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Netanyahu Pushes for Tougher Lockdown, Fearing COVID Will Outpace Vaccination Rate

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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People at the beach in Tel Aviv, January 3, 2021.
People at the beach in Tel Aviv, January 3, 2021. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Despite Israel's fast-pace vaccination drive, it is again facing a decision. The continued rise in new coronavirus cases has prompted the Health Ministry, with the backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to demand imposing a tighter lockdown instead of the current one that hasn’t been seriously enforced since it started a week ago. The dispute centers on the education system — should it be shut down, which would send all, or at least most students to remote learning? Netanyahu is saying that a two-week lockdown will be enough to regain control over the spread of the virus, but this past year has proven that things of this sort always last longer than originally planned.

The dispute comes against the background of the uncertainty revolving around the new coronavirus strain found in Britain. Is it more contagious than the previous variants and if so, to what extent? How common has it become in Israel? The increasing consensus is that it is indeed more infectious but not more lethal, and that it has started to spread in Israel. The Health Ministry is using reports on the swift spread of the new strain in Britain, and apparently in the rest of Europe, to justify imposing more far-reaching measures on the grounds that this is a battle against time. The spread of the British variant, they say, is liable to outpace the rate of vaccination.

How Bibi pushed a 4th election and 3rd lockdown, and how we exposed his secret flights. LISTEN

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Israel's vaccination campaign is reaching a rate of 150,000 doses a day on weekdays and 70,000 on weekends. By Sunday morning more than a million people, some 12 percent of the population, had received the first of two doses, including 45 percent of those aged 60 and older. In a week's time more than two million Israelis will have received the first dose, most of them older people and those with underlying conditions. Another three weeks, until the end of January, will be needed to complete the two-dose vaccination of this group. The Health Ministry is already warning of possible difficulties supplying the vaccine during January, which would mean a delay in vaccinating those who are not in the priority groups.

This would be a critical bottleneck. Only the swift and extensive supply of vaccines during January and February will make it possible to reach the ambitious goal of vaccinating 5 million Israelis by March. And this is starting to appear like the only way Israel will be able to fight the virus successfully (Netanyahu, with an eye on the March 23 election, is already promising that Israel will be the first country in the world to defeat the coronavirus).

According to a calculation presented by Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science, as well as other experts, a positive effect of the vaccination campaign will be felt by the middle of this month. About 10 days after the first dose of vaccine is administered, those vaccinated would develop a pretty good initial immunity. And since 60 year olds and older make up nearly 80 percent of the serious cases in Israel, the vaccines are expected to quickly reduce the number of those seriously ill.

On the other hand, the rapid pace in which the virus is spreading and the appearance of the British strain raise concerns in Israel. Another surge in the incidence of disease will come at the expense of at least half of the reduction in serious cases that will be achieved by vaccinating most of the elderly.

In the next few days, it will become clearer to which degree, if any, the lockdown imposed on December 27 will have influenced the infection rate. Meanwhile, ministers and senior health system officials are complaining that the current lockdown is nothing but a pretense. But this is not due to the public's lack of discipline. Civilians are not soldiers, and disobeying lockdown directives reflects the lack of faith in the government, which has failed all along to deal with the virus until it came into its senses and shifted into high gear when launching its vaccination drive.

The government can no longer portray the closure of schools as a magic solution when ultra-Orthodox schools have been openly flouting restrictions for months, unchecked by the state. It also faces a tall order in justifying a national lockdown after it made no effort to treat “red” communities with high infection rates differentially, most of which are Arab or ultra-Orthodox.

Even now, the rate of positive tests among the Haredi community is three to five times the rate in the general population. This joins the ongoing lack of oversight at Ben-Gurion Airport and the non-enforcement of quarantine among those returning from abroad –Haredim who flew in from New York at the beginning of the pandemic, Israeli Arabs who returned from Turkey during the summer and those returning from Dubai (the fruits of peace).

Deterrence has been achieved

Watching the displays of flattery toward the prime minister in TV studios on Friday night was a source of some discomfort. One highly rated program opened with words of praise and gratitude to Netanyahu and his government for the vaccines. Over at the competition, one participant known for his passionate expressions compared the vaccination campaign to Operation Focus, in which the Israel Air Force wiped out much of the enemy fighter planes in the opening airstrike of the 1967 Six-Day War. “This is the greatest Israeli achievement I've witnessed in my lifetime,” he added, ecstatic.

It seems as if there’s still some room to grow here. Why not say that Netanyahu has saved the Jewish people from a second Holocaust (the third, if you count the Iranian nukes)? The House on Balfour Street no longer needs its private emissaries, publicists, lackeys and pseudo-journalists to get the message across. Deterrence has been achieved. The media outlets are volunteering for duty almost out of their own free will, as if the programs were being edited under the direct guidance of the residence, just as depicted in the corrected indictment against Netanyahu submitted in the Bezeq-Walla case, known as Case 4000. Associate editor: Yair Netanyahu.

The prime minister is demanding, and receiving, a lot of credit for obtaining four million doses of the vaccine for Israel, which are now being distributed to the public with relative efficiency through the advanced mechanisms of the HMOs and the technological accessibility of medical information databases. But all those who are heaping praise on him now must remember he is responsible for all that has happened here in the first 10 months of the crisis – the battered economy, the health system and the violation of individual rights.

One can hope that Israel will indeed precede most of the world in emerging from the unprecedented crisis caused by the coronavirus. But it seems it would be better to wait a little bit before giving out prizes. It's enough to remember that when Netanyahu told the public in May “go out and have fun”, things didn’t exactly end the way we expected.

Operational readiness

After the ministers, mayors and heads of local councils and even Israel Defense Forces and police commanders hurried to get vaccinated, in order to set a “personal example” to their residents and subordinates. That turned out to be pretty unnecessary given the public’s response to the vaccination campaign. But now security services members have suddenly become a priority group for vaccination on the grounds that it will help them retain their operational readiness.

If these were small groups it would be one thing, but the IDF and police together require hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses that could come at the expense of more vulnerable populations, like 50- year-olds with underlying conditions or even teachers and cashiers. Since the vast majority of soldiers are around 20 years old, this decision is unjustified. The IDF isn’t under any real threat to its performance because of the coronavirus. If the chief of staff and the acting police commissioner insist on this arrangement, let them at least be fair and offer a military funeral to every older person who will die because the army pushed to the head of the line.

Let the medical clown out of the bag

Prof. Yoram Lass, the man who in November said it would be years until we knew for sure whether the coronavirus vaccine was safe, was himself vaccinated last week against that same “flu with good PR.” In contrast to scientists and doctors who were skeptical about the coronavirus and who criticized government policy and presented alternatives, Lass mainly acted like a medical clown.

It is his right, of course, to be vaccinated; his age puts him in an immediate risk group. But his decision to do so, in contrast to his declarations to date, lets the cat out of the bag. He was in this for the attention all along. Anyone who continues to take the honored professor seriously does so at their own risk.

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