Vaccine champ, contagion chump — the two sides of Israel’s battle against COVID

The world-beating success of our vaccination drive — overseen by professionals, with no partisan contours — contrasts starkly with the politicized effort to stop the virus spread

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Small business owners protest the governement's handling of the Coronavirus epidemic, in Tel Aviv, on January 05, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Small business owners protest the governement's handling of the Coronavirus epidemic, in Tel Aviv, on January 05, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

I wrote here a week ago about getting vaccinated — about how efficient the process was, and my appreciation for everyone from the scientists who developed the shot to the paramedic who injected it.

In the days since, our extraordinary national vaccination drive has continued apace, its rate slowing only now because of a shortage of supply, though it may be set to rise again shortly.

We were leading the world a week ago in vaccinations per capita, but today we’re simply staggeringly far ahead — with about 1,500,000 Israelis having received the first of their two inoculations as of last night, out of a population a little under 9.3 million.

That’s 16% of the country, compared with the UAE next in line at 8.4%, followed by Bahrain (less than 4%), the United States at about 1.5%, the UK at 1.4%, and nobody else above 1%.

Crucially, Health Ministry figures suggest 60% of our over 60s have had their first shots.

A chart featuring the leading countries in COVID-19 vaccinations administered per capita, according to the Our World In Data website, January 6, 2021. (Screenshot)

And, despite the short-term shortage, our HMOs, we are assured, have put aside the necessary stocks so that everyone who got their first inoculation will get their second, as scheduled, three weeks later.

The large vaccination center in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The world-beating success of our vaccination drive — an operation of benefit to all, overseen by dedicated professionals, with no narrow partisan contours — is being offset, however, by a mushrooming rise in COVID-19 contagion.

More than 8,000 new cases are being registered daily, close to the highest ever rates here in September (when we had the world’s worst per-capita infection level), and worse per-capita than the US right now. Indeed, only a few countries have higher per-capita new cases per day than we do.


A chart featuring daily COVID-19 cases per capita in various countries on a seven-day average, according to the Our World In Data website, January 6, 2021. (Screenshot)

And the array of related statistics are all worsening too — the number of active cases, the number of hospitalizations, the number of serious cases, the number of deaths. Hospital chiefs are waving red flags.

At the rate we’re going, our health minister warned on Monday, we’ll find ourselves where Italy was last March, with the pandemic raging out of control.

A patient lies unassisted on the floor of Beersheba’s Soroka hospital coronavirus ward after falling, as shown in a TV broadcast on January 5, 2021, (Screencapture Channel 13)

Part of this new phase of the crisis is being linked to a false complacency — the sense that, since we’re vaccinating so effectively, we’ve basically got the pandemic beat. But of course we haven’t, as the grim statistics show. It takes at least a week for those who have had the shot to even begin to produce antibodies, and the experts say it won’t be until about a week after the second shot that a vaccinee is broadly protected. It’s simply not clear, they also say, whether you can still spread the virus even after you’ve been vaccinated.

Like the rest of the world, moreover, we’re also now battling more infectious coronavirus mutations.

And the battle is being further undermined by public reluctance, even refusal, to heed the basic COVID restrictions.

Big weddings and big parties have been continuing, even now, when Israel is supposed to be under at least partial lockdown. (Hundreds attended an ultra-Orthodox wedding Tuesday night in Beitar Illit, one of Israel’s worst-hit virus centers, with the country’s highest positive COVID-19 test rate. Police officers who are alleged to have failed to close the wedding down have been suspended pending an investigation.)

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men from the Toldos Aharon Hasidic dynasty attend a wedding in Beitar Ilit, violating coronavirus regulations, January 5, 2021. (Screenshot: Twitter)

What’s also costing us dearly is the understandable collapse in public confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis — a gradual collapse over many months caused by ministerial foot-dragging, political grandstanding, inconsistencies and U-turns, all accompanied by the stench of partisan interests.

We’re a world-beating vaccination exemplar, but simultaneously a democratic world’s worst for government stability. We’re led by politicians who keep bursting into our living rooms to solemnly pledge that their only motivation is to act in the public interest, but whose indifference to public interest now sees us dragged to a fourth election inside two years. And as relates specifically to COVID right now, we have a leadership that refused to quickly close down defined parts of the country, red zones with high contagion, because many of those red zones were ultra-Orthodox areas, and narrow political calculation dictated that the ultra-Orthodox electorate must not be alienated.

The rest of the public was thoroughly aware of what was going on, and thus widely defied the current lockdown. Many stores, open-air markets and businesses — fighting desperately to stay afloat — risked fines and opened as usual. The nation’s schools were told to stay open. Contagion spread, and everybody lost, with the government now forced to upgrade the current economically crippling semi-lockdown to a yet-more stringent full closure from Thursday at midnight.

Israelis shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on January 4, 2021, during a third national coronavirus lockdown. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Eleven weeks from now, we’ll have yet another opportunity, or obligation, to choose a new national leadership. The result will almost certainly hinge on the status, then, of the race between virus and vaccine.

For now, the election result is anybody’s guess. For now, much of the public is torn between admiration for, and antipathy to, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has both led the vaccination campaign — personally advancing the agreements with Pfizer, Moderna, Astrazeneca et al that enabled us to set our world-beating pace — and undermined it with self-interested politics regarding the ultra-Orthodox, and by bringing down the government to avoid having to hand over power in November to Benny Gantz.

The electorate is torn still further because Gantz, the “alternate prime minister,” has been revealed as (being polite here) politically incompetent, and because none of the endless parade of other “choose me” alternatives has yet to particularly impress.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a vaccination center in Jerusalem, on January 06, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Maybe the best way to win the election would be to put aside blatant self-interest and — not rhetorically, but actually — make decisions and support policies solely focused on the best interests of the entire citizenry.

I know, it’s a radical thought. But that way, our hitherto politicized effort to thwart the spread of COVID-19 might start to match the success of our hyper-efficient effort to vaccinate against it.

** This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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