Israel Vaccinated Its Population Against COVID at an Astonishing Rate, but Some Groups Are Left Behind

Official figures point to lower inoculation rates among the economically disadvantaged, young, and groups on the margins of mainstream Israeli society. How did it get there?

Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol
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A health worker prepares to administer a dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at a clinic in Jerusalem.
A health worker prepares to administer a dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at a clinic in Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol

Despite Israel’s success in inoculating over 5.8 million people since the end of 2020, more than 1 million people still remain unvaccinated, many of them young and of low socioeconomic status, the Health Ministry said in a survey released on Monday.

Out of the 1,080,000 people eligible for the vaccine who have not yet received the shot, 16 percent belong to the ultra-Orthodox community and 31 percent are Israeli Arabs, with the rest belonging to the general population.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs constitute around 12 and 21 percent of Israel’s population, respectively, and are both disproportionately represented among the unvaccinated.

According to vaccination data provided to Haaretz by the Health Ministry, as of August 16, 343,971 people out of an ultra-Orthodox population of 959,185 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while 888,367 out of an Arab population of 1,954,460 have received one or more dose.

In its report, the ministry stated that the “main characteristics” shared by the unvaccinated are being economically disadvantaged and young, with many of the unvaccinated aged between 12-39.

Crowds at a Tel Aviv anti-vaccine protest.Credit: David Bachar

Of Israelis aged 12-15, only 42.4 percent have received one or more doses of the vaccine. This figure rises to 79.6 percent among those teenagers between 16-19, to 79.9 percent among 20- to 29-year-olds, and to 84.2 percent among those in their 30s.

For the general population, socioeconomic status, spoken language and level of trust in established institutions are all indicators of unwillingness to be vaccinated, the ministry stated, citing new immigrants and foreign workers as examples.

It also found that parents with low education and below-average incomes living in the Southern, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv districts were less likely to report having vaccinated their children.

Among the respondents, 24 percent cited fear of side effects as a reason to avoid the shot, while 17 percent raised the lack of long-term information about the vaccine’s effects, 13 percent asserted that the virus is not dangerous for children, 13 percent believed that the vaccine is ineffective and 8 percent said that their children had antibodies. Only 1 percent said that they opposed the vaccine on principle.

Vaccination rates are particularly low among Arabs in Israel due to lower access to vaccination stations among Bedouin and residents of East Jerusalem, both areas where the risk of COVID-19 is perceived as “particularly low,” the ministry said.

Patients wait at a clinic in Baka al-Garbiyeh.Credit: Amir Levy

In a survey of parents of children aged 12-16, the ministry found that 19 percent feared the vaccine’s long-term effects, 19 percent distrusted the vaccine’s effectiveness, 16 percent did not have an opportunity to get their children vaccinated, 10 percent were worried about side effects and 8 percent didn’t know what effect the vaccine would have on children.

Ayman Saif, who recently returned to head the national vaccination drive in the Arab community, told Haaretz earlier this month that while there has been an uptick in older adults seeking the third shot, as well as the first two, “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.”

According to Dr. Zahi Said, an adviser to the head of the Clalit health maintenance organization, Israeli Arabs see that children aren’t the main victims of the disease, so they’re rarely vaccinating their kids.

“There were doctors who until two weeks ago didn’t give a clear-cut answer on the vaccination, so people hesitated,” he said. “Now there are clearer statements, but it will take some time until Arab parents are convinced.”

An anti-vaccine protest in Tel Aviv.Credit: Religious boy in an anti vaccine protest in Tel Aviv

Ultra-Orthodox Jews were disproportionately affected by the virus during the first three waves of the pandemic, partially because they tend to have larger families and live in denser neighborhoods than other Israeli communities. A recent serological survey found that approximately one in every five ultra-Orthodox children tested has COVID-19 antibodies.

This appears to have an impact on community members’ views on vaccination.

“Most ultra-Orthodox are sure that they have already been exposed to the coronavirus and therefore do not need to be vaccinated,” the ministry stated, noting that its polling found that 34.4 percent of ultra-Orthodox parents of children aged 12-16 indicated that they had not taken them to be vaccinated because they had already contracted the virus.

“From what we’re seeing, some people in the ultra-Orthodox community mistakenly believe that it’s a mild disease and ignore the complications,” said Einav Shimron, the Health Ministry’s deputy director of information, last month, as initial signs pointed to the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities falling behind in vaccinating teenagers compared to the general population.

Men on the way to a funeral of a prominent rabbi who died of COVID.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Nearly 23 percent of parents raised concerns about vaccine side effects while 14 percent thought that COVID-19 did not harm children or was only slightly harmful; 7.6 percent thought the vaccine was ineffective.

While the ultra-Orthodox community initially appeared to have avoided the worst of the recent delta variant wave, cases in the community began to rise since they opened up their schools in early August.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who has advocated widespread vaccination as an alternative to a lockdown, recently instructed the directors of Israel’s four HMOs to double their vaccination rates and to offer inoculations around the clock.