Ups and downs of battling Covid-19: Experience of Israel and Netherlands

Israel and the Netherlands have both seen the Delta variant of the coronavirus becoming dominant. PHOTOS: AFP, REUTERS

Too fast, too soon. Many countries are finding it tough to decide exactly when to reopen after being stricken with the Covid-19 pandemic, and this is mostly due to the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus. Here's a look at the experience of two countries.

Israel

Israel was the world's pacesetter for a national vaccination programme. It began vaccinations in December last year and by March 20, more than half of its nine million people were fully vaccinated.

While much of the world was scrambling to secure vaccine doses due to a global shortage, Israel managed to assure a steady weekly supply of at least 400,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses.

The country was reported to have paid a higher price per dose, €23 (S$37), or €11 more than what the European Union paid. Israel also provided the health data of its citizens receiving the jabs to Pfizer for research purposes.

Israel's vaccination success translated to daily infections dropping drastically, from the peak of under 12,000 new cases in January to below 100 in April, which is also when not a single death was recorded daily for the first time in 10 months.

Lockdown restrictions were progressively eased, and venues such as cafes and cinemas filled up. A health official symbolically removed his mask "for the last time" during a television interview in June to herald the return to normalcy.

Then the Delta variant struck.

Just as quickly as restrictions were lifted, infections spiked to a seven-day average of more than a thousand cases last week (July 21) for the first time since March.

Masks returned, just 10 days after a mandate for them to be worn both indoors and outdoors was lifted on June 14. The day after masks returned, the government reimposed 14-day quarantine orders on close contacts of Covid-19 patients, as the Delta strain accounted for 90 per cent of new cases in the country.

Studies pinpointed the strain as the main driver behind "breakthrough infections" affecting those who were vaccinated. Data in Israel also showed that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was only 41 per cent effective in preventing symptomatic Covid-19.

The country is now in the grip of a Covid-19 wave, with 153 patients in serious condition as at Tuesday (July 27), compared with single digits a month ago.

But Israel is eschewing a tight lockdown, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett preferring a "soft suppression" of the virus.

Relying on its previous success in vaccination, Israel on Wednesday reintroduced a Green Pass identifying those vaccinated or had recovered from Covid-19, allowing only these groups entry to venues such as restaurants and places of worship.

The Green Pass restrictions, first imposed in February, were lifted by the government on June 1 as infections fell.

A third shot of the vaccine as a booster has also been offered to the immunocompromised.

Netherlands

The Netherlands suffered a severe setback just one month after reopening, reporting one of the largest Covid-19 spikes globally.

Restrictions were eased on Monday but Dutch government data showed 52,000 new infections in the week starting from July 12, an increase of more than 500 per cent from the week before.

The unprecedented spike prompted an apology from Prime Minister Mark Rutte for "poor judgment" in easing the curbs too soon.

Persistent rule-breaking, predominantly by young revellers, in the country's vibrant night scene was responsible for the latest surge.

A 262 per cent spike in infections was observed among those aged 18 to 24. Four in 10 new cases were infected in bars and clubs as partygoers thronged nightclubs, many of them armed with false negative test results, according to the local media.

Despite the reimposition of some restrictions, including working from home, the government has not been able to completely nip the rapid spread of the disease.

Police on patrol in the Dutch city of Utrecht on July 10 amid a curfew in the Netherlands. PHOTO: AFP

Restaurants and bars have been allowed to remain open, with operators urged to implement distancing rules, including making diners stay in their seats and banning the playing of loud music. But compliance has been poor.

Music festivals held for more than 24 hours have also been banned until next month, after one in the central city of Utrecht turned out to be a superspreader event with more than 1,000 linked infections.

Like Israel, the Netherlands saw the Delta variant becoming dominant, with 91 per cent of new cases in Amsterdam attributed to it.

"Dancing with Janssen. And then came the hangover," read a headline in the Algemeen Dagblad daily, referring to the campaign encouraging the young to receive the single-shot Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine in order to party.

More than 48 per cent of the Dutch have been fully vaccinated and the surge in new cases has for now not led to more deaths, which remain firmly rooted in single figures each day.

The Netherlands last reported more than 100 daily deaths in the middle of January, when less than 1 per cent of the population had been vaccinated and cases hovered around 8,000 a day.

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