Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s call on the members of the Arab community to be vaccinated against COVID brought back an issue that had come up when the first vaccination campaign got underway late last year.
Then, as now, the vaccination rate in the Arab community was lower than in the population in general. On the one hand, the government and the Health Ministry have been criticized by Arab doctors and public health experts for not doing enough to change the trend. On the other, a good many members of the Arab community are refusing to be vaccinated, among other reasons for lack of faith in the system.
According to the officials in charge of the Arab community in the government’s vaccination program, there are almost 400,000 unvaccinated Israeli Arabs over 12 years of age, who account for 36 percent of the 1.1 million Israelis who are eligible for vaccination and have yet to do so. This is a much higher rate than the Arab share in Israeli population - 21 percent.
The 400,000 unvaccinated account for 29 percent of the 1.4 million Arabs eligible for vaccination, meaning only 71 percent are vaccinated. The vaccination rate in the general population is 78 percent. In the Arab community only 16 percent of children age 12-15 have been vaccinated compared to 34.6 percent in the general population who have received their first shot.
Ayman Sif, who recently returned to head the national vaccination drive’s efforts in the Arab community, says there has been an uptick in older adults seeking the third shot, as well as the first two. “However, the problem is mainly among youngsters 12-18. We only have 16,000 vaccinated in this age group, and we have to reach 100,000 in the coming weeks.”
Arab mayors, spiritual leaders and other influential figures have called on the Arab community to be vaccinated. Social media, where opinions are divided on the efficacy of the shot, have a strong effect on people. “I feel like nothing is clear, as if we’re guinea pigs,” says a resident of Shfar’am, whose mother, although she was vaccinated, died after contracting Covid. “The fact that my mother died in spite of the vaccination increases my fear,” she said.
Actor Ashraf Barhom, who opposed vaccination, decries what he says is the government’s use of fear tactics, which undermines the faith of the Arab public. “Since the beginning of the crisis the government, the Health Ministry, TV channels and the media have been using threats and intimidation.” The government, Barhom, says, should have taken an approach “respecting logic and based on findings, proof and real data, and then the public in general would have responded.”
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The actress and blogger Sanna Lahab said she decided not to be vaccinated or have her children vaccinated. “Anyone who follows this whole saga sees that nothing is clear,” she says. “At the beginning of the pandemic they said the vaccination would come only in another year and a half or two, and suddenly we have a vaccination in nine months. They said it would be one dose, and then two doses, and then three. Now it’s been proven that even people who are vaccinated get infected. The fact that only one company has the right to vaccinate also raises questions. There is no open and reliable information about the components of the vaccine and their impact and side effects.”
Many physicians lament that statements like Barhom’s and Lahab’s influence the Arab community against vaccination. Many people are also influenced by false information and unscientific analyses, says Dr. Riad Majadla, head of the emergency room at Rabin Medical Center and a member of the Health Ministry’s coronavirus advisory board. “Everyone can have their own opinion, but to conclude that the vaccination is dangerous and unnecessary is a catastrophe.”
Majadla also advises the Muslim Fatwa Council, which encourages Arabs to get vaccinated. The role of influential public figures is essential, he says, in persuading the Arab population. “There is an urgent need for mayors, sheikhs and clergy to increase their calls for vaccination.”
The Arab community’s emergency committee for dealing with the coronavirus, which includes representatives of NGOs and public health experts, says that the government’s efforts to encourage vaccinations are still not effective enough, and it should take a more aggressive approach. Committee member Ahmed Asheikh suggested that drive-in vaccination stations be opened in Arab communities.
Alsheikh also says the government isn’t giving mayors the resources they need to persuade the public. “They need funding for PR, contact tracers and drive-in vaccination stations. There should also be mobile vaccination stations. Not every community has a vaccination center and older people have to use public transportation or be accompanied to a clinic in the next town, and that’s a problem.
Sif conceded that there is a problem of accessibility and says he is in favor of mobile vaccination stations.
Pediatrician Riad Haj-Yiyeh, head of the Meuhedet HMO in Taibeh, also thinks an active and personal approach is necessary. “In the first wave we approached people one by one and urged them to be vaccinated, and it worked, albeit slowly,” he said. “We can’t rely only on the tools that were in use until now, which included mainly a general call to the public. We have to try to physically reach almost every individual.”