Coronavirus in Israel: Who's responsible for beating the pandemic?

MIDDLE ISRAEL: Israel owes a large part of its unfolding medical victory to its founders’ socialist legacy.

A MAN takes a picture of himself receiving a coronavirus vaccine at a Meuhedet Health Fund center in Jerusalem this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A MAN takes a picture of himself receiving a coronavirus vaccine at a Meuhedet Health Fund center in Jerusalem this week.
 Victory is upon us.
With more than 90% of veteran Israelis (i.e., 60 or older) vaccinated while their share among the newly infected plunges from more than 50% to hardly 5% – it is clear that the vaccine is working. That is why next week’s partial reopening of shops, schools, theaters, fitness clubs and stadiums will signal not the end of the pandemic’s beginning, but the beginning of its end.
The question therefore arises: Who defeated the pandemic?
Well before counting this victory’s generals we must salute its captains, the first of which is the face mask, the muzzle that became part of our attire.
One has to wonder how many could have avoided infection had they and their infectors just worn the mask. The same goes for the war’s two other captains: social distancing and the lockdown. True, none of these three won the war, but they constituted the armored columns through which flanked the counterattack’s charge.
The attack itself was led by one hero: science.
To understand its achievement, one need only compare COVID-19 with previous plagues. Thanks to several hundred scientists and the universities where they learned, humanity fared so much better than it did when medieval scholars attributed the Black Plague to an alignment of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.
This is not to say that science’s discontents are not in our midst. They are here, and on the offensive. Spreading lies and deploying charlatans of every thinkable stripe, the anti-scientific insurrection is such that the first thing kids should be told when they return to school is how science saved their lives.
The war’s second victor is government.
THE EVIDENCE is as plain as it is scathing. Where government acted the plague was contained, and where government vanished the plague raged.
Much will be said here in upcoming weeks about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal responsibility for the pandemic’s handling and mishandling. Whatever side you choose on that part of the debate, there will be no arguing that his early resolve to own the pandemic was both medically and politically imperative.
Countries whose governments set out to shutter cities, face-mask pedestrians, monitor infections, quarantine the infected, impose social distancing and administer vaccinations – had fewer fatalities.
The gap between richer and poorer countries that this elemental truth exposed is tragic enough. Yet even more tragic has been the case of the world’s richest country, which could have handled the pandemic as efficiently as any other had it not been led by a man who scorned the very art of government.
If there is any consolation in what the pandemic did to the world, it is its demonstration that anarchy is not tyranny’s remedy, but its inversion. Fighting a plague – just like fighting an invasion, building a school or paving a road – is exactly what government is meant to do.
Then again, government would not have struck this victory without the war’s third victor: capitalism.
The vaccine’s invention and circulation were spearheaded by private enterprise. AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna expect to collectively produce by the end of this year enough doses for nearly half the world’s population. Yes, China and Russia offer state-made alternatives, but those who can pay prefer the privately produced vaccines, and they know why.
Will the pandemic make these companies rich? It will. Is it fair? It is. Their employees worked around the clock to bring humanity what it sorely needed, and in minimum time. Morally, they deserve to be rewarded, and economically, such profit is what makes invention, production and distribution happen.
Then again, while capitalism was among this war’s victors, so was socialism, in Israel at least.
THE NUMBERS are unambiguous.
Israel has already vaccinated 3.8 million people, 44% of the population. That’s twice as much as the next highest vaccinator, Britain. The rest of the world (except for anecdotes like Gibraltar) is well below these levels, including the US (11.1%) and Germany (3.3%), according to Our World in Data.
What this means is, of course, a matter of interpretation.
Netanyahu wants us to think this is all about him, as he made plain in his interview with Channel 12’s Yonit Levi on Monday. As with other statements he tends to make when elections loom, the truth is more complex than he suggests.
Yes, Israel raced ahead on this front thanks to its early purchase of vaccinations. For that, the government, and Netanyahu personally, deserve credit. However, the speed, efficiency and spread of Israel’s vaccination project are not its government’s doing. Our health maintenance organizations – the four kupot holim – did this. And they, in turn, are the legacy of Israel’s socialist founders.
The first kupat holim was established in 1911 by the Judea Farmers’ Organization, forerunner of the Histadrut labor federation. Initiated by the Zionist Labor movement’s founding prophet Berl Katzenelson, it was one of history’s first HMOs.
Later joined by three more HMOs, all four belonged to political establishments, until Yitzhak Rabin depoliticized the healthcare industry through the 1994 National Healthcare Law, which made healthcare universal and imposed a flat, national health tax. This ended the HMOs’ role as chargers of fees while it made them compete with each other, by making their budgets a multiple of the number of members they attract.
That is how Israel got the efficient, $15-billion industry whose 13,000 employees blanket the country with infirmaries, doctors, nurses and pharmacies a short distance from any citizen’s home, no matter how remote. That is how they could so quickly vaccinate millions.
Israel would not have had this system but for the socialism of Berl Katzenelson and Yitzhak Rabin. They believed that health must not be a matter of wealth, and, unlike Netanyahu, they believed in social solidarity. That, too, is how Israel beat the pandemic.

Amotz Asa-El’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019) is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.