Israelis raise glass to Pfizer as lockdown ends

At the Beer Bazaar in a historic Tel Aviv flea market, the waitress poured whiskey hunters for already drunk revelers, lifted her photo to the sky and applauded Israel’s savior.

“To Pfizer!” she exclaimed, and rushed to find a table for the crowds that were pouring through the streets of a southern part of town on a weekday evening. “The chaim. “

It’s a good toast – The Chaim is Hebrew for “To Life,” and a week after Israel officially reopens, the country is still celebrating. With 4 million of its nearly 7 million adult population fully vaccinated with the BioNTech / Pfizer jab and another 1 million awaiting their second dose, Israelis are immersed in a carnival of post-pandemic rebirth that has left its citizens dazed with their new freedoms – the restaurants are full, the bars are crowded, the traffic has returned to its infamous snail pace and life, bleak and frightening for a year, has returned to normal.

From abroad it looks like scenes from another planet or a long-awaited future – friends hugging and new lovers kissing, silverware and tablecloths in lavish restaurants, children playing with grandparents and strangers sharing joints on the street.

The speed with which the Israelis have rebounded is a tantalizing promise to the rest of the world. “Life awaits you,” said Susannah Cohen, 72, laughing like a schoolgirl with her friends at a restaurant in Tel Aviv’s French Quarter.

Customers having a drink on a Jerusalem street. Bars and restaurants are crowded again as people make the most of their new freedoms © Abir Sultan / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Scattered across the table: two empty bottles of rosé, a nearly empty packet of slim Vogue cigarettes, and the leftovers of a three-hour lunch – friends having dipped in and out of each other’s finger foods.

The only masks in sight are those worn by waiters, eager to get back to work and hungry for tips from ecstatic customers. “It’s good to be busy,” one said. “It seems normal.”

The scars of past lockdowns are still visible – closed storefronts, the emergence of beggars at traffic lights and the frantic search for jobs as the government’s Covid-19 unemployment insurance begins to wane. Nearly 6,000 Israelis have died from Covid-19, and at the height of the pandemic, one in three Israelis was out of work. With hospitals in the occupied West Bank running out of space, the Palestinian territories remain in the grip of the pandemic.

According to the Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker, Israelis have spent more days – a total of 139 – in lockdown than any other country in the world. In the fall of 2020, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, the Jewish state had the highest rate of new infections per capita of any country in the world.

The lockdowns have hit businesses hard. Even though gross domestic product fell only 2.4% in 2020, thanks to an unexpected jump in diamond exports, private consumption fell by 10%. And while high-tech companies quickly made the switch to remote working, small businesses did not.

And government failures during the crisis – including clashes with the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community over lockdowns and the inability to stop the arrival of new variants or agree on stimulus and aid measures. to the economy – will eclipse the March 23 elections.

Many remain anxious – a Channel 12 poll on Wednesday showed that three-quarters of Israelis were still reluctant to declare the pandemic over, despite the boisterous parties and celebrations on the streets outside.

“It’s like you’re an innocent man in prison and suddenly someone threw the key at you,” said Ibrahim Azizi, 48, and diabetic, stroking his son’s hair outside a school that has just come from. open in Jaffa. “You’re anxious – what if it’s a joke?” What if they put you back in jail?

But the jubilation at the end of the lockdown is contagious, especially among young people. Even before its official end, the Jewish holiday of Purim, where tradition dictates exuberant public intoxication, saw hundreds of thousands of costumed youths take to the streets.

In Tel Aviv’s party districts, police quickly shifted from enforcing coronavirus restrictions to crowd control – happily redirecting honking cars away from busy streets and keeping an eye out for drunk drivers.

In theory, some restrictions are still in place – no more than 20 people indoors, for example, and up to 100 in restaurants that implement a so-called “green passport” system. But, in the chaotic early days of the reopening, there was little visible evidence of an attempt to verify green passports – which can be easily rigged – or to limit the numbers.

While the absence of strictly enforced restrictions leaves open the possibility of a resurgence of the virus, the number of people testing positive has declined steadily for weeks to less than 3%. With unused vaccine warehouses, the world’s fastest vaccination campaign is running out of adults to vaccinate. At this point, those who have not received the vaccine do not intend to be vaccinated, either for safety reasons or because they are convinced that their youth and robust health will protect them.

“I’m young. I’m strong. My grandparents are vaccinated, my parents are vaccinated,” said Yossi, 28, as he practiced acrobatics on Tel Aviv beach. “I believe in corona, but I don’t want the vaccine. ”

But what Yossi desperately wants is to catch a flight, and the government is using the threat of forced quarantine on arrival for unvaccinated people to encourage them to get vaccinated. The government is also considering encouraging workplaces to demand compliance. “Maybe if I need it for my job,” said Yossi, who works as a personal trainer. “Perhaps.”

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