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Israeli Cabinet talks up a return to routine, but can it happen without a coronavirus vaccine?

Two weeks after the lifting of the second coronavirus lockdown in Israel, Sunday began another stage in reactivating the school system. Pupils in grades 1-4 returned to school, for at least four days a week (in the local councils where the economic situation is better, they will study for five days). The fact that the school system has already undergone two failed attempts at a return to the routine, in May and then in September, does not guarantee that this time all the lessons have been learned.

The permission given, due to economic constraints, to combine pupils from separate classes into a single “tzaharon” after-school program, contradicts the idea at the basis of the plan to restore the economy’s functioning. It is also likely to cause the failure of a significant part of the effort – and to contribute to a renewed, gradual increase in the rate of illness.

Many European countries that are now fighting against the outbreak of a large-scale second wave of COVID-19 are trying nevertheless to keep the schools open. In Israel, which is now reopening them gradually, the situation is different. First of all, the classrooms here are far more crowded and therefore the chances of infection are greater. Second, the percentage of young children in the population is higher than in European countries. That means that if young children cause infection like adults (a question that is still in dispute), there is a great potential for infection from them.

The focus on the good news in the lower grades is reducing media discussion of the huge emotional price being paid by students in the higher grades, who have been cut off from their schools and sometimes also from their classmates for the past month and a half. In interviews, the ministers and directors general refer to remote learning as a reasonable solution, tolerable under the circumstances.

But in fact, as every parent whose children are learning with Zoom knows, it’s a frustrating, exhausting experience, whose study value is very limited. When you take into account that studies were disrupted already last March, we seem to be facing a wasted academic year, if not longer.

The daily number of carriers in Israel is relatively low, although the R value, the national reproduction factor, has already increased to approximately 0.8 (the illness spreads when R is more than 1). The data reflect a renewed increase in illness in the Arab community, after a period of several weeks when it was in check.

The main mystery involves the ultra-Orthodox community. Supposedly, the recent R value there is significantly lower than among the general public. But that may reflect the considerable percentage of Haredim who have already been infected, or alternatively it may attest to deliberate avoidance of testing in the Haredi neighborhoods and cities.

On Sunday the IDF Alon Coronavirus Command Center officially received overall responsibility for the system for stemming the chains of infection. Meanwhile, it should have no problem carrying out fewer than 1,000 investigations a day, but there will be a need to streamline them, to reach more people who were in contact with each sick person – and that already depends on the cooperation of those who are questioned.

Originally, the health care system spoke of a target of 100,000 tests a day in November. The capacity almost exists already, but at the moment there is no public response. Due to the relatively small number of sick people, fewer people are asking to be tested.

Soon the health care system will have to decide whether to carry out more large-scale initiated tests in institutions such as hospitals or schools. At the same time, there is an intention to include rapid tests, but the implementation is being delayed, apparently because of doubts regarding the quality of the tests that have already been purchased.

The Health Ministry’s plan for exit from the lockdown, which was approved by the coronavirus cabinet, includes several principles: a wait of two to three weeks in the transition from one stage to the next in order to examine the results of the previous steps, progress based on meeting the indices, and using the R factor as the main parameter. But their statements in the cabinet meetings indicate that some of the ministers believe we can move quickly through all the stages and restore the economy to full functioning.

The truth is that this probably won’t happen before an effective vaccination against the virus is developed, and is available in Israel too. Without it, a continued relaxation of the lockdown will at some point lead to a loss of control over the rate of illness, followed by a renewed lockdown. In other words, it’s not certain that high school students, not to mention those working in the entertainment and events industries, will be able to return to routine as planned.

None of this is preventing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from conveying optimism about the fight against COVID-19 in recent days. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, Israel is actually excelling, because it has already exited the second lockdown while Europe is only entering it. Actually, that happened because the rate of illness in Israel soared earlier – and because the Europeans, who experienced a more severe lockdown in the winter, are still more reluctant to take such an extreme step.

At the same time, the prime minister is also scattering promises about an upcoming vaccine. On the one hand, on Sunday Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein noted the start of the second of three phases for testing the vaccine developed by the Israel Institute of Biological Research in Nes Tziona. On the other hand, Netanyahu often mentions that he is using his connections to obtain vaccines for Israel from foreign countries.

The rate of development of the vaccine in Israel is in fact slower than that of some of the vaccines being developed in Europe and the United States. The U.S. infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is still talking about an optimistic scenario, in which the development of a vaccine may be completed by the end of the year, with its distribution to Americans beginning in the first or second quarter of 2021. In an optimistic scenario, the Israeli vaccine will be available for use only at the end of next year.

The biological institute’s vaccine project looks like an unending PR celebration, long before results are guaranteed. It may have been preferable to focus part of the efforts in preparing an alternative plan for a supply from abroad – how to ensure receipt of vaccines from countries that will need them for their own citizens, and the shipment and storage of vaccines in cold conditions followed by rapid distribution to Israeli citizens. That seems more urgent that a few more photos and enthusiastic press releases.

The prime minister is so pleased with himself that according to a report on Channel 13 News, he recently went back to demanding tax breaks on expenses for his private home.

That is infuriating, when the economic crisis caused by the virus is only intensifying, there are almost 1 million people unemployed and Israel is facing a real danger of a downgrade in its credit rating.

Source: Amos Harel – HAARETZ