Craig Lebrau
Craig Lebrau

The Struggle to Return to Normal

Israel faces a 4th lockdown as the Delta variant spread in abandonment

The pandemic of 2020 turned the world upside down, in every way possible. Among the worst casualties of the essential lockdowns across the globe were travel and tourism.

As the numbers showed, tourism represented 10% of the world’s GDP in a pre-Covid world. Subsequent to the pandemic, the World Tourism Organization recorded that global tourism suffered its worst year ever, in 2020, with international tourist arrivals falling by 74%.  Despite this, family trip quotes continued to flow in from enthusiastic travelers who were tired of Covid restrictions.

Still for all, it was in 2019 that most countries, including Israel, saw record-breaking travel figures. For instance, Israel recorded an awe-inspiring 4.55 million tourist arrivals in 2019, and then saw that number drop at least 81% to 850,000 tourists in 2020, with pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions to outright closures of airports.

Among the countries of the world, Israel, since the time Covid-19 impacted its citizens, made public health the country’s priority, over the economy. Moreover, Israel’s vaccination program for its citizens, which began mid-December 2020, is considered one of the fastest in the world, and reached most vulnerable citizens by late January 2021. This enabled Israel to get on top of the deadly cycles of sickness, hospitalization and death, and mostly return to normal by May 2021. Until the Delta variant made its recent appearance, the daily Covid numbers in Israel were almost zero, and about 57% of Israelis had already received  two jabs of the Covid vaccine.

However, following on the heels of easing pandemic restrictions, the first case of Delta Plus variant was detected in Israel, in a vaccinated woman returning to the country from an overseas trip. Subsequently, dozens of new cases were found in schools in the cities of Modiin and Binyamina, and hundreds of people were quarantined.

In fact, the recent surge of Covid cases across the world is attributed to the Delta variant, and  has been identified in over 80 countries. This Covid variant and which is upending the global response to the pandemic, and raising fears in Israel of an uncontrolled spread of Covid without re-imposing restrictions. Nevertheless, according to Israel’s Health Ministry, the Pfizer vaccine safeguards 64% of people against the Delta variant, and, as was known since the inception, has 94% capability to prevent severe illness. Israel’s current Covid situation proves this, with only 26 out of 729 coronavirus patients hospitalized, with almost no current pandemic deaths.

Meanwhile, with health experts in Israel holding international travelers responsible for the Delta variant spread, authorities are delaying opening the country to international tourists until August 1, 2021. Moreover, health authorities are mulling over an all-encompassing requirement for overseas travelers arriving in Israel, to self-isolate for one week upon arrival, in place of the  current regulation of a 24-hour quarantine. This apart, authorities are also deliberating a total shutdown of the airport for non-essential travel, if the Delta variant spikes further. Meanwhile, as the Delta variant exploded locally across the country, the Director General of Israel’s health ministry, Nachman Ash, said, “It’s not the time to fly abroad.”

Adding weight to this, was Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s urgent plea, “Whoever doesn’t need to go abroad, don’t go abroad.” But Israelis who had already planned their travel, barely took notice, as 301,000 of them left for overseas destinations on flights from Ben-Gurion International Airport in June. This number was twice as many as the overseas travelers in May 2021. Moreover, on 1st July, which happened to be the first day of summer vacation, there were a record 21,000 people flying to different destinations on almost 100 flights.

What is more, Israel has banned its citizens from visiting Uzbekistan, Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, South Africa, India, Mexico, and Russia. Any citizen who visits any of these countries despite the ban, faces a $1,500 fine and a period of quarantine until they obtain a valid negative Covid test. However, the affluent and powerful are able to bypass these restrictions, by being able to afford private flights, even to banned destinations. The Israel Airports Authority  reports that the number of people on private flights increased by nearly 20% since the beginning of 2021, compared with the numbers travelling on private flights in 2019, before the onset of the pandemic.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has declared Ben-Gurion International Airport as “a huge national vulnerability” in the continuing spread of Covid, and to stress the extreme gravity of the situation, he appointed Major General Roni Numa as a special czar for Ben-Gurion International Airport. Numa was earlier appointed to manage the Covid outbreak in ultra-Orthodox cities in Israel.

Meanwhile, government officials who spoke to the media following a recent coronavirus cabinet meeting, warned the public that if they do not comply with the Prime Minister’s basic health directives like mask wearing, vaccinating, and staying away from large crowds – Israel’s fourth lockdown could be in place by the Jewish New Year on September 6th.

The people in Israel, as people everywhere are straining against pandemic restrictions, unwilling to understand it is to protect everyone. As Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg said, “No one is safe until everyone is safe.” And as science journalist, Ed Yong put it succinctly, “We long to return to normal but normal led to this.”

About the Author
Craig Lebrau is the Director of Cato Media. A former programmer, Craig is interested in Israel's startup ecosystem and aims to share his insights learnt from expanding to and managing business in Israel.
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