As Covid-19 has raged on for the past year, countries around the world have made attempts to contain the coronavirus and slow the spread of infection. Though December brought hope as vaccines, such as Moderna and Pfizer, were approved and began to be administered, January revealed itself to be yet another rough patch: new variants of the Covid virus started to pop up in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil.
Israel had been leading the vaccine charge and by the end of January, it was estimated that around one third of the population had received at least the first dose. As Israelis relished their victory, and expressed hope that they would soon be able to return to regular activities, the news of more deadly and severe variants started to make headlines. In response, the Israeli government made the unprecedented decision to close their airport and borders. In a statement explaining the Health Ministry’s decision, Netanyahu made their plans very clear, “We are closing Ben Gurion Airport today. In contrast to what people are saying, we are ahead of the entire world. We are doing it, we are hermetically closing the skies, excluding very rare cases, in order to prevent the entry of the virus’s variants, and to ensure that we advance speedily with our vaccination campaign.”
This decision went into effect at midnight on January 26 and was set to expire on January 31. However, during the airport shutdown, intensive care units around the country remained full as the British variant was already common among patients. The Coronavirus Commissioner Professor Ash reported that the British variant is responsible for 30% to 40% of new cases. According to the Health Ministry, the South African variant only accounted for about 30 new cases, yet this mutation is especially dangerous as some experts are finding the variant to be resistant to vaccines. These findings led many Israeli officials to rethink the short airport closure, but as they debated whether or not the extension should be enacted, another big spike in Covid cases arrived.
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis gathered in Jerusalem to attend a funeral for two prominent rabbis. The amount of people on the narrow streets of the Old City was alarming, as they ignored all Covid restrictions and many in attendance did not wear masks. This sudden uptick in Covid cases caused concern throughout the government and the airport shutdown was subsequently extended into February.
At this point in time, the airport is expected to remain closed until March 6th. A very limited number of flights will be allowed to land such as flights carrying immigrants making Aliyah. Everyone arriving in Israel will now be required to take a Covid test before boarding their flight, and will be subjected to a 14 day quarantine after their arrival.
Though the airport is to remain closed, the strict lockdown rules that have been in place since late December are starting to lift. Now, with so many Israelis vaccinated, the Health Ministry has launched the “Green Pass” program, which allows vaccinated citizens and those that have recovered from Covid to begin returning to regular activities including going to gyms, pools, and sporting events. While the program is meant to function as an incentive for people to get vaccinated, it is raising many moral and ethical questions as the final details get hammered out. Since Israel is one of the first countries to make it this far in the vaccination process, it is also one of the first that has to find ways to balance public health with personal freedom in its Green Pass program. Yuli Edelstein, an Israeli Health Minister spoke on this delicate balance, saying, “Getting vaccinated is a moral duty. It is part of our mutual responsibility. Whoever does not get vaccinated will be left behind.” Edelstein’s all or nothing approach to the Green Pass program has enraged many who feel that Israel’s vaccine distribution has not been equitable. However, on the other side of this debate people cite the nearly two million eligible citizens who have not actively looked into getting vaccinated. Dr. Maya Peled Raz stated that while she understands peoples’ concerns about damage to individual rights, “…Not all damage is prohibited if it is well-balanced and legitimate in order to achieve a worthy goal. It’s your choice, if you are vaccinated, you can enter. As long as you aren’t, we can’t let you endanger others.”
Along with the launching the Green Pass program, cabinet ministers also announced on February 15th that select shops, malls, museums, and libraries will be opened up to all Israelis. Indoor gatherings of up to 10 people and outdoor gatherings of up to 20 are also allowed now, just in time for Purim and Passover.