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COVID surge is met with Complacency by Israelis, but a Third Lockdown is No Magic Solution

For the past two weeks, the Health Ministry has been pointing out the increase in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases. The presentation of these figures has been accompanied by threats of a third lockdown.

But actually, the main reason for the rise in confirmed “cases” is a significant increase in the number of daily tests. Meanwhile, there has only been a mild increase in the rate of positive tests – between 2 and 2.5 percent this week compared with 1.5 and 2 percent in the previous weeks.

The pressure on the ministry is so great that, as Channel 12 News reported, a project to do extensive testing at high-tech firms was canceled at the last minute for fear the results would lower the national average for positive tests and lead to complacency. Meanwhile, the public has grown weary after nine months of living with the pandemic. Israelis are eagerly awaiting salvation in the form of a vaccine.

The Health Ministry’s concern is understandable. If there’s a sense that a vaccine is really around the corner, more Israelis will dismiss the dangers, get infected and increase the risk of illness and death for the elderly and people with serious underlying conditions. Since a critical mass of vaccines isn’t expected to arrive until the middle of next year, the public’s compliance with the precautions must last at least that long.

Still, the automatic warnings about a third lockdown aren’t convincing, especially when presented as the only alternative. It has been clear for over a month that the main virus hot spots are now in Arab towns and villages, where the infection rate is at least twice as high as Arab Israelis’ percentage of the total population.

No longer are weddings just to blame. Many people are returning from trips to Turkey and ignoring the quarantine requirements. However, the government’s readiness to provide aid to the Arab locales is limited, as decisions made by the coronavirus cabinet keep going unimplemented: no increased fines, no increased enforcement, no lockdowns of “red” cities and not even what for a fleeting stretch was Benjamin Netanyahu’s baby – night curfews in “orange” cities.

While the number of carriers has risen, the number of seriously ill patients hasn’t. The number of people on ventilators has decreased and the number of people hospitalized has remained little changed, with nearly half of them not staying in coronavirus wards. (Many of these patients have remained in the hospital because of other problems.)

The number of seriously ill patients stands at about a third of the maximum for Israel’s hospitals as presented in the spring.

We know that the number of seriously ill patients rises a few weeks after an increase in the number of carriers, but for now the warnings seem a bit overblown. Meanwhile, the government’s handling of the crisis is pervaded by stagnation, lazy thinking and haplessness that are preventing the consideration of other solutions.

The school question

Prof. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Association of Israeli Public Health Physicians, said this week that Israel isn’t seeing a third wave but rather “an ongoing pandemic with expected ups and downs. Israel stands out for the inconsistency of the restrictions imposed. The frequent changes are hard on the public, and harmful to public’s trust and health. Israel needs order, not another lockdown.”

Levine and others rightly warn against closing schools and preschools. This should be a last resort. Maintaining at least partial classroom activity for students is more critical than resuming commercial activity, as many other countries already realize.

Either way, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s head of public health services, told Yedioth Ahronoth on Wednesday that Israel is on the verge of a third wave. Although schools should ideally be open, they may have to close again, she said, adding that the vaccine isn’t yet on the horizon and a year from now we’ll still have to wear masks in public. Her adherents in the media have been making similar warnings almost every night on the news.

Alroy-Preis may be right, of course. The breakthrough to the coronavirus vaccines was achieved with historic speed, but things could still go wrong. If any serious, unexpected side effects are found with one of the approved vaccines, the whole process will grind to a halt worldwide amid months of delay.

Still, it’s interesting to see how other countries’ health officials have a different outlook. While the United States is by no means a shining example of how to deal with the virus, in recent weeks Dr. Anthony Fauci and his colleagues have been consistently projecting cautious optimism.

The Americans are talking about launching a vaccine campaign in the second half of December, with a vaccine available for anyone who wants one by July and hopefully herd immunity by September. In Israel, we’re being warned that if we don’t behave we’ll be sent to bed without dinner.

Lighter lockdowns

It’s hard to escape the feeling that major restrictions were imposed here with unbearable ease, with a nationwide lockdown selected as the default.

Israel already has a tendency toward drastic moves and invasive surveillance, as a result of the security situation and the trickling in of methods used against the occupied Palestinians.

Add to that the prime minister’s interests, like his desire to limit the protests against him, and the road to collective punishment becomes short.

We could also be taking a better look at what’s happening in other countries. America is in bad shape. The Trump administration completely failed in managing the crisis and under Joe Biden the federal government will still have a hard time imposing its will on the governors. In America, the coronavirus has become a fiercely controversial issue, with the simple act of wearing a mask taking on huge political meaning.

But in Europe, the second wave is so far unlike the first. This time around, the lockdowns and restrictions lowered the infection rate reasonably fast. The number of carriers is three to four times higher than at the end of last winter, but this is largely because of the capacity to conduct many more tests. The mortality rate ranges from 1 to 2 percent of confirmed carriers in each country, compared with 10 percent or higher in the first wave. (Again, this too is partly due to the much more extensive testing now.)

The lockdowns this time are less sweeping. An analysis of data collected by Google shows that this time, the public in most European countries has reduced its activity by a third, compared with two-thirds in the winter and spring.

The second wave is serious but for now hasn’t completely overwhelmed hospitals as happened in Lombardy in northern Italy during the first wave. The Europeans are grudgingly learning how to live with the virus until the vaccines arrive, with no illusions about the chances of totally defeating it before then.

The “zero coronavirus” policy has only found success in a few East Asian countries and in Australia and New Zealand. In the Asian countries, it has worked thanks to a vast infringement of individual liberties, which in many of these places are pretty limited even in normal times. Australia and New Zealand took advantage of their status as island countries that could close the gates fairly easily.

A majority of people in both countries supported the government’s moves and were ready to make the required sacrifices. But the formula that worked there doesn’t really suit Europe and certainly couldn’t be applied in Israel.

What’s needed here is dexterous navigation until the vaccines arrive and are distributed. The fact that we’ll probably have to navigate another election at the same time doesn’t bode well for Israel’s chances of defeating the virus anytime soon.

Source: Amos Harel – HAARETZ