Analysis |

Israel's Lockdown 3.5: It's Not Just Because of the British Mutation

Israel is the only country that has openly admitted its previous lockdown was make believe ■ The U.K. mutation is cited as the reason for tougher restrictions, but one can't ignore the reality in ultra-Orthodox communities and the false sense of herd immunity

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A patient at the coronavirus ward in Ichilov Hospital, Tel Aviv, January 7, 2021.
A patient at the coronavirus ward in Ichilov Hospital, Tel Aviv, January 7, 2021.Credit: Hadas Parush
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The thick fog that blanketed the country for several of these past mornings blended well with the apocalyptic tone of the broadcast news headlines. These focused with increasing alarm on the British variant of the coronavirus and the government’s decision to impose a lockdown starting Friday morning. This time – they said – it is going to be serious. Israel is the only country where the leadership admits openly that the third lockdown it imposed for two weeks was a pseudo-lockdown.

The reports on the contagious British variant, along with the accumulation of a critical mass of researchers and doctors who think the variant changes the picture of the spread of the disease radically for the worse, tilted the balance in favor of declaring the tight lockdown. During the past two weeks there was a partial lockdown, in which the school system remained open for the most part and in many jurisdictions the local authorities and business owners have been ignoring the closure restrictions.

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Lockdown 3.5 is supposed to be more stringent, end classes in the schools themselves (except for special education) and very much reduce work, business activity and public transportation. Supposedly this will last two weeks, but presumably it is liable to stretch to a whole month and exacerbate the psychological and economic costs exacted from Israel’s citizens.

The arrival of the British variant in Israel is being described as a turning point, in light of the scientists’ assessment that it is 50 to 70 percent more contagious. The Health Ministry, which as usual has taken a very strict stance in the coronavirus cabinet, estimates that the mutation had already spread to many locales in Israel prior to the genomic sequencing of samples to enable its identification. Cabinet ministers were told that only imposing a strict lockdown will make it possible to stop the increase in the rate of infection and enable the vaccination campaign to succeed.

By the end of this week, inoculation with the first dose of the vaccine will have been carried out on nearly 1.8 million Israelis within a period of three weeks. This is not only a world record, it will provide effective initial protection for about 70 percent of the population aged 60 or more, as well as for many others who have pre-existing conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

During the next three weeks the second dose of the vaccine will be provided to those who have already received the first one. The rate at which the next vaccines arrive here, a small number of them during January and most of them apparently in February and March, will determine whether the state succeeds in vaccinating approximately 5 million citizens with both the doses – an achievement that is expected to have a dual effect: on the fight against the pandemic and apparently also on the outcome of the March 23 Knesset election.

The appearance of the British variant is being depicted as a decisive justification for taking a very hard line on the lockdown. Some are going so far as to attribute to it the huge increase in infection among the ultra-Orthodox. This, however, as it clearly emerges from the reports from the Haredi locales and neighborhoods themselves, is closely correlated with human behavior as well. The Haredi school system has remained open all through the recent months, contrary to the state’s instructions and at a time when severe restrictions were imposed on the other educational streams. Mass gatherings and weddings have continued with the encouragement of rabbis and respected spiritual leaders.

Above it all hovers the false but prevalent feeling of protection from the pandemic, on the basis of a mistaken understanding of the concept of herd immunity. Despite the fact that the infection rate among Haredim is about three times greater than their percentage in the population, some rabbis tried this week to ensure that the talmudei Torah – schools for boys, generally grades 3 through 7 – would remain open even during the strict lockdown. The whole coronavirus event is emerging as a test of the relations between the ultra-Orthodox and the state and the rest of its citizens. It is already clear that vivid anti-Haredi feelings will remain, even to the extent of open hatred, for many years to come.

At the same time, the behavior of the Haredi population (and to a lesser extent the Arab population) reflects the government’s total abdication to them. The government did not succeed – in fact, hardly even tried – to apply differential policies to “red” locales in the month after the end of the second lockdown, during which the infection rate in the general population was fairly low.

The main reason for this is wearisomely well-known, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s denials. He, the first to compliment himself on the success in bringing in the vaccinations, is ignoring what is obvious to anyone with eyes to see: He doesn’t dare enforce the law on the ultra-Orthodox because without them, he has no political existence. Moreover, Netanyahu’s chances of stopping the legal proceedings against him and thwarting the possibility of being found guilty and sentenced to prison depend entirely on the support of the Haredi parties.

This is the altar upon which the health of tens of thousands of citizens has been sacrificed, and around which the livelihoods of millions more have been harmed. The pandemic is bad enough in and of itself, as seen in the extent of the damage in other countries. However, Israel’s current situation could have been better, were it not for Netanyahu’s ulterior motives. The justified praise he is getting for accelerating the vaccination campaign cannot conceal this. Contrary to the claims voiced by the protest activists against him, Netanyahu has not declared the tight lockdown to stop the trial he is facing. However, from the moment the decision was taken, he has done everything he possibly could to use the lockdown as an excuse for an additional slowdown of the proceedings, which are dragging out in any case.

Efficiency and obsequiousness

So far, the vaccination campaign has fulfilled expectations. The HMOs have been highly efficient and the public response has been considerable, despite the warnings from the vaccine’s opponents about ill effects. Most of the difficulty can be seen in the Arab communities, where the extent of vaccination among the over-60s is about 50 percent lower than among the corresponding Jewish population. There are many bureaucratic difficulties accompanying the operation but this is only natural when it comes to such an extensive new project.

A small shipment of the first vaccinations produced by the Moderna company, which arrived in Israel on Thursday, is intended to serve mainly for inoculating people who are confined to their homes (the conditions for storing the Moderna vaccine are less demanding than Pfizer’s and therefore enable more flexibility).

Another several hundred thousand Moderna vaccines are expected to be received here this month, but the biggest unknown has to do with the arrival times of the supply of Pfizer vaccines. Netanyahu is investing great effort to get them here sooner. Their arrival in January, if that happens, will enable the start of a new round of vaccinations, most of them for Israelis under 60. If that happens, the HMOs will be able to vaccinate more than 150,000 of their members daily, by means of setting up more sites and vaccination points and recruiting more nurses and medics for the job.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the week there was a slight dip in the number of positive coronavirus tests. It’s still too early to say if this marks a reversal in the trend. It is happening while an astronomical increase is being recorded in the overall number of tests being administered – 120,000 a day and more.

The system is already having difficulty with the pace of analysis and contact tracing, and the expansion of the testing is also increasing incidents of quarantine in the economy, some of them needless. If the vaccines do indeed live up to expectations, perhaps by next week it will be possible to see the start of a decrease in the number of new seriously ill patients, as a result of the inoculation of older adults.

All this is happening against a backdrop of accumulating reports of pressure at the hospitals, which is endangering the quality of the treatment of coronavirus patients with other serious illnesses.

Without in anyway deprecating the distress of the medical teams, it must be kept in mind that so far this winter hardly any other seasonal infections have been registered, because the flu has simply not come to the northern hemisphere.

Perhaps the government has no alternative but to impose a third strict lockdown, but still there is no justification for the demonstrations of obsequiousness in which the CEO of one of the HMOs professes her profound gratitude to the prime minister for his imposition of the lockdown, while a spokesman for the police relates says in a broadcast from a television studio that the nation’s soul is yearning for a strict lockdown.

Despite the high rate of infection, the success of the first phase of the vaccination campaign is putting Israel in a good starting position for halting the spread of the pandemic here, and perhaps for the reopening of the economy in another few months. When we look at the bleak reports this week from Britain and the United States, where they are now warning again of a collapse of the hospitals in a number of cities, it is clear that our situation is better. All this, on condition that the mutations of the coronavirus, the British variant and its new South African sibling, are indeed daunted by the vaccine that has already been injected into the bodies of more than half a million Israelis.

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