Stage 2 of Israel’s exit from its third lockdown on Sunday, Feb. 21 – and its falling covid infection – were greeted by a joyous mass assault on the reopened malls whlle also schools jumped the gun to reopen more classes. By Sunday, three million Israelis had received both vaccination shots. New cases had dropped to below two thousand for the first time in weeks, positive tests to 6.5pc and serious hospital cases were down to 858. Deaths continue to rise and stood and 5,521. Pools, gyms and theaters were back – albeit only for bearers of vaccination certificates or proof of recovery from virus infection.
But the health authorities, though encouraged, were grimly braced for the Purim festival this coming weekend, fearing that the good work performed by the lockdown and vaccinations would be undone by the traditional rollicking fancy-dress Purim parties for children and grownups and the gatherings in synagogues for the ceremonial reading of the Book of Esther.
These same Purim events triggered Israel’s first serious outbreak of coronavirus exactly a year ago. Nonetheless, shopkeepers while still closed for business stocked up on fancy costumes, large and small. They were snatched up on Sunday by customers spoiling for a treat after months of gloomy constraints.
The proposal put forward by Coronavirus Director Prof Nahum Ash, to clamp night curfews from Thursday to Sunday, and so curb unrestrained crowding, will be problematical with a national election a month away. A virus infection surge is therefore predicted to coincide with the closing stages of the election campaign – driven, too, by the mutiny mounted by local authority and children against holding back their return to proper school.
While more than a million pupils of the lower and secondary school grades were allowed to go back to class on Sunday, the intermediate 7th to 10th grade pupils, who have been stuck at home for the whole year, were not. They went on the march against waiting for heir turn up until March 7, Stage 2 of the exit. This would leave only two weeks in school before end of term and the Passover holiday.
In protest, some turned up with their teachers at the reopened shopping malls on Sunday and held classes. Then, on Sunday night, the heads of the Forum of 15 local authorities, including the mayors of Israel’s most affluent cities, declared that those grades would also be back at school on Wednesday, two weeks ahead of their scheduled date, in consideration of the “pedagogical, social and mental hardship” caused by prolonged remote learning.” These grades are hold class in accordance with the health rules of small groups, two or three times a week.
Another form of defiance was directly responsible for the tragic loss of life. A woman of 32, mother of four, was in advanced pregnancy when she was struck down with coronavirus and died in hospital. The doctors could not save her baby. This was the third such case since October. It emerged later that she was influenced by an anti-vaccination movement established by her brother-in-law, which maintained that the drugmakers’ clinical trials of their vaccines did not cover pregnant women. After her death, he has abandoned the movement. Meanwhile some 70pc of pregnant women have opted to avoid vaccination and 50 are in hospital with the virus and 10 in critical condition. They have defied the health authorities advice to expectant mothers to get inoculated, since coronavirus is immediately dangerous while the vaccine’s possible after-effects are hypothetical or non-existent.
Defiance and the breakdown of the rules were also registered at Ben Gurion international airport, where only 35pc of the 2,000 returning Israelis permitted per day obeyed the directive to drive to the quarantine hotels. The remainder went straight home, paying inspectors the five-thousand shekel fine for their escape. The Knesset panel said that the quarantine in hotels directive which had become a mockery should be annulled. The Health Ministry refused, maintaining that arrivals from overseas were bringing a whole new menagerie of covid variants, after planting the British strain that now accounted for 90pc of infection in the country.
The ultra-Orthodox communities, who mostly defer to their rabbis, are a special case. They have from the outset of the pandemic presented a mixed response to the health guidelines issued by the government. Some have complied; others kept their schools and seminaries open as usual, while suffering high levels of infection and mortality. Their leaders have rejected complaints that they are hotbeds of country-wide infection, while at the same time coming around recently to getting vaccinated.