Israeli health officials are concerned over a relatively small number of the country's Arab community that has so far received a coronavirus vaccine, but they struggle to identify any one reason for the lower inoculation rate compared to the general population.
As of Monday, according to Health Ministry figures, only 45 percent of people 60 and older from Arab towns and cities went to get the first dose of the vaccine. Among the general population, this figure was at 74 percent.
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According to figures from Thursday, between 125,000 and 130,000 residents of Arab cities have been vaccinated. Only 45,000 of them are 60 or older, and the rest are people with preexisting medical conditions or health workers, who are also among the first priority groups in Israel's vaccination drive.
As Haaretz reported over the past few weeks, the COVID-19 vaccination centers in Arab towns are filled mostly with Jews who came there specifically to get vaccine doses that otherwise would gone to waste.
Health officials point to a range of possible reasons to explain the poor response in the Arab community, including apathy, lack of information and PR in Arabic, mistrust in the health system and accessibilty issues.
Ayman Saif, who leads Israel's coronavirus response for the Arab community, agrees that there is no single explanation for the low vaccination rate. "It's related to public relations and also accessibility, when it comes to the elderly population that doesn't always have the tools to make an appointment or to independently turn to vaccination centers outside their town," he said.
Dr. Raed Haj Yahya, the head of the Meuhedet Health Services branch in Taibeh, told Haaretz that out of 238 of the HMO's members aged 60 and up, only 100 have been vaccinated. "We called people personally and invited them, and many asked to wait for a week or two," he said. "It seems the fear of the vaccine is real. Now with the second dose, we are clearly seeing more requests to receive the first dose.”
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This problem becomes especially critical in the unrecognized Bedouin villages in Israel's south, which lack basic services and infrastructure the state refuses to provide.
Dr. Naim Abu Freiha, who heads the association of Arab doctors in the Negev, called on authorities to provide mobile vaccination stations to these communities. "We also need to approach the population directly and not to wait for them to make an appointment for the vaccine through a website or an application, which can be a serious barrier for them," he added.
The emergency corornavirus committee of experts for the Arab community cited accessibility as a main obstacle, particularly when it comes to senior citizens. It argues inoculation rates were much higher in Arab cities where special vaccination stations were set up. Indeed, figures point to a massive discrepency between vaccination rates in cities that set up local vaccination centers and communities that didn't.
The committee urged Health Minister Yuli Edelstein this week to order more vaccination centers open, saying that only eight out of the 69 stations set up so far by the Clalit HMO – which the committee says serves about 85 percent of Israel's Arabs – were in Arab communities.
Clalit Health Services gave a different figure, saying they already opened 30 vaccination centers, with seven more expected on Sunday.
Prof. Nihaya Daoud from Ben-Gurion University’s School of Public Health, who serves on expert panels advising the government on its coronavirus response, stressed that many Arabs over 60 are limited in terms of traveling outside their town, have little interaction with the Jewish society and are also less represented in the workforce, and so "their motivation to be vaccinated is lower."
She also cited digital skills, needed in order to make appointments online, as another reason barring them from getting vaccinated.
"There is an accumulation of a lack of trust in the system," argued Dr. Mohammed Khatib, a public health specialist. "But there is a lot of fake news and unreliable information that flows in the Arab community, mostly on social media, and which greatly influences wide segments of the population. We need to increase awareness of the vaccinations and conduct public relations in a focused manner on social media and the media in the Arab community."