The Black January of Israel’s coronavirus crisis ended with especially gloomy sights. More than 1,400 people – an average of more than 45 a day – died during the toughest month since the virus landed here. Added to this are the horrid reports from the hospitals, which are coping with an unprecedented number of people who have contracted the virus. And as if to emphasize the government’s dysfunctional handling of the crisis, there was Sunday’s mass funeral in Jerusalem, in which tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) men gathered in violation of the lockdown, without a trace of fear of police enforcement.
The Jerusalem funeral turned the government’s claim of businesslike or equitable management of the pandemic into a farce. Even on such a day, we saw images of policemen harassing passersby in central Tel Aviv on “suspicion of gatherings” of 10 people, while the police were afraid to confront the huge crowd in Jerusalem and simply disappeared from sight.
Although we’ve seen mass gatherings throughout the pandemic, the funeral of Rabbi Meshulam David Soloveitchik looked more dramatic than any of them. It came after long weeks in which many Talmud Torah schools in Haredi neighborhoods had opened in contravention of the regulations, and following violent (and worthless) enforcement campaigns by the police in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak last week. These pictures have undermined whatever was left of the public’s faith in the government’s moves, and increased the anger at and alienation from the Haredi public. This should first and foremost concern the Haredim themselves, as the rate of infection among them is three times their proportion of the population.
This has become an increasingly serious political problem for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He had built his campaign for the March 23 election on the success of the vaccination campaign, the declaration of (another) victory over the coronavirus and the reopening of the economy before the vote. Now, not only is crisis relief being delayed, but the flouting of the restrictions by the Haredim has attracted even more attention to the unholy alliance between Netanyahu and the Haredi parties. His inaction against the violations stems from his absolute dependence on the support of the Haredi parties after the election. This weak point will be seized on by all his opponents, from Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman to Benny Gantz. From Netanyahu’s perspective, the funeral in Jerusalem was a mass political attack. He is probably the first to recognize this.
It’s working, just slower than predicted
Still, the pessimism that has descended on the coronavirus discourse in Israel seems a bit exaggerated. The vaccination campaign has not failed, even though the infection and death rates have not dropped at the pace that had been forecast. All the models used by the governments played a role in the faulty predictions. Looking back, the source of the error was in analyzing the speed of the expected influence the vaccinations would have on the number of seriously ill patients.
But the vaccinations are still having an effect. It will simply take longer than had been predicted. The intermediate findings being published by the health maintenance organizations (HMOs) show that a high level of immunity is only reached a week after getting the second vaccine. There have been many new cases among those who hadn’t reached that stage. It’s possible that some of them were infected because they didn’t understand the level of risk they still faced during the intermediate period.
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And yet, despite the high and stable number of seriously ill (around 1,200), there has been a turn for the better in the average number of new seriously ill. That number has been dropping for around a week, from around 200 new serious cases on the worst days, to around 120 a day now. If this trend continues, there will eventually be some relief felt in the hospitals’ difficult burden. Another important statistic is that more than 82 percent of the primary risk group, those age 60 or more, have gotten the first shot and more than half of those have also gotten the second. Slowly but surely, more and more Israelis are being protected from the virus.
Experts are attributing the stubbornly high national infection rate to the spread of the British variant of the coronavirus, which is more infectious. But it also may be linked to the management of the third lockdown, even after it was tightened in the middle of last month. The level of enforcement is relatively low. There are almost no police checkpoints on the roads and traffic is flowing freely. Cellular phone data is also showing that the people are traveling far more than during the first two lockdowns.
It’s not just the police who are exhausted; the public is exhausted. Israelis have been through an impossible year. It’s no wonder that people aren’t prepared to stand at attention, even when the health minister explains the seriousness of the situation. (The prime minister is usually too busy celebrating the success of the vaccines to address the issue.)
On Sunday the cabinet convened to discuss extending the lockdown. It’s reasonable to assume it will last another week at least, perhaps two. In the longer term, on the assumption that the incidence of infection drops in the end, the dilemma will be to choose between three options, as presented by the head of the experts committee, Prof. Ran Balicer: A quick reopening of the economy; a slow, controlled reopening of the economy, or an ambitious attempt to copy the New Zealand model of achieving “zero morbidity.”
On the assumption that the state succeeds in its plan to vaccinate more than five million Israelis by mid-March, this will still leave around a third of the population unvaccinated: children under 16 (because Pfizer’s guidelines do not permit its vaccine to be administered to them), and older people who were not vaccinated for whatever reason. This is still a considerable distance from herd immunity, which requires an estimated 80 percent of the population to be vaccinated, and means that the virus will probably continue to spread once restrictions are lifted.
Adopting the first model, returning almost completely to routine, would likely mean the widespread infection of children and teenagers. While the illness is not dangerous to most of them, if even a small percentage get seriously ill, not to mention if unvaccinated older people do, the hospitals will again be overwhelmed.
Although it has gained many adherents recently, the third option, the New Zealand model, seems very difficult to implement. That leaves the second option, a controlled reopening, making sure the infection coefficient (the R factor) stays below 1. But it will require a complicated combination of restrictions and oversight and require public cooperation.
Two comments in conclusion
The joy of decrees: The confusion engendered by the virus has produced some creative, often extreme ideas from the Health Ministry. Within the past few days, we’ve heard that the quarantine exemption for the vaccinated might be canceled, or that an electronic cuff might be placed on those arriving from abroad who are required to quarantine. So far, we have not been informed of any plan to adopt the radical Chinese suggestion of rectal coronavirus testing (there is such a thing). But at this rate, who knows?
Most of these suggestions are leaked to TV reporters who report them at the beginning of news broadcasts with barely contained joy. That’s the deal with sources, who give you exclusive information in return for exposure, but one would like to expect from our colleagues to demonstrate a bit less excitement and raise more question marks regarding the ongoing harm to citizens’ privacy and rights.
It’s not just the Haredim: Haaretz's Yaniv Kubovich reported on Sunday that the National Defense College held a festive event in Jerusalem attended by dozens of senior officers who weren’t wearing masks. The IDF spokesman claimed there was no deviation from the coronavirus guidelines at the event.
The military is making a mockery of things. Defense Minister Gantz, who demands enforcement against the ultra-Orthodox lives in a glass house. This was a pre-planned ceremony, attended by senior civil servants, with no operational justification. This is not the first time during the crisis that the IDF has been caught in a show of arrogance, detached from the prevailing reality in the country.
The photos published by Kubovich should sound off a warning bell for the General Staff. They indicate contempt and lack of discipline, albeit in circumstances not related to security, but such an atmosphere can easily spill over into the IDF's conduct in its main field of activity.