Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine makes aliyah - analysis

Those same accouterments were on hand at the airport on Wednesday, but this time the “guest” was not a person, but rather an object: more specifically, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the arrival of the first batch of Pfizer coronavirus vaccines in Israel  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the arrival of the first batch of Pfizer coronavirus vaccines in Israel
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A bevy of flags on the airport tarmac, a couple of microphones, a red velvet crowd-control rope, the prime minister and his media advisers: these are generally among the accessories greeting a special planeload of immigrants or very important guests flying into Ben-Gurion Airport.
Those same accoutrements were on hand at the airport on Wednesday, but this time the “guest” was not a person but, rather, an object: more specifically, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has greeted more than a few VIPs as they disembark and step onto Israeli soil during his tenure as prime minister. Just last week he greeted a group of Ethiopian immigrants. He has stood on the runway waiting to greet Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, and US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Wednesday, however, was among the only times he waited at the airport excitedly to meet something, not someone.
And he readily admitted his excitement, saying that this was “one of the most moving moments” he has experienced as prime minister, and one that “I have worked on hard for long months, together with the health minister and the people of his ministry, in order to bring relief and a solution to the corona pandemic.”
The arrival of the first batch, some 100,000 doses, of the long-awaited vaccine, Netanyahu said, is nothing less than “a great holiday for the State of Israel. We see the end.”
Timing is everything. As great a holiday as this is for Israel, it is equally as great a political gift for Netanyahu. Trump would have loved to have seen the vaccine roll out a month and half ago, prior to the US election. Had that been the case, and the American public had felt that there was a light at the end of the long corona tunnel, it may have impacted the election.
Which explains why the prime minister went to the airport and watched as the large doors of the DHL cargo plane opened to reveal a crate of vaccines. Netanyahu’s election is still a few months down the road – increasingly likely in March – and he wants pictures of him associated with the vaccine etched into people’s minds.
Netanyahu’s announcement in the shadow of the aircraft that he wants to set an example for the country and be the first to be inoculated, to show that it is safe, is commendable. It is also politically astute, as was his appearance at the airport.
Netanyahu wants to be closely linked to the vaccine.
“I had my eighth conversation last night with Pfizer chairman and CEO Albert Bourla,” he reminded the nation, less than 24 hours after he issued a brief communique about that conversation.
If one of Netanyahu’s tickets to success in previous elections was as “Mr. Security,” keeping the land relatively safe from terrorism, now – as he made clear by going to the airport and by his remarks – he wants to be seen as “Mr. Vaccine.”
Why? Because the vaccine is expected to succeed where the political echelon, of which Netanyahu has ultimate responsibility, has failed: coming to grips with the pandemic and enabling life to return to normal.
Had the government done so, like the governments of New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, Australia and others; had its decisions been consistent; had it not flip-flopped, as it did this week, on measures such as night-time curfews; had it not ignored experts’ warnings against further opening the economy; had the public felt confident that the government’s decisions were not shot through with political considerations, then the arrival of the vaccine – though it would certainly have been a welcomed event – would not have brought the prime minister out to the airport for a photo opportunity and the declaration that the arrival of the medicine is a national holiday.
But inasmuch as the government has not reined in the virus, all eyes are cast hopefully and expectantly toward the vaccine. Perhaps the vaccine can succeed where government decisions – except the decision to invest in various vaccines being developed around the world – have failed.
And Israel is not alone in this failure, something worth remembering amid the endless self-flagellation – much, but not all of it, justified – regarding how badly the country has fared during the pandemic.
Except for the countries listed above, and a few others such as Taiwan and Singapore, no government has discovered that magic recipe – the right combination of curfews and lockdowns together with preservation of the economy and personal liberties – to prevent the disease from spreading. As of Wednesday, Israel was ranked 21st among the 37 OECD countries relative to the number of people per million of population – 319 – who have died from the virus.
Topping this grisly list is Belgium, with 1,508 corona fatalities per million, followed by Italy (1,014), Spain (998), the UK (912) and the US (884).
New Zealand, with only five victims per million, was 37 on that list, preceded by South Korea (11), Japan (19) and Australia (35). New Zealand and Australia may have benefited from having no land borders with neighboring countries, while South Korea and Japan have populations that have been wearing masks for years.
Granted, Israel has a degree of control over its entry points that most other countries do not, and in that regard could be likened to an island, but still, when compared to other OECD countries it is not faring that poorly. In fact, regarding the number of deaths per million, it is faring better than 60% of the OECD countries, and only six countries with a larger population inside the OECD have a lower mortality rate per million than Israel.
But still, the sense in Israel  – as in many other countries – is that the politicians have been sadly unable to stem the virus through a variety of policies, and that the only thing that will work will be the vaccine. Where politicians have failed, goes the hope – even amid trepidation concerning potential side effects of the vaccines – science, in the form of the new shot, will succeed.
Which is why Netanyahu was at the airport greeting the vials of medication, as if those vials were immigrants about to take their first steps in the Jewish state. With elections likely in some three months, Netanyahu wants to be identified not with the physical, emotional and economic pain and frustration the virus has caused, but, rather, with its cure.