Israel was everyone’s model of how to tackle COVID. How did Israel become a cautionary tale?
“Our tolerance for people who do not get vaccinated has run out,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated Sunday, exasperated that his vaccination strategy—arguably the most aggressive in the world—has failed to curb the Delta variant coursing through the country.
Instead of defeating the virus, as he had been promising for weeks in pushing a third COVID shot on Israelis, the number of Israelis at peril climbed steadily: 246 on Sunday were deemed critically ill, 178 of them on ventilators; a week earlier the numbers were 206 and 157, and two weeks earlier 203 and 153. About 400 Israelis died in the last two weeks, up from about 300 in the previous two weeks.
The happy talk from some Israeli medical experts earlier this month, when they expressed optimism the worst was over, is gone, replaced by dire reports of hospitals being swamped, staff in a state of post-trauma panic, and patients needing care instead hurriedly sent home—a situation deemed “catastrophic” in early September by Dr. Amir Neuberger, the director of the Rambam Health Care Campus’s coronavirus ward.
The head of Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer’s Infectious Disease Unit, professor Galia Rahav, last week echoed that view, saying “the morbidity from coronavirus here is insufferable. … Patients who weren’t given a chance to live die because there aren’t enough beds and ICU staff. I see this at a lot of hospitals. It’s heartbreaking.”
The government’s response to the failure of its policies, in this, its fourth wave, is to blame the relatively few who remain unvaccinated and to double down on more vaccinations. Three shots are becoming mandatory to qualify for vaccine passports, and a fourth is on its way, in anticipation of future waves.
There’s a logic to accelerating the rate of vaccinations, just as there was a logic to Israel’s strict lockdowns and other measures to stop the spread of the virus—vaccines do seem to have a short-term benefit in reducing serious hospitalizations and deaths. A study (pdf) that Israel trumpeted last month shows that, after at least 12 days, those who received the third dose had 10 times the protection of those who only had two shots.
But the ongoing benefit is less clear since the vaccines wane, rendering them ineffective after five to six months, as seen in Delta’s success at felling Israelis. There’s also fear that the vaccine may prove all-but worthless against new virus mutations—the Israeli Defence Forces’ Military Intelligence Directorate warned as early as January that mass vaccinations during a pandemic could lead to such a mutation entering Israel, and many fear that the South African C.1.2 variant will prove it right. The government’s response is to improve detection of viruses at Israel’s Ben Gurion International airport, in the faint hope that future viruses won’t be able to penetrate Israel’s porous borders, and attack defenseless residents.
Israel does have a COVID success story, which ironically occurred where its government most failed to implement its policies. Unlike most of the Israeli population, its ultra-Orthodox largely shunned lockdowns and vaccination early on, leading to a high rate of natural infection, followed by natural immunity and long-lived protection (pdf). The ultra-Orthodox represented 4 percent of Delta cases, according to Israeli Health Ministry data in August. Overall, Israelis with natural immunity represent 1 percent or less of Delta cases.
The same phenomenon of acquiring natural immunity appears to also apply to Sweden, which adopted policies diametrically opposed to those of Israel—no lockdowns to speak of, no shut down of the economy, few restrictions of any kind. As a result, Sweden’s population is believed to have acquired an early herd immunity, before the vaccinations became widely available, leading to only a modest hit to its economy, manageable loads at its hospitals—Sweden’s hospital system never exceeded its capacity—and, since June, an average of less than one COVID death per day.
Sweden is now removing its few remaining restrictions and its naturally immune population may be well positioned to weather future coronaviruses, in the same way it weathered Delta. Israel, in contrast, is besieged, unsure of when its fourth wave will subside or how well it will weather the waves to come. Not long ago, after Israel vaccinated a large proportion of its population and before the vaccines had the opportunity to wane, Israel was everyone’s model of how to tackle COVID. As the world learns more of Israel’s vulnerability, it may provide a cautionary tale of allowing short-sighted expediency to trump far-sighted policies.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.