Prime Minister Naftali Bennett crafted the perfect COVID-19 fairytale for his speech to the leaders of the United Nations on Monday.
There was an enemy (the virus), a hero (Bennett) and a clear plot: the coronavirus is “sweeping the world,” the “State of Israel is on the frontlines” and, thanks to the country’s breakthrough policy fusing the “wisdom of science with the power of policy-making” Israel is on course to win.
But when it comes to COVID-19, there is no happy ending – even in Israel.
In the last two months, more than 1,200 Israelis have died of COVID-19, compared to only 266 in the four months between April and July – nine times as many per month on average.
Bennett took office in June. Israel began its frantic third shot booster campaign on August 1, a campaign it opened to anyone over 12 who was vaccinated at least five months prior on August 29.
Today, Israeli hospitals are collapsing, in some cases unable to provide even reasonable care to the over 600 serious COVID-19 patients who fill their wards. Medical staff are suffering from post-traumatic stress and exhaustion. And there are neither enough heart-lung ECMO machines nor people trained to operate them.
Israel aspires to the Talmudic value that “whoever saves one life, is as if he saved an entire world,” Bennett said.
But the data indicates that it is not succeeding.
After a year in which Israel kept students home for fear of spreading the virus, Bennett’s government chose to open schools on time. He told the UN about his decision to require parents to test their children with rapid antigen tests before the first day in order to catch asymptomatic cases in advance and keep children out of isolation.
On the one hand, it worked. The rapid antigen tests taken by students on August 31 caught 8,000 cases of the virus, the Education Ministry said, and it kept about 180,000 students out of isolation. It also saved the country the cost of some 360,000 PCR tests and the money that would have been lost from parents who were forced to stay home with their quarantined kids.
On the other hand, more than 150,000 Israeli children ended up in isolation in the month of September alone. School started on September 1 and due to the Jewish holidays there were only six to nine actual school days in mainstream schools, depending on the age and the institution.
Israel is piloting a “Green Class” program, but thus far it has only been tried in a handful of schools.
The model works as follows: When positive students are discovered, they enter isolation but the people who were around them don’t. Instead, they are tested for coronavirus each day for seven days. So long as they are negative, they can continue to learn.
Before Yom Kippur, Bennett said that the program would be ready when children return to school after Sukkot, but in reality, only another five classes are joining when school resumes.
The Education Ministry has said that it hopes to roll out the Green Class outline on October 15. However, the Health Ministry has not even confirmed the program as being effective, and senior health officials have said it is possible that such a move would have to wait at least until the end of next month.
In the meantime, many children will be in isolation.
BENNETT TOUTED his decision to “pioneer” the booster shot, pulling the trigger on a nationwide campaign even before the US Food and Drug Administration had given its approval.
“With a third dose, you’re seven times more protected than with two doses, and 40 times more protected than without any vaccine,” the prime minister said, adding that he is “glad our actions have inspired other countries to follow with the booster.”
While it is true that many wealthy countries, especially in Europe, have agreed that booster shots are necessary, most of them are only offering the third dose to elderly people and those who are immunocompromised, at high-risk for contracting coronavirus or developing severe disease.
In the United States, although Pfizer had asked the FDA to make the booster available to everyone aged 16 and up, the regulatory body’s advisory panel determined that there was not yet enough evidence to show that the booster was necessary for all these people.
It does appear that the booster campaign is beginning to work in Israel, judging only on data from the last couple of days, where the positivity rate dropped below 5% and the reproduction rate or “R” has once again fallen under 0.8.
However, the R in Israel has heavily fluctuated over the last month and was as high as 1.15 only two weeks ago. Moreover, throughout most of the last two months, Israel has had the highest, or close to the highest level of infection per capita of any country in the world – despite the booster. Just last week, Israel reported more people on ventilators than it had since March.
It should be pointed out, however, that the percentage of serious cases has been much lower than in previous waves and that the majority – between 80% and 90% – of severe cases are unvaccinated or received two doses more than five months ago.
THE BOOSTER campaign is not catching on quite as fast as Bennett had hoped among Israel’s younger citizens. So far, only 3.2 million of the more than 4.7 million Israelis who were jabbed more than six months ago have received a booster shot, Health Ministry data shows.
This means that more than a million people are expected to lose their Green Pass on Sunday when the country’s new regulations go into effect.
The number may be even higher, considering that everyone who recovered more than six months ago also requires a shot in order to keep their passes.
On Thursday, only three days before Bennett delivered his speech, the National COVID-19 Experts Committee warned him that his policy of relying on a third booster shot and minimal economic restrictions was not proving itself.
Moreover, there are still some 800,000 Israelis who are unvaccinated, and the country has fallen far behind in the global vaccination race.
A report by Business Insider that was published last week based on charts from Our World in Data showed that whereas Israel had 52% of its eligible population vaccinated in March and boasted inoculating the most people the fastest, today that number is only around 60%, while Portugal, the United Arab Emirates, Iceland, Spain and Singapore now hold the top five slots.
These unvaccinated individuals are spreading disease and filling the country’s intensive care units.
FINALLY, during his UN speech, Bennett once again minimized the work and influence of the medical professionals in the fight against COVID.
“While doctors are an important input, they cannot be the ones running the national initiative,” Bennett said. “The only person who has a good vantage point of all considerations is the national leader of any given country.”
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz was quick to respond in the doctors’ defense, saying that “Health Ministry experts do a dedicated and excellent job on an international scale. They save lives every day. I give them full backing and can only praise their work and tremendous contribution.
“Their professional recommendations are the first consideration that guides us, even if not the only consideration,” Horowitz said.
But if Bennett believes that Israel is winning the battle against COVID-19, then he is not really listening to them. It is far too early to declare victory – in Israel, or in any of the countries with declining cases, most health experts have made clear.
Many of the world’s poorest countries have not even vaccinated 2% of their populations, according to official data. As Dr. Dorit Nitzan, European Regional Emergency Director for the World Health Organization (WHO), told The Jerusalem Post last month: “The virus will not go away in any way, shape or form and we will not find a way to live alongside the virus” so long as the majority of the world remains unvaccinated.
Winter is approaching, which means an increase of indoor mass gatherings that could spread infection.And just as no one foresaw the Delta variant, another mutation could be on its way that could potentially reverse the effects of any booster campaign.
Israel has had many successes in its efforts to manage the coronavirus pandemic, and the prime minister has played a role in some of them.
But Bennett’s “and they lived happily ever after” speech was a mirage compared to what is really happening in Israel.