Israel’s Failing Covid Response: The Sequel

As a historian, I am aware that the lessons of history are unfortunately too often lost on policymakers. However, one would think that a government would learn from events that took place, not in ancient history, but just one year ago. Israel is exceptional in many ways. Regrettably, we are also unique for being the only country that has gone twice from being the envy of the world in its actions to fight Coronavirus, to becoming one of the countries with one of the highest number of new daily infections per thousand in the world. How we managed that feat, especially with so many vaccinated, remains a mystery.

Last June (2020), when infection rates in the country were nearly zero, thanks to our lockdown, the world looked at us with awe. Then, an outbreak of COVID-19 developed at a Jerusalem high school, one week before the scheduled end of the school year. What did we do? We quarantined the affected classes. What did we not do? Close all the schools at which the infected students and their siblings were enrolled, or cancel all youth movement and other extracurricular activities in Jerusalem. As a result of that small outbreak, Coronavirus spread, and by the end of the summer we had 2,000 new infections, daily – and once school started in the Fall, that number ballooned.

By June of this year, thanks to the vaccinations, we were down to a very small number of new daily cases, once again. It looked like the pandemic was behind us. There was concern that the “Delta variant” (known at the time primarily as the variant that ravaged India) might get here, but we were not all that worried.

What happened? Two self-centered families returned from a trip abroad with their children, and instead of following the mandated health and safety regulations, which required keeping their unvaccinated children in quarantine for a week, they sent their children directly back to school. Of course, the government did nothing to enforce the quarantine for those who returned from abroad – while the thousands of tracking bracelets ordered precisely for that purpose sat in a warehouse. Sadly, those aforementioned kids had been infected with the Delta variant of the virus. They brought this virulent strain to school, and suddenly, many of their fellow students became infected with Coronavirus.

Clearly, the new waves of COVID-19 infections are not solely the fault of those parents. Our government deserves a great deal of the blame. When the infection broke out in Binyamina and Modi’in, instead of closing all the schools in those towns (given there were only a few days left in the school year), the Ministry of Education only quarantined the classes in which students had been directly exposed. Once again, did the government vote to suspend youth movement meetings and other after-school activities? Of course not! Why act quickly?

So, the virus began to do what it knows how to do best – i.e. spread. Did the government do anything in response? It did, somewhat. It eventually brought back the indoor mask mandate; a mandate whose enforcement, let’s just say, has not been uniform. Consequently, Covid infections keep rising.

Over the summer, school, camp, and all other activities have operated normally. Large weddings, concerts (both indoor and outdoor), continued as usual. Hotels are all open and packed. Large family gatherings remained permissible.

This brings us to the other side of the equation – our foolish population. I live near the HaBima and Cameri theaters. Every night, I see a steady stream of people, primarily people ages 50-60+, entering and exiting the theaters as if there is no pandemic. I see multigenerational get-togethers in my neighborhood, every single day. Judging by people’s actions, most Israelis do not appear to have internalized the tremendous threat. So, the numbers keep rising.

But what about the government? What are they doing? Have our leaders told us to avoid shopping in crowded malls? Has the army told its soldiers on leave to refrain from attending large parties or to stop frequenting bars? Have we been told that perhaps staying at a hotel is not the best idea at the moment? No, of course not, we wouldn’t want to hurt any businesses.

A week ago, the government decided to reinstate “the green pass system” (that only permits those vaccinated, or with a recent negative Covid test result to enter malls and other indoor venues). But, then, they put off full implementation of the system for two weeks! Does that make any sense? Furthermore, how effective can the “green pass system” be, now that we know vaccinated people can get and transmit the disease?

The government has taken some steps to close the barn door at Ben Gurion Airport. COVID-19 came to Israel through that gateway, as did the variant. No doubt closing that portal will help us in the future, but it is much too late to positively impact this outbreak. Our infection rate is currently higher than any of the countries to which our citizens fly.

The government did take one brave action – i.e. deciding to provide everyone above age 60 with a Coronavirus booster vaccine. That decision was made as it became apparent the effectiveness of the original vaccine wanes over time; a significant cause of the spread of the disease among the vaccinated. Initial results show that the booster drastically diminished infection among those who have taken it; cutting infection rates enough to prove worthwhile, but not hermetically stopping the disease.

Distressingly, it seems there is a major misconception, both among the population and the government. Vaccines work. They are an excellent tool to bring down the rate of infection and prevent severe sickness. Yet, vaccines do not provide total protection. That means vaccines are very effective when combined with social distancing, especially in a low infection environment. However, in a widely infected environment, where no norms of social distancing are being kept, vaccines are much less effective. Another reason we have seen a steady rise in our COVID-19 cases.

On Monday evening, both Finance Minister Liberman and Health Minister Horowitz gave interviews that were highly informative, in the negative sense. Lieberman attacked the idea of another lockdown, asserting that it’s not effective and that there will not be one. Reiterating that there should not be a lockdown, Horowitz said that Lieberman could be correct about lockdowns being ineffective.

Of course, you can oppose lockdowns because the financial cost might be too high – a legitimate argument. However, to state that lockdowns are not effective is absurd. Other than vaccines, the only ways to fight a pandemic are either a full lockdown or some other method of limiting personal contact.

Lieberman has talked about bringing back retired doctors to deal with the overflow of expected COVID-19 patients. The HMOs have spoken about getting prepared to take care of seriously ill patients at home – not exactly the standard of care that will save lives.

The government is finally making plans to possibly slow the spread of the disease. With between 5,000–6,000 new cases daily, there is no talk about ending indoor dining, closing indoor clubs, bars synagogues. The most the government is willing to do is bar Israelis from having more than 50 people in their homes or 100 in their backyards.

Minister of Interior Ayelet Shaked was interviewed last night on Channel 13 when asked: “With 6,300 new people infected per day, and 29 deaths so far this week, would you say you [the coalition] have lost control of the situation?” Shaked calmly replied: “No. We expected these numbers. We made the strategic decision to live with the pandemic.” The interviewer followed up and pushed Shaked to clarify “at what price?”, i.e., what about the 29 deaths this week? Shaked continued: “We made a strategic decision to live with the Coronavirus. In a pandemic there are deaths.”

The government is trying to prepare for as many as 2,400 seriously ill patients, at one time. They have imaginary plans to recruit another 200 doctors (a ridiculously small number) to take care of these patients, in a situation where there are no unemployed doctors in the country.

It’s clear that – without the people of the country even being aware – this new government has decided that fighting the pandemic in ways other than widespread vaccination are just too costly. Therefore, if the vaccines fail to be 100% effective, we will bear the burden of high hospitalization, many deaths, and possibly many people suffering from long-haul Covid.

I am not sure that when backing a government without Netanyahu, the voters including me knew what they were choosing. Certainly, the relatives of those who will not get a chance to dance at their grandchildren’s weddings did not; Certainly, those who themselves will not see the next year, did not. They may have voted for change, but they certainly did not vote for death.

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of Historycentral.com -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diary. He is the publisher of an economic news App about Israel called DigitOne and has a weekly newsletter on substack called Israel Update
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