Analysis |

Netanyahu's Optimism About COVID Vaccines Gives Way to Concern

Despite the ongoing vaccine drive, the next few weeks will still see high death rates ■ Reality shattered ultra-Orthodox belief in godly protection and herd immunity

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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People rest after receiving coronavirus vaccines at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Tel Aviv, January 3, 2021.
People rest after receiving coronavirus vaccines at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Tel Aviv, January 3, 2021.Credit: Oded Balilty / AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Toward the end of the week, the coronavirus numbers in Israel finally began to level off. After two weeks of a declared but partial lockdown, and two more weeks of a tighter lockdown, a clear trend toward reduction is discernible in the spread of COVID-19.

The rise in the number of people newly infected daily appears to have been stemmed, along with the number of seriously ill and the rate of positive tests. At the same time, progress in the vaccination campaign continues. More than 2.3 million Israelis have already received the first dose of the vaccine, representing over 27 percent of the population. More important, about 78 percent of the over-60 population, the main at-risk group, has received at least one dose.

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The curbing of infection rates appears to reflect a combination of the effect of the lockdowns and the more important (and successful) vaccination project. According to the results of the initial studies, after the second inoculation good protection ensues against the virus. The hope is that the creation of the layer of protection around the older public will be reflected in a gradual decline in the number of the seriously ill.

It’s all happening, as is known, in close competition with the spread of the coronavirus, particularly the new variants from Britain and elsewhere. According to various estimates, the British variant is responsible for between 20 and 50 percent of the new infections. Infection by the British strain was accelerated by mass violations of the lockdown, especially among sections of the Haredi public, who continued with crowding, schooling and weddings.

The conclusion reached by many Haredim last November – that a combination of divine providence and imagined “herd immunity” provided them with full protection – was shown to be wrong in December and January. The infection rates in Haredi locales are apparently still far from the herd immunity level. The morbidity rate among them continues to be rampant, six times higher than among the general public.

A decrease was recorded there this week, but that immediately gives rise to pressure from the rabbis on the state to come up with arrangements to enable the opening of all the Talmud Torah schools. The senseless idea now being floated is to renew schooling only for those who have recovered from the disease, when it’s clear that this will be fertile ground for cheating and looking the other way. The government is against the idea, but has already demonstrated its absolute weakness in the face of Haredi demands through the months of the crisis.

On the other side, there is the deep indoctrination by the rabbis that the reason for the large numbers of dead and sick is the stoppage of Torah studies in some of the institutions. That approach is irreconcilable with the government’s declared policy, which is ostensibly based on scientific and medical considerations. Somehow, it seems probable that the dispute will end with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu giving in again.

A high mortality rate is expected to continue in the days ahead, because of the many thousands who were infected in the past two weeks. The Health Ministry and the Kupat Holim health maintenance organizations will focus their efforts on elderly people who have not yet been vaccinated, including those unable to leave their home. The vaccination of 90 percent and more of the over-60 population is expected to bring about a significant decrease in serious illness, and should be felt next month. The Health Ministry, gripped by fear that the British variant and others will flood the hospitals before the full impact of the vaccinations is felt, continues to frighten ministers and the public with dreadful scenarios.

The prime minister, who just two weeks ago projected optimism that the vaccines would extricate him and the country from the crisis rapidly, is now sounding more skeptical and worried. He’s undoubtedly concerned that the name he chose for the vaccination drive, “Back to Life,” will crash on the ground of reality, as happened when he called on the public to “enjoy life” at the end of the first lockdown last April.

In the meantime, some in Likud are already trying to prepare the ground for the possible postponement of the general election, slated for March 23, if the incidence of disease isn’t halted. Not by chance, the first person to broach this possibility in the media was the deputy health minister, Yoav Kish (Likud), who is supposedly an expert. Naturally, all is being done for completely substantive reasons and without extraneous political considerations. Substantive, they’re telling you. You don’t believe it?

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