As Fake News Fades and Sanctions Fears Grow, More Israeli Bedouin Are Getting Vaccinated

Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri
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The Clalit HMO's coronavirus vaccination center in the Bedouin town of Rahat.
The Clalit HMO's coronavirus vaccination center in the Bedouin town of Rahat.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri

Medical staff at Clalit Health Services clinics in the Negev have been uncommonly hopeful over the past several days. Two months after the beginning of the coronavirus vaccination campaign, the numbers of Bedouin being vaccinated has begun to climb.

Over the past week, the numbers being vaccinated per day has doubled. On Monday, a new daily high of 1,604 Israeli Bedouin were inoculated against the virus. The Clalit HMO attributes the turnout to less suspicion among the Bedouin regarding the vaccine as well as government declarations about possible sanctions against those who refuse to be vaccinated.

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With the exception of the weekend, Clalit, Israel’s largest HMO, which serves most of the Bedouin in the Negev, has been administering more than 1,000 vaccinations per day among the Bedouin population. On Thursday of last week, 1,267 people were vaccinated. The figure climbed on Monday to 1,442 and on Tuesday to 1,604. For purposes of comparison, earlier last week, the daily vaccination count was running between 595 and 727.

Despite the uptick, the pace at which Bedouin Negev residents are turning out for coronavirus vaccinations still lags far behind the figures for the Negev’s Jewish communities. In Be’er Sheva, 65 percent of Clalit’s members have been vaccinated, compared to 28 percent in the nearby Rahat; 15 percent in Tel Sheva; and just 12 percent in Arara, all three of which are Bedouin communities.

A coronavirus awareness sign in Arara, in December.Credit: Amir Levy

According to data from Clalit, of its 756,000 Bedouin patients, only about 290,000 (38.3 percent) have received their first dose of the vaccine, while 160,000 (21.3 percent) have also received their second dose. The vaccination rate among all of Clalit’s patients is much higher: 71.7 percent for the first dose, and 49.9 percent for the second.

The Clalit clinic in Rahat, the Israeli city with the largest Bedouin population, is also the busiest. On the first day that COVID vaccinations were administered there nearly two months ago, most of the seats in waiting areas were occupied by older Jews from the nearby moshav and kibbutz cooperative farming communities. Very few Arabs were coming at the time for their shots.

Shifa, who manages the vaccination center, said that, on average, from the beginning of the campaign through last week, about 400 people per day were being vaccinated but in the last several days, the rate jumped to about 650 a day.

“It’s not only the number [of people]. At first, almost all those being vaccinated here were Jews, who even came here from Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan to be vaccinated,” she said. “Very slowly, it became half and half, and now you barely see Jews. Almost everyone is Bedouin.”

Jamil Abu Balilat, 45, a father of 10 from Rahat, was sitting following his first dose. Although he could have received it a few weeks earlier, he took his time, primarily due to concerns stoked by misinformation on social media.

Nurse Galit Levy at the Clalit vaccination center in Rahat. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“They said it was dangerous, that it had side effects. Some said they were performing experiments on us,” he remarked. “That influenced me, but in the end I came. I became convinced after I saw that a lot of people had been vaccinated and nothing significant happened to them.”

Sixty-five-year-old Kamal Abu Zaid of Rahat had had open-heart surgery. He too initially avoided getting vaccinated due to concerns based on fake news. “I’m still afraid of it, but I went to my doctor and he told me that in my condition, I should have been vaccinated some time ago.”

Abu Zaid has 18 children, none of whom have yet been vaccinated. “All of them are afraid. I believe that after I’m vaccinated, if nothing happens to me, they will come too,” he said.

Shifa, the vaccination center manager, concurred that the degree of suspicion over the vaccine has been on the decline over time, but she also attributed the upturn in the number of Bedouin coming in for the vaccination to the possibility that the government will bar access to certain locations to those who have not been vaccinated.

“People tell me that their workplaces have begun pressuring them to be vaccinated. They were told that if they didn’t get vaccinated, their jobs would be at risk,” she said. “In addition, people want to fly to Mecca. They’ve realized that without the vaccine, they can’t travel.”

An election poster in Rahat, last year.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The increase in the number of people turning out for vaccinations cuts across all segments of the country’s Arab population, including men, women, the elderly and young people, Shifa noted.

“The truth is that I don’t believe in the vaccine,” said Nahla Abu Zaid, 50, who works as a teacher at a school in Rahat. “I didn’t want the vaccine at all, but the Education Ministry told us to go and get vaccinated. I’m still a bit afraid, but nevertheless, I got vaccinated.”

A few dozen kilometers from the busy clinic in Rahat is a rather empty clinic in Arara. There, too, the number of vaccinations administered has jumped over the past several days, even though the numbers are considerably smaller.

“Prior to last week, we were vaccinating 35 to 40 people a day with the first dose,” said Tasneem Abu Ayash, a nurse at the clinic. “In the past few days, we’ve been vaccinating a little over 100.”

As in Rahat, Abu Ayash said most of those coming for vaccinations have said they decided to do so due to their jobs or out of concern that they would not be permitted to fly abroad. The Bedouin community is suspicious of the coronavirus vaccine in the same way that it’s suspicious of other vaccines, she said. Vaccination rates for the flu shot are also low, but since the government began talking about penalizing those who fail to be vaccinated, concern about the vaccine itself has become less of a factor, she added.

Jamil Abu Balilat at the Clalit vaccination center in Rahat.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Not everyone agrees that the possible sanctions are the major factor. Dr. Fuad al-Sana, Clalit’s regional director for the southern Negev, has other explanations for the increase in vaccination rates. “We’ve gotten through the wave of fake news, which was tough,” he said. “People had had their fill of all the false claims and more and more are now listening to the professionals. The other factor is that time has passed. People have been vaccinated and everyone has seen that they didn’t wake up with a tail,” he quipped.

Al-Sana also noted that more young Bedouin than in the past have become infected with COVID-19 recently.

He welcomed the recent uptick the pace of vaccinations but said that bridging the gap with vaccination rates among the Israeli population as a whole will require a pace of 2,500 Bedouin per day for a considerable period, actually doubling the daily rate.

“I believe that we will be successful. We have 24 vaccination stations in the Bedouin community, and their presence enables us to reach everywhere.”

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