Tel Aviv: Israel should celebrate. More than 20% of the population is fully vaccinated. Another 15% get the first of two bumps and will be protected by mid-February. The government plans to vaccinate 5 million citizens – more than half of the adult population – by mid-March, just before Israel’s next March 23 election.
Never before has a candidate had better discussion points on the critical issue of the day? Last week, the Maccabi Health Maintenance Organization – one of four HMOs administering Israeli health care – announced that of 163,000 patients who received the full two-shot protocol, 92% were Covid-free after ten days (and the remaining 8%) showed only mild symptoms). It was found that members of a control group of unvaccinated Israelites were 11 times more infected.
And yet Israel is still struggling to contain the virus. This is not because the vaccine fails but because many Israelites still refuse to set up restrictions to limit the spread of infections.
Israel began its vaccination program by vaccinating its oldest citizens and those with severe underlying conditions. In cities with high vaccination levels, there was a 50% decrease in confirmed cases, a 40% decrease in hospitalizations, and there were 15% fewer severe patients. “The effect of the vaccine is profound,” said Professor Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute. The virus’s reproduction rate is less than one, which means that infection rates must continue to fall.
Nevertheless, January was a brutal month in which Covid-19 claimed 1,400 deaths, about a third of the total casualties since the start of the pandemic. Most of these were elderly patients for whom the vaccine did not arrive on time. If Israel bends the curve, he is not doing so as fast as it could be.
Why so many new infections? One major factor is Haredim and Arab Israelites, who often disregard social distance guidelines and become infected at mass communal events such as weddings and funerals. Coronavirus wards in Israel’s hospitals are filling in younger patients who have not been vaccinated. Experts here believe that Israel cannot achieve full herd immunity before a vaccine can also be given to children.
For the past three weeks, Israel has been in theory under an internal lockdown, which will end this weekend (although it is a matter of political negotiation between the warring coalition partners). In any case, compliance is weak.
Even proponents of the closure admit that it does not do much to slow down the virus’s spread (the vaccine presumably had the more significant impact on infection rates). But it played a role in poisoning the atmosphere. This is mainly to blame for many of the ultra-Orthodox Haredi communities’ refusal to accept government restrictions unless approved by senior rabbis.
Netanyahu recently decided to call on Chaim Kanievsky, a 93-year-old Haredi rabbi with influence over an extensive network of ultra-Orthodox schools, to ask him to comply with the nationwide school break. Kanievsky’s grandson informed the prime minister that the rabbi would consider it. The classrooms are still open after a brief interval.
On Sunday morning, another non-agaric rabbi was buried in Jerusalem. Despite strict rules against large gatherings, more than 10,000 Haredi men and boys accompanied the coffin through the capital. Police spokesmen said the force was powerless. For ordinary citizens watching television, it was a huge spectacle.
The revival of infections is partly attributed to the new British and South African variants. To protect against new mutations abroad, Israel shut itself off. Ben Gurion Airport is closed to everyone except emergency travelers and cargo and is likely to stay for a few weeks. Ground access from Egypt and Jordan is blocked.
“North Korea and Israel are the only two countries whose citizens cannot enter,” became a familiar lament for frustrated Israelis trapped abroad. Netanyahu remains focused on the external threat and tells the World Economic Forum: “Statistically, it’s only a matter of time before there is a tension with which the current vaccines do not work.”
It is the challenge within Israel that is now the bigger problem. Being a vaccine leader is wonderful. But a country that cannot implement its own necessary public health measures will take longer to defeat the virus. It is also bad for the future. Israel may eventually face challenges that cannot be met with a needle.