One week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced that, in response to the omicron mutation sweeping Africa and Europe, Israel would be inoculating its vulnerable population with a fourth round of Pfizer vaccine, a booster to the booster. “The citizens of Israel were the first in the world to receive the third dose of Covid-19 vaccination and we are continuing to pioneer with the fourth,” he declared. “The world will follow in our footsteps.”
Not so fast. Israeli Covid experts, who have usually fallen in line with the government’s vaccination policies, sounded a note of concern and skepticism this time. They conceded that it might work, but that it could also prove ineffective or worse, dangerous. The public, too, was unenthusiastic. Israelis who thought they were fully vaccinated discovered that they were not. Bennett’s announcement raised the possibility that they were going to be used as guinea pigs (or “pioneers” in the prime minister’s phrase). Bennett was forced to postpone the fourth jab.
Even before he did, the prime minister had been contradicted by Minister of Finance Avigdor Lieberman, who dismissed this strain of Covid as just another flu. Lieberman based this opinion on reports from South Africa and the U.K. that the mutation is not as lethal or dangerous as Bennett made out.
The finance minister is not an epidemiologist and he doesn’t pretend to be one. His job is to keep the economy open and thriving. That requires maintaining public calm by convincing people that omicron — and other future viruses — are endemic, something that can and must be accepted and lived with.
Lieberman is not by any means an anti-vaxxer or a Covid denier. But he is a cold-eyed realist. Since March 2020, the virus in its various mutations has killed more than 8,200 Israelis, a majority of them elderly and many with preexisting medical conditions. That is lamentable but it is far from the projections of government alarmists that circulated during the early stages of coronavirus and still linger in the Israeli psyche.
The finance minister’s point is that the results of the past 22 months do not justify shutting down the nation’s schools, closing its sole international airport to foreigners, or using intrusive government cyber methods of enforce quarantines.
The very idea of quarantine, Lieberman believes, needs to be reexamined and relaxed. Exhibit A is Bennett himself, sequestered as a result of being in contact with his positive-tested daughter. But after just a couple days at home, government business forced him to break quarantine and attend a Knesset session.
Given the rapid spread of omicron, some experts estimate that under current policy, hundreds of thousands of Israelis will soon be in Bennett’s shoes. They, too, have pressing business to conduct, children to be educated, places go. If mere exposure to the virus — without symptoms or a positive test — is sufficient to keep this many people at home, the entire country, including police and the military, will be unable to function at anything like full strength.
One commonly heard concern is that hospitals will crash under the weight of omicron. This is conjecture. No such crash has happened during previous waves. Given early reports of relatively mild omicron symptoms, there is no reason to suppose that things will be worse this time.
On Sunday, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, a highly regarded technocrat who ran Israel’s Covid battle in its early stages, admitted to an interviewer that there is very little point in some of the most familiar government restrictions. “We have learned,” he said, “that we can’t manage Covid. Covid manages us.”
This doesn’t mean doing nothing. Early and widespread vaccination and booster shots have been effective if disappointingly short-lived. Per capita, Covid deaths are lower here than in most western countries, which were slower off the mark.
Science works, but it is not infallible and it requires a degree of self-control by over-anxious politicians. A highly regarded Israeli lab is now running tests on the efficacy and safety of Bennett’s fourth jab policy. Hopefully, it will work. So, too, the deal the prime minister finalized this weekend with Pfizer for 100,000 doses of Paxlovid, an antiviral pill that offers to reduce the most serious effects of Covid for seniors. It sounds great, but again, caution is required. Some American experts are already warning that the drug could dangerously interact with other commonly used medications.
We have learned over time that Covid-19 does what it does and life, perforce, goes on. During the Covid years, how it goes on depends not only on the competence of researchers and doctors and on the common sense of political leaders but, most importantly, the morale of the public.
U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era dictum that, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” is a powerful prescription for getting through this crisis. His stirring words did not end the depression — time and unforeseen events did that — but they enabled people to live with the confidence that things will eventually be better. Lieberman knows this. It is something Bennett needs to learn.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• A Fourth Shot Against Omicron? Don’t Count It Out: Therese Raphael and Sam Fazeli
• Omicron Scrambles What We Know About Immunity. Now What?: Faye Flam
• Only Winning Over Skeptics Can Avoid Shocks Like Omicron: David Fickling
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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