Israel lost more than 500 lives to COVID-19 in August. This tragedy was not an unfortunate force of nature. It was mostly due to human error or failure to act. Israel, a light unto the nations only three months ago with virtually no active COVID cases, has become one of the most infected countries with one of the highest per-capita mortality rates in the world. Now schools are scheduled to open this week on September 1st, the traditional first day of school – at all costs.
When COVID-19 broke out in January 2020 there was a lack of information followed by an overflow of deficient data coming out of China. Mistakes were made in mitigating the risk of this pandemic. But three key decisions differentiated Israel from the rest of the world and helped it come out of the first and most challenging COVID wave before all others.
Israel identified the crisis and acted accordingly by being one of the first countries to stop incoming flights from China on January 26, 2020, and then stopped all inbound air traffic until the crisis was under control. This crucial decision was made at a time when many in the media dismissed COVID-19 as a mild flu. One commentator claimed the situation was being grossly exaggerated as a global crisis by a Prime Minister trying to divert public attention from his legal predicament. The head of the COVID committee and current education minister questioned the numbers saying, “they were not credible.” But the early identification of the crisis and the decision to bar flights from China saved thousands of Israeli lives.
The second crucial decision was to pursue and secure vaccines for Israel’s entire population as soon as possible. This seems trivial today, but at the time it was cynically dismissed. As opposition leader, today’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, disregarded the importance of the vaccines and said that Israel would be lucky to get “a box of five vaccines at best.” None of the opposition leaders at the time, including today’s finance minister and prime minister, made any effort to convince the public to get vaccinated. In fact, a banal booklet written by Bennett, on “how to beat a plague” did not even mention vaccines as a key part of the battle.
Most importantly, Israel vaccinated the lion’s share of its population at record speed. Over 80% of Israel’s citizens (above 60 years old) were vaccinated before any other country. Public trust and a strong health system facilitated this achievement. When it came to life or death, even black-flag anarchists who took to the bridges and swept through the streets during a pandemic peak got vaccinated after seeing their long-serving Prime Minister do so first. Today’s prime minister insisted that the military must manage the crisis at the time. The decision to zealously pursue the vaccination of Israelis prevented thousands of deaths during the first and subsequent waves.
Identifying the crisis quickly, pursuing the right solution, and implementing it effectively enabled Israel to overcome the initial and most dangerous COVID-19 period.
When the new government in Israel was formed on June 13, 2021, there were virtually no COVID-19 cases in Israel. Today there are almost 10,000 new cases. Daily. More than 500 Israelis died from COVID-19 in August.
The new government ignored early warnings and failed to identify the regression in first shot effectiveness and a new variant in time. The new government permitted thousands of Delta carriers to enter Israel before taking any preventive measures. The new government failed to provide the third vaccine shot in a timely manner, waiting seven costly weeks for bureaucratic approval, and above all, the new government has failed to secure public confidence in its leadership. These failures cost 500 Israeli lives in August.
Three months ago, Israel was at the top of all leading international crisis management ranking indices. Today, Israel is ranked in 36th place on those same indices.
Most now realize that Israel is not an island that can be easily closed off, but rather a small and congested country with a concentration of its most vulnerable population living in close quarters. Israel is therefore very susceptible to the spread of the virus if its population is not vaccinated or isolated.
There are those who mistakenly see the prime minister, with his party’s mere six Knesset seats, as no more than a useful idiot appointed solely for the purpose of replacing a long-serving right-wing prime minister. But Bennett is brighter than he is given credit for. He understands the ramifications of his failures and fears the consequences of upcoming challenges. Bennett knows that the booster shots should have been provided much earlier, that there should have been a limited lockdown and that it is irresponsible to send unvaccinated children to school this week.
With only a few school days scheduled in September and more than 125,000 unvaccinated teachers and students, it makes no sense to open schools now. It can kill children.
Manage the risk responsibly; keep the schools shut until the teachers and children are vaccinated. Schools should be safe.