Omicron: Israel's COVID-19 cabinet has misplaced priorities - opinion

Basically, super spreader events are cool. My kid coming in from Canada, triple vaccinated, represents some sort of extreme public health threat.

 PRIME MINISTER NAFTALI BENNETT speaks at the corona cabinet meeting on Saturday night in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER NAFTALI BENNETT speaks at the corona cabinet meeting on Saturday night in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

“This government is cool-headed. They won’t do anything hysterical or panicked.”

That was me, Saturday night, trying to reassure my daughter in Toronto that her planned visit to Israel this week would go ahead.

Man. Was I wrong.

Like many Israelis, I strained to decipher the smoke signals the government started emitting before the weekend about the extreme threat they said was posed by the latest COVID-19 variant. All very doom and gloom. And vague. “Highly contagious. African origins. We have a whopping three cases confirmed already in Israel.”

I expected a sober response from Prime Minister Bennett and his corona cabinet; that they might impress upon the population how important it is to abide by vaccine and hygiene protocols; that they might ensure that screening of arrivals at the airport is actually done properly.

 Ben-Gurion Airport in wake of the new travel imposed in light of the COVID Omicron variant, November 28, 2021.  (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Ben-Gurion Airport in wake of the new travel imposed in light of the COVID Omicron variant, November 28, 2021. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

Bennett – who has made a mantra over the last six months or so of telling Israelis that he would do everything possible to navigate corona-related perils without lockdowns or other high-drama medieval responses – seems to have lost the plot.

As of Saturday night, all foreigners are now banned from entering Israel for a two-week period. I’m just one of many fulminating Israelis caught in the maw of this ill-conceived diktat.

I watched Rina Matzliach interviewing Minister of Interior Ayelet Shaked on TV Saturday evening, who popped by on her way to the corona cabinet confab. Shaked’s vague assurances – that the government would do all that was deemed necessary to protect Israelis and ensure that life may continue as normally as possible – basically said nothing.

What was at the top of the minds of Rina and Ayelet? Hanukkah concerts. HANUKKAH CONCERTS! Music festivals.

Basically, super spreader events are cool. My kid coming in from Canada, triple vaccinated, represents some sort of extreme public health threat.

If this variant is so threatening and presents Israel with such a dire conundrum, then one might expect principle and consistency from the government. The variant is already here. Several cases are confirmed and up to 800 Israelis may have been exposed. And they would have come into contact with thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, since they returned from Africa.

It would seem to me that shopping malls and Hanukkah concerts and music festivals would be the first and primary targets for shutdown. This improbable and upside down government edict is supremely illogical.

We know at this preliminary stage that the variant of concern is highly contagious and has mutated significantly from the original virus. We also know that those infected demonstrate much milder symptoms than previous iterations. So why the panic? Either the corona cabinet has lost its bearings or they know something they aren’t telling the rest of us.

I’m betting on the former.

Based on news reports from the discussion on Saturday night, it seems that Minister of Justice Gideon Sa’ar was about the only one around the table resisting the herd. Apparently, he cautioned that we have faced much greater threats and risks and resisted resorting to extreme responses. We should manage this particular challenge as we have in the past, he counseled.

Clearly, his calm analysis was not persuasive enough.

Where was this panic mechanism when we needed it? When thousands of Israelis popped off to Uman for their annual pilgrimage that was considered to be so critically important? As we all knew would happen, no social distancing or other related corona protocols were adhered to and thousands returned infected with COVID.

Why was the corona cabinet panic reflex not triggered by facilitating that mass super spreader jaunt? In fact, special measures were negotiated with the government of the Ukraine to ensure all went smoothly.

Yet. My daughter, fully Pfizered, coming from Canada, who hasn’t been anywhere near the African epicenter of this latest outbreak, she is a code red threat to public health in Israel.

This country is full of immigrants who have been separated from loved ones for too long. This particular intervention by the government seems especially harsh, arbitrary and misguided.

There are many families like mine caught in this eminently avoidable mess. Legally and ethically this outcome is so, so wrong.

Please fix it, Prime Minister Bennett. Today.

The writer was the Canadian ambassador to Israel from 2014-2016. A former lawyer, she consults for international clients on a range of issues and resides in Tel Aviv.