Israel Set to Exit COVID Lockdown With No Game Plan, Gambling on Vaccination Success

The coronavirus vaccination drive might not work as well as it should with basics not in place ■ The choice between the consequences of isolation and the risks of a particularly severe pandemic has become especially difficult to make

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Police enforce a nationwide lockdown in Tel Aviv, on Wednesday.
Police enforce a nationwide lockdown in Tel Aviv, on Wednesday.Credit: Moti Milrod
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Israel is exiting this lockdown, which lasted over six weeks, with one of the highest infection rates since the pandemic began, pinning its hopes on the success of the vaccine campaign. Even if the health system meets its goals – fully vaccinating five million Israelis – the big question, as Israel prepares to ease restrictions next week, is whether this will suffice to get the pandemic under control, let alone eradicate it.

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Besides the vaccination campaign, the health system and the government have no other creative or operative moves. All that’s left is to ask the public to please observe the guidelines, and for health workers to bite their lips and hold on. A year into the pandemic, the norm has become mishandling the crisis, through undue political influence, inflexibility, marginalizing professionalism, an absence of governance and lack of enforcement. Every Israeli feels it, and the public’s lack of cooperation and solidarity reflect that.

The complex reality Israel faces as it exits the lockdown is also the result of external circumstances, related to the new coronavirus strains that toppled the premises of experts and decision makers. Just six weeks ago, the third lockdown looked like a temporary bridge until the immunization drive, which would provide 95 percent protection. Israel’s vaccination campaign is still its most significant achievement of the pandemic, and it is expected to defeat the virus. However, this assumption alone cannot pave the way to normal life in the coming weeks and months. So, what went wrong?

Sitting on a bench in Tel Aviv during the third lockdown, January 2021.Credit: Emil Salman

The pandemic keeps ahead

Even after many months, decision makers failed to internalize the basic dynamic of the pandemic and its swift spread. The seeds of the third lockdown’s calamity were sown during October’s exit from the second lockdown. The government steamrolled the nine-step plan in the first week, citing low infection rates. When the ceilings of 2,500 daily cases and an infection coefficient (“R”) of 1.32 were hit in mid-December, the Health Ministry pushed for three weeks of “tight restraint.” The coronavirus cabinet hesitated, and no decision was made.

The vaccination campaign was about to begin. Israel entered the third lockdown December 27. Schools continued to operate. Two weeks passed until the lockdown tightened. By then the rates were 7,500 daily cases and an “R” of 1.25 (and 1.74 among Haredim). No steps were taken to reduce infection rates to prevent or buy time before the third lockdown. The pattern of hermetic closure or opening, without flexibility or differential policy based on outbreak locales, has characterized the government during the entire crisis. This trend grew sharper with the rise in infection rate caused by the new mutation.

Mutations

Israel had critical capabilities for the third lockdown it previously lacked – conducting over 120,000 tests and handling 6,000 new cases daily. Normally, the infection rates and coefficients would decline within two weeks. Instead, the daily count topped 8,000 and serious cases climbed from 900 to 1,100. Israel realized way too late that it was totally exposed to new mutations. More time passed before professionals realized how significant the new mutations were for infection rates, serious illness and the risk to children and pregnant women, groups previously thought to be more impervious to the virus.

Israel failed to prevent the British mutation from arriving. It is now busy chasing after infection chains and other mutations, foremost the South African strain. The British strain already accounts for 70 percent of confirmed cases. The mutations explain why Israel is exiting the lockdown with such a worrisome infection statistics. Every exit plan, even the most cautious one, increases exposure to the virus. Experts, including those who agree the lockdown can’t go on, express great post-lockdown fear. The attempt to prevent the mutation’s arrival revealed another weak spot: Ben-Gurion International Airport.

The coronavirus testing stands at Ben-Gurion International Airport, December 23, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Open skies

The entry gate to Israel was wide open since the pandemic began – without requiring testing upon landing, and with two-thirds of returnees from “red” countries ignoring the requirement to quarantine. However, only when infections spread after the second lockdown, when many Israelis visited Dubai, was Ben-Gurion Airport identified as problematic. The airport became the main means to prevent the mutations’ arrival. However, Israel failed to manage the problem of importing infections until it fully closed the airport.

The obligation to go to a quarantine hotel upon returning from abroad went into effect December 23. This regulation was canceled after a week, after Ben-Gurion became a battlefield and the Israeli Police struggled to deal with returnees who refused to enter quarantine. Health Ministry officials say 70 percent went home. Isolation was imposed on returnees from the United Arab Emirates, Brazil and South Africa on January 18. This move was also not backed up by enforcement, with many people openly confronting police, and flouting the hotel rule. Israel never effectively implemented the policy of keeping the mutations out. On January 25, Israel belatedly decided to shut down the airport. Israel had 80 cases of the South African strain by then, some discovered randomly, meaning it’s already spreading.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews at rabbi Meshulam Soloveitchik's funeral, in Jerusalem, during January's nation-wide COVID lockdownCredit: Ariel Schalit,AP

Lack of enforcement

As the crisis progressed, a sense of public duty and solidarity dissipated, and discipline relaxed. A lack of enforcement contributed to this trend. Enforcement was the weakest link in the crisis management chain. Its absence emerged as even more significant during the current lockdown. Selective enforcement among some communities and avoidance of it in others affected not only the spread of the virus, but also sparked anger among many and a feeling that not everyone is equal under the law.

The most prominent examples were the photos of the crowded weddings and funerals attended by thousands of Haredim, who make up 30 percent of the new daily infected cases. The matter sent a message to the general public that the rules are only suggestions, and deepened the lack of faith and polarization between social groups. This mood spread during the lockdown, leading to a consistent relaxation of discipline and rule keeping. Along the way, Haredi legislators rejected attempts to double fines for violating the regulations.

Out and about: Israelis walk on the beach in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.Credit: Moti Milrod

Complacency

On January 7, hours before the tightened lockdown went into effect, Netanyahu said: “Israel will be the first country to exit from the coronavirus.” He added: “This coming (Passover) seder night, barring any surprises, we will be able to sit around the table with grandpa and grandma, the children and the grandchildren. We are a light unto the nations.” Israel was then two-and-a-half weeks into a successful vaccination campaign.

However, building a significant defense through vaccinations takes time. The signs of a rise in infection rates were already present during the prime minister’s speech, but at that point the effect of the new mutations wasn’t fully known yet. In the weeks that followed, the infection rates continued to climb and the number of seriously ill patients remained high. Still, the government placed all its hope in the vaccination campaign, even as observance of the lockdown weakened and reports of gatherings and outbreaks became more frequent.

The vaccination campaign made the public complacent. Some felt protected even days after the first shot. Israel will exit the lockdown less than halfway toward vaccinating the public – a critical period before creating herd immunity. It’s liable to pay a heavy price in life, some of which could have been prevented with more thought-out and correct management during the past six weeks.

Children go back to school following Israel's second coronavirus lockdown, November 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Education system

It’s hard to exaggerate the destructive ramifications of an extended closure of the school system over the past year. First is the emotional, social and educational impact on children and the wider circles of influence, from the family unit to employment and economic productivity. That’s not even mentioning the long-term consequences, which are still hard to evaluate. Alienation and polarization between the general public and Haredi society deepened when Haredi schools operated as normal, flagrantly violating a government decision.

The expected return to school after the lockdown for some children is significantly different than previous times due to the high infection rates and great fear of outbreaks in the education system. The children, who are not vaccinated, will return to school against the backdrop of a highly infectious mutation, which is proving to be less sparing with children (especially those with other illnesses). The mutation’s high infection level raises the risk of outbreak in schools, even with the “capsule” method of learning and observing the rules. Likewise, 40 percent of education workers are still not vaccinated. In such a situation it is hard to imagine how returning to school will be done wholeheartedly, both by Health Ministry officials and parents.

The choice between the damage of isolation or the risks of a particularly severe pandemic has become especially difficult and frightening.

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