Vaccine, election give differing shades of charm to third lockdown

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The good news is that Israelis go into lockdown knowing a working vaccine has arrived. The bad news is that it's in them midst of an election campaign.

PEOPLE WAIT TO get their vaccinations this week at a Clalit Health Services center in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PEOPLE WAIT TO get their vaccinations this week at a Clalit Health Services center in Jerusalem.
“Been there, done that” is a thought that undoubtedly went through the minds of millions of Israelis when it was announced that the country would enter a strict lockdown at midnight on Thursday.
And it is true: been there, done that... a lot. Israel spent some five weeks in various forms of lockdown from March 14 to April 19, and another four weeks from September 18 to October 17. So, yes, we are all well versed in the ways of the lockdowns.
Yet though the stores may be closed this time, as they were the last two times around; while the children will be studying via Zoom this time, like the two previous times around; and while travel from home will be restricted, as it has been twice in the past year, there are two big differences going into this lockdown.
The first is that the lockdown is taking place while Israel’s vaccination campaign is in full throttle, and the second is that this closure is taking place with the country’s fourth election campaign in two years well under way.
And those two elements may give the current lockdown a much different feel.
First the vaccine. With Israel limping into its third lockdown as the number of newly infected each day steadily climbs, and – even more troubling – as the percentage of ill among those tested ranges between 6% and 8% – the vaccine rollout has been a ray of light.
And even with the stories of people who are not in the high-risk group eligible for the vaccine finagling their way to get it anyway, of some elderly being pushed to the end of the vaccine line, and rumors that the country’s vaccine stock is running low, there is still no denying that the country is inoculating its population against the virus at a pace that far outstrips that of any other country in the world.
As of Wednesday, of the 15.6 million doses of the shot injected in arms around the globe, some 1.5 million – or fully 9.5% – of those injections have been in Israel, not bad for a country that makes up only 0.1% of the world’s entire population. And that Israel has already inoculated some 17% of its population is not because it possesses 9.5% of all the vaccines in the world (it does not), but rather, because – first and foremost – the structure of its health system enables it to vaccinate extremely efficiently.
Israel’s impressive vaccination statistics are not important because they boost national pride – “look how well we are doing compared to everyone else” – but, rather, because those stats give people a sense that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that a way out of the pandemic crisis has been charted.
Psychologically, it is always easier to withstand pain and discomfort if one knows when that pain and discomfort will end; when there is a starting point and – even more importantly – a discernible finish line.
Up until the rollout of the vaccine late last month, we knew when the virus first hit our shores (February 21), but had no idea when it would disappear.
This is the first lockdown Israel will enter knowing that help is already here, and that even if we do not have a precise date for when life will return to normal, we know that the vaccine has put us on track: we can smell the end. And while that ability to sense the end may cause – and has caused – people to be lax in following commonsense regulations regarding masks and social distancing, it does make it easier to cope with the tribulations that the current closure will again cause.
Israelis entered the first and second lockdowns not knowing whether those would be the last. The vaccine has given confidence that this one will be the last, and that the country is in the home stretch. Knowing that you are in the home stretch – seeing the end in sight – makes it easier to withstand the pain of a full sprint to the finish line.
THAT’S the good news entering the current lockdown. And the bad news? That it is taking place in the midst of an election campaign.
If because of political considerations the government, during the second closure in September which took place before elections were on the immediate horizon, was unable to enforce its regulations in the haredi communities and close down schools, or in the Arab sector and stop large weddings, then it will be even less likely to do so in the heat of an election campaign.
Does anyone really believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose only real ticket to a return to the Prime Minister’s Office after the March election is if the haredi parties agree again to join his coalition, is going to send the police to close down yeshivot in Bnei Brak or Betar Illit?
By the same token, does anyone think Netanyahu will give directives to strictly enforce the regulations in the Arab sector, at a time when he is trying to attract a part of the Arab vote?
Also, if, following the first closure, many of the country’s politicians sought to curry favor with the public by pressuring to open schools, beauty salons, wedding halls, fitness centers and markets before it was safe to do so, does anyone really believe that there will not be even greater pressure to move quickly out of the lockdown this time around, as the elections are just around the corner? If populism – not professional considerations – guided many of the post-lockdown decisions in April and October, how much more so will that be the case in the midst of an election campaign.
In addition, while the public is in lockdown, it will be bombarded by people – politicians and media personalities – telling it how absolutely miserable everything is: how bad is the governance, how catastrophic the economy, how shaky the nation’s cohesion.
In times of crisis you want a resilient population, one with solidarity, that believes the nation is both prepared and able to deal with the crisis, trusts its leaders and is confident in the society’s ability to deal with the challenges.
But during an election campaign the conversation will be about how the state has none of that: how society is losing all vestiges of cohesion, how the nation is unprepared and the country’s institutions are completely ineffective. That is the nature of Israeli campaigns: paint as dark a picture as possible.
Instead of a buoying message to a worried nation, an Obamesque message like “Yes we can,” the coming weeks will be full of “No we aren’t” or “We might be able to, if we could just get rid of those other jokers.”
Lockdowns, as many Israelis have already experienced, can be depressing. The kids fighting, the walls closing in, nowhere to go, nothing to do. Some of the sting of that depression can be eased by signs of national solidarity and voices of hope. But election campaigns militate against that.
In a Channel 13 interview Tuesday night with Yamina head Naftali Bennett, a man who knows a thing or two about the coronavirus and how to fight it, instead of using his limited minutes to say what needs to be done, or to give words of encouragement to a worried nation, he used the time to blast the government for its failures and mismanagement. Yisrael Beytenu’s head Avigdor Liberman did the same in a radio interview on Wednesday afternoon, New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar did so in a speech Wednesday night, and Yair Lapid does so constantly on his Twitter feed.
Israel has proven itself extremely resilient in facing crises in the past. In the current lockdown it will have to demonstrate that same resilience without its morale being boosted by its leaders. For if there is one thing Israeli elections have shown they are not, it is morale boosters. Lockdowns are depressing; the election campaign rhetoric may make this one even more so.
Brace yourselves, and keep thinking about the vaccine.