Ever since the European pandemic broke out in Italy in February, 2020, I have not gone outside once in Rome, where I live, without a mask. After a few days, putting one on became automatic: keys, wallet, mask.
Two weeks ago, I went to Israel – my first trip outside Italy in a year and a half – and my mask habit made me feel like a weirdo. Almost no one in Jerusalem, where I had rented an apartment, was wearing a mask. And the few who did, I presumed, had not been vaccinated – though almost two-thirds of the population had been. The indoor mask rule was still in place but widely ignored.
On Tuesday, the day before I flew back to Rome, Israel eliminated almost all mask requirements – indoor and outdoor – as the number of new cases plummeted. (Airline crews and unvaccinated people in care homes are still required to wear them.) One of the world’s smartest and fastest vaccination programs had done the trick. Almost no one I met in Israel even mentioned the pandemic – that was yesterday’s story. The coffee shops and restaurants were full, and the economy was bouncing back to life.
Meanwhile, in the U.K., where the vaccination rates are very high, though not quite as high as Israel’s, the reopening is in trouble. The Delta variant, first identified in India, is galloping through the country, hitting young adults the hardest. On Thursday, the country recorded more than 11,000 new cases, the most since February, and 19 deaths. In response to the surge, Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week announced a four-week delay in the lifting of the remaining restrictions. The idea is to give the jab sites more time to administer second doses.
How did Israel get it so right?
At first, it didn’t. Under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was ousted after 12 years in office by the “Change” coalition on June 13, Israel’s early response to the pandemic was poor, and the infection rate and death toll soared. While the number of deaths per million was only about half that of the European Union, more than a few wealthy countries had better records.
Israel also declined to vaccinate Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, many of whom pass through checkpoints every day to work in Israel, triggering an international outcry. That shortcoming was partly rectified on Friday, when Israel began delivering 1.2 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, a deal set up by Mr. Netanyahu before he was sent packing. (The Palestinians cancelled the deal Friday, saying the doses were too close to the expiry date.)
But Israel also did a lot of things right – two in particular. It ordered a lot of doses quickly, allowing the vaccination campaign to launch in December, months before many countries in the West got going, and it kept exceedingly tight controls on its borders.
Before I entered Israel earlier this month, I had to send proof of full vaccination to the country’s health authorities and undergo a preflight PCR test. I had another test after landing at Ben Gurion airport, after which I went into quarantine. I was allowed out after two days, but only after a serologic test proved that I had coronavirus antibodies.
The whole process for me was an expensive grind, but I didn’t complain. Keeping its borders almost entirely shut prevented Israel from turning into a Delta variant Petri dish. Britain is paying the price for its rather porous border policy. Israel’s economy will get back to full speed before the U.K.’s.
What could go wrong? Israel isn’t claiming herd immunity yet. About 63 per cent of the population has received one dose, and almost 60 per cent is fully vaccinated, so the effort still has some way to go; those in their early teens are next on the list. In other words, a variant could still take off in Israel (and the Palestinian territories) either by accident or because of prematurely lifted border controls.
Still, Naftali Bennett, Israel’s new Prime Minister and leader of the far-right Yamina party, can thank his predecessor for a job well done on the vaccination file, allowing him to focus on matters other than fighting the pandemic. There is plenty of work to do now that the worst of COVID-19 is history.
The to-do file includes dealing with Israel’s severe housing shortage, a problem that got worse under Mr. Netanyahu; terrible productivity growth; and an unbalanced economy, where the strong technology sector masks problems elsewhere. Inequality is high; the high-paying, export-oriented tech companies generate much of the country’s wealth and tax revenues, but their work force comprises only about 10 per cent of the total.
Here in Rome, I am back to outdoor mask use. After 10 days in Israel, covering my face again seems annoying and uncomfortable. Italy can’t imitate Israel quite yet, nor does it want to go through the U.K.’s Delta variant hell. So, for me, mask it is. I will just have to get used to my keys, wallet, mask routine again.
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