Why Israel can't celebrate its vaccine success yet
Israel should be celebrating. More than 20% of its population has been fully vaccinated. Another 15% have been given the first of two jabs and will be protected by mid-February. The government plans to have vaccinated 5 million citizens -- well over half the adult population -- by mid-March, just before Israel’s next election will take place on March 23rd.
Never has a candidate had better talking points on the key issue of the day. Last week the Maccabi health maintenance organization – one of the four HMOs under which Israeli health care, and the vaccine, is administered -- announced that of 163,000 patients who received the full two-shot protocol, 92% were Covid-free after 10 days (and the remaining 8% showed only mild symptoms). Members of a control group of unvaccinated Israelis were found to be 11 times more highly infected.
And yet while Israel has been an undisputed vaccine leader, it is still struggling to contain the virus. This isn’t because the vaccine isn’t working, but because many Israelis still refuse to follow restrictions imposed to limit infections.
Israel began its vaccination program by inoculating the oldest members of the population and those with serious underlying conditions. In cities with high levels of vaccination, there is a 50% drop in confirmed cases, a 40% decrease in hospitalisations and there are 15% fewer serious patients.
'The vaccine's effect is profound,' says Professor Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute. The virus’ basic reproduction rate is under the magic number of one, meaning infection rates should continue to decline.
Even so, January has been a cruel month in which Covid-19 claimed 1,400 victims, about a third of total deaths since the start of the pandemic. Most of these were elderly patients for whom the vaccine did not arrive in time. If Israel is bending the curve, it isn’t doing it as fast as it could be.
Why so many new infections? One big factor is Haredim and Arab Israelis who often flout the social-distancing guidelines and become infected at mass communal events like weddings and funerals. Coronavirus wards of Israel’s hospitals have been filling up with unvaccinated younger patients. Experts here believe that Israel cannot achieve full herd immunity until there is a vaccine that can also be given to children.
For the past three weeks, Israel has, in theory, been under an internal lockdown, scheduled to end this weekend, though that is a matter of political negotiation between the warring coalition partners. In any case, compliance with current measures is poor.
Even the proponents of the lockdown concede that it isn’t doing much to slow the spread of the virus (the vaccine has presumably had the bigger impact on infection rates). But it has played a part in poisoning the atmosphere. This is primarily the fault of a refusal by large segments of the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community to accept government restrictions unless they are approved by senior rabbis.
Recently Netanyahu was reduced to calling Chaim Kanievsky, a 93-year-old Haredi rabbi with influence over a vast network of ultra-Orthodox schools, to ask for his compliance with the nationwide school shutdown. The Prime Minister was informed by Kanievsky’s grandson, that the rabbi would consider it. The classrooms, after a very brief pause, are still open.
On Sunday morning, another nonagenarian rabbi was buried in Jerusalem. Despite strict rules against large gathering, upwards of 10,000 Haredi men and boys accompanied the casket through the capital. Police spokesmen said the police were powerless to resist. For ordinary citizens watching on television, it was a chilling spectacle.
The resurgence of infections is partly blamed on the new British and South African variants. To protect against new variants found abroad, Israel has completely sealed itself off. The Ben Gurion airport is closed to all but emergency travelers and cargo, and will likely remain shut for several weeks. Land entry from Egypt and Jordan (from which Israeli tourists from Dubai had been returning home) are now blocked.
“North Korea and Israel are the only two countries whose citizens can’t get in,” has become a common lament by frustrated Israelis stuck abroad. Netanyahu remains focused on the threat from outside, telling the World Economic Forum that “statistically, it’s just a question of time before there is a strain that the current vaccines do not work with.”
It is the challenge within Israel that is the bigger problem for now. Being a vaccination leader is great. But a country that can’t enforce its own most basic public health measures will take longer to defeat the virus. It also bodes poorly for the future. It may well eventually have to face challenges that can’t be met with a needle.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.