from the virus.

As mentioned, all this is relevant as long as there is no resistant variant (the South African one is apparently more problematic for the vaccine but is not resistant to it). This proportion will be a true “tie breaker.” Experts are divided over the question of the threshold required for herd immunity against the coronavirus. No country has reached it yet. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. coronavirus “czar,” admitted in January that he raised his calculation to 80 percent of the population due to the spread of the contagious British variant. But even with 70 percent of the population vaccinated and recovered, the virus will encounter fewer vulnerable people, which will assist in blocking its spread.

Under these circumstances, it seems that the state would do well to increase its information dissemination efforts, trying to convince citizens who are still deliberating whether to get vaccinated. Moreover, there will be a need to utilize any available vaccine, which is why distributing doses to friendly countries in exchange for trivial matters such as moving the embassy of Equatorial Guinea to Jerusalem seems groundless and wasteful.

Perhaps the most urgent need relates to monitoring what is happening in the West Bank. In areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority there is now a steep, worrisome spike in the number of infections. Israel, as noted by Netanyahu last week, is not an island state; regarding infectious disease, there is no separation from the Palestinians. Precisely for that reason Israel must see to it that they receive as many doses as possible, as soon as possible. The first priority will be to vaccinate authorized and unauthorized workers coming into Israel, but without a massive blocking of the virus in the West Bank, Israel will not rest at ease.

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