Miss Universe Jamboree Is Israel’s Biggest COVID Gamble

·5 min read
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

JERUSALEM—When Israel announced they were hosting this year’s Miss Universe pageant just four months ago, the country’s tourism minister was jubilant. “I fully hope that in December we will be celebrating not only the new Miss Universe here in Israel,” he said. “But most importantly, the end of the world pandemic!”

He may have spoken too soon.

The new Omicron variant was detected in Israel just as the contestants were getting off long-haul flights and settling into their quarantine hotels.

On Monday, two weeks before the December 12 gala is scheduled to take place, Miss France, Clémence Botino, tested positive.

Like many of her fellow contestants, Botina landed in Israel just hours before an almost total ban on the entry of tourists was imposed after Israel identified the first two cases of the Omicron variant in-country, one of which was identified in a Guinean hotel employee who bolted from her “corona hotel” near Tel Aviv and took a public bus to Eilat, nearly a 4-hour journey.

Two Jerusalem doctors, one a thrice-vaccinated cardiologist who recently returned from a conference in London, were diagnosed with the new strain on Tuesday. The country is currently tracking 32 other suspected cases of the new strain.

Once they are released from their hotels, the Miss Universe contestants and the vast band of organizers, photographers, and hangers-on will embark on a mind-boggling tour around the country ensuring that any potential virus cases are spread far and wide from the rugged Red Sea coastline to the Mediterranean party town of Tel Aviv, via Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.

You can see why organizers may have been complacent, the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to be winding down, in Israel, the self-styled ‘Vaccination Nation’, where 45 percent of citizens are triple vaxxed. We “needed to create tourism anchors” promoting Israel to the world as a safe and attractive destination, Yoel Razvozov, the minister of tourism said in October.

Instead, headlines in the first week of the gala are now focused on COVID. An ambulance took Miss France from the hotel to a solitary quarantine, where, she later said in a teary Instagram post, she expected to remain for the next 10 days.

“I cried a lot today,” she wrote, saying she felt weak and had lost her sense of taste and smell but was being well cared for by the Miss Universe Organization. Officials said Botino was fully vaccinated, and it was not yet clear if she had been infected by the Omicron variant.

Upon landing on Sunday night, Botino, a 24-year-old Guadeloupean, posted a giddy Instagram story. “Hi!,” she started, wearing a fetching Gautier mini sweater dress striped to evoke a French fisherman's jumper. All contestants for the December 12, 2021 gala event were greeted at Ben Gurion airport by welcome signs urging, “THINK POSITIVE; TEST NEGATIVE.”

“I'm in the hotel room,” Botino said, twirling to reveal her dress’ bare back and joyfully showing off her brand new luggage provided by a trendy customizable Parisian brand.

“Everything is great,” she reported. Tonight we’re quarantining in our hotel rooms while we wait for our PCR results from the tests we had at the airport. So, anyway, I’m so happy! I’ve met some of the girls. To be honest… they’re super nice. There’s really a great vibe. We talk about everything. I’m nervous ahead of meeting my roommate tomorrow. I don’t yet know who it’ll be!"

It was not to be, and around 80 fellow contestants—some countries have already pulled out due to the pandemic—are now being even more rigorously tested. Miss Universe officials did not expect Botino would be able to rejoin the competition.

Hagai Levine, a professor of public health at Hebrew University, said the gathering of contestants from all over the world just highlighted the way vaccine inequality and the failure of international cooperation had proved so costly during the pandemic.

“Miss Universe, specifically, is an event that should be leveraged to show that we’re all in this together,” Levine told The Daily Beast. “With the women competing representing most nations on earth, we should acknowledge that we as humanity have failed. At the crucial moment, we didn’t display solidarity.”

When announcing Eilat as the location for the upcoming pageant, Paula M. Shugart, the president of the Miss Universe Organization, had suggested the contest would help to foster a sense of international unity, noting that the company “has the distinct advantage of bringing a global spotlight to world issues.”

But Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, said that the most important event relating to the spread of the virus would take place on Tuesday, in distant and frigid Geneva, where the World Trade Organization is slated once again to debate the possibility of waiving the intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments for pharmaceutical companies that have already seen unprecedented profits from their products. “The Omicron variant should make it very clear that no one is safe until everyone is safe, and it seems a bit in poor taste that some of these women come from nations without access to vaccines,” Levine said.

While some observers wondered about the wisdom of the event itself, Levine was more sanguine. Like the Olympics, he said, a major event of this nature can be held if authorities deem it important enough and acknowledge the impossibility of a “zero COVID policy,” and handle distancing and testing correctly, as at the Tokyo Olympics.

“We are in a complex reality. This could provide some cheer to millions around the world,” he said, acknowledging that others have suggested “there could be more important events.”

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