JERUSALEM – Back in April, the world watched Israel when its first severe lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic caused the rate of infection to plummet to nearly zero. Normally unruly and fiercely individualistic, Israelis adhered to the regulations and banded together for the common good (and because most of us were scared to death of contracting the virus).
But just as quickly, upon being released from lockdown in May, within a relatively short time we again made headlines of a more dubious nature. Seems like there’s only a certain amount of discipline we can maintain. Between massive weddings in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jewish sectors, anti-Bibi protests, and leisurely beach and café activities by everyone else, Israel quickly became a spring break country gone wild. In no time, we were number one globally in the rate of COVID-19 infection.
Just when it seemed like we had earned our longstanding reputation as undisciplined and anti-authoritarian, along comes the COVID-19 vaccine. Now once again Israel is leading the world – this time in vaccinating a larger share of its population against the novel coronavirus than any other country in the world.
According to Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Israel rocked because “We were prepared on time, signed on time with the leading companies, and convinced them that if they gave us the vaccine, the health funds would know how to administer it in a very short time. That is exactly what is happening.”
With socialized medicine in place, Israel’s major health funds sprang into action and within days of receiving the vaccines, health providers and at-risk members of the population received orderly text or email invitations to make an appointment for a vaccine.
It was the message that we’ve all been waiting and praying for over the last 10 months. It was one of the first times that being over 60 years old was paying off.
How many times this year have we ended a conversation about going to a movie, eating out at a restaurant, visiting friends and family, or planning to travel abroad with the distant hope “once there’s a vaccine … ”
Although my wife decided to wait a few days, acting cautiously to check how those vaccinated were faring, I quickly responded to my invitation and after a 25-minute wait listening to a phone recording, I had my appointment for an inoculation three days later, as well as the follow-up appointment for the second jab three weeks after that.
Friends and family in New England couldn’t mask their envy, with some admitting that they were unlikely to be in the same situation as me for months. Some Israelis living in the U.S. were even considering flying back just to get their vaccinations.
On the big day, I girded myself for a major balagan as we call it here – a rowdy scene consisting of people who invented the concept of not standing in lines. Then, I remembered that everyone else showing up for the vaccine would also be over 60. We were too tired of the last 10 months to make much of a scene, and the way things were set up removed the need for any agitation.
Getting the first coronavirus vaccination proved to be painless, both figuratively and literally. The massive lobby of the basketball stadium, Pais Arena Jerusalem, had been converted into an efficient inoculation clinic. Everything was orderly, even subdued, as if we were so fed up with the last year of our lives, it wasn’t worth bickering or cutting in line to save a few minutes.
Despite seeing some 50 patients ahead of me, the numbers moved briskly – at least two a minute – so within a half-hour, I was sitting behind a screen and raising my right arm to expose a shoulder that was expertly injected by a nurse with a pleasant demeanor and a formidable needle whose bark was worse than its bite.
Some 10 months after COVID-19 unceremoniously entered uninvited into our lives, the first steps to lessen its impact were administered. And it felt great. Finally, we were being proactive and starting a process that should ultimately enable the world – and our normal daily routines – to open up again.
Walking out of the arena after being vaccinated felt like an accomplishment. And in spite of the facts that social distancing compliance would continue, I adopted a confident gait like I had suddenly gained a force field around me that made me immune to the virus that is still spreading throughout the general Israeli population.
It is spreading with fury at the time of this writing: more than 6,000 cases reported on Jan. 2 out of a total of 439,000 since the scourge began. It has taken nearly 3,500 lives.
Paradoxically, as Israel has passed the 1 million vaccinated mark (out of a 9 million population), it’s almost certain that we’re headed back into a total lockdown for a minimum of two weeks.
Will Israelis, now that they’ve seen the elixir that can fix this maddening situation, agree to follow the social distancing and lockdown directives one more time? It will be interesting to see if Israel remains in the headlines for doing something the best in the world, or the worst. It could go either way.
David Brinn grew up in Maine and is the managing editor of the Jerusalem Post.