Trigger-happy Officials Could Lock Israel Down Yet Again

Israel seems to have learned too little about how to cope with COVID

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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People with masks shop in the Malcha mall in Jerusalem, December 6, 2020.
People with masks shop in the Malcha mall in Jerusalem, December 6, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Had the government acted with more thought and planning, Israel would presumably be in a better situation as it nears the start of a large-scale operation to vaccinate people against the coronavirus. But apathy and hesitancy over the last few weeks are bringing us closer to a third lockdown, which seems difficult to justify despite the steady rise in infections.

For several weeks now, Arabs have accounted for about half of all new patients, or 2.5 times their proportion of the population. In contrast, incidence of the virus remains low in the Jewish community. Nevertheless, almost no differential policies have been put in place, and only limited aid has been provided to Arab towns.

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Ben-Gurion International Airport has long since been identified as a source of the increased incidence of the disease, due to insufficient supervision of travelers returning from “red” countries and the fact that many violate quarantine rules. Yet returning travelers aren’t even required to take a coronavirus test.

A pilot project to reopen malls was mishandled, leading to massive crowding at the few malls allowed to open. Various proposals to embark on mass testing (the utility of which is an acknowledged subject of dispute among experts) have been delayed for weeks. And despite repeated promises, the government has not even managed to step up enforcement or increase fines against people who violate the rules.

All this led, as usual, to a meeting that ran late into the night and emitted the smell of panic. And the result? The Health Ministry recommended closing all stores and malls and quarantining everyone returning from abroad, regardless of where they went or what the incidence of the illness there was.

And all this is happening just days before the Hanukkah vacation. Thus, as usual, Israelis won’t have any idea until the last minute what their holidays will look like and what decisions will be made.

Middle-school students, who went back to class this week on a very limited basis after being relegated to remote learning since mid-September, are soon likely to find themselves back home. And it’s important to stress that this will happen even though ultra-Orthodox students have been at school with no restrictions for two months already, in defiance of the government’s orders, without their principals even paying minuscule fines for their flagrant disregard of the law.

A religious school opened against coronavirus regulations in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, October 19, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The road to a third lockdown seems to be almost completely paved, as is evident from senior Health Ministry officials’ statements that the rise in incidence of the virus won’t be halted, and therefore another lockdown will soon be announced.

Ten months after the pandemic erupted, Israel seems to have learned too little about how to cope with it. The main improvement has been in the number of tests (from a few thousand per day to more than 60,000) and the speed with which the results come back. But many other countries have managed to do the same.

The pressure the Health Ministry is feeling is understandable. This weekend, for the first time, there was also a rise in the number of hospitalized and seriously ill patients, after a long period during which these numbers were unaffected by the rise in the number of new carriers. The ministry is still traumatized by its loss of control over the virus during the first wave in March and, even more, the second wave in September.

But over and over it has become clear that senior ministry officials see a total lockdown as the default option, without first trying to exhaust other measures. When you have a five-kilogram hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Which will come first, lockdown or vaccine?

This is particularly depressing because Israel seems to be very close to starting its vaccination campaign. Last Thursday we received important news: Four million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, enough to give two million people the requisite two doses, will start arriving at the end of the month, and delivery will apparently be completed by the end of January. Additionally, millions of doses of Moderna’s vaccine are slated to start arriving in January.

If this really happens, Israel will be in an excellent position to quickly carry out a widespread vaccination campaign. Around 1.2 million Israelis, or 11.7 percent of the population, are aged 65 and older. Add in younger Israelis suffering from preexisting conditions that could make the coronavirus life-threatening, medical personnel, nursing-home workers and other people in essential positions, and the number of people needing to be vaccinated in the first stage comes to somewhere between two million and 2.5 million.

Prof. Ehud Davidson, director general of the Clalit health maintenance organization, said his HMO is capable of vaccinating 40,000 people a day, including on weekends. Since Clalit insures around half the population, the total number of people vaccinated daily could presumably be twice that. Since each vaccine requires two doses given three to four weeks apart, this means 1.5 million people could be vaccinated within about six weeks and three million within three months.

A worker passes a line of freezers holding COVID-19 vaccine candidate BNT162b2 at a Pfizer facility in Puurs, Belgium in an undated photograph.Credit: PFIZER / REUTERS

Of course, that calculation is based on several optimistic assessments – that no safety problems are discovered in the vaccines even after their expected approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, that no problems develop in the supply chain and, perhaps above all, that Israelis cooperate. Initial surveys raise fears that this won’t be the case.

A negative response to the annual flu vaccination campaign is already evident in the ultra-Orthodox community. This may reflect a broader distrust of government instructions that could also affect willingness to get the coronavirus vaccine.

Compared to other countries, Israel is well positioned to conduct a vaccination campaign, in part because the HMOs have a lot of experience and are deployed widely around the country. But before we reach that point, we may yet find ourselves in a third lockdown in December.

That would be another dubious distinction for the government and the man who heads it, despite the praise he regularly heaps on himself. It’s no wonder the world has stopped calling.

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