Exaggerating Omicron? "Restricting citizens' ability to travel is a hallmark of a police state"

December 03, 2021

 

 

OMICRON, HARDER TO SPREAD THAN DELTA AND EXISTING COVID STRAINS?

[Note by Tom Gross]

This is another in an occasional series of dispatches relating to Covid-19.

As I argued in interviews at the start of this week - for example, this one on Turkish TV - Israel and other governments may have overreacted to the new omicron Covid variant in imposing often drastic restrictions even on the fully vaccinated, for example in relation to international travel.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ul8-APmyHmA

(This is not to say that people shouldn't get booster jabs against Covid. They absolutely should.)

For example, the New York Times reported on Wednesday evening:

"Dr. Elad Major of Israel's Sheba Medical Center initially feared that he might have exposed hundreds of people to the virus when he became the first Israeli to test positive for the new Omicron variant on Saturday morning.

"In the three days before his positive results, Dr. Maor, a cardiologist, had attended a large staff meeting at his hospital east of Tel Aviv. He had inserted stents into the arteries of 10 patients. And he had driven to a cardiology conference north of Tel Aviv, sharing the 90-minute car journey with a 70-year-old colleague, and lunched there with five others in a crowded canteen.

"Dr. Maor, 45, had attended a piano recital with dozens in the audience, where his 13-year-old played a short piece by Stephen Heller, a Hungarian composer. And finally, last Friday night, Dr. Maor had eaten sea bass at the home of his in-laws, together with his wife and nine other family members.

"But of these many people, most of whom had received three shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, only his 70-year-old colleague has so far tested positive for the Omicron variant in the five days since."

 

ISRAEL'S LEFT NOW SUPPORTS DIGITAL TRACKING

The second piece below, from the left-wing Israeli paper Haaretz (titled "The hypocrites' parade: Israel's Left is now koshering digital tracking") questions why the left-wing parties in Israel's governing coalition have voted for increased tracking of people's phones by Israel's Shin Bet security service, using the new Covid variant as an excuse.

When he was in opposition to the government of Benjamin Netanyahu last year, Meretz party leader and now Israel's Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, demanded that Israel's attorney general block the use of such means without parliamentary oversight. "This is the sort of thing done in dictatorships," he said. But now that he is in government himself, he voted for the new phone tracking measures this week.

"GOD'S GIFT TO THE LEFT"?

Tom Gross adds:

Interestingly, right-wing members of the new government such as Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar voted against the new measure, saying it impinged on people's civil liberties.

As actress and progressive activist Jane Fonda said in a video she posted last October, coronavirus is "God's gift to the left". Certainly there are elements of the authoritarian left in several democracies who have relished curtailing individual freedoms these past 22 months.

FIRST CLIMATE DOOMSDAY, NOW OMICRON

Some of the same politicians who were being most alarmist and stirring up fear about the new Omicron variant last week, were the same ones who many thought were being hysterical about climate change the week before ("it's one minute to midnight," claimed Boris Johnson; we have 18 months to save the human race, claimed Prince Charles, who interestingly has been claiming the same thing for about the last 18 years).

You don't have to be particularly cynical to ask whether it suits some politicians and public figures to whip up fear on certain issues to divert attention from their actual records on other matters.

 

"RESTRICTING CITIZENS' ABILITY TO TRAVEL IS A HALLMARK OF A POLICE STATE"

The third piece below, from today's Wall Street Journal, is by Eugene Kontorovich, who teaches constitutional law at George Mason University (and is also a subscriber to this list). He questions President Biden potential expansion of international travel bans to reduce the spread of Covid-19 to include U.S. citizens and permanent residents (who were exempt from previous travel bans under President Trump).

"The right to enter their country is an essential element of citizenship. In 1215 the Magna Carta proclaimed: 'It shall be lawful for any man to leave and return to our kingdom.' In the 20th century, the Supreme Court declared that 'the right to travel is part of the 'liberty' of which the citizen cannot be deprived without due process of law under the Fifth Amendment? Freedom of movement is basic in our scheme of values'," writes Kontorovich.

"Restricting citizens' ability to travel is a hallmark of a police state. Infectious disease will always be with us. It cannot become an excuse to give the federal government carte blanche to control the lives of citizens."

 

DISCUSSING WHETHER TO MAKE VACCINATION COMPULSORY

In the fourth piece below, today's Haaretz discuss whether "Omicron may be the final straw in world leaders' patience with anti-vaxxers."

The outbreak of the omicron variant may be marked in the future as a seminal moment in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic. It is pushing countries around the world toward a weighty decision that leaders, governments and health officials have so far managed to avoid or reject out of hand: whether to make vaccination compulsory.

Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg has announced that from February 1, 2022, vaccination will be mandatory. A few days ago, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said the European Union should consider making vaccination mandatory through the 27 nation bloc given omicron's spread.

 

CLOSING BORDERS

In the fifth piece, New York Times Jerusalem correspondent Isabel Kershner (also a subscriber to this list), reports that Israel, Morocco and Japan have this week all reimposed temporary bans on all foreign travelers in response to the threat supposedly posed by the omicron variant.

Others, including the US, Britain, Canada and the EU, have all announced bans on travelers only from southern Africa.

 

THE BENNETT FAMILY GOES ON FOREIGN VACATION

In the sixth piece below, the Times of Israel reports that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been criticized across Israel's political spectrum after his wife and four children left yesterday for a vacation in an undisclosed foreign destination (believed to be Dubai) (Israeli schools are closed for a few days now during the Hannukah holiday). His family's trip comes just days after Bennett urged Israeli citizens to avoid any unnecessary foreign travel, and closed Israel to foreign tourists for the next two weeks.

 

FAKE CHINESE COVID ACCOUNTS SPREAD MISINFORMATION

The last piece below, from today's Guardian in London, reports that Facebook has taken down over 600 Chinese Facebook pages that were spreading misinformation based on a fake Swiss biologist invented by Chinese intelligence called Wilson Edwards. Facebook said the accounts, which first appeared on 24 July 2021, were run by a "coordinated cluster" of Chinese state employees.

 

IS ISRAEL OVERREACTING OVER OMICRON? TOM GROSS ON TURKISH TV

I am critical of Israel for its latest Covid measures here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ul8-APmyHmA

Tom Gross on Turkish TV Anews (Nov 28, 2021)

(The Turkish TV caption means "Israel shuts down entry to most foreigners for the next two weeks". The country remains for the most part open domestically.)

 

CONTENTS

1. "An Israeli doctor with Omicron met dozens of people. Just one tested positive" (By Patrick Kingsley, New York Times, Dec. 2, 2021)
2. "The hypocrites' parade: Israel's Left is now koshering digital tracking" (By Noa Landau, Haaretz, Dec. 1, 2021)
3. "Covid-19 and the Right to Travel" (By Eugene Kontorovich, Wall St Journal, Dec. 3, 2021)
4. "Omicron may be the final straw in world leaders' patience with anti-vaxxers" (By Ido Efrati, Haaretz, Dec. 3, 2021)
5. "Responding to the Omicron variant, Israel and Morocco impose bans on all foreign travelers" (By Isabel Kershner, New York Times, Nov. 29, 2021)
6. "Bennett family vacation said to elicit grumblings from allies" (Times of Israel, Dec. 2, 2021)
7. "Facebook takes down Chinese network behind fake Swiss biologist Covid claims" (By Dan Milmo, The Guardian, Dec. 3, 2021)


ARTICLES

AN ISRAELI DOCTOR WITH OMICRON MET DOZENS OF PEOPLE. JUST ONE TESTED POSITIVE

An Israeli doctor with Omicron met dozens of people. Just one tested positive.
By Patrick Kingsley
The New York Times
December 2, 2021

Dr. Elad Major of Israel's Sheba Medical Center initially feared that he might have exposed hundreds of people to the virus when he became the first Israeli to test positive for the new Omicron variant on Saturday morning.

In the three days before his positive results, Dr. Maor, a cardiologist, had attended a large staff meeting at his hospital east of Tel Aviv. He had inserted stents into the arteries of 10 patients. And he had driven to a cardiology conference north of Tel Aviv, sharing the 90-minute car journey with a 70-year-old colleague, and lunched there with five others in a crowded canteen.

Dr. Maor, 45, had attended a piano recital with dozens in the audience, where his 13-year-old played a short piece by Stephen Heller, a Hungarian composer. And finally, last Friday night, Dr. Maor had eaten sea bass at the home of his in-laws, together with his wife and nine other family members.

But of these many people, most of whom had received three shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, only his 70-year-old colleague has so far tested positive for the Omicron variant in the five days since.

That number may yet rise, as the virus can take several days to show up in tests, and not every contact has been tested. But at least 50 people have already been screened with a P.C.R. test by Dr. Maor's hospital, the Sheba Medical Center, and at least 10 of those have been tested at least three times.

These initial results have led the infectious disease experts at Sheba, which houses one of Israel's leading coronavirus laboratories, to cautiously hope that people who have been vaccinated three times may not be as vulnerable to Omicron as was first feared.

Though Dr. Maor met with many people last week, almost all of them were health care workers or close family members. And the people he had spent the most time with were fully vaccinated and had even recently had a third "booster" shot.

It is important not to extrapolate too much from isolated cases, said Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the infectious disease epidemiology unit at Sheba, who has helped lead research into the virus. "But this does tell us that, in some cases, Omicron is not as infectious if you're vaccinated," Prof. Regev-Yochay said. "And I think that's a major thing."

To Dr. Maor, who was still in isolation at home on Wednesday night, it was still concerning that he had been hit so hard by the virus, despite being fully vaccinated himself, and despite being a fit non-smoker without any chronic medical conditions. The cardiologist spent Saturday and Sunday in bed with a fever, sore throat and aching muscles - and only began to feel considerably better on Wednesday afternoon.

"Despite everything, despite the vaccines and the booster, I was in bed for 48 hours," Dr. Maor said in a phone interview. "If I didn't have the vaccine, I probably would have ended up in the hospital."

To Prof. Regev-Yochay, the coronavirus expert, her colleague's experience highlighted the need for travelers to keep testing themselves and avoid busy places for a few extra days after arriving from a country with high infection rates.

Dr. Maor arrived back last Wednesday from London, where he had attended another crowded cardiology conference. Because he had tested negative twice in London, and a third time on arrival back in Israel, he had thought he was safe to operate as normal. But his experience highlighted how the virus may not show up in tests for several days.

That shows that ideally, each new arrival to the country would be tested every morning for at least five days after they land, said Prof. Regev-Yochay.

"People should be cautious," she said. "Every day on a daily basis."

 

THE HYPOCRITES' PARADE: ISRAEL'S LEFT IS NOW KOSHERING DIGITAL TRACKING

The hypocrites' parade: Israel's Left is now koshering digital tracking
By Noa Landau
Haaretz (Opinion)
December 1, 2021

As they say in French politics, plus ?a change, plus c'est la m?me chose - the more things change, the more they stay the same. Nothing beats this depressing proverb to describe Israel's "government of change," which has provided another clear example: The Shin Bet security service has resumed tracking to locate people infected with the coronavirus, this time because of the new variant.

Heading the parade of hypocrites is Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who from the opposition benches once demanded that the attorney general block the use of such means without parliamentary oversight. "This is the sort of thing done in dictatorships," he complained.

Now, from his plush ministerial perch, he gives a convoluted explanation: "There is a vast and essential difference between what was done then - sweeping, disproportionate tracking of a huge number of people for a long period - and the very limited thing being done now for just a few days: tracking just a few people."

Suddenly, Horowitz doesn't have a problem using measures he once called dictatorial. Now it's all a question of scope and frequency. "We have approved emergency measures just until Thursday evening," he told television news anchor Yonit Levy as if the Netanyahu government didn't use the exact same excuse when Horowitz slammed it for this same practice.

Citing the principles of "proportionality" and "temporariness" is the last refuge of the liberal scoundrel. These magic words are supposed to make kosher any serious defect in a political system that purports to be fundamentally liberal-democratic. Occupation, censorship, torture, detention without trial - in democratic countries, such undemocratic practices get excused by their "proportionality" and are enshrined in "emergency" regulations that go on forever. The problem with the Shin Bet tracking isn't the degree.

First, from a legal standpoint, as attorney Shachar Ben Meir noted in Haaretz's Hebrew edition, the High Court of Justice ruled that the state must stop using "emergency" bypass routes and "take the highway." So Horowitz's assertion that it's "only for a few days" contradicts the ruling. The High Court also restricted the government to using the Shin Bet only in extreme cases such as when a virus carrier isn't cooperating.

Second, for those who are fond of the security argument, the Shin Bet itself is pleading not to be used this way, for fear of losing the public's trust and exposing the secrets of its tracking tool. (That is, exposure of its flaws would undermine trust in its work methods against the Palestinians.)

Third, to those who tout the usefulness of this method, it has already been shown to be ineffective. And fourth, for fans of the deontological argument, the problem is a fundamental one: the very authorizing, under the Meretz party's watch, of anti-democratic tools to be used on a civilian population in civilian circumstances.

Unlike Horowitz and Meretz's Tamar Zandberg, who reportedly "did not vote in the end," Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar had no trouble voting against - in keeping with his position in the past. He didn't have to go through contortions to explain why he was flip-flopping - he just didn't flip-flop. Once more we see that such contortions are the province of this government's left wing.

Meretz's Mossi Raz outdid them all when he told N12 television news: "Yes, I'm a dishrag, but you also need dishrags to clean up corruption." As he put it, and this is what his friends tell themselves too, "It's not like the alternative is Zehava Galon or Gideon Levy" - Meretz's former chief and the famous Haaretz columnist. This is the attitude that lets Meretz sit in a government that deepens the occupation and ignores settler violence.

In recent days, they've also apparently come to terms with travelers being barred entry into Israel for political reasons; something has resurged at the airport. The red line will be the evacuation of the contested Palestinian village of Khan al-Ahmar or construction in the West Bank's E1 area just east of Jerusalem, Raz says.

All the rest Meretz can swallow as long as its ministers are allowed to speak to the mainstream about health and the environment and consider themselves the ones holding back the dam of corruption - while their colleagues on the right don't sacrifice a thing.

 

COVID-19 AND THE RIGHT TO TRAVEL

Covid-19 and the Right to Travel
By Eugene Kontorovich,
The Wall Street Journal
December 3, 2021

President Biden has followed President Trump's lead in attempting to use international travel bans to reduce the spread of Covid-19. But Mr. Biden is reportedly considering an expansion of the policy. U.S. citizens, permanent residents and their immediate relatives are all exempt from existing travel bans.

The Washington Post reports the administration is considering a mandatory seven-day quarantine for everyone arriving from abroad - regardless of citizenship, vaccination or a negative Covid test. Some observers have urged officials to go further and ban entry by unvaccinated citizens or by citizens returning from high-risk countries

The government has the authority to impose reasonable health inspections at the border. But these measures would go further than anything that has ever been done. They raise significant constitutional questions.

The right to enter their country is an essential element of citizenship. In 1215 the Magna Carta proclaimed: "It shall be lawful for any man to leave and return to our kingdom." In the 20th century, the Supreme Court declared that "the right to travel is part of the 'liberty' of which the citizen cannot be deprived without due process of law under the Fifth Amendment. . . . Freedom of movement is basic in our scheme of values."

The right to re-enter can be subject to reasonable restrictions, including passport requirements and health inspections. Existing law gives the federal government the authority to isolate or quarantine citizens arriving from abroad, but only under narrow circumstances. Federal regulations limit quarantine and isolation to cases in which the individual is known to have been exposed to a communicable disease. Everyone subject to such measures must be provided with "an explanation of the factual basis" for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's belief that he had been exposed or infected.

The existing regulations apply to all arrivals to the U.S. For citizens, the Constitution provides an added protection against blanket restrictions on entry. Universal quarantine requirements for citizens, such as the White House is reportedly considering, aren't based on any particular risk assessment. To the extent they apply to citizens with multiple negative tests, they go beyond what is permitted by existing regulations, while failing to tailor the burden on constitutional rights in any reasonable way.

It is no answer to say that Covid is somehow different. The existing federal quarantine rules were applied to some of the worst known viruses, like Ebola and SARS.

A quarantine isn't a banishment, but it can become one. Early in the pandemic, Australia imposed rigid entry requirements on citizens - a mandatory two-week quarantine and a tight limit on total arrivals. Many Australians were stranded outside their country for months. Such a situation is no longer a dystopian fantasy for Western countries, so it's important to draw constitutional lines early.

A suspicionless quarantine requirement, especially as applied to citizens, erodes basic rights. The government could take many lesser steps, from limiting flights from high-risk places to imposing rigid testing requirements. But a universal quarantine is unreasonable. It would burden even vaccinated citizens coming from places with less infection than the U.S.

Restricting citizens' ability to travel is a hallmark of a police state. Infectious disease will always be with us. It cannot become an excuse to give the federal government carte blanche to control the lives of citizens.

 

OMICRON MAY BE THE FINAL STRAW IN WORLD LEADERS' PATIENCE WITH ANTI-VAXXERS

Omicron may be the final straw in world leaders' patience with anti-vaxxers
By Ido Efrati
Haaretz
December 3, 2021

The outbreak of the omicron variant may be marked in the future as a seminal moment in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic. It is pushing countries around the world toward a weighty decision that leaders, governments and health officials have so far managed to avoid or reject out of hand: whether to make vaccination compulsory.

Omicron is only a random variant of the coronavirus, a series of genetic "typing errors," but its appearance could become a historic event marking the point in the pandemic when an individual's right over his or her body was taken away.

Rightly or not, the appearance of omicron and the rise in infection rates after almost a year of vaccination (in Israel), which was characterized by rises and falls in waves of infections with different variants, is causing leaders and countries to forgo the spirit of tolerance and gentle attempts at persuasion, and instead taking over the steering wheel like a driving instructor when his learner is about to cause a collision. The sense is that the pandemic is breathing down our necks, and leaders are fed up with hesitation, opposition and deliberation.

In recent days and weeks, several countries are taking more extreme action on vaccination, embracing the concept that the only way to contend with the pandemic is by vaccinating the entire population, even as new variants appear. The effectiveness of vaccines with the appearance of each new variant is important, but there is a wide consensus among experts that the coronavirus is not altering its nature or changing completely, and that its scope for change is limited.

Even in its various versions, it is familiar to the immune system, more or less, of people who are vaccinated or recovering, while for unvaccinated people, encountering the virus is like meeting a violent stranger in a dark alley.

Austria recently decided to impose a total lockdown after the virus-induced death rate rose threefold within weeks. Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg announced that from February 1, 2022, vaccination will be mandatory. A few days ago, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said the European Union should consider making vaccination mandatory given the omicron's spread.

Von der Leyen, a physician by profession, expressed her support for countries that have mandated PCR tests before travel within the Union. "We have vaccines, they save lives, but they are not used appropriately everywhere. This exacts a price, a huge cost in health. How can we encourage or think about mandating vaccines within the European Union - this requires a discussion which we must have," she said. She added that the challenge posed by the variant is a race against time, calling to "prepare for the worst."

In Israel, too, one can hear sentiments that have not been heard before. After launching the child vaccination campaign in a spirit of tolerance, without rush, allowing for deliberations, coronavirus chief Prof. Salman Zarka said "all alternatives must be examined, including the one mandating compulsory vaccination."

Israel, where routine vaccination rates are 95 or 98 percent, has never faced such a dilemma. Not when polio broke out in 2013 and not when German measles spread. The corona pandemic is completely different in every parameter, including considerations for and against getting vaccinated.

The attempt to promote compulsory vaccination, if it happens, is expected to lead to friction between the legislative and judiciary branches. It could conceivably lead to the Supreme Court having to rule on whether the risks of the pandemic are such that public health and the requirement to get vaccinated override individual rights involving human dignity and autonomy over one's body.

Yet the appearance of omicron after almost two years of pandemic is not only a cause for despair, a sign that the menace is far from disappearing. It also lays out a new value system, embodied in the attempt to combat the pandemic. Will this solution be a positive or negative one? That depends on one's perspective. At this point, world leaders and professionals increasingly believe that rapid vaccination is the only way out.

 

RESPONDING TO THE OMICRON VARIANT, ISRAEL AND MOROCCO IMPOSE BANS ON ALL FOREIGN TRAVELERS

Responding to the Omicron Variant, Israel and Morocco Impose Bans on All Foreign Travelers
By Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
November 29, 2021

Japan, Israel and Morocco impose bans on all foreign travelers.

Japan on Monday joined Israel and Morocco in sealing its borders to all foreign travelers in response to the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, said that Japan would reverse a move earlier this month to reopen its borders to short-term business travelers and international students. Japan has been closed to tourists since early in the pandemic, a policy it has maintained even as other wealthy nations reopened to vaccinated visitors.

The emergence of the Omicron variant in southern Africa has left countries around the world scrambling to respond, with some instituting or considering sweeping travel bans, while others have put in place more focused, but also more discriminatory, border prohibitions.

Only four weeks ago, Israel fully reopened to vaccinated tourists after it had barred foreign visitors early in the pandemic. But by midnight between Sunday and Monday, its borders were expected to again be closed to foreigners.

Hours after Israel announced its blanket ban over the weekend, Morocco said on Sunday that it would deny entry to all travelers, even Moroccan citizens, for two weeks beginning Monday. The country is banning all incoming and outgoing flights over the two-week period.

The moves by Japan, Israel and Morocco stood in contrast to those in places like the United States, Britain, Canada and the European Union, which have all announced bans on travelers only from southern Africa.

Meanwhile, Indonesia on Monday joined a small but growing list of countries to bar travel with Hong Kong as well as the southern African region. Hong Kong detected two cases of Omicron on Thursday, prompting India, Pakistan and other nations to impose a travel ban.

Those bans have triggered a wave of resentment among Africans who believed that the continent was yet again bearing the brunt of panicked policies from Western countries, which had failed to deliver vaccines and the resources needed to administer them.

In Japan, all foreign travelers except those who are residents of the country will be barred from entering starting at midnight on Monday.

In Israel, all foreign nationals will be banned from entering for at least 14 days, except for urgent humanitarian cases to be approved by a special exceptions committee. Returning vaccinated Israelis will be tested upon landing and must self-quarantine for three days, pending results of another P.C.R. test. Unvaccinated Israelis will have to self-quarantine for seven days.

Israelis returning from countries classified as "red," with high risk of infection, including most African countries, must enter a quarantine hotel until they receive a negative result from the airport test, then transfer to home quarantine (until they get a 7-day PCR test result).

Ran Balicer, the chairman of an expert panel that advises the Israeli government on Covid-19 response, said the decision was temporary and was taken out of prudence because most nations likely are not yet capable of detecting the variant yet.

Japan has yet to report any cases of the new variant, though it is studying a case involving a traveler from Namibia. Israel has identified at least one confirmed case of Omicron so far - a woman who arrived from Malawi - and testing has provided indications of several more likely cases in the country.

Israel only recently emerged from a fourth wave of the virus, when it recorded one of the world's highest rates of daily cases from the Delta strain. Officials attributed the containment of that outbreak to a rapid rollout of booster shots that began in August, after Israeli scientists detected waning immunity in people five or six months after they had received their second Pfizer shot.

In an effort to get ahead of the next crisis, the Israeli government held a drill code-named "Omega" this month to test nationwide preparations for the outbreak of a new, lethal Covid variant.

Israel's Covid policy now revolves around trying to keep the economy fully open and avoid internal lockdowns, while strictly controlling the borders.

But the reimposed entry restrictions have abruptly upended holiday plans for tourists from abroad. Esther Block, from London, has been waiting for the good part of two years to visit lifelong friends in Israel, one of whom is now 87. "We were due to come when Israel first locked down," said Ms. Block, 57, "and we have been postponing ever since."

Ms. Block is vaccinated, was scheduled to get a booster shot next week and also recovered from Covid about four weeks ago. Her teenage son planned to get a second shot next week, so the family had started planning a trip to Israel over the December holidays.

"Now I don't know when I'll be able to come," Ms. Block said. "I feel pretty gutted. But I actually think we should all be doing what Israel is doing," she added. "It seems sensible to be cautious, in spite of it being incredibly frustrating."

 

BENNETT FAMILY VACATION SAID TO ELICIT GRUMBLINGS FROM ALLIES AS WELL AS PM HIMSELF

Bennett family vacation said to elicit grumblings from allies as well as PM himself
Premier's wife reportedly refused requests to cancel her trip; some of PM's coalition partners unhappy about the optics, with tourist industry again hit by restrictions

By Times of Israel staff
December 2, 2021

Some officials in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's office reportedly attempted to convince the premier's wife against going abroad on a family vacation this week, cognizant of the poor optics as Israel's government slapped restrictions on foreign travel in response to a feared outbreak of the Omicron coronavirus strain.

Bennett has come under heavy criticism from across the political spectrum since news broke Wednesday that his wife and children - without the prime minister - were going on vacation overseas, just days after he urged citizens to avoid any unnecessary travel.

The prime minister has attempted to defend the decision by noting that the situation has changed since then and that the family switched its plans to go to a country the government did not forbid travel to.

According to Channel 12 news, there was at least one person in the Prime Minister's Office who tried to get Gilat Bennett to cancel the trip, to an undisclosed location, but she refused.

The channel did not attribute the information to a source.

Bennett himself is unhappy about the trip, the report claimed, quoting him saying that "it doesn't look good," and "harms the public's trust," but to no avail.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, the No. 2 in Bennett's Yamina party, said Thursday that "everyone and their families should make their own decisions when they'll fly and when they won't." Shaked said that the skies remain open for Israelis, and that the most important thing is that all travelers follow the rules, including mandatory quarantine upon their return.

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, meanwhile, said that he believed the decision by Bennett's family "set a poor personal example," though he noted that it was not in violation of any rules or restrictions.

On Friday, as health officials worldwide scrambled to thwart the newly discovered Omicron variant by restricting or closing their borders, Bennett called for Israelis to stay in the country as new travel restrictions took effect.

"If someone asked me, at the moment I wouldn't recommend flying abroad right now amid a level of uncertainty like this," Bennett said during a press conference on Friday.

"Right now, we have to show particular responsibility - we as a government and you as citizens. To stand together, to take responsibility for each other, to be careful," he said in the same address.

But on Wednesday, his office announced that the family would nonetheless be heading abroad, noting "the COVID cabinet decision to leave the skies open for Israelis to travel."

The family will be "observing all guidelines and rules" related to COVID-19, it added. At least one member of the family is not fully vaccinated; last week the prime minister's 9-year-old son David received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

The trip comes as Israel observes the Hanukkah holiday, when most Jewish children have time off from school.

According to the Prime Minister's Office, the family initially planned to travel with the kids to a different location, but switched destinations after the original destination was marked as "red" and barred for travel for Israelis.

All the nations currently listed as "red" are in Africa, where Israel has imposed travel restrictions amid concerns over the new Omicron variant first reported by South Africa. Hebrew media reports said Gilat Bennett and the children had intended to fly to Mauritius.

Meanwhile, Channel 12 news reported that Bennett was considering scrapping a planned trip to the United Arab Emirates this month amid the uncertainty surrounding the Omicron variant.

The Kan public broadcaster reported that complaints about the Bennett family trip were heard from inside the coalition.

The report said an unnamed minister had argued that the prime minister should have set a personal example, while another said the Bennett trip could make citizens feel that the recommendation not to travel was no longer valid. A third unnamed source told the outlet that the incident was damaging for the government's image.

In a Knesset speech last year, Bennett declared, "We don't only have to run a state. We have to set a personal example."

Meanwhile, an unnamed senior member of the travel industry told Channel 12 news that thousands of Israelis had canceled trips abroad in the wake of the recommendation not to travel, while the ban on foreigners visiting had caused "great damage to the tourism industry."

Several lawmakers in former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition Likud party criticized Bennett after the announcement of the trip, which came days after the prime minister said he would recommend Israelis avoid flying abroad for nonessential travel because of Omicron.

"That's how it is when the political lies become the norm and personal example is publicly trampled. Simply impertinent," Likud MK Israel Katz tweeted.

Bennett later pushed back against the criticism.

"I understand the criticism, but since Friday we've learned a lot more about the variant and in which countries it's spreading, and the cabinet made decisions about which countries it's permitted to travel to and under which conditions," the prime minister wrote on Facebook.

He said his family had chosen a new destination after learning of the new travel restrictions. "They are all going in accordance with the restrictions and, of course, will be in quarantine as is required," he said.

He also said he did not believe there were current grounds for "hermetically" sealing Israel's borders to air travel.

Along with barring travel to numerous African countries, the government has also banned foreigners from entering Israel and required those returning from abroad spend at least three days in quarantine.

The travel restrictions, which came into effect on Sunday night, will remain in place for at least 14 days.

Bennett has defended the new measures, which include the controversial use of phone tracking to locate suspected Omicron infections, citing the uncertainty around the new variant.

 

FACEBOOK TAKES DOWN CHINESE NETWORK BEHIND FAKE SWISS BIOLOGIST COVID CLAIMS

Facebook takes down Chinese network behind fake Swiss biologist Covid claims
Meta says misinformation spread by fictional scientist called Wilson Edwards focused on US blaming pandemic on China

By Dan Milmo, Global technology editor
The Guardian
December 3, 2021

Facebook's owner has taken down a Chinese misinformation network that attempted to spread claims about coronavirus using a fake Swiss biologist.

Meta, the parent organisation of Facebook and Instagram, said it had taken down more than 600 accounts linked to the network, which it said included a "coordinated cluster" of Chinese state employees.

Meta said the network focused on a fake Swiss biologist named Wilson Edwards who first emerged on 24 July 2021, claiming in Facebook and Twitter posts that the United States was pressuring the World Health Organization to blame the virus on China. Within a week, Chinese state media outlets, including the Global Times and People's Daily, ran headlines linked to Edwards' posts about US "intimidation".

The details were included in Meta's "coordinated inauthentic behaviour" [CIB] report, which also revealed it had taken down networks in Palestine**, Belarus and Poland. Meta describes CIB as "coordinated efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal where fake accounts are central to the operation".

** [Tom Gross adds: These were 141 Facebook accounts and 21 Instagram accounts based in the Gaza Strip, Hamas-linked pages spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories and encouraging violence against Jews, as well as opposing Fatah.]

Meta said the "sprawling and unsuccessful" Chinese misinformation network targeted audiences in the US, the UK, and Chinese-speaking audiences in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet. It removed 524 Facebook accounts, 20 pages, four groups, and 86 accounts on Instagram related to the network, which Meta said was linked to individuals at Chinese state infrastructure companies around the world - including civil engineering, power generation, telecoms and transport businesses - and employees of a mainland information security firm called Sichuan Silence Information Technology, which works with state bodies including the Ministry of Public Security.

Meta said Wilson Edwards' Facebook post was a lengthy text which claimed that "WHO sources and a number of fellow researchers" had complained of "enormous pressure and even intimidation" from the US over the WHO's plan for a renewed Covid origins investigation. It was then amplified in a coordinated manner by the network using a mix of fake and authentic accounts. Meta said the campaign appeared not to have worked because "these efforts failed to attract any noticeable authentic engagement".

On 10 August the Swiss embassy in Beijing said it had no record of a citizen called Wilson Edwards and Facebook removed the account. Meta said the account had been created on 24 July, 12 hours before the fake biologist started posting on the social network. The company added that some of the 200 fake accounts that boosted the Wilson Edwards content within hours of it being posted had profile pictures created by an artificial intelligence programme.

"In essence, this campaign was a hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting a single fake persona," said the report. "Our investigation uncovered that almost the entire initial spread of the 'Wilson Edwards' story on our platform was inauthentic - the work of a multi-pronged, largely unsuccessful influence operation that originated in China."

Meta said it identified Chinese state involvement in the proliferation of the Edwards content. It said the operation involved the original fake account, several hundred other fake accounts and a "cluster" of authentic accounts, including ones that belonged to employees of state infrastructure companies around the world. There were also links to an information security company called Sichuan Silence Information Technology.

"This is the first time we have observed an operation that included a coordinated cluster of state employees to amplify itself in this way," said the report. The investigation also found that Chinese government officials interacted with the content less than an hour after it was first posted.

 

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