Vaccinations and lockdowns reveal Israel’s extremes

by Brian on January 15, 2021

in Covid-19,In the News,Only in Israel,Politics

Nothing lays bare the extreme nature of living in Israel more than this country’s remarkably decisive vaccination drive happening at precisely the same time as Israelis are suffering through a third coronavirus lockdown – making Israel one of the few countries to reach such a dubious milestone. 

First the positives: Israel has stepped up to the plate in a way that few other countries have, rolling out a campaign for vaccination that has been breathtaking in its speed and efficiency. In the first days of the drive, Israel shot up to take the top spot worldwide in the number of vaccinations administered per capita. 

Moreover, unlike other countries, the minimum age for receiving a vaccine in the first weeks was set at only 60. After complaining in this column previously about how disheartened I was having such a significant milestone birthday during a pandemic, I finally got a present I really wanted. 

So, when Keren the nurse jabbed my arm at Jerusalem’s Pais Arena, where the Maccabi HMO had eight shot stands up and running, I was practically in tears, not from pain but rather the hope that an end to this international nightmare is finally in sight.

And yet, it was just a few months earlier that Israel held another extreme Covid-19 distinction – as the country with the greatest number of new cases per capita in the world. 

That came as a direct result of the government’s woeful management of the corona crisis – months of setting redlines that were repeatedly breached; enacting last minute decisions only to be scrapped or revised; prescribing quarantines that were not enforced; and carving out exceptions for some groups and not others due to barefaced political calculations.

Now, Israel has risen once again, like a relentless, demented phoenix, to a perch near the top of the new cases per capita list.

The vaccination campaign is part of the Israel “that takes care of its citizens in often astonishing ways,” writes Yossi Klein Halevi, whose latest book Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor became a New York Times bestseller. “Israelis know they live in a country that not only demands unparalleled sacrifices from its citizens but also earns that right.”

But there is another Israel, Klein Halevi continues, “an increasingly dysfunctional nation that has lost the most basic trust in its leadership, whose democratic institutions are under sustained attack and that is now, in the midst of a pandemic and the worst economic crisis in decades, being dragged into an inexplicable fourth election in less than two years.”

The extremes Israelis have experienced living through this year like no other are not exclusive to the pandemic. 

While our high-tech sector is a respected world leader, local customer service too often comes up lacking. 

The gap between rich and poor continues to grow; Israel has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the OECD.

Israelis love nature, yet we can’t seem to bring home our garbage left on the trail.

We overpay for imported goods and it’s become near impossible to afford an apartment in a metropolitan area, yet our system of universal healthcare, even as it is chronically underfunded, remains one of the best in the world and costs a pittance per month.

You can transfer money to a friend or service provider with three taps using an app like Bit or Pay but visit one of the dwindling numbers of brick and mortar bank branches and prepare to be yelled at. Someone’s sent you a package? Expect the post office to lose it.

The Abraham Accords brought a surprisingly warm peace with the United Arab Emirates, but closer to home, there’s never-ending tension with our Palestinian neighbors.

Israel’s extremes are even represented in our geography: You can go from snow to desert within just a few hours’ drive.

Sometimes, though, Israelis come together in truly wonderful ways and the extremes momentarily evaporate. Israel’s vaccination drive has been one of those times, writes Daniel Gordis in Bloomberg.

“Friends of ours, just a few years too young to have been eligible for the vaccine, look after an elderly woman,” Gordis explains. â€œShe, of course, was eligible and got an appointment. So, they drove her downtown to her HMO’s location.”

The wife took the woman in for her shot while her husband waited in the car – until the wife called and told her partner to come inside immediately. 

“They’re going to vaccinate us,” she told him. 

“But we’re too young,” the husband protested.

The nurse had the final word. â€œYou brought in an elderly person who needed to get here. You deserve to get the vaccine, too.” 

Former Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov has described Israel’s extremes as a kind of “national disorder [with a] tendency to vacillate between feelings of euphoria and anxiety.”

It can all make your mind spin. But for this miraculous moment, I am choosing to focus on the salubrious. Indeed, I barely even noticed that my arm, post-vaccination, hurt like the dickens for a few days. 

That was Klein Halevi’s response, too, after his first Pfizer jab – a moment of â€œquiet pride, of knowing I made the right decision when, four decades ago, I’d entrusted the state of Israel with my future and the future of my family.” In a few months, he adds, if all goes well, Israel will be “the first fully vaccinated country, the first to defeat Covid-19.”

Now, that’s an extreme statement I’ll be happy to own.

I first highlighted Israel’s extremes in The Jerusalem Post.

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