Even after Israel entered its third nationwide lockdown on Sunday afternoon, members of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee were still duking out the details. It wasn’t until Monday at noon that the current restrictions were approved by a vote of 8-7. And even those were altered somewhat.
Ironically, just as many Israelis flooded hair salons and malls ahead of the latest closure as they have been lining up to get vaccinated. But at least the latter is being carried out with startling efficiency. Indeed, Israel is leading the world in the number of vaccines distributed per capita.
The opposite applies to the former. As has been true since the coronavirus pandemic hit the shores of the Jewish state at the end of February, the public is still being made bonkers by the arbitrary nature of the rules. It’s no wonder, then, that people have been making up their own.
Why there is even a need for a third lockdown, particularly with the vaccination campaign underway—one that has run totally counter to polls a few weeks ago showing much of the population unwilling to be inoculated—is a question that naturally arises.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s answer, basically, is that there is a dangerous spike in the rate of COVID-19 infection, accompanied by a rise in the number of patients on ventilators and an increasing death toll. He and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein have been warning against complacency and urging the public to let the new combination of lockdown and vaccines work its magic.
This is of little comfort to small-business owners, devastated financially by the first and second lockdowns. Many have expressed resentment about being shut down when the “fault” for the coronavirus surge seems to lie, among other things, with the Israelis who were allowed to flock to the United Arab Emirates—in the wake of the Abraham Accords—only to return home carrying COVID along with their luggage.
The debate is often portrayed as “health versus diplomacy” or “health versus the economy,” with politicians and medical professionals weighing in ad nauseam, and adopting an array of positions. Naturally, confusion has spread even faster than the new variant of the virus detected on Dec. 8 in the United Kingdom and subsequently discovered to have “made aliyah” as well.
The depiction of the controversy is incorrect, however. It turns out that there are many doctors who dispute their public-health colleagues’ doomsday scenarios—or, rather, consider the damage of lockdowns to outweigh their efficacy.
In a letter to the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the Public Emergency Council for the Coronavirus Crisis—made up of medical experts and senior researchers—blasted the information on which the decision to impose another lockdown at this time was made. The document submitted to the Knesset, the physicians wrote, “is riddled with ‘alternative facts’ and irrelevant data, which … can only be defined as irresponsible, partial and unprofessional.”
The scathing missive—signed by more than 100 health specialists, among them Nobel Prize laureate Aaron Ciechanover, infectious-disease and immunology expert Zvi Bentoitch (a pioneer of AIDS treatment in Israel) and Emet Prize winner Zahava Solomon, an expert in psychiatric epidemiology and post-trauma—rebutted the following seven claims:
The first was the assertion that the effect of the vaccines will only be felt in a few months. According to the signatories, this is misleading. They argued that the full, two-dose inoculation of at-risk sectors (some 1.2 million people) can be completed within about five weeks, almost completely severing the connection between confirmed COVID-19 cases, critical patients and the death rate.
The second was the voiced statistic of “11,000 critically ill patients and an increase of 90 every day.”
“At the time of this writing,” the authors of the letter pointed out, “the number of serious patients was 539. If [this figure was referring to the total since the onset] of the pandemic, then it is in no way relevant to the decision to impose a lockdown.” The actual number, they said, is much lower, with an average increase of seriously ill patients hovering at eight to nine per day.
The third was the “false” statement that about 20 patients die of the virus every 24 hours.
“While every individual is a world [unto himself],” the experts wrote, “and while every death is a tragedy and source of pain for the family, the 20-deaths threshold was crossed only once throughout the month of December. [Furthermore], it is important to note that in an average year, 1,000-1,300 [Israelis] die from flu-like illnesses and more than 5,000 from pneumonia, most during the winter. This figure reflects an average daily mortality rate of 14 [in other months of the year], and an average of 20 in winter.”
The fourth claim they dismissed was that the number of new cases diagnosed daily is on a steep rise.
The link between the number of verified cases, and severe morbidity and mortality is limited, they said, and a rise in the former does not automatically indicate an increase in the latter. One reason for this, they explained, is that the amount of verified cases depends largely on the number of tests conducted. Another, they added, is that many of those diagnosed with the virus experience mild or no symptoms.
The fifth was the claim that some of the hospitals are already overloaded with coronavirus patients.
The doctors insisted that the burden on hospitals this month is actually very low compared to that of previous years. According to these medical experts, the average occupancy of Israeli hospitals in December is 120 percent, and often reaches 150 or even 200 percent. This month, in contrast, most hospitals are below 14 percent occupancy, and 90 percent of the 24 hospitals from which the information was taken are below 70 percent.
“By all accounts, winter 2020 is one of the least busy the health system has experienced in recent years,” they wrote.
The sixth had to do with the fear that the new strain(s) of the virus will impair the effectiveness of the vaccine.
The signatories of the letter assured that not only is this possibility low, but it runs counter to statements made by Health Ministry Director General Hezi Levy and other government figures, who announced that the vaccine probably works against the mutation.
The seventh claim with which they took issue was that the financial impact of lockdowns is irrelevant when calculating people’s health. They argued that the cost of closing the economy for two to three weeks is around 26 billion shekels (approximately $8 billion), which equals the price of more than 40 annual health baskets or more than the establishment of 10 new major hospitals.
Other than taking a welcome ax to conventional coronavirus wisdom, these reliable scientists were saying, in lay terms, that Israel may well have been cutting off its nose to spite its face throughout this entire crisis. Clearly, we’ll only know for sure when future analysts collect and dissect the data in retrospect.
The good news is that Israelis—whose modus vivendi is to rely on the nanny state for rules to bend and negotiate—are self-motivated to receive the vaccine. It’s the kind of closure about which there is near-universal agreement.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”