Israel and coronavirus: The good, the bad, and the amazing

How do we reconcile these polar opposites of impotence and accomplishment in Israel's COVID cases and vaccine success?

GETTING INOCULATED at a Jerusalem Clalit clinic this week (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
GETTING INOCULATED at a Jerusalem Clalit clinic this week
The contrast could not be more stark. Even in this country of extremes, Israel’s COVID-19 story is remarkable for its contradictions. It turns out that the same nation that is one of the world’s poorest performers in terms of COVID cases is the world leader in administering the blessed vaccines to its people.
As of this writing, Israel is ranked 18th out of 218 countries in the number of COVID cases per capita. Eight of the countries above us on this list have populations of less than one million, so they may be discounted. We must unfortunately conclude that we and our leaders have failed miserably in protecting each other against this virulent enemy.
It is especially disheartening to see Israel placed way above developing nations such as India, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Africa and Nigeria, many of which have seriously challenged medical infrastructure. These and many other countries have huge populations with limited facilities, especially compared to ours.
Then there are countries such as Brazil and Russia, whose leaders have undermined their ability to cope with the crisis by responding to it with mindless derision. They too are faring better than us. The only country that has suffered more than Israel as a result of this type of recklessness is Donald Trump’s USA. Even Italy, France and the UK, which feature prominently in the corona disaster columns, have lower infection rates.
And then you flip the coin. When I posted pictures on Facebook last week of my wife and I mid-first jab, comments came in from friends living in Anglo-Saxon First-World countries, all expressing a blend of admiration and envy at the speed and efficiency with which we have procured, distributed and administered the vaccine. Right now, approximately 1.5% of the population is being inoculated daily. This is not a printing error. It is an astonishing achievement.
How do we reconcile these polar opposites of impotence and accomplishment?
The methodology of containing the virus has been clear almost from the start. The vast majority of humanity now knows that masks, social separation and hygiene almost certainly protect us and those around from contagion. Pretty basic! Everyone across the cultural-ethnic-socio-economic spectrum has the ability to understand and implement these elementary rules. The problem is, it is not that simple. As we have discovered, the social and economic costs of this seemingly small behavioral adjustment are hugely significant and involve consequential great difficulty and suffering.
The countries that have most successfully protected their populations may be divided into two categories. There are those which have strong, often authoritarian leadership that enforces its decrees with an iron fist, such as China and North Korea. Even if they are cheating wildly on the numbers, they are performing way better than us. But who would want to trade that upside for a life of suppression?
The other successful model combines benevolent, responsible leadership that has evoked a sense of communal responsibility and care, backed by economic assistance distributed in an orderly and accessible way. Add to that mix an underlying culture of order, mutual respect, compliance and acceptance of “pain for gain” and you have the recipe for containment. Japan is a prime example of this phenomenon. Its infection graph looks similar to Israel’s except that the absolute numbers are around 50% lower, and if I gambled, I would wager a stack on the reliability of their statistics. For every Israeli, there are 13 Japanese people, so for one Japanese citizen infected there are nearly 26 Israelis!
WHY HAVE we failed so miserably? It comes down to the disintegration of leadership and the historical development of Jewish society. What may we expect when our prime minister rules by dividing, creating vast schisms and dissent? Our 120 elected Knesset members, including 35 appointed ministers, are so busy fighting each other that they cannot begin to debate an orderly, equitable methodology for dealing with the greatest social, health and economic hardship of our time. We will soon return to the polling booths for the fourth time in two years, painfully aware that we will probably be back to square one the very next day. The thought is staggering.
Add to that a string of Jewish cultural DNA mutated by millennia of experience that causes us to reflexively question authority and its resultant lack of respect for government. Each directive is challenged, discussed and considered like a debate in the Talmud. We all know how many of those arguments are unresolved to this day. It turns out that during a pandemic, when cohesion is indispensable, this trait – which generally serves us so well – is fatal.
On top of all this, add another condition inherited from our forefathers: Those same bickering brothers who became truculent tribes have morphed into sparring sectors. Instead of us standing together as a nation, looking inward as individuals and acting to improve our communal lot, we find reasons to blame the other and justify our own lack of compliance.
So that’s the bad news. Why then is the vaccine experience so different?
First, that same prime minister, when he is not watching his back, is a king at making the deal. We might be paying a premium for getting first in line for the vaccines, but the cost-effectiveness makes that decision a no-brainer.
Second, there are our health funds, the great heroes of this process, which have mobilized and pulled off this massive, unprecedented strategic triumph, with some 150,000 citizens inoculated daily.
Finally and crucially, we have found common cause. Except for an insignificant fringe, there is broad consensus that inoculation is the way to go. And that means we are not wasting precious energy, time and money bickering over what action to take. Rather than being dependent on our politicians, we have put our trust in the hands of our outstanding medical women and men who have soldiered on through this calamity, giving of their hearts in the cause of our welfare.
If you have not seen Black September, the harrowing TV series documenting the goings-on in the corona ward at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, watch it. Amid the suffering and death you will discover great light as an ultra-Orthodox head nurse and an Arab head doctor – along with a team that represents the entire spectrum of our population – fight for the lives of their patients. It turns out that in the trenches of corona warfare, there is no time or energy for petty politics or sibling rivalry. When the chips are down, our capacity for unity, compassion and achievement is supreme.
To paraphrase US Founding Father John Dickinson’s famous saying: Divided we fall, united we fly! When we act as one, nothing can stop us. Not even corona.
The writer is celebrating the 40th anniversary of his and his wife’s immigration to Israel this week, yet is still befuddled by the way this remarkable country functions.