While Israel Was Fixated on Ukraine, This Threat Made a Comeback

Public discourse in Israel moved in a fast and decisive manner from COVID to an exclusive focus on Ukraine. But experts warn the pandemic is far from over, and could even be rising in the near future

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A woman wears a face mask with the words "stop war" during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Frankfurt am Main, Western Germany
A woman wears a face mask with the words "stop war" during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Frankfurt am Main, Western GermanyCredit: YANN SCHREIBER - AFP

The COVID-19 pandemic has been kicked out of the news cycle due to Russia’s dramatic invasion of Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean it has ended, Israeli public health experts warn.

“The pandemic is not over,” said Prof. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians. “It is just wrong to go on with our lives and forget about COVID. My colleagues and I are definitely worried.”

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Israel’s fifth wave of the pandemic, characterized by the highly infectious Omicron variant, is undeniably receding, with rates of infection, hospitalization, and deaths continuing to drop. However, there are still thousands of new cases identified on a daily basis, and the movement downward is not always consistent. Last week, for example Israel’s R number – the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects – rose slightly from 0.6 to 0.76, before going slightly down again.

The change “was not a good sign,” said Dr. Oren Kobiler, a researcher in immunology and clinical microbiology at Tel Aviv University. “But nobody cares anymore.”

Anecdotally, nearly every Israeli hears of daily new infections, even as most restrictions that were put in place to prevent COVID spread were lifted this month, with the exception of testing at Israel’s borders and a barely enforced indoor mask mandate.

“We estimate that 30-40 percent of Israelis have been infected,” said Kobiler “Around 60 percent haven’t yet. If we can prevent them from getting COVID - it would be better for them, and better for our health care system. But public opinion has shifted and people don’t want to hear about COVID anymore. The government is actually encouraging a situation in which no one talks about the pandemic.”

Because of a country-wide drastic reduction in testing, precise statistics are difficult to ascertain, but infections continue, with an increasing number attributed to the Omicron subvariant BA.2. Meanwhile, Israel’s public health experts warn, the chance of additional strains of the disease coming to the fore are high.

“We need to be prepared for a new variant that could emerge at any time,” says Levine. “Even this situation in Ukraine could lead to new COVID infections. We have a huge international gathering at Ukraine’s borders, as rescue and health teams are coming from around the world to assist in the humanitarian crisis.”

A girl in a yellow COVID mask at a pro-Ukraine protest in Tel Aviv on ThursdayCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Both Ukraine and Russia have among the lowest vaccination rates in Europe, and concern is growing that the war may cause a spike in infections that can then spread across the region as refugees flee – including to Israel.

Levine says the full media focus on Ukraine itself poses a “major challenge” to public health. “We don’t have to open the news every day with the number of COVID cases, but we do want the public to understand that we still need some guardrails on. If the media isn’t paying attention, so is the public.”

Israel’s television channels, radio stations and news websites have devoted most of their coverage in recent days to the war in Ukraine, reflecting a growing public interest in the fighting. Israel is home to more than a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, including many from Ukraine and Russia. In addition, the war could have a multitude of implications for Israel, from threatening its understandings with Russia regarding military actions in Syria to harming its close ties with Washington. The latest plot twist that has caught the media’s attention is Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s attempt to mediate between the two sides.

All of this has led to a quick and decisive shift from COVID coverage to an almost exclusive focus on Ukraine.

Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University, believes the media and the public are suffering from “pandemic fatigue” following two years of constant coverage of COVID that resulted in a measure of panic. “We reacted in the extreme in the beginning with a national lockdown, and now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.”

Media focus and public attention, however, is not viewed as the biggest problem by the experts. The real issue, they argue, is the government’s neglect of COVID - and the potential damage of other infectious diseases when there is no crisis.

The government’s biggest failure at the moment, they say, is the fact that it is not continuing a large-scale vaccination campaign to increase the percentage of the population that can withstand the next wave of COVID, given the major role vaccinations are playing in prevention of severe disease and death.

A woman receiving a COVID vaccine in Natanya in January Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Levine notes that “there is not even one employee at the Ministry of Health who is in charge of promoting vaccinations” and no permanent vaccine promotion and implementation infrastructure exists.

“Just like our country’s military is always guarding against security threats” Levine said, there should be more permanent infrastructure in place to protect the country against threats to public health.

The biggest roadblock to creating the permanent infrastructure needed to keep the Israeli population healthier and safer in an era of pandemics and endemic situations, physicians charge, is the Finance Ministry, which is dragging its heels when it comes to allocating the necessary resources.

On the top of that list, said Kobiler, is the installation of air filters in all closed and potentially crowded settings: public transport, classrooms, lecture halls, event spaces and theaters. “Compared to the costs of mass testing to screen the population and providing care when people get sick, doing this is not expensive and will have a huge impact on the health of the entire population.”

All three experts said they firmly support the continuation of indoor mask mandates which should be vigorously enforced. “Masks don’t affect the economy or people’s lives - it’s something we can use to effectively prevent infections,” said Kobiler. “I don’t think this will be the last big pandemic in our lifetime,” he added. “I hope that I am wrong. Hope, however, is not the basis for good policy.”

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