The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Bennett’s Opportunity for Change

Iris Leal
Iris Leal
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, this month
Iris Leal
Iris Leal

A moment of unadulterated self-pity marked the conclusion of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked’s remarks, to the effect that the country will have to “accept serious cases of the disease and also to accept deaths, because this is a pandemic and in a pandemic people die.” Without determining whether Shaked was right, and before asking her how many deaths we can expect, whether 100, 1,000 or 10,000, the collective collapse in light of her words was very strange.

Knowing how to accept deaths is the ethos of this country. We have been asked to accept deaths from the dawn of its establishment. Wars, wars of attrition, years in Lebanon, rounds of fighting in Gaza, missiles on the home front – what is all that if not knowing how to accept deaths? Since when has everyone become so sensitive in this place, where the existential experience is the necessity to donate blood – your own or that of your dear ones, without asking too many questions? And that’s even before anyone has mentioned the 6,400 deaths that we have already accepted in the pandemic.

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Yes, a pandemic has a fascinating way of confronting mankind with the great issues of political philosophy, and bringing them back to the heart of the present. A pandemic has an infuriating tendency of removing all the masks, just when everyone is required to wear them. That’s why the person who manages to deal with it, at least in the public sphere, is the one who decided in advance what his goal is.

When it comes to that, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had only advantages over his successor Naftali Bennett. His handling of the pandemic was supposed to leave him in power. Closing, opening, going out and having fun, closing again, distributing helicopter grants (i.e. raining money down on everyone), and turning Israel into Pfizer’s testing laboratory without taking his eyes off the main goal.

Bennett, on the other hand, isn’t sure what he wants. That is, he’s quite sure, but is incapable of screwing up his courage. His longtime partner took back her words about accepting the deaths, and he himself knows that a lockdown during the era of vaccinations is a failure that Netanyahu and his courtiers won’t stop talking about.

In the contest between the spread of the delta variant and the vaccinations, Bennett has not found a convincing ethical explanation. Nobody denies that it’s impossible to force people to get vaccinations, in spite of the cumulative scientific information about their effectiveness when it comes to preventing the most serious symptoms of the illness. As we have said, the pandemic has posed major questions: In a liberal democracy, how does the public protect itself from the individuals who are harming it? Do the individual rights of anti-vaxxers override the rights of the citizens to protect their health?

The government is apparently not really certain about that. Until it decides, the question is whether anyone knows how many of those unvaccinated are refusing the shot for ideological reasons, and how many are people who don’t know how to exercise their rights, who don’t have access to a doctor in the community, or don’t trust the health care system? The figures on vaccination percentages in the Arab community demonstrate that there are many in the last group.

If Netanyahu’s guiding principle was his political survival, Bennett’s guiding principle must be seizing this great opportunity for change: to improve relations between the health care system and minorities by means of accessible doctors in the community; to strengthen the health care system; to expose spreaders of fake news and charlatans who are flourishing in social media; to clarify without delay any rumor about research funds in return for turning us into guinea pigs, or about secret deals with hospitals, of the kind promising funding in exchange for silence. This is the finest hour for paranoiacs and supporters of conspiracy theories.

And above all, Bennett must speak to the public and answer the questions of journalists. In order to implement his worthy desire to avoid a lockdown at all costs and to live with the coronavirus, he must develop relations of trust with the public and thereby recruit it to his mission. Isn't this new government all about healing the rifts? The pandemic is a golden opportunity to do just that.

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