Hundreds of migrant workers and asylum seekers stood in a line snaking across a parking lot in south Tel Aviv Tuesday morning, eagerly awaiting their first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m so relieved,” said Andrew Kamau, a 46-year-old Kenyan asylum seeker who has lived in Israel for two years, as he patiently waited his turn. He found out about the opportunity through his job as an office cleaner. His boss, he said, sent him the information and instructed him to come. He was happy to comply, he said.
The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality and Ichilov Hospital kicked off the first vaccination campaign on Tuesday, aiming to inoculate the country’s tens of thousands of asylum seekers and migrant workers, hailing from countries across Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.
The size of the crowd, and its tangible excitement at the opportunity for a vaccine – and people’s willingness to wait in the hot, mid-morning sunshine to receive one – contrasted with the many Israeli COVID-19 vaccine centers now standing empty due to the hesitance or indifference of many of the country’s younger citizens when it comes to being vaccinated.
Behind Kamau, a group of men and women from the Philippines – veteran residents who had learned of the vaccination campaign from Facebook – were in a celebratory mood, treating the event as a fun group outing.
Lisa, Heidi, Ida and Eric have all been in Israel for more than 20 years and live near each other in Tel Aviv. For them, the vaccine opportunity was a bright spot in a dark time for Israel’s community of foreign workers. Many of them had been laid off multiple times as their employers shuttered during the past three lockdowns.
As foreigners ineligible for unemployment insurance, they were undergoing particularly tough economic times. “But we’re thrilled they’re doing this,” Lisa said.“We know about the situation of foreign workers in other countries when it comes to vaccines and feel lucky. This shows that Israel has a human heart.”
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After reaching the front of the line, the foreign workers were asked to fill out a short form asking only for their age, passport number and basic health information – in keeping with a promise that no information would be taken that might compromise them to the immigration authorities. After showing their documents and submitting the forms, they went upstairs to the vaccination stations inside the Platform (in non-COVID times, a social-urban innovation center run by the municipality).
The center intends to operate six days a week, vaccinating as many as 2,000 people daily. By the end of the first day, 660 people had been vaccinated.
Following her shot, Rachel, a 41-year-old Nigerian caregiver, sat on a bench to recover. Smiling, she said she was “feeling very, very good” and was “really surprised that they’re giving this to us for free.”
She learned about the vaccination opportunity on social media and said being vaccinated “will help protect my patient – the woman I take care of every day.”
Considerably less happy were those denied vaccinations after an announcement was made shortly after the facility opened that foreigners with A-2 student visas would not be eligible to receive shots. This group included both graduate students working in the country’s universities and participants in Masa, the Jewish Agency’s internship or gap year program.
The disappointed members of these groups said they felt misled by publicity that the South Tel Aviv vaccination drive would be open to the entire foreign population aged 16 and above.
Three Tel Aviv University graduate students stood in frustration at the entrance to the vaccination site as a security guard barred them from entering. Palak Singhal, a 23-year-old student from India who’s studying for her masters degree in life sciences, had received a vaccine days earlier at the Herzliya Medical Center – a private facility that, until this week, had been offering vaccines to foreign residents.
She was accompanying two friends: electrical engineering students Prajwal Prakash, 23, and Bhavya Sharma, 22, who were directed to Tel Aviv after the Herzliya facility said it was no longer vaccinating foreigners who didn’t belong to Israeli health maintenance organizations. They had both been denied vaccines at Ichilov Hospital and now at the clinic for foreign workers.
“We feel stuck,” Prakash said. “It’s been a year and a half since we’ve gone home to India. We want to go back for a visit in March, and we are afraid that without a vaccination we won’t be allowed back in the country.”
Dr. Esti Sayag, deputy director of Information Systems and Operations at Ichilov, who stood watch at the entrance to the center, said that as difficult as it was to deny vaccines to the university students, “this place has a very specific purpose. There simply isn’t the ability to vaccinate everyone who has come here physically. The purpose of this place was to vaccinate the population of foreign workers and asylum seekers, and our intention is that at least 90 percent of the people vaccinated here come from this population.”
Despite this, Sayag made exceptions Tuesday for some who did not technically fit the criteria of the vaccination campaign but were over the age of 50 and therefore at higher risk of serious illness if infected with COVID-19.
Escorting two elderly Russian women inside who did not have proper documentation, along with two older nuns in full habits who had come from their monastery in Latrun, nearly an hour away, Sayag said: “I see this as potentially saving lives.”
As for the thousands of young foreign students and gap-year-program participants who were denied vaccines, she said, “We wish we had an answer for them.” The Health Ministry had not authorized vaccination of foreign students or Masa participants, she said.
A spokesperson for Masa confirmed that unlike asylum seekers and migrant workers, foreign citizens participating in their programs have not yet been approved by the Health Minstry for vaccination, with the exception of 160 participants who work in education.
“However, like the rest of the country, the program managers on the trip do receive news notifications of excess vaccines which will be thrown away if not used, and make Masa participants aware of the location so that they can to try their luck and get vaccinated,” the spokesperson said.
Following the confusion on Tuesday, a Tel Aviv spokesperson clarified to Haaretz that the following are eligible to attend the special clinic: asylum seekers; foreigners holding a B-1 work visa; and migrant workers who entered Israel before March 2020.
The clinic cannot vaccinate the following people: Students with a passport with a student visa; diplomats; returning residents/Israeli citizens without social welfare rights/government HMO health care who came to care for family members; medical tourists in Israel for treatment; and tourists who arrived in Israel after March 2020.
At the end of the line, quickly coming to the realization that they would not be getting vaccinated were Ari Modlin from Fort Lauderdale, Nuri Hadar from Detroit and Rebecca Pearl from San Diego, all of them 18. The trio had traveled from Jerusalem, where they were participating in the Aardvark Israel Immersion Gap Year program (which operates under the Masa umbrella).
The other members of their program had been vaccinated in East Jerusalem in a government effort there. However, they had been unlucky enough to be last in line when the doses ran out and their program directors sent them to Tel Aviv.
There have been press reports that some overseas gap-year students, particularly those studying at yeshivas, have been taken for vaccinations.
Although clearly disappointed that their journey to Tel Aviv had been wasted, Pearl said philosophically: “It’s still going to be easier to get vaccinated here than in the United States.”
More successful in getting his vaccine? A former neo-Nazi. Yonatan Langer, 37, blond, blue-eyed with short-cropped hair under a black velvet kippa, is a German citizen who for 13 years was an active neo-Nazi extremist leader in East Berlin. Three years ago, Yonatan, formerly named Lutz, left those beliefs behind and converted to Judaism in Brooklyn.
A year later, he moved to Israel, where he is now in the process of becoming an Israeli citizen and working, covered by foreign health insurance. He feared that if he traveled to Germany to be vaccinated there, he might not be permitted to return. A person who once wished ill on the Jewish people receiving a potentially life-saving vaccine in Israel is “a funny twist,” he admitted. “To me, it shows a lot about how Israel tries to help people.”
‘Misinformation and fear’
The new vaccine campaign came after advocates for asylum seekers and migrant workers in Israel spent months lobbying Israel’s Health Ministry to approve giving vaccines to the population.
“Even after allowing the allocation of vaccines, they dragged their feet when it came to creating a mechanism to implement the decision,” said Zoe Gutzeit, director of the migrant and refugee department at Physicians for Human Rights. “I find it disturbing how long it took them to come up with the solution.”
Even with the initial show of enthusiasm, Gutzeit said she had concerns that many foreign workers would be even more hesitant to take the vaccine than Israelis, and that active efforts would have to be made for high levels of vaccination to continue.
“Because of lack of information and fake news, we are hearing very ambivalent emotions among our patients and clients in the community,” she said. “We have some who are ecstatic. On the other hand, we hear other people who are suspicious that the vaccines for foreign workers are being given separately and it means they are being given ‘bad vaccines.’
“There is a lot of misinformation and fear, and we have been urging the government to give us translated materials in various languages – but that won’t be enough. We will have to work hard to persuade them the vaccinations are safe. We’re hearing about some employers refusing to accept workers if they aren’t vaccinated. While this is illegal and not something we can condone, I also think it will become an important incentive,” Gutzeit said.