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Netanyahu Uses New COVID-19 Strain to Scare the Public at the Best Possible Time for Him

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting, July 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting, wearing a face mask during the coronavirus pandemic, July 2020. Credit: Amit Shabi
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel isn’t the only country that returned to emergency mode in the wake of British reports of a mutation of the coronavirus that apparently makes it much more contagious.

Still, there are two points worth mentioning. The first is that the rapid closure of the borders comes after weeks of criminal neglect at Ben-Gurion International Airport that had already contributed to a rise in infecting rates. The second is that our alarmist prime minister, who frightened Israelis with his comparisons to the Black Death and warnings about the possible end of humanity during the first wave of the pandemic, has never met a panic that he couldn’t exploit for his own purposes.

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This time, the new anxiety surfaced at a particularly propitious time for Benjamin Netanyahu politically, when his hapless coalition partner Benny Gantz was in need of only a gentle nudge in order to accede to his demands, on the pretext that present circumstances dictate that “besieged Israel” avoid another election.

Slightly more than a month ago, a similar panic surfaced over concerns that thousands of minks in Denmark were infected with a new and more dangerous variant of the coronavirus. Then, too, Netanyahu announced immediate measures, but the panic abated quickly in Denmark (though not before its entire population of the animal farmed for its fur, some 17 million, was killed) and the matter was soon forgotten in Israel and in other countries.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself claimed that the variant found in London and in southern England “may be up to 70% more transmissible” than previous strains of the virus. Scientists are more cautious, saying there is no evidence that the mutation is more deadly and that the findings do not support the theories about its greater potential for contagion.

The great fear, naturally, is that the vaccines of Pfizer and Moderna will be ineffective against the new variant, setting back significantly the global effort just when a breakthrough gave a reason for optimism. More research is needed on this question, but some scientists are already saying that even if this turns out to be the case, a few relatively minor tweaks to the vaccines will fix the problem.

A woman walks her dog under a 'Don't panic' sign hanging on the entrance of a food market that was shut down in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 23, 2020. Credit: Oded Balilty/AP Photo

On the sidelines, there was a near-comic development in Israel’s coronavirus cabinet. Netanyahu claimed Sunday that he hadn’t known about the new mutation, and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein rushed to explain that he himself had learned about it earlier from “friendly sources who demanded secrecy” (according to Channel 12 News). In fact, Britain’s health minister publicly announced the detection of the mutation a week ago.

Israel has enforced several far-reaching measures against the unfamiliar enemy. Travelers returning from Britain Sunday were forced to quarantine in so-called COVID-19 hotels without advance notice. The coronavirus cabinet imposed a two-week quarantine in one of these facilities on all Israelis returning from abroad, starting Wednesday. In addition, all foreign nationals will be barred from entering the country. Israeli airlines launched an operation to bring Israeli citizens back home before the Wednesday deadline for avoiding quarantine.

Keep in mind, all of this is happening after months of neglecting the impact of flights on the spread of COVID-19. Turkey was identified as early as this summer as an important “exporter” of COVID-19 to Israel, mainly by Arab Israelis vacationing in the country. But they were not universally required to isolate upon their return. Much has been written about Israelis flying to Dubai to escape Israel’s pandemic restrictions, and at no point were they required to be tested for the virus upon return. This is the direct continuation of the negligence of the first months of the pandemic, in February and March, when political constraints vis-a-vis the Haredi political parties and fear of insulting the Trump administration enabled large numbers of New York yeshiva students with COVID-19 to enter Israel.

Now, wide-reaching measures are being taken against the new and still largely unknown threat. People who have participated in meetings tell of near-hysteria over the mutation, which appeared amid steadily climbing infection rates in Israel. From this point, the road to a third shutdown is a short one, and politicians are already explaining that it would be better to have a prolonged lockdown now so that the presumed election in March takes place when only a small number of voters are ill or in isolation.

It’s simply inconceivable, and it reflects the terrible indifference of the cabinet and the inner cabinet to the harsh new regulations imposed on the population with such frequency. The pandemic is dangerous and hazardous on its own, but when you add to this the considerations of a prime minister who is a criminal defendant trying to escape justice, the result is systematic disregard for the good of the economy and the population.

The pinnacle of this is the horrific economic damage caused by the delay in passing a national budget, the sole reason for which is Netanyahu’s legal situation. During Monday’s cabinet meeting, government ministers were informed of the suicide of an Israeli in a coronavirus hotel. The gap between the decision-makers, whose freedom of movement and livelihoods remained completely unaffected this year, and the general public has never been greater.

A man gets a rapid coronavirus test in Israel's Ben Gurion airport, December 2020. Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

Baseless concerns

The new panic underlines an earlier conclusion: The only way out of the crisis is to accelerate the vaccination campaign (assuming that the mutation does not cause a setback). In the meantime, fears that anti-vaxxers and spreaders of fake news would dent Israelis’ willingness to be vaccinated have not been realized.

Israel’s health maintenance organizations report that their members’ enormous demand for the vaccine has surpassed the number of available doses so far. This development reduces the need to give priority to celebrities who otherwise don’t meet the current criteria for getting the vaccine, a move that had been explained as a marketing tactic. The tactic might be appropriate when it comes to Haredi rabbis or the mayors of Arab towns, communities in which the vaccine is expected to be a hard sell. But there’s certainly no reason to inoculate the cast of the current season of “Survivor” at a time when some over the age of 80 can’t get a vaccination appointment in the next few weeks.

If the Health Ministry forecasts are accurate, next week some 4 million doses will arrive in Israel, enough for 2 million people – all of Israel’s frontline health care workers and high-risk groups (older adults and people with other health problems). And if the HMOs can match the scheduled pace, everyone in these groups can be fully vaccinated – with two doses, given 21 days apart – by mid-February.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a medical center in Jerusalem, December 21, 2020Credit: Mahmoud Illean / AP

That is the important goal; meeting it will ease the pressure on the health care system and end the threat that the country’s hospitals could collapse under the strain. But even now it must be said: The dire forecast did not come to pass in either the first or the second waves. Now, when the system is more experienced and so far the specter of a flu-and-coronavirus double whammy has been averted, it’s time to end the public scare campaign.

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