Israel’s summer-long struggle against the virulent delta version of COVID has strained tempers and resources, and cost approximately 1,000 lives in the past six weeks alone. Like some other Western countries, one of Israel’s chief obstacles in the fight against COVID is citizens who decline to be vaccinated.
The Israeli unvaccinated hail from a variety of social communities and, as such, their reasons for abstaining vary. Polls show that fear of side effects (or "fear the vaccine will damage health") is the top reason, while others found that many unvaccinated believe recovered patients have sufficient immunity – among the factors driving lower rates within the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities, who were hard-hit by the disease.
But it is the subset who have become anti-vaxxer missionaries and their arguments, now familiar worldwide, that drives the social debate to polarization, rage or naked nastiness. Oddly, some of them may well be vaccinated themselves. Yet this group has developed a tangled web of arguments to oppose all existing and future evidence about vaccine safety and effectiveness, and spread them all around.
The themes include skepticism about the severity of COVID individually and socially, conspiracy to suppress vaccine side effects or ineffectiveness, delegitimization of medical and public health leaders, corporate conflicts of interest.
This group places profound weight on obscure social media sources, while dismissing peer-reviewed published research studies especially when reported in irreparably discredited "mainstream media."
One vaccine skeptic summarized the argument to me succinctly: politicians, pharmaceutical companies and the media have squandered public trust with lies over the years.
It’s a fair point in general – there is a history of suspicion, born of experience about both. ‘Big Pharma’ lied about opioids as one spectacular example; politicians have lies in their DNA. Certain media outlets may actually lie; more commonly, the media can get things wrong.
But I wish this extremely vocal group would consider another important voice: their own fellow citizens.
It’s hard to quantify the ideological anti-vaxxer group, but several indicators show that they represent a precious few in society.
In mid-August, Israel Democracy Institute’s Voice Index survey asked those who remain unvaccinated about their reasons. Like in the U.S., the top response was fear of "damage to health" or side effects (29 percent).
The conspiratorial mindset that "the vaccinations are just a result of economic/political interests" ranked dead last among the reasons – just eight percent among the Israeli unvaccinated selected this response. Similarly, an August academic study identified a subset of the unvaccinated who said they did not intend to get the shot (about eight percent of the total population). Within those, only six percent held the ideological position of opposing all vaccines.
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Further, if only 12 percent are currently unvaxxed, as many as 88 percent of eligible Israelis have voted with their arms. The number shows that vaccine support has largely conquered Israel’s notoriously fractured political spectrum.
Israelis also show widespread support for restrictions on the unvaccinated. In early August, Israel reintroduced the green pass system requiring proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test for the unvaccinated, for indoor establishments and large outdoor gatherings.
The vocal anti-vaxxer crowd has decried the policy as segregation and discrimination, unleashing a grotesque display of Holocaust imagery to imply that the rules will lead to scapegoating and destruction.
Their fellow citizens do not agree. The mid-August Voice Index survey found that just 15 percent of Israelis said the restrictions on unvaccinated people are too severe. Nearly twice as many (29 percent) said the restrictions are appropriate. And the largest group, 49 percent, said the restrictions on unvaccinated people were not strict enough.
Does this mean that the majority is always right? Certainly not. I oppose majoritarian democracy and tyranny of the majority as vigorously as Alexis de Tocqueville, if less illustriously.
But consider the likely reasons why such a strong majority – fully 78 percent – support current or further restrictions on the unvaccinated. Israelis have already lived through three severe lockdowns, and everyone felt the pain; in their strictest moments, we were limited to traveling only 100 meters from our homes, or 200-500 meters for longer phases.
Millions experienced the agony of material and economic damage. At its peak, unemployment reached nearly 30 percent, affecting over one million people.
The lower strata of society were hit hardest and the economic crisis deepened Israel’s inequality, according to Karnit Flug, former governor of the Bank of Israel. There was a 13 percent rise in the number of Israelis seeking help from food banks ahead of the High Holydays, a spike in food insecurity attributed to the ongoing COVID crisis.
This shouldn’t be a surprise: the industries hit hardest – tourism, service, entertainment – ripped the financial rug out from the lowest earners. The richest, especially those who work in high-tech, did fine. High-tech helped keep Israel’s macro-economic losses manageable. But anyone concerned with the most economically vulnerable – not to mention the most mentally or emotionally vulnerable – knows that lockdown is the killer.
But as a result of Israel’s high vaccination rate, alongside mild social restrictions, even the delta surge has not yet led to a fourth lockdown.
Israel’s daily case rates shot back up in July, along with severe illness and hospitalizations. Hospital units are strained, health workers exhausted, and perhaps frustrated with the unvaxxed, who by mid-September made up about two-thirds of severe cases, all new confirmed cases and half of all deaths from COVID in August). But the system has not been overwhelmed. Schools have reopened, there were few holiday restrictions, and the economy is whirring along.
In response, vocal anti-vaxxers argue that vaccination or lockdown is a false choice, claiming that vaccines have no social impact and protect only the individual.
The scientific fallacy is obvious even to non-scientists: Even if delta is transmitted at the same rate by vaxxed or unvaxxed, and even if Pfizer protects against infection at a disappointing rate of 39 percent at the lowest estimate, instead of the astronomical upper 90 percent range of the earliest estimates, that’s still fewer people getting, and thereby spreading, COVID to others.
And even one less infection means fewer severe cases, less burden on hospitals and the health care system, and less chance of lockdown.
Opposing vaccines means either denying science or denying our neighbors; most likely, neighbors less fortunate than the missionaries themselves. Proselytizing anti-vaxxers make many claims, but it’s critical to remember that they do not represent the people. They act in no one’s interest, probably not even their own.
Dahlia Scheindlin is a political scientist and public opinion expert, and a policy fellow at The Century Foundation. Twitter: @dahliasc