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Israeli healthcare system struggling despite successful COVID vaccination campaign 

Doctors go on nationwide strike to draw attention to poor conditions

Medical interns demonstrate for better work conditions in Tel Aviv, May 10, 2021. (Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

While much of the world is still struggling with the pandemic, Israeli society is reopening and gradually returning back to life after an efficient COVID vaccination campaign that has been praised worldwide. 

The Jewish state succeeded in cutting the number of active virus cases from more than 80,000 at its peak in early February to less than 1,000 active cases today. However, Israeli medical professionals are threatening a nation-wide strike due to lack of funding, shifting the focus back to Israel’s severe and chronic healthcare crisis that precedes the pandemic. 

On Monday, Israeli doctors and other medical professionals staged a nationwide “warning strike” in protest against what they perceive as unfair working conditions, lack of funding and government plans to fire some 600 professionals who were employed to strengthen the COVID wards during the Corona crisis. As part of the strike, some 300 intern doctors and medical students briefly blocked Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Junction in protest against extremely long work shifts during their training. Despite the looming strike, most hospitals will continue operating in an emergency format. 

Professor Zion Hagay, chairman of the Israel Medical Association accused the Finance Ministry of risking the health of the Israeli public and neglecting the healthcare system for decades. 

"We are here to protest the Finance Ministry’s forceful behavior and intention to fire 600 doctors who worked in coronavirus wards. The Israeli health system has been left to starve for decades… Today we are fighting to make the health system stronger and sturdier,” said Hagay. 

Israel’s Health Minister Yuli Edelstein backed the medical professionals and expressed understanding for the strike. 

“My heart goes out to them, their demands are justified. The Finance Ministry and the government are both committed not only not to fire the medical staff recruited during the coronavirus crisis, but to add more. Our response should be to increase budgets, not to cut them,” said Edelstein. 

The Finance Ministry justified its decision to fire hundreds of medical professionals by linking it to the declining need for coronavirus wards. 

“As part of the aid given, the health and finance ministers agreed in July 2020 on additional funding for more staff to man the hospitals’ dedicated coronavirus wards, of which only 10% remain active today.” 

While factually correct regarding the receding pandemic crisis in Israel, the Finance Ministry’s response reveals the short-sightedness of Israeli government institutions. As the Health Minister pointed out, Israel’s healthcare system has been severely underfunded for decades. In late January, ALL ISRAEL NEWS reported that Israel’s public hospitals were on the verge of collapse due to severe underfunding and shortage of qualified personnel. 

Israel invests less in its healthcare system than most advanced OECD countries, according to the “Health at a Glance” report from 2019. The Jewish state reportedly spends approximately $2,780 per person per year. By comparison, average OECD countries invest $4,000 per person. Israel’s medical spending only constitutes 7.5% of its GDP compared to the OECD average of 8.8%.

Consequently, Israel currently has fewer hospital beds than most other advanced countries and fewer doctors per capita than the OECD average. Due to the country’s aging medical personnel force, Israel is facing a severe shortage of doctors in the future. In order to reverse this negative trend, significantly more government funds and more medical professionals need to be infused into Israel’s collapsing healthcare system. 

The striking contrast between Israel’s successful and rapid COVID vaccination program and its long neglected and underfunded healthcare system is not a coincidence. At its core, it illustrates Israel’s fundamental strengths and weaknesses. Existing in a dangerous and volatile region has forced the Jewish state to sharpen its ability to respond quickly to numerous short-term serious challenges, such as the pandemic or security threats. The ascent of Israel’s start-up tech industry also owes its existence to Israel’s ability to quickly find solutions to short-term challenges. By contrast, long-term strategic planning, such as a properly funded and staffed healthcare system or a stable government, remain Israel’s Achilles heel.  

Israel’s flexible tactical skills saved the day more than once for the often-embattled country. At 73, it is long overdue for Israel to hone its long-term strategic skills as well. 

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The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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