There was a time in the spring when many Europeans looked to Israel in the hope of seeing their own future there. Cafes, bars, theaters and gyms reopened after Israel vaccinated more than half its population at an unprecedented pace.Then, in June, the government dropped nearly all remaining Corona restrictions. Since late June, however, case numbers have been rising again, and for the past few days, they have been reaching heights not seen in the country for months. Most recently, they rose to just under 4,000 - more than are currently measured in Germany. At the same time, nine times as many people live in Germany as in the small country on the Mediterranean.
Israel's new government is reacting in a similar way to the previous one: it has decided on new restrictions and is threatening a further lockdown. For example, the so-called green pass regulation is to apply again from August 8.
In Israel, the green passport is issued to all those who have been fully vaccinated or who have had Covid 19 and are therefore considered immune. Most recently, only those who wanted to attend an event with more than a hundred participants had to show it. Now, access to facilities such as gyms is to be similarly restricted.In addition, the government has expanded the quarantine requirement for those returning from travel. Israeli citizens visiting any of about 40 countries classified as risk areas must go into home quarantine for at least a week after their return - whether they are vaccinated or not. On Tuesday, the government also put Germany on the list, along with France, the Netherlands and the United States.
Experts blame the new wave of covid on the delta variant, which appears to be much more contagious than earlier expressions of the virus. "The Delta epidemic is extremely contagious and is spreading all over the world," said Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. "Avoid crowds and get vaccinated - now. Otherwise, we will have no choice but to adopt tighter restrictions, including a lockdown."
In addition to new restrictions, the government is stepping up efforts to encourage citizens to get vaccinated. Since last weekend, people 60 and older and members of at-risk groups have been able to pick up the third vaccination. Some 145,000 had done so as of Tuesday, including Mirna Bennett, the prime minister's mother.A photo of the two together immediately after the vaccination was published by Naftali Bennett on Twitter. "The more we vaccinate, the better we protect our mother and father and keep Israel open," he wrote in response.
What about the protective efficacy of the Biontech vaccine?
Israeli studies indicate that the protective efficacy of the Pfizer/Biontech vaccine, which Israel predominantly uses, decreases significantly over time. "At first we thought completely vaccinated people were protected. But now we see that the effectiveness of the vaccine is around 40 percent," Sharon Alroy-Preis, director of public health at Israel's Ministry of Health, said in an interview with U.S. broadcaster CBS a few days ago.
Although vaccination continues to provide reasonably reliable protection against severe symptoms in the event of infection. The number of serious cases is therefore still comparatively low. But even this protective effect is apparently declining. Of the 200 or so Covid 19 patients currently on outpatient treatment, a good half have been fully vaccinated.
The third vaccination, experts hope, should increase protection again. "Third dose intervention should effectively reduce severe disease progression," commented data expert Nir Kalkstein, founder of the AI Research Institute for Computational Health, on Twitter. "If 90 percent of the most at-risk population is vaccinated, this must drastically reduce the amount of critically ill patients, compared to previous waves."
So far, according to the statistics portal "Our World in Data," 62 percent of the total Israeli population has been vaccinated with two doses of the Biontech/Pfizer vaccine. The fact that there are not more is partly due to the fact that the country is relatively young: 28 percent of the population is under 15 years of age. Although twelve-year-olds have recently been allowed to be vaccinated, not everyone takes up the offer.
There are also vaccination opponents and skeptics in Israel. A good one million people have not yet been vaccinated, even though they would be entitled to do so. The government is now exerting increased pressure on this minority, with the prime minister leading the way. "One million Israelis refuse to be vaccinated. They are endangering the entire population, they are endangering the other eight million citizens in the country," Bennett said in a recent television interview.
Opponents of vaccination are not choosing their words gently, either. A few days ago, several dozen of them gathered outside the home of Sharon Alroy-Preis, the public health director who strongly promotes vaccinations. "Daughter of the devil," one demonstrator shouted, as heard on videos of the protest.
"Sharon Alroy-Price collaborates with Pfizer against the citizens of Israel," another had written on his placard. The rhetorical attacks, including on social media, got so out of hand that Prime Minister Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz publicly jumped to the expert's side. The debate is tense - and will certainly not calm down anytime soon in light of the latest lockdown threats.
Image by Gerd Altmann