Israel shows how to do things right

Published February 25, 2021, 7:43 AM

by Diwa C. Guinigundo


President Duterte made the correct move when he “gave his directives to the Cabinet that the Philippines would not be placed on Modified General Community Quarantine unless there is a rollout of vaccines.” He was quoted by the presidential spokesperson that he wanted to launch the vaccination program really quick.

When the public health system remains off course, there exists an unfortunate trade-off between health and the economy. The President was correct in placing more weight on public health.

Of course, the Philippines being an archipelago with more than 7,100 islands, there could be islands of exceptions. If our testing and tracing systems were more tech-savvy, we could have more solid basis in prescribing differentiated levels of quarantine. It does not make much sense to propose a wholesale migration to an easier level of restriction all over the Philippines even as we maintain the usual health protocols.

There is an illusion of control when we assume that when we open up the economy, everybody will come out of fear. People are expected to resume their normal business activities so that the pre-pandemic buffers of the economy will begin to gain tractionand inspire trust and confidence.

The President said it all: we have not launched our defense system against the virus. More mutations of the virus are coming in and their invasion has been documented by no less than our own health authorities. In addition, more epidemic could be lining up, enabling cross infection between humans and animals. People continue to be risk averse even if the economy is fully opened up when the signs of the viral upsurge continue to go north.

This is the phenomenon of self-quarantine, or voluntary lockdown, and this is well established by independent surveys. For seniors, this is imperative.

We cannot overemphasize the crucial importance of flattening and eventually taming the curve by preventing transmission through the usual health protocols, lockdown in severe cases or mass vaccination to achieve herd immunity. The IMF in several of its research publications has stressed that in the last three months after the October, 2020, release of the World Economic Outlook growth forecasts, COVID-19 deaths have doubled to over two million. What is worrisome is its analysis that “greater success with vaccinations and therapeutics and additional policy support could improve outcomes, while slow vaccine rollout, virus mutations, and premature withdrawal of policy support can worsen outcomes.”

The President’s premium on health and vaccines would make our chance to recover fast more likely. The challenge to the Palace is to get our health authorities to run fast without dropping the ball this nth time. We know the virus continues to reconfigure itself. It’s clearly a race between vaccines and the virus.

Pre-pandemic growth recoveries are expected to vary across countries with the more advanced economies likely to regain their traction this year while many emerging markets might have yet to settle for 2022.

Two reasons are behind this dual trend. One is the magnitude of public support and the other is the quicker access to vaccines.

As the Fund assures: “If vaccines and therapies remain effective against new virus strains, we may be able to exit this crisis with less scarring than was feared and arrest the divergence in prospects across and within countries.”

Which brings us to Israel. Israel, like China, Singapore, and South Korea, employs such instruments as location data, video camera footage, and credit card information to track COVID-19. Containing its spread was a primordial concern early last year. In addition, its security agency Shin Bet was reported to be using citizens’ cell phone location data to track their citizens’ whereabouts to establish strong basis for quarantine controls and monitoring of individual mobility.

This is far from a guessing game.

When Israel first attempted to reopen the economy, the government faced serious criticisms. Cases rose upon the economy’s easing the curbs despite all its monitoring capabilities. In a nation of just over nine million, Israel at the peak of viral infection was reporting more than 8,000 new cases daily. Israel scored the highest per capita infection level and one of the highest in terms of per capita new cases per day. Other indicators showed significant worsening. The virus was virtually out of control in Israel for months last year. Health protocols were rarely taken to heart. Big gatherings offered the greatest opportunity for super spreading the virus.

And this is most familiar: many Israelis defied the lockdown while many stores, open-air markets and businesses risked fines and opened as usual. Schools stayed open. With health protocols being violated and vaccines yet to be administered, Israel had the perfect health storm. Contagion spread and partial lockdown gave way to full closure at some point in 2020.

Israel admitted that it was not actually prepared for this health crisis. The New York Times reported last year that Mossad, Israel’s fabled intelligence service, played a critical role in Israel’s fight against the virus. Mossad was an enabler of Israel’s procurement of medical equipment and manufacturing technology abroad. As early as February, 2020, Mossad had already initiated the acquisition of more ventilators, testing materials, and other critical supplies.

The narrative is that Mossad’s intervention in this health issue was “an acute embarrassment” for the Health Ministry.

Notwithstanding these great strides in health, Israel continued to suffer some setbacks in its fight against the viral upsurge. The public health system was overwhelmed. More hospital beds were installed, more facilities were set up in parking lots. Israel suffered three national lockdowns.

Vaccination was the only way to go for Israel.

Three days ago, Israel announced that it has managed to inoculate nearly half of its over nine million population. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared: “We are the first country in the world that is reviving itself, thanks to the millions of vaccines we brought in.”

What is behind Israel’s ability to stockpile large amounts of the vaccines?

The country with one of the world’s most sophisticated medical data systems secured Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines “by paying above market price and by striking a data-sharing deal with the US company.” Our guess is that with a population of only over nine million but with 740,000 cases and 5,500 deaths, money must be no object.

In support of vaccination, some regular health protocols remain in place. Access to leisure sites like gyms, hotels, and theaters are limited to twice-vaccinated people, or to those with proven immunity. People continue to wear face masks and practice physical distancing. Synagogues, mosques, or churches can only accommodate 50 percent of their capacity.

The stage is now set for Israel to “restart” the economy next month.

What is promising in Israel’s experience with the vaccine is that it appears to have stopped the COVID-19 spread, as reported by Bloomberg the other day.

A Vast majority of those who received the double jabs in Israel tested immune to infection, “providing the first real-world indication that the immunization will curb the transmission of the coronavirus.” The vaccine was reported capable of also preventing asymptomatic carriers from spreading the virus and 99 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 induced mortalities. These numbers will be subjected to peer review and scrutiny of the data in the field.

Our take-aways from Israel’s case are one,vaccine procurement was a whole-of-government effort; two,agreements with pharmaceutical companies were finalized early; and three, no time was wasted with vaccination launched as early as December 20, 2020.

Israel’s Nachman Ash, in charge of his country’s pandemic response, was honest enough to admit that another lockdown “is still possible…half of the population is still not immune.”

This is an election year for Israel. That assessment certainly does not stink of self-serving bias.