Despite being a virtual island with only two international airports and a couple of almost unused land points of entry, Israel was not spared from the havoc wreaked globally by COVID-19. A year into the pandemic, Israel has one of the highest rates of infection among developed nations.
At the same time, it looks like Israel will also be the first country to administer vaccination to each of its citizens, likely before Passover arrives in late March.
Our current infection spike has several causes, especially "lockdown fatigue." Simply put, there is declining compliance with each subsequent lockdown, as Israelis fail to appreciate the lockdown benefits-- and instead, focus on the economic costs and other negatives-- of the imposed limitations.
Compliance with the first lockdown was relatively high, but now in our fourth one, we find it harder to follow regulations. A vicious cycle is created as non-compliance leads to even higher rates of infection.
The situation is even made worse by the extended political crisis; an unprecedented fourth general election will be held in under two years. With the country in constant campaign mode, many Israelis do not trust the government, often seeing it as serving the political needs of one party or sector rather than the health needs of everyone.
Another factor spiking infections is the political will to enforce the regulations on some societal sectors. While there is a far higher rate of infection among Haredi and Arab communities, the political will to impose limitations on them is sorely missing. Rather than enforce differential lockdowns that would be deemed unfair by some, the government has often opted to impose nation-wide limitations. Those decisions do not help foster trust among the general population.
Yet, along with our endemic political instability and utter lack of trust in the political class, Israel is also on its way to becoming the first country in the world to fully inoculate its entire population. To some measure, this is a credit to our government signing early (and expensive) purchasing agreements with Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca, thereby ensuring a sufficient supply for all 9 million Israelis.
But most of the credit belongs to Israel's system of universal mandatory health insurance. Every citizen, by law, is a member of one of four HMOs from birth. Monthly premiums are low, and everyone is covered. More than that, the HMOs have a full database of every single Israeli along with their medical history. Thus, the HMOs proactively contact citizens based on their age group and medical history, inviting them to mass vaccination centers in the most efficient manner possible.
Every citizen received a text message or phone call, setting up a day and time at a center close to their home. The vaccine is administered without lines or hassles. The entire procedure takes less than two minutes. This is how Israel vaccinates 150,000 people per day. At the time of writing, over 20% of our population has been vaccinated with the first dose and we have begun administering the second dose as well.
In exchange for a constant supply of vaccines, the government has agreed to provide Pfizer with metadata about the Israeli population without breaking any privacy laws. Pfizer will have access to information about an entire country and the effects of mass vaccination in a way that will help it improve its research, enabling even better results in other countries.
A combination of a robust health system and an advanced technological capability is making Israel the first nation to be fully vaccinated. The challenge will be to turn this advantage into an effective exit from the worst economic crisis in our history. Lessons learned here will hopefully be useful to other countries as well-and allow us to reopen our points of entry to all.
Ofer Bavly is the Director General of the JUF Israel Office.