After 18 months in this pandemic, with effective vaccines available and multiple tools to stop the virus spread, vaccinated family members from abroad should be allowed to travel to Israel, regardless of where they come from
February 21st 2020: the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Israel. Sometime after that, restrictions started: foreigners were told to go back to their homeland, returnees from abroad were told to self-isolate, lockdowns, mask-wearing, contact tracing mechanisms, quarantine and airport closures were gradually implemented here. It might be said that, at that time, all these restrictive measures – as tough as they seemed – were justified. There was no precise data on the virus mortality rate, there was uncertainty about how the virus spread and almost nothing was known about effective treatments to counter it. Moreover, there were no reliable forecasts of when an effective vaccine would be ready. We were told to obey all the rules and be patient, that at some point things were going to get back to normal.
December 20th 2020: a hopeful day in Israel. After months of medical trials and weeks of negotiations, the mass vaccination campaign started. First, medical personnel and the ones most at risk would be vaccinated, later everybody else over 16. For some, receiving the vaccine was an emotional moment that symbolized the end of the pandemic, and needle-in-the-arm selfies were blossoming on social media. Soon our loved ones would not die anymore. Soon our loved ones would be able to visit us here. Soon life was going to be back to normal, whatever the post-pandemic normal meant. We just needed to wait until everybody was vaccinated. There was hope, and we, Israelis, never give up on hope, as our national anthem makes it clear.
June 15th 2021: after an incredible vaccination campaign, on a symbolic day, mask-wearing was not mandatory anymore, even in closed spaces. Israelis made throwing-off-the-mask celebrations and proudly shared these moments with the world. The opening of the country for vaccinated relatives and tourists was planned for July 1st, people got excited with the possibility of meeting their loved ones again after almost 18 months separated.
July 2021: in a turn of events, because of the Delta variant of the virus – another variant in the pandemic alphabet – plans were changed. Despite the fact that there was no exponential rise in hospitalizations (even with the sharp rise in the number of daily cases in Israel), the opening of the country for vaccinated relatives and tourists was postponed until September. We were again told to wait.
And this is where we are now.
While the pandemic timeline unfolds, our lives are unfolding as well. Much has been told about the mental health toll connected to lockdowns, but not much has been told about the toll of separating families.
Israel was a leader in the mass vaccination campaign and should be a leader in a new attitude regarding Covid-19, now that 18 months have passed and so much has changed. Below are seven points that show us it is time to move on:
1- The pandemic is not going to end any time soon;
2- There is a vaccine and the majority of Israel’s population is vaccinated; most of the unvaccinated adults have chosen not to vaccinate;
3- Hospitalizations have not risen exponentially, even with the increase in new cases generated by the Delta variant of the virus;
4- Israel is a country built by immigrants whose families are often still abroad;
5- We are a family-oriented nation;
6- Forcing people to be separated from their families comes with clear consequences. Mental health is already being negatively impacted in all ages, older people will die without seeing their grandchildren, parents are missing the wedding of their children, people will get sicker without family and emotional support and the list goes on;
7- There are many effective tools to deal with a pandemic, and we must apply them wisely: mandatory mask-wearing, PCR and serology tests (especially for airport arrivals), quarantines, vaccines, green passport and so on.
Now there is a vaccine and we know much more about this virus than 18 months ago. We cannot allow ourselves to live with the same fear and uncertainty as in the beginning of the pandemic. Other countries have already realized that: Singapore, Switzerland and the United Kingdom (the latter with a strong invasion of the Delta variant) all have officially adopted a new mindset regarding the pandemic and what type of limitations should be imposed – and they are much less strict now.
We do not need to cancel all restrictions, of course caution is necessary and our vaccination efforts should continue. We should go one step at a time. But we must move on, and a good place to start is where people are needing compassion and emotional support: by allowing vaccinated relatives to enter the country – after being apart for a tough year and a half.
Currently, there is an extremely bureaucratic procedure that allows vaccinated first-degree relatives from some countries to visit. If your family lives in a “banned country”, such as Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, India and Uzbekistan (as of July 13th 2021), there are no options for you: even if you are getting married, giving birth or undergoing surgery, your vaccinated first-degree relatives are banned. There is no high court you can appeal to in order to prove the legitimacy or the deeply humanitarian character of your request.
This cannot go on like that. We must relearn not to live in fear. We must relearn that Covid-19 is not the only thing that can make us sick or kill us. We must relearn that life is worth living and sharing with those we love – and missing that has a mental health price.
The same way Israel is a leader in its vaccination efforts, I hope it will also be a leader in this new ‘learning to live with Covid-19’ phase:
First, it should be inspired by compassion: people have not seen their families for 18 months or more, with some, mainly new immigrants from “banned” countries such as Brazil, living in fragile and helpless situations. People must be able to receive their vaccinated family members regardless of where they are coming from. (Besides the vaccination requirement, of course additional measures should be implemented to facilitate quick identification of virus carriers from abroad and to stop the virus spread. Measures such as multiple PCR tests – before and after the flight, mandatory serology test upon arrival, quarantine, masks etc.).
Second, as a good Startup Nation, Israel should be inspired by the existing opportunity: the countries that quickly learn to move on and face the new Covid-19 reality responsibly and steadily will be especially attractive to tourists and investors.