In Israel, This Year's Passover Seder Is Also a Farewell Party for COVID-19

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Israel's coronavirus vaccination drive in full swing earlier this month, in Ramat Gan.
Israel's coronavirus vaccination drive in full swing earlier this month, in Ramat Gan.Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

The eve of Passover 2021 is apparently merging with the celebrations of the unofficial end of the coronavirus pandemic in Israel. Scientists are still hesitant, and caution is certainly warranted in view of all that’s transpired in the past year, but one can no longer ignore the sharp drop in all the relevant parameters.

Israel, thanks to its vaccine drive, is possibly approaching the threshold of achieving herd immunity against the virus. If no pessimistic scenarios unfold, such as the spread of a more infectious variant from overseas, or, even worse, a variant resistant to the vaccine, it looks as though the coronavirus is on its way to receding to the background of our lives. After a year in which the virus dictated even the slightest move, this is wonderful news.

These are the figures for Israel, as of Thursday morning: the average daily number of confirmed cases has dropped below 800; the rate of positive tests is approaching one percent; there are 490 seriously ill patients with COVID-19; the R contagion coefficient is only 0.55; 56 percent of the population have received a first dose and slightly fewer than that have received both doses of the vaccine.

In the entire country only two “red” (highly contagious) towns remain, and eight in the “orange” category, all of them in Arab communities. All the country’s large cities are categorized as “green” or having a very limited number of cases. Some hospitals are shutting their COVID-19 wards. The number of medical staff in quarantine has dropped to 300, compared to 5,000 at the peak of the pandemic.

Jerusalem's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and President Reuven Rivlin, this week Credit: Mark Neyman / GPO

Just over a month ago, Israel was still contending with a high number of people with COVID-19. The abrupt turnaround happened when nearly half the population received a first shot of the vaccine. Since then, and particularly over the last two weeks, all the relevant parameters are in free fall. What is even more impressive is that this happened as remaining restrictions were lifted. The third lockdown was lifted, Purim celebrations were held, events with relatively high attendance were held. None of these facts put a dent in the downward trend in new infections. Fears of a massive spread of the virus among unvaccinated children following the opening of schools were not borne out by reality.

There is no explanation for this turnaround other than the vaccine campaign. Many European countries, where vaccination is proceeding at a sluggish pace, are suffering from a new and harsher wave of infections. Britain and the U.S., which are approaching Israel’s immunity rates after widespread vaccine drives, are also experiencing a drop in infection and mortality rates.

This is exactly what scientists predicted would happen – as soon as a substantial proportion of the population (in Israel almost 70 percent) is vaccinated or recovered from the disease, the virus would have less room to spread and the number of cases would drop steeply. Apparently, a few more weeks are needed, assuming the trend continues, before the Health Ministry publicly recognizes the new reality and hastens the return to normal routine. The rehabilitation of the economy, not a campaign against the virus, will probably be the focus of attention of the new government, if and when one arises.

The difference between this Passover and last year’s is substantial, and positive. Last Passover the state asked Jewish citizens to avoid family gatherings and meet grandparents over Zoom. A lockdown was imposed, even a semblance of a brief curfew, and police checkpoints prevented travel over the holiday. This time, there are hardly any restrictions and the question of whether to take a risk and crowd together indoors with extended family is up to individuals to decide. There will be no police coercion on that subject. However, between the two seder nights, other things happened as well.

Last year it turned out that both the president and prime minister violated the restrictions themselves, after asking the public to abide by regulations, thus inflicting a critical blow to public confidence in the government. The strange decisions made afterwards, mainly the one about ignoring a reasonable “traffic light” plan to differentiate between neighborhoods with high illness rates and those with fewer cases, further eroded whatever confidence still existed.

President Rivlin raises a toast for Passover with a group of Israeli soldiers, this weekCredit: Gregory Badu

Benjamin Netanyahu got a grip in the end. His insistence on procuring the vaccines at an early stage, with the assistance of the amazingly effective apparatus of Israeli health maintenance organizations, made Israel a world leader in vaccination against COVID-19, apparently extricating it from the throes of the pandemic sooner than other countries. This seems to have been the wisest and most suitable plan of action for Israel, much more than the ill-fated attempt to emulate the “corona-free” model adopted by countries such as New Zealand, Taiwan and Singapore.

If Netanyahu were to decide to resign and devote his time to proving his innocence, instead of clinging to the horns of the altar, his achievement of procuring the vaccine early on would be remembered as a positive final chord of his tenure and one of his greatest achievements.

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