Throughout history, vaccines have proven miraculous, virtually eliminating smallpox, diphtheria, polio and other diseases. Today, they are on the verge of liberating us from COVID-19.
The epicenter of the latter is Israel, which is serving as an encouraging example for the entire world.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Israel has lost more than 6,000 people to the coronavirus. This is no small number, and the country continues to mourn every individual among the dead.
But at the peak of the pandemic in January, the death toll averaged 79 per day, and now, since the delivery and distribution of the vaccine, the daily average is about 15-20, which is a significant decline. This means that though the event is not over, it is on the way out.
This miracle is happening in an Israeli way.
On Dec. 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally welcomed the first shipment of Pfizer’s BioNTech vaccines at Ben-Gurion International Airport. By the time that the first batch of Moderna vials arrived on Jan. 7, Israel had already set in motion a determined and inventive vaccination campaign.
This is not to say that there weren’t pitfalls along the way. Indeed, many members of the country’s haredi and Arab communities both flouted the coronavirus restrictions on the one hand and were suspicious of the vaccine on the other.
Yet, just as was the case during the 1967 Six-Day War, when the best elements of Israel’s culture of survival was on display—surprising a paralyzed world—the Jewish state took the initiative, striking first and then winning the battle against enemies bent on its destruction.
In an interview with Channel 12 News on March 11, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla explained why he chose Israel as a case study for his company’s vaccines. His reply was that he was “impressed with the obsession of your prime minister.”
Netanyahu “called me 30 times,” Bourla said. “He would call me at 3 a.m. and he would ask me: ‘What about the variants? What data do we have?’ I would say, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, it’s 3 o’clock,’ and he would say ‘No, no, don’t worry, tell me.’ Or he would call me to ask about children, saying ‘I need to vaccinate the schools.’ Or to ask about pregnant women. He convinced me, frankly, that he would be on top of things. And I know that the Israelis have so much experience with managing crises, because of the situation that they live in, surrounded by hostile nations and living under this almost constant war situation. So, I felt that they can do it, and I felt that the leader was really going to guarantee that this will happen.”
From the very beginning of the crisis, Netanyahu appeared on TV day after day, illustrating how to don a mask and wash one’s hands, appealing to the public to engage in social distancing. He begged citizens to stay at home during three long lockdowns, to protect themselves, their children and their parents.
Israel was indeed “obsessive” about maintaining public safety, issuing fines for violations, even when demonstrations against him specifically and coronavirus regulations in general increased dramatically.
Healthcare personnel acted lovingly—like Jewish (or Italian) mothers, even as hospitals operated at maximum capacity; and the Israel Defense Forces mobilized troops for help with COVID-19 testing and aid to families in quarantine.
Initially, while distributing the vaccine according to the age of recipients—beginning with those 60 and above—anyone who sought to get ahead of the line was almost always allowed to do so.
Very soon afterwards, the age of recipients was younger and younger, with 16-year-olds getting injected. Some of these jumped at the opportunity in order to resume classroom activity ahead of their matriculation exams. Others, perhaps accompanying their parents or grandparents to vaccination centers, were asked if they’d like to take the jab.
“Ok, sit down,” they’d be told. “Are you allergic to anything? Wait outside for half an hour after the injection.”
For the past week, people in Tel Aviv have been practically dancing in the streets, dining at restaurants and attending the theater—needing to present a “green pass” to show that they either received two doses of the vaccine or had recovered from the virus.
True, perhaps they should be a little less excited and a bit more prudent. But the easing of the mandate to wear masks outdoors is already being planned. And what a day that will be when the main symbol of the pandemic disappears.
Meanwhile, quick COVID-19 tests outside of eateries and other venues, such as sports arenas, are in the works for those not in possession of a “green pass.” This means that soon young children will be able to accompany their parents to places that currently are restricted to them. And though many airports around the world are still semi-closed—including in Israel—Israelis are now able to vacation in Greece, Cyprus and Georgia.
We are not witnessing a magical disappearance of COVID-19, but rather the historic event of the vaccines’ effectiveness. Since Dec. 20, 2020, 90 percent of Israelis above the age of 50 have been vaccinated; 81 percent of those aged 40-49; 46 percent of those aged 30-39; 69 percent of those aged 20-29; and 51 percent of those aged 16-19.
By Wednesday morning (March 17), 5,140,261 Israelis had received the first dose of the vaccine, 4,362,416 had received both doses and the rate of infection, at 0.76 percent, was on a steady decline, as was the number (578) of critically ill patients.
Will the vaccine totally succeed?
This depends on a few factors, among them the variants of the virus and common sense. It is undeniable that the Israeli character is characterized by more ingenuity and chutzpah—the special type of impudence that propelled Netanyahu to phone Bourla in the middle of the night—than patience. Nevertheless, Israel is a world leader where vaccination is concerned. The attention of the international media demonstrates this, as does Israel’s alliance with various European states to design a common strategy for the future distribution of vaccines to other countries and to Palestinians at border-crossings.
On the day of my own vaccination, I felt a sense of historical purpose—a common bond of salvation. Let this be the case all over the world.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.