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Israel strives to fend off dreaded Covid-19

There’ve been a few scares but so far, there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Israel. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking no chances, and has instructed the Israeli Biological Institute and health ministry to work on developing and producing a vaccine as soon as possible. He says it’s only a matter of time until the virus appears in the country.

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PAULA SLIER

Already two Israeli companies are in the final stages of developing revolutionary antiviral reusable face masks that would help prevent the spread of the virus. Two Bar-Ilan University chemistry professors have invented ultrasonic fabric-finishing technology that mechanically infuses antiviral particles into textiles used for protective products. Another company, Argaman, is nearing commercialisation of a reusable, washable, breathable antiviral facemask called Bio-Block.

Spread through air and direct contact, the World Health Organization (WHO) figures on Wednesday were 44 653 cases of infection since 31 December of which more than 1 113 people have died. The numbers keep climbing. Most of the cases are in China. A few have been confirmed in 15 other countries.

Because there’s no vaccine or treatment for what’s now called Covid-19, personal protective equipment is an important way to combat the transmission of the virus and avoid a pandemic. But disposable facemasks aren’t a guarantee against infection although increasing numbers of international travellers are choosing to wear them. (I am in South Africa at the moment, and half the passengers who flew here with me were wearing masks.)

The Israeli National Security Council says it’s co-ordinating efforts to deal with the problem in Israel, and has identified those who are infected and quarantined them at home. The Palestinian Authority has also been briefed about all the preventative steps and public-health issues it needs to take into account.

Among the Israeli scares has been a two-year-old girl who recently flew from Thailand to Israel and who was put in isolation in a Kfar Saba hospital due to fear she was infected with Covid-19. The virus was later ruled out.

A Chinese labourer was also hospitalised and quarantined in Ashkelon after arriving in the country. An Israeli woman in her 60s was hospitalised in total isolation at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital over concerns that she had coronavirus. She recently returned from a trip to China with flu-like symptoms. None have so far been confirmed to be have the virus.

A group of 32 Chinese tourists was also recently barred from entering Israel and put on a returning flight shortly after landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Said Israeli Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov, “We believe it’s impossible to prevent the virus from making it to Israel, but we’re trying to delay it as much as possible.”

Meanwhile, customs workers at the airport said they would no longer check passengers and their luggage arriving from China due to a lack of protective gear. The workers said they had asked management for suitable equipment, but so far it hadn’t been provided.

Kits to test for the virus have, though, been supplied to hospitals across the country. The health ministry has recommended that Israelis “consider the necessity” of flights to Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Meanwhile, 15 Israelis are in quarantine on a cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, docked in a Japanese port. They’re among 3 700 passengers and crew of whom at least 135 cases of the virus have now been detected. The ship has been in quarantine since 5 February.

In spite of the sweeping steps taken by Jerusalem to prevent the deadly coronavirus from reaching the country, soldiers from one of the East Asian countries hit hardest by the disease (and not named) are participating in a joint military drill with Israeli troops at a base in the south of the country.

The exercise, which will take place for several weeks and involves direct contact with Israeli soldiers, has been severely criticised in the country. Army Radio reports that Jerusalem decided to go ahead with the drill as planned to avoid harming relations with the country in question.

Military sources were quoted as saying that the exercise was “important” and that “all the necessary medical checks were performed and even made stricter”.

It comes as the Israeli Magen David Adom national emergency network sent 2 000 masks and 200 full protection kits to help prevent the spread of coronavirus in China. Other Israeli humanitarian aid organisations have sent emergency medical supplies and protective gear.

But Beijing hasn’t been overly appreciative. The deputy chief of the Chinese embassy in Israel said, “China opened its doors to the Jewish people during dark times and we didn’t close it. I hope that Israel won’t close the door to the Chinese.”

The embassy later issued a clarification and apologised, saying that “there was no intention whatsoever to compare the dark days of the Holocaust with the current situation and the efforts taken by the Israeli government to protect its citizens”.

The spread of Covid-19 over the past two months has prompted the WHO to declare a global emergency. Netanyahu has praised China’s efforts to address the spread of the virus.

Beijing has just finished building a second new hospital to isolate and treat patients – a 1 500-bed centre in Wuhan, the quarantined central Chinese city where the virus emerged late last year. Earlier, another rapidly constructed, 1 000-bed hospital with prefabricated wards and isolation rooms began taking patients.

Authorities have also moved people with milder symptoms into makeshift hospitals at sports arenas, exhibition halls, and other public spaces.

Altogether, more than 50 million people are under virtual quarantine in the hardest-hit Hubei province in an unprecedented – and unproven – bid to bring the outbreak under control.

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Closer ties between Zim and Israel rattles ANC

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Zimbabwe and Israel have had full diplomatic relations since 1993, but further overtures by our northern neighbour to the Jewish state could cause conflict with South Africa, particularly certain factions in the African National Congress (ANC).

According to an article by Carien du Plessis published on News24 on Wednesday, 3 February, “Zimbabwe has been seeking closer ties with Israel in the hope of securing more investment and doing away with sanctions. This move has caused unease within the ANC, which has a pro-Palestinian stance, although it’s unlikely the party will act on it.

“The ruling party [in Zimbabwe], ZANU-PF, has historically positioned itself as pro-Palestinian, but Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s latest move closer to Israel represents a change in policy direction,” Du Plessis writes.

She reports that although the head of the ANC committee on international relations, Lindiwe Zulu, said that, “We cannot interfere with the sovereign decisions of the governing party of any other government”, there have been divisions within ZANU-PF and within the ANC about the Israel matter.

“A pro-Palestine lobby within the ANC wants South Africa’s governing party to take a more hardline approach to its Zimbabwean counterpart, while the pragmatists prefer not to push this issue for diplomatic reasons,” Du Plessis says.

Darren Bergman, the shadow minister for international relations and cooperation and a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum Human Rights Committee, didn’t mince his words about South Africa’s response.

“The people of Zimbabwe are suffering. The internal affairs of Zimbabwe couldn’t get South Africa to act, the situation in Zimbabwe couldn’t get South Africa to act, but the relationship with Israel gets South Africa to act,” he said.

“This is a sinister situation that must make the SADC and African Union [AU] question what exactly South Africa’s situation is with regard to the Middle East,” Bergman said.

“It’s one thing to have an opinion and a position, but it’s another to keep a hard-pressed, almost spiteful stance at all times that can actually harm and injure the people and the continent. To this I would say that South Africa should show diplomatic constraint, and hold back.”

One of Mnangagwa’s recent moves to improve relations with Israel is the appointment last year of Israeli national Ronny Levi Musan as honorary consul of Zimbabwe to Israel.

The Afro-Middle East Centre reported in October 2020 that, “Musan has set plans into motion for Mnangagwa’s official visit to Israel. His activities in Zimbabwe include collaboration with Pentecostal churches to push for Christian support for Israel. Zimbabwe’s honorary consul is also pushing for Israeli businesses to invest in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, and he recently announced the intention to open an Israeli academy of agriculture in Zimbabwe. On the diplomatic front, Israel hopes that Mnangagwa will follow the example of his Malawian counterpart, Lazarus Chakwera, who announced plans to open an embassy in Jerusalem.”

Musan told the SA Jewish Report he had worked in Africa for the past 20 years to strengthen links between churches and the Holy Land. “About five years ago, I was invited to visit Zimbabwe which lasted about two weeks. I tried to do everything possible to connect Zimbabwe to Israel on a practical level. After the first visit, I visited Zimbabwe several more times, and met a number of ministers and church leaders, and just fell in love with the place.

“From there, it continued through my activities with the Israeli foreign ministry and the foreign ministry in Zimbabwe to promote diplomatic relations between the countries.” He was eventually appointed to this role.

“My main responsibility is to do everything possible in every field to bring knowledge and support from Israel to Zimbabwe, and vice versa. The main issue is technology in the field of agriculture, education, and innovation. These are the cornerstones that will return the crown to Zimbabwe as the ‘grain basket of Africa’.”

Local political analyst Daniel Silke says that Zimbabwe’s overtures to Israel “could well be an attempt by Zimbabwe to follow the Sudan example, in which currying favour with the United States via the channel of restoring relations with Israel allows the country to receive assistance and perhaps even escape some of the worst sanctions. But, of course, [former US] President Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. Whether this will have any traction with Joe Biden, who I think will be a lot more critical of the Zimbabwean regime, remains to be seen.”

In terms of the impact it could have on South African-Israel relations, Silke says, “Many other African countries are forging their own path in terms of relations with Israel. For President [Cyril] Ramaphosa, it’s a difficult balancing act given the demands from within his own party. But I don’t think South Africa has any leg to stand on in terms of interference with any country which wishes to forge some sort of close relationship with the Jewish state. As head of the AU, Ramaphosa is again in a tough position because of the changing dynamics across Africa, but I don’t think it’s an issue that will really get much attention.”

Rowan Polovin, the chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, says, “We see this as a positive development, particularly for Southern Africa, which is part of the momentum that is being created by the Abraham Accords.

“Northern Africa has been very much part of the momentum. In the southern region, Malawi, which is diplomatically and geographically close to South Africa, has signalled its intention to open an embassy in Israel. If all this has an impact on South Africa’s neighbours, then South Africa will see the benefits. It’s very hard to ignore the importance of building ties with Israel, which has so many solutions for African issues, particularly water, electricity, agriculture, and security. Notwithstanding the noise that the ANC might make, ultimately it’s positive.”

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Just how successful is Israel’s vaccine push?

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Israel is reporting promising initial results from its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the fastest in the world.

The first official findings released by the health ministry show that only 0.04% of people caught the virus a week after their second dose, and a mere 0.002% needed hospital treatment.

Clalit, the country’s largest health service organisation, has also released its preliminary data. It compared 200 000 people aged 60 and over who’ve been vaccinated with 200 000 similar unvaccinated older adults. It found that the rate of those who tested positive dropped 33% among the vaccinated 14 days after they received it. No decline was seen in the unvaccinated.

Maccabi, another healthcare organisation, saw an even larger drop. Infections decreased 60% among 430 000 people 13 to 21 days after they received the vaccine. The data also suggested the vaccine was 92% effective, close to the 95% efficacy claimed by Pfizer.

Israeli researchers are conducting more in-depth analysis, and point out that real-world effectiveness of vaccines is often lower than the efficacy seen in clinical trials due to a number of factors.

But experts warn that this data has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal so it should be viewed with some caution.

There are also various factors that could be influencing the results. The current lockdown and behaviour such as travelling and gathering less, wearing masks, and greater physical distancing might be decreasing infections.

The first people to receive the vaccine were mostly from vulnerable populations, so they are more likely to take precautions which could also skew the data.

In spite of the encouraging news, the death toll from COVID-19 continues to climb. Of the 4 816 fatalities at the time of writing, 30% occurred in January when the vaccination rollout was already in full swing. The government blames this on the more transmissible British variant of the virus, especially among children. According to Clalit, when the vaccination campaign started in late December, the new variant caused 30% to 40% of infections, whereas now that figure has doubled.

As for the South African strain, there are currently 80 detected cases in Israel, and there is concern that the vaccine isn’t as effective against this variant. A number of Israelis who previously had COVID-19 have been re-infected with the South African strain, with the most recent case identified two days ago.

Compounding the situation is the flagrant disregard by the ultra-Orthodox community, that comprises just less than 13% of the population, for lockdown rules. Since the start of the pandemic, one in five ultra-Orthodox has tested positive.

Many in the community doubt the safety of the vaccine or believe the country’s citizens are being used as guinea pigs to test its efficacy. Prominent rabbis have also said that communal prayer and study needs to overwrite lockdown concerns.

Last Sunday, 31 January, thousands of ultra-Orthodox mourners, many without masks, crowded together to attend two funerals of famous rabbis who died from coronavirus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticised for not cracking down harshly enough on the community for political reasons – he needs their votes in the upcoming 23 March election.

Residents of Tel Aviv spoke to the SA Jewish Report, complaining that the actions of the ultra-Orthodox were forcing the whole country to go repeatedly into lockdown, and it wasn’t fair. It’s no surprise thus that the latest word from the government is that the current – third – nationwide lockdown may not be Israel’s last.

Many Israelis want cities and towns to once again be divided into red, orange, yellow, and green zones and scales of restrictions to be put in place accordingly. This would mean those who obey the restrictions wouldn’t have to pay the price of those who don’t.

In recent days, there’s also growing concern in some quarters in Israel that because the mass vaccination campaign is running in parallel with an active coronavirus outbreak, it could lead to an “evolutionary pressure” on the virus in which it would ultimately become immune to vaccination. Doctors are suggesting that in future, people will need to take an annual anti-COVID-19 jab, much in the same way the annual flu injection is taken.

But for now, the race to innoculate everyone is on. Among the first to be injected were people aged 60 or older. More than two-thirds of this age group have already received the required two doses. Up to 200 000 people are being injected each day, and the vaccine is now available to anyone over the age of 35. High-school students aged 16 to 18 are also included in the hope that they will be able to sit for exams. It seems Netanyahu is on track to fulfil his promise of innoculating five million of the country’s nine million citizens by the end of March.

To date, just more than one in three Israelis has been inoculated – about 1.7 million of them twice. Because this is a far higher fraction than anywhere else in the world, it makes the country a test case for the international vaccine push.

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The right to demonstrate, even during lockdown

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Israelis are being allowed out of their homes in full lockdown to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi), who is viewed by many on both sides of the political spectrum as corrupt.

This freedom in a lockdown which ordinarily limits you to being no more than one kilometre from your house is based on the country’s constitutional right to protest. On bridges, at junctions, and outside Bibi’s house in Jerusalem, daily protests occur, resuming after Shabbat goes out on Saturday night.

Lech! Lech!” (Go!) is shouted loudly – which is also the name for the movement against Netanyahu.

There are some staunch Likud followers who scream, “Arafat and Rabin sold out the country,” prompting laughter amongst some demonstrators, who point out that their arguments are old and outdated. Demonstrators including doctors, lawyers, pilots, accountants, and students point out that this isn’t about the Israel-Palestine issue, it’s not about being leftist or rightist, but about ethics and bringing to justice an allegedly corrupt prime minister.

The protestors are passionate, some defying orders not to camp outside Bibi’s residence. At 21:30, police order the drums, trumpets, and whistles to cease. The protestors obey, but continue to demonstrate quietly, so as not to disturb the Jerusalem neighbourhood.

Then, at about 23:00, carrying Israeli flags in blue and white and others in red and white, the protestors pack up and go home to lockdown.

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