I recently finished the requirements for my Masters in Public Health. Needless to say, the past year has been a fortuitously timed learning experience for me to study epidemiology in practice.
As we head into the upcoming elections and we get accustomed to the near constant talk of who everyone is voting for once again, I occasionally hear from friends and family that they’re thinking of voting for Bibi because of his response to the pandemic.
This is my response to them — don’t! You can vote for Bibi, but don’t do so because he managed the pandemic well. Because he didn’t.
Studying epidemiology for the past two and a half years, the last year of which coincided with the coronavirus pandemic, has made it exceedingly clear that Bibi is not the leader that Israel needs — contrary to how he poised himself from the beginning of the pandemic until now. He did a terrible job managing the pandemic, focusing on his own political interests instead of developing a robust strategy for emerging out of the ashes of this global public health crisis.
[Full disclosure: I live very close to Balfour Street in Jerusalem where the weekly protests have interrupted the quiet end of shabbat every Saturday night for months, so I’m quite keen to see a new prime minister, if only to restore the regular peacefulness of weekends in Jerusalem.]
Yes, Israel is the leader in vaccinations per capita, and I don’t want to diminish that. Vaccinations have been super helpful in getting us out of this pandemic and the fact that Pfizer (and Moderna and Astra Zeneca) made an effective vaccine available so quickly is nothing short of miraculous.
But did Israel receive such a plentiful supply of vaccines because of Bibi’s incessant nudging? Or was it simply that Israel represents the greatest laboratory for studying the effectiveness of a new vaccine with its small size and top-notch socialized healthcare system? I suspect that the latter is more accurate. (By the way, there is a Netanyahu we can thank for our first-rate healthcare system, but it’s not Bibi. It’s Shoshana Netanyahu who pushed forward healthcare legislation in the late eighties.)
Furthermore, vaccines should have been just one prong of a multi-pronged approach enabling us to get back to normal without risking our health, collapsing our economy or emotionally traumatizing us. We never should have waited for vaccines to save us. We never should have implemented a barely-legal policy of locking down every few months until we got to vaccine-induced herd immunity.
Since the first lockdown, I’ve been saying that we need to develop accurate, ubiquitous rapid testing. As a mere epidemiology student, I knew nobody was listening to me, but I was far from the only person making this point. (Bennett, for example, had also made this point. And while he’s far too right-wing for my vote, he does represent a leader that scientifically oriented Israelis can feel comfortable voting for, if the handling of the pandemic is the criterion by which you are casting your ballot.)
Just this week — a full year after the novel coronavirus reached Israel — has rapid testing become available. The only reason why this testing is finally available is that there are people who can’t (or won’t) get vaccinated, including children under the age of 16. But imagine a scenario in which high-quality rapid testing was developed early on and track-and-trace procedures were well implemented. Hypothetically, we could have been in the position to have eradicated the virus without vaccines. We could have saved our business owners from having to close down businesses, just by the widespread implementation of rapid testing procedures. Instead, this tool was only made hastily available because we can’t give the vaccines to the entire population — something which was also foreseeable if we were in the habit of thinking of second-and third-order consequences.
I’d also like to point out that nearly every vaccinated Israeli received the Pfizer vaccine. Not diversifying the kinds of vaccines given to our small nation is great for the Pfizer experiment, but a terrible strategy for risk minimization. What if, for some unknown reason, the Pfizer vaccine ended up causing large-scale auto-immunity such that 15% of people who received this vaccine developed a severe autoimmune condition? Well, that would mean that 15% of the vaccinated people in Israel would develop conditions that are costly to manage and which put them at risk for other illnesses, not to mention can increase mortality from these morbidities.
I’ll say what I’ve said before: I’m happy that we have excellent healthcare in this country and that medical research is so good here, so I can presume that these problems would be managed. Still, it’s a risky move to vaccinate so much of a population with the same highly novel medical technology.
So vote for whomever your conscience tells you. But I hope you can see that the fact that Israel is the first mostly-vaccinated nation is not a reason to vote for Benjamin Netanyahu.