The next stage of reopening Israel's economy on Sunday will be the most extensive since the third lockdown began in late December. It will also be the most daring of them – since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously urged Israelis last spring to “have fun,” the government hasn’t attempted such a broad loosening of pandemic restrictions.
A partial list includes the return of in-person instruction for all grades at most schools, outdoor dining at cafes and restaurants (and, for patrons with a “green badge,” indoors too) as well as the reopening of hotels, event halls and convention centers. Gatherings of up to 20 people indoors and 50 outdoors will be permitted, including live performances for green-badge attendees. Election rallies will also be allowed, with up to 300 indoors and 500 outdoors, for the vaccinated and recovered COVID-19 patients.
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The timing, less than three weeks before Election Day, has led many to think the reopening is a campaign ploy that could lead Israel straight into lockdown No. 4. Israel’s R-number is hovering around 1, and about 730 severely ill COVID-19 patients are still hospitalized.
Many observers predicted this scenario: Just before the election, Netanyahu would declare the economy back in business, counting on voters to forget the months of suffering and let him coast to victory on March 23.
However, there are excellent reasons to act now as the government has done. Israel is the most vaccinated country in the world, with 4.8 million people out of a population of 9 million inoculated. Of people aged 50 and up, 87% have been vaccinated or have had COVID-19. Coronavirus hospitalizations are in a sharp, steady decline.
The vaccines’ efficacy has been proved repeatedly in research conducted by Israeli health organizations and published in leading medical journals. In addition, positive test rates dropped to 5.2% March 1, from 9.9% a month earlier. Anyone who is at least 16 has been able to receive the vaccine for several weeks now.
There’s another good reason to reopen the economy, related not to to epidemiological factors but rather crowd psychology. Events of recent weeks, peaking with the Purim parties of recent days, demonstrate that the public is voting with its feet against lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions they have suffered with over the past year.
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It’s no longer about one segment of the population or another resisting the rules, but everyone. People who bit their tongues for the duration of the pandemic gradually lost faith in the leadership. Many have been inoculated so they can go back to a normal life. They’re suffering pandemic fatigue.
Israel is at this point a global pioneer in terms of vaccination and its effects. Our high inoculation rates are making us a test case for how much and to what extent countries can rely on vaccinations as the tool for starting up the economy, education and culture.
Netanyahu is betting he can turn Israel into New Zealand in short order. On January 10, he vowed that “we will be the first country in the world to exit [the pandemic] and return to life – we will truly have a happy Passover.”
He probably won’t want to remember the weeks that followed that – an additional 2,000 Israelis dead of COVID-19, 6,000 severely ill in hospital, the final collapse of public trust in the leadership and in law enforcement, and deep fissures in Israeli society.
The next few weeks will show us and the world what is the correct new policy balance in the era of vaccines. The assumption is that the moment that the immunization rate is high enough for high-risk groups, the health care system can handle a high rate of confirmed cases without collapsing. That is because the young are far less likely to become seriously ill even if they contract the virus.
Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science says that “Until now, we knew that the minute that the R-number is over 1 and we reopen the economy, there’s nothing that will stop disease rates and increased numbers of serious cases and deaths, so we preferred to take precautionary measures, Now, we don’t know for certain what is the balance of power. Israel will be the world’s first country to find out.”
Prof. Doron Gazit of the Hebrew University adds that each passing day deepens the immunity of Israelis, which in turn will reduce contagion. Right now, of 4.8 million people who have been inoculated, 1.6 million have been fully immunized because a week hasn’t passed since their second injection. Nevertheless, Gazit also says it remains hard to gauge the weight of deeper immunization against the impact of the economy’s reopening. “Severe morbidity depends very much on the level of immunization. There are still 200,00 people over age 60 who haven’t been vaccinated and those are the ones who will end up in the hospital if they become sick,” he says.
There are also more than 3 million Israelis under age 16, who have no option of getting vaccinated. They are dependent on their elders to keep them from contracting COVID-19. When the schools open next week on a wider basis than they have any time in the past year, illness rates will almost certainly rise, possibly affecting nonvaccinated adults. It is reasonable to reopen schools after a year, but it’s hard to escape the fear that not enough is being done to tackle this threat.