Confusing Instructions and Unpreparedness: Israeli Government's Key Mistakes in Handling Omicron
Last June, before taking the prime minister's seat, Naftali Bennett was certain that he would be able to curb the coronavirus pandemic. Now, months down the line, he might be thinking that it was easier said than done.
Despite Israeli experts' prognosis that the fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, triggered by the Omicron variant, will start declining at the end of January, COVID-19 is still raging across Israel.
On Wednesday, the country registered more than 60,000 infections, pushing the overall number of patients to over 430,000. 1,112 of them are in severe condition.
The Israeli public has already expressed its frustration with the alarming health situation in the country. A mid-January poll revealed that only 22 percent of those asked gave the government a good mark for its handling of the health crisis; 30 percent thought its handling of the pandemic was mediocre and 48 percent considered it poor.
What are they complaining about?
Taken by Surprise?
Israel reported its first Omicron case in late November. At the time, the government already knew about the threat of the new variant and how fast it was spreading. Unfortunately, it didn't do enough to prepare itself for the fifth wave that soon followed.
Israel did define a list of the so-called red countries; travelling to and from them was prohibited. However, it didn't boost its capacity to carry out proper PCR tests to identify sick people. Rather, it relied on home antigen tests that proved to be extremely inaccurate. As a result, thousands of cases went unreported, and many sick people could move freely, contributing to the spread of the virus.
Not Quite Ready
When Omicron finally hit and the numbers reached unprecedented heights, Israel's government was caught with its trousers down.
To start off, even before the current wave, Israel didn't have enough hospital beds. Nor did it have a sufficient number of Intensive Care Units; the country was lagging behind many developed OECD countries.
Hospitals have been repeatedly sounding the alarm bell, but the government has been dragging its feet, and only a small fraction of the required equipment was delivered.
A similar stalemate has also been observed with the medical staff. Israeli experts have repeatedly demanded that the government allocate more funds to solve the problem. They have also been demanding the hiring of more doctors, and nurses but those pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears. When numbers started to climb, that policy backfired primarily because thousands of doctors have been either sick or in isolation, and the existing personnel has been struggling to cope with the pressure.
The previous Israeli government -- under the leadership of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- has been repeatedly slammed for its inconsistent and confusing instructions.
When PM Naftali Bennett took office in mid-June, he vowed to change that trend, but reality showed it was easier said than done.
In recent months, the regulations have been changing too rapidly, at times even twice a day, and Israelis have even started joking about it, saying one could enrol in a university without exams if they managed to make sense of the confusing coronavirus instructions.
Much of that confusion was felt in shopping centres, with both customers and shop owners struggling to understand how many clients could be admitted at once. It has been felt by foreigners and Israeli travellers, who need to keep up with the changing reality. It has also been felt in schools and kindergartens, especially as the ministries of health and education didn't see eye-to-eye on the regulations and on how to contain the virus' spread across the country's institutions.
Vaccination - Mission Unaccomplished
Up until April, Israel was the world's leader in its vaccination rollout, with the majority of the public taking two jabs. Then, in August and after another COVID-19 spike, the government decided to introduce a booster for the elderly and immuno-suppressed people. That campaign was soon expanded to the rest of the population. Those who refused to receive it were demonised. They were prevented from travelling abroad, entering public places and were required to produce negative coronavirus tests twice a week before coming to work.
That policy stirred dissatisfaction and distrust among the public. Some considered it coercion. Others branded it an infringement of their basic rights. The result soon followed. Up until today, and despite fierce explanatory efforts, only 4.4 million have taken that booster, with Israel now lagging behind many European countries, whose vaccination rates are much higher.
The vaccination drive has also been slow among children, and today Israel still has 1.5 million who haven't received the jab.
Assisting the Economy?
However, most of the public criticism stems from the way the government has been dealing with the economy.
The main sector that has been hurt is incoming tourism. In 2019, before the eruption of the pandemic, that industry generated roughly $12.5 billion for the country. Most of that cash came from foreign visitors but as the government closed down the country, revenues sank and hit a new low.
Tens of thousands have lost their jobs. Hotels and restaurants that had been relying on visitors were forced to shut down.
The government has been struggling to compensate those who have been hurt. Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested that they change their careers, a statement he later apologised for. The government has been promising cash injections and courses that would help those affected integrate into new fields and industries, but for many the measures have been too little and have come too late.
Now, as pressure keeps mounting and dissatisfaction grows stronger, Bennett has discovered that handling the pandemic can be a hard nut to crack even for him, someone who wrote a book on the subject.