This Israeli Arab Town Is Becoming a COVID Vaccine Attraction

Since there’s no requirement to receive the second shot in the same place, Baka al-Garbiyeh has become a vaccine attraction for people driving by

Nir Tsadok
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A coronavirus vaccination is administered in Baka al-Garbiyeh, December 30, 2020.
A coronavirus vaccination is administered in Baka al-Garbiyeh, December 30, 2020. Credit: Amir Levy
Nir Tsadok

Not even one more Mazda could squeeze into the parking lot of the Clalit HMO clinic in the Arab-Israeli city of Baka al-Garbiyeh. Two parking attendants directed traffic as though they were working at a wedding hall rather than a medical clinic.

Before trying his luck at parking, one driver asked the first person he saw with a name badge: “Any chance of getting a vaccine?” meaning: I don’t meet the criteria for the first round but I’ll try my luck. He must have figured that if the lockdown is being loosely enforced, so are the criteria for vaccines, and it should be worth something that he had already driven all the way there. He’s not a day over 50, and the shots are at the moment supposed to be for people over 60, but after all, we’re all Israelis.

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The head of Clalit’s Samaria administration, Dr. Orly Reches, told him there was no chance, but he hasn’t worn a mask for 10 months for nothing. He persisted: “Come on, no chance?”

City Councilor Leptin Biadasi, the coronavirus coordinator of this centrally located Israeli Arab city, says he has a dream – that the day will come when the Clalit parking lot needs more than two attendants to direct traffic. “We are encouraging people to get vaccinated, but there are roadblocks and prejudices,” he says.

It’s worse than in the Jewish community; here the fear has more room to fester because there’s no awareness or campaigns. We need to be creative and think how to crack the code and not allow room for people who spout conspiracy theories.

Other forces have taken over the gap between the high vaccine stock and the low demand. Since there’s no requirement to receive the second shot in the same place, Baka al-Garbiyeh has become a quick route to getting on the list, as opposed to waiting lists in places like Binyamina and Hadera. Since the first doses of vaccine arrived, Baka’s Clalit clinic has vaccinated some 2,000 people in three days, about 75 percent of them Jewish Israelis.

Leah, 91, who came from Gan Hashomron with her son, told Haaretz: “My wife had an appointment for January 26 and she got her shot here yesterday.” Ahi Frank, from Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud, was also there, following a friend of his who went on the Clalit website and found that Baka was the place with the nearest appointment, geography- and calendar-wise.

A woman from Kfar Ornaim who asked not to be identified said: “I was here by chance and they told me you can get your shot without an appointment. The service is great. I’m not yet 60, but it’s better than throwing it away, right?” She was referencing how once taken out of the freezer the vaccines must be administered within 72 hours or get tossed in the trash.

Biadasi likes the idea of immunization tourism and not only because we’re all human. He sees it as a way of getting people to visit his city who would normally just stay on Highwat 6 and give it a miss. “They say ‘we’re neighbors,’ how clean it is, how orderly. We want people to get to know the place. I want people to come here not only for vaccines, to enjoy the place, to do their shopping here,” he says. “People say ‘we heard young people can get vaccinated here without an appointment,’ but we can’t let that happen because word will spread like wildfire and it will be crowded and a mess.”

Inside the clinic there are six vaccination stations. There’s still a sign on the door barring entry to people with symptoms or people returning from Thailand, Hong Kong, Macau and China, as if in Spain and Italy the situation is all under control. It’s very crowded. Most people meet the critieria for being vaccinated at this time, but not all. A 44-year-old man who is a vaccination doubter had come to the clinic for some other reason, and the nurse wouldn’t let up until he agreed to be vaccinated.

“It’s heart-rending that response is so low in Baka,” said the clinic director, Dr. Murad Watad. “In the Jewish community they’re fighting for every dose and so I asked the municipality to launch a campaign because it would be a shame to lose out. We’ll vaccinate anybody who shows up, no doubt, but it’s a pity for the city’s residents not to take advantage of what they have at their disposal.”

Dr. Abdallah Watad says that in the Arab community there are still people who don’t believe the coronavirus exists, and have even gotten as far as conspiracy theories about the vaccine. “There’s a lot of misinformation on social media. People asked how the vaccine got developed in a year, and how safe it is long-term. We have a negative attitude in our community; we’re conspiracy-prone for some reason,” he says.

Nidal, 59, a driving teacher, is not conspiracy-prone. “I see this as my personal obligation, to protect myself and my family. The past 10 months have been a burden on us in living our lives as we should. I welcome people from the outside, but I would like to see our older adults from Baka here, too,” he says. One such Baka resident, 75, was waiting his turn nervously. He wants to be healthy too, but he has other reasons: “I’m a soccer fan and I want to go see Maccabi Haifa take the championship.”

Baka’s mayor, Riad Daka, sees the attraction of being vaccinated in his city as proof that Baka al-Garbiyeh has become a “local metropolis.” He blames the low response of the Arab community to widespread disappointment in the authorities’ failure to deal with violence in their community, which has cracked their faith in the government including the vaccinations being offered.

“The worst pandemic in the Arab community is organized crime. ‘Violence’ doesn’t describe it properly. The most basic service the state should provide its citizens is personal security and the police don’t provide it….we’ve had to beg for our personal security,” Daka said.

As Leptin Biadasi sees it the inoculations can help end the violence. “The economic advantages of a return to normalcy are clear,” he says.

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