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Why Israel can't celebrate its vaccine success yet

Israelis receive a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a

Israelis receive a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a coronavirus vaccination center in Givataim, Israel on Thursday. Even after inoculating over one-third of its population, the country remains stuck in a tight lockdown as it grapples with imported variants of the virus. Credit: AP/Oded Balilty

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Israel should be celebrating. More than 20% of its population has been fully vaccinated. Another 15% have been given the first of two jabs and will be protected by mid-February. The government plans to have vaccinated 5 million citizens — well over half the adult population — by mid-March, just before Israel's next election take places on March 23.

Never has a candidate had better talking points on the key issue of the day. Last week the Maccabi health maintenance organization — one of the four HMOs under which Israeli health care is administered — announced that of 163,000 patients who received the full two-shot protocol, 92% were COVID-free after 10 days (and the remaining 8% showed only mild symptoms). Members of a control group of unvaccinated Israelis were found to be 11 times more highly infected.

And yet, Israel is still struggling to contain the virus. This isn't because the vaccine is failing, but because many Israelis still refuse to follow restrictions imposed to limit the spread of infections.

Israel began its vaccination program by inoculating its oldest citizens and those with serious underlying conditions. In cities with high levels of vaccination, there's been a 50% drop in confirmed cases, a 40% decrease in hospitalizations and there are 15% fewer serious patients. "The vaccine's effect is profound," says Professor Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute. The virus's reproduction rate is under the magic number of one, meaning infection rates should continue to decline.

Even so, January has been a cruel month in which COVID-19 claimed 1,400 fatalities, about a third of total deaths since the start of the pandemic. Most of these were elderly patients for whom the vaccine didn't arrive in time. If Israel is bending the curve, it isn't doing it as fast as it could be.

Why so many new infections? One big factor is Haredim and Arab Israelis who often flout the social-distancing guidelines and become infected at mass communal events such as weddings and funerals. Coronavirus wards in Israel's hospitals have been filling up with unvaccinated younger patients. Experts here believe Israel cannot achieve full herd immunity until a vaccine can also be given to children.

For the past three weeks Israel has, in theory, been under an internal lockdown, scheduled to end this weekend (though that is a matter of political negotiation between the warring coalition partners). In any case, compliance is poor.

Even proponents of the lockdown concede that it isn't doing much to slow the spread of the virus (the vaccine has presumably had the bigger impact on infection rates). But it has played a part in poisoning the atmosphere. This is primarily the fault of a refusal by much of the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community to accept government restrictions unless they're approved by senior rabbis.

Recently Netanyahu was reduced to calling Chaim Kanievsky, a 93-year-old Haredi rabbi with influence over a vast network of ultra-Orthodox schools, to ask for his compliance with the nationwide school shutdown. The prime minister was informed by Kanievsky's grandson that the rabbi would consider it. The classrooms, after a very brief pause, are still open.

On Sunday morning another nonagenarian rabbi was buried in Jerusalem. Despite strict rules against large gatherings, upward of 10,000 Haredi men and boys accompanied the casket through the capital. Police spokespeople said the force was powerless. For ordinary citizens watching on television, it was a chilling spectacle.

The resurgence of infections is partly blamed on the new British and South African variants. To protect against new mutations found abroad, Israel has sealed itself off. The Ben Gurion airport is closed to all but emergency travelers and cargo, and will likely remain shut for several weeks. Land entry from Egypt and Jordan are blocked.

"North Korea and Israel are the only two countries whose citizens can't get in," has become a common lament for frustrated Israelis stuck abroad. Netanyahu remains focused on the external threat, telling the World Economic Forum that "statistically, it's just a question of time before there is a strain that the current vaccines do not work with."

It's the challenge within Israel that's the bigger problem now. Being a vaccination leader is great. But a country that can't enforce its own most basic public health measures will take longer to defeat the virus. It also bodes poorly for the future. Israel may eventually face challenges that can't be met with a needle.

Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine. This piece was written for Bloomberg.

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