Opinion: The government responded swiftly when the new COVID strain was first detected in Israel, becoming world’s first country to shut its borders to foreigners; but very quickly that cautiousness turned into negligence, with our leaders not leading by example
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a press conference on the Omicron variant late last month (Photo: GPO)
While Israel is preoccupied with the Iranian nuclear program and a wave of lone terrorist attacks, one threat is being ignored – the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Despite being identified a fortnight ago, it still remains mostly a mystery, with conflicting information received from around the world about its infectiousness.
Even what health officials do know may change quickly and the government’s decision to shutter its borders to foreigners could turn out to be an overreaction, but could also be later praised as the timely response.
Among reasons for concern are the indications that despite efforts to slow the spread of the new variant, it has already been detected in 45 countries, mostly in Europe and in 17 states in the U.S. since the start of December.
England and Denmark, both leaders in coronavirus testing and in their sequencing efforts to identify the genetic changes in the virus, both have reported a sharp rise in COVID cases.
England reported a twofold growth in cases despite a large percentage of the population already vaccinated and in Denmark the number had tripled within only two days, with 7,000 positive test results reported on Tuesday – the largest number since the start of the pandemic.
In South Africa, where Omicron was first detected, one out of every four COVID tests returns a positive result.
Some countries already report community spread of Omicron, which is testimony to the variant’s ability to spread quickly. Anecdotal reporting tells of unprecedented mass infections and preliminary reporting from South Africa shows an increase in hospitalizations of children suffering from COVID-19.
All this data points to the Omicron variant’s ability to infect people who have already recovered from the virus and perhaps those who have been vaccinated as well.
The Health Ministry said on Tuesday that of the 21 confirmed Omicron cases in Israel, 13 were detected in people who either recovered from the virus or were fully vaccinated.
Still, many questions still remain unanswered. It is unclear whether the Omicron variant is more contagious that the Delta, and if so, how much more? It is also unclear how serious an illness can be caused by Omicron and if it is the same in all age groups.
But more importantly – it is unclear if vaccines prevent illness if one if infected with Omicron and how much additional protection the booster shot provides.
In the midst of all this unknown, every individual country has been trying by different means, to slow the spread of the variant. Despite outward optimism and efforts to prevent unnecessary panic, their actions prove their increasing concern.
Belgium, for example, demands of its residents to work from home and announced the Christmas festivities will begin one week early this year.
Italy has banned non-vaccinated citizens from using public transport and Germany is seriously considering making vaccines compulsory.
The U.S. state of New York on Tuesday mandated vaccines for all workers in the private sector and its mayor, Bill de Blasio, explained the move as part of the effort to flatten the curb of morbidity and prevent the spread of the new variant.
Only Israel appears to be sleeping on the job. The government initially responded quickly to the new threat, but days later appeared to have been lulled into inaction – not unlike its public. Israelis insist on ignoring basic health regulations, including the use of masks; crowding restrictions; quarantines after travel abroad and many others.
Authorities neglect to enforce regulations as well and public figures fail to lead by example. How then, can the pandemic be defeated in Israel?
After Galit, the wife of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, opted to travel with her children for their holiday abroad, her husband hinted that maybe the risk was not as great as previously believed. He did so with no evidence available to back such a claim.
Could her conduct color future decision he may have to make?
This is a race against time. One third of the Israeli population is unprotected, should a new wave of morbidity begin. Winter is upon us and people spend more time indoors in poorly ventilated classrooms and offices than outside.
Even if the Omicron variant causes only a mild disease – as South African health authorities claim – its ability to spread quickly will surely cause a surge in cases and a rise in hospitalizations as well as an increase in those suffering from post-COVID symptoms.
Now, before the new health crisis hits us, it is critical to use the coming weeks to learn more about the variant and allow out health system to prepare for things to come.
If Israel delays it by even one day – we will all pay a cost in human life and suffering.