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'National Resource'? Israel's Leadership Treats COVID Vaccines Like Personal Supply

Lior Dattel
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Health Minister Yuli Edelstein during a visit at a Home Front Command base in Ramle, September 7, 2020.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein during a visit at a Home Front Command base in Ramle, September 7, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Lior Dattel

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein was furious Monday evening when he found out that the Tel Aviv municipality had vaccinated most of the city’s teachers over the course of several hours that day.

That evening, he ordered that the vaccinations to teachers be stopped immediately. Tel Aviv was forced to close its vaccination station in Rabin Square following the Health Ministry’s decision to immediately halt the vaccine supply to the city’s Ichilov Hospital, which was running the station. As a result, hundreds of city residents were informed that their vaccine appointments on Tuesday were being canceled.

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This isn’t the first time that Tel Aviv and other municipalities have functioned better than the national government – and the city and its residents are being punished as a result. It could be that if it were another municipality that had carried out such a successful vaccine operation for teachers – and not Tel Aviv, run by mayor Ron Huldai, who has now thrown his hat into the national political arenaEdelstein would have offered praise instead.

Most teachers in Israel outside of Tel Aviv are still waiting to be vaccinated. Some of them are going from vaccination clinic to clinic at the end of the day in the hope of finding a leftover shot.

People wait in line at a vaccination station in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, January 4, 2021.Credit: Moti Milrod

Edelstein said on Monday that the vaccines are a “national resource, and that’s how they need to be treated.” Yet, Israel’s vaccination campaign isn’t being conducted as if this were a national resource that needs protection, but rather as if this were the personal vaccine stockpile of Edelstein and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and things are being handled accordingly: messily, without transparency, while giving in to pressure and with an unclear priority list.

Edelstein indeed intervened quickly in order to block teachers from being vaccinated, but he didn’t do anything when on the first day of the vaccination campaign, mayors, Knesset members and ministers were vaccinated, including the young ones. The government indeed stated at the start of the campaign that teachers would be second on the priority list, but while the teachers are waiting patiently, the priority list has been changed.

Labor dispute

Teachers Union head Yaffa Ben David was forced to declare a labor dispute just in order to get the government to consider the demand that teachers be vaccinated, while vaccines were allocated to thousands of workers in other fields in quiet phone calls behind the scenes.

Hundreds of workers at the Prime Minister’s Office were vaccinated regardless of their age, medical background or the nature of their work; Channel 12 published that Netanyahu associate Meyer Habib, a 59-year-old French parliament member, was vaccinated in Israel; a few days ago, the government gave in to the demands of the Israel Airports Authority union chief Pinchas Idan – a Likud central committee member – to vaccinate hundreds of workers regardless of their age; the government later approved vaccines for thousands more government employees at the Israel Electric Corporation and the ports – known for their powerful unions – as well as the Water Authority. Meanwhile, the teachers are waiting.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai at the municipality's vaccination station in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, December 31, 2020.Credit: Hadas Parush

On Tuesday morning, it was reported that two thirds of the people vaccinated at hospitals so far were under age 60, the top priority group. It’s quite likely that the teachers vaccinated on Monday were not given priority over the elderly or people with preexisting conditions, but rather over other state employees or political cronies. And yet, Tel Aviv was forced to vaccinate teachers nearly in secrecy, under the radar, over the ultimately well-placed fear that the Health Ministry would halt the operation the moment it realized teachers were being vaccinated.

Israel has some 180,000 teachers, including preschool teachers. They all could have been vaccinated over the course of a single day, thus showing that they’re at the top of the priority list, and also maybe preventing the closure of the education system yet another time, or at least enabling it to be closed only partly.

In any case, given the labor dispute with the Teachers Union, which takes effect on Tuesday – 14 days after being declared – the government will be forced to vaccinate teachers or drag them to Labor Court again. Even if the government decides to shut schools, the teachers need to be vaccinated in order to ensure classes can resume quickly after the lockdown.

Teachers Union head Yaffa Ben David in Jerusalem, August 12, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Edelstein’s sharp response further raises concerns about the government’s politicization of the vaccine campaign. Perhaps his response was an attempt to bring the situation back under control – after he lost control over the campaign, over the British mutation, over the ultra-Orthodox population and over the virus’ spread within the education system. In Israel, after all, it’s easier to come down hard when you’re talking about teachers, a relatively weak group with low salaries far from power centers.

Edelstein’s stance about vaccinating teachers is clear, after Monday’s events and after decisions over the past few weeks to prioritize plenty of other workers in other fields. However, Education Minister Yoav Gallant hasn’t made his opinion known on vaccinating teachers. Gallant has been demanding over the past few days that the education system stay open even if the lockdown is tightened, but he hasn’t been nearly as enthusiastic about vaccinating the teachers who would have to stay at the front lines in order to make this possible.

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