COVID-19 Lessons Emerging from Israel

Israel’s agreement with Pfizer was intended to produce statistics that would help show the world how effective a vaccination programme against COVID-19 will be and identify the inoculation percentage needed to produce herd immunity within a population.

Sadly, however, some different lessons are emerging from the country.

Despite more than 3 million Israelis having received their first dose of the vaccine, representing 33 percent of the population, infection rates remain high. Another 5,140 cases were confirmed on Sunday, and 9.7 percent of the tests carried out that day proved positive.

A burial services employee with a victim on 28th January 2021A burial services employee with a victim on 28th January 2021 (photo: Gili Yaari / Flash90)

More surprising is the fact that 30 percent of Israeli deaths due to COVID-19 have occurred during the last month, making it the worst month of the pandemic so far.

A consensus is starting to emerge within Israel that the behaviour of substantial groups among the population is the root cause of the problem.

On Sunday there were two funerals in Jerusalem for ultra-Orthodox rabbis, both of whom died of COVID-19. Yet thousands of their followers attended both funerals, paying virtually no attention to the current restrictions in Israel – most not even wearing masks.

That prompted Defence Minister Benny Gantz to state:

“This is how unequal enforcement looks: Millions of families and children are locked in
their homes and abide by the rules while thousands of Haredim crowd the funeral.”

Unequal enforcement of the restrictions has now become a major issue in Israeli politics.

A senior police officer in Jerusalem defended the decision not to prevent mass participation in the first funeral, saying: “There would certainly have been bloodshed.”

“Yes, the funeral was large, unwantedly so.
But remember, the people have a responsibility; their leaders have a responsibility
… the police can’t tackle everybody who breaks the restrictions.”

LESSON 1 – there is a limit within democracies as to the power of police. Success in combatting a virus requires members of the community to co-operate with governments.

Israel’s Deputy Health Minister tweeted that the situation was very bad in every way:

‘Public attitude to restrictions, poor.
Police ability to enforce, poor.
A funeral with a failed health score.
A funeral that will unfortunately lead to more funerals.
Then they wonder why the lockdown does not reduce the infection rates.’

And the problem is not confined to Israel. Jewish reporters in the UK have been honest enough to acknowledge violations of guidelines at a wedding in Stamford Hill with 400 guests.

And the scene at a kosher supermarket in the same neighbourhood revealed:

‘hundreds of customers and several staff members entering the premises without
wearing protective masks and failing to observe social distancing rules.’

But we need to be careful to avoid singling out one group of people in this. Metropolitan police had to break up a rave in east London attended by around 300 people on 23rd January. They issued more than £15,000 in fines. And that is just one example from many others that could be listed.

LESSON 2 – there is a need for excellent, widespread communication to convey the severity of the situation to all groups within a population.

This may be the greatest challenge of the pandemic. Some groups seem to be entrenched in beliefs that they are being targeted unfairly, or in any one of a whole variety of conspiracy theories about the situation.

What will it take for them to change their minds and co-operate?