Experts Worried About COVID Apathy in Israel's Arab Community Ahead of Eid al-Adha

'In the Arab community there’s the feeling that we’re already immune,' an epidemiologist and public health expert says, as COVID infection rates in Israel continue to climb

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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A COVID-19 billboard in the Arab town of Arara, last year.
A COVID-19 billboard in the Arab town of Arara, last year. Credit: Amir Levy
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Health experts in the Arab community are following with concern the community’s indifference to the spread of the coronavirus ahead of the eve of the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha), which begins Monday night. They have called on the Health Ministry to increase awareness and activities among the Arab public

The Eid al-Adha celebrations continue through Friday, but in many communities the festive atmosphere could already be felt over the weekend, with heavy traffic in the local markets and festive gatherings and events, in addition to weddings. People are also traveling abroad, particularly to Turkey, the Sinai Peninsula and Jordan.

Dr. Zoya Azbarka, a gynecologist and deputy chairman of the Association of Arab Physicians in the Negev, said she gets the feeling that in her region the coronavirus is being totally ignored. “Women who see me with a mask in my clinic wonder why, as if the coronavirus doesn’t exist,” she said. “Unfortunately I’m aware of at least three confirmed cases just in Rahat, but people just don’t care. Now we’re going into a holiday with a lot of traveling and celebrations and gatherings and I don’t see that there’s any move to stop it.”

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What she’s especially concerned about is the low percentage of vaccinated Arabs in the south, which she says is less than 40 percent. According to the association’s figures, among younger people the rate is especially low, with only around 3 to 4 percent of them vaccinated. The association says that experts and local council heads haven’t managed to overcome the fake news about the vaccine or to increase awareness about the importance of getting vaccinated. At this point there isn’t even a sense among the public that the disease is spreading anymore, leading to apathy and the assumption that people are already protected and don’t need vaccines or restrictions.

“In Arab society today there isn’t a sense of urgency; on the contrary, almost everything is going on routinely,” says Dr. Mohammad Khatib, a public health expert. “People couldn’t wait to organize weddings or trips abroad, and a fear of the coronavirus doesn’t seem to exist. There’s no way to know if this is repression or denial or if they really aren’t concerned.”

An Arara resident sits in front of his shop, last year. Credit: Amir Levy

Khatib said that what’s causing this perception is that recently there have been no reports of death or serious illness in the Arab communities. He also said that in some communities the vaccination rate has topped 70 percent, and that gives people a sense of confidence. But he adds that the Health Ministry isn’t doing enough.

“The Health Ministry isn’t initiating a process of information, or promoting testing, as it did during the second and third waves,” he said. He added that people aren’t getting tested even if they don’t feel well because they are afraid they will have to quarantine, with all its economic consequences.

Dr. Khaled Awada, an epidemiologist and public health expert, said that the coming week will also be a test of the ability to maintain control at Ben-Gurion Airport. Thousands of people will be traveling abroad during Eid al-Adha, and the question is whether upon their return the authorities will be able to prevent an outbreak. “In the Arab community there’s the feeling that we’re already immune,” he said. “On the one hand there’s no testing and on the other there is no centralized information about patients. That’s why it looks as if we’re out of the center of interest and that’s dangerous, because in Arab society there are all the risk elements – gatherings at weddings or funerals, travels abroad, fewer tests and limited response to the vaccine campaign.”

When the pandemic began in Israel, an emergency committee was set up for Arab society, through which experts and doctors collaborated with the heads of the Arab local authorities. The committee published three updates each week on the state of morbidity in the Arab community, divided by regions, and disseminated important messages to residents about the pandemic and the efforts to curb it.

But around two months ago the committee’s activities were almost completely stopped. Its people are now trying to restart its operations, but say that they are not receiving an appropriate response from the Health Ministry. “We had a conversation with the new coronavirus commissioner, Prof. Salman Zarka, but so far we do not have information and data,” said Ahmad Ashih, director of the Galilee Association, which had coordinated the committee’s activities.

He says that information on the dead and seriously ill is a key element in halting the spread of the virus. “We need information and the Health Ministry is acting as if everything is starting now from scratch,” he said.

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