Omicron Wave Met With Apathy Among Israel's Arabs, Keeping Vaccination, COVID Testing Low

Arabs – more than 20 percent of Israel's population – represent fewer than 10 percent of Israelis tested. Officials point to skepticism, lack of trust, and 'economic burden,' and warn that local government is 'tapped out'

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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A boy is vaccinated last month in the Arab Israeli village of Kafr Samia.
A boy is vaccinated last month in the Arab Israeli village of Kafr Samia.Credit: Fadi Amun
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

While the rest of Israel’s coronavirus testing network is straining to cope with massive demand, the situation in the country’s Arab community is entirely different: The resumption of classes following the school winter break has led to a small uptick in requests for PCR testing and for more rapid antigen testing administered by medical personnel, but many community COVID coordinators report very limited demand on the whole for testing in the country’s Arab locales.

As of Monday, data from the Arab Emergency Committee, a panel of public health experts and public figures that was established at the beginning of the pandemic, pegged 22 Arab communities as “red” – the highest rate of infection – and another 21 just one notch lower at “orange.”

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The numbers are likely to climb even further in the next several days despite the large numbers of Israeli Arabs who are refraining from being tested, sources said. And there’s no notable sense of urgency or preparedness in Arab communities in the face of burgeoning number of infections, the officials added.

Despite the pandemic, mass gatherings were held in Nazareth, Kafr Yasif and Mi’ilya, to celebrate Christmas, among other occasions. All of these communities are now designated red.

Sakhnin Mayor Safuat Abu Riya, a physician by training, said testing and vaccination facilities in his city haven’t been seeing major traffic on a day-to-day basis, and he acknowledged that he understood why many Arab mayors hadn’t bothered setting up such facilities to begin with.

“It involves expenses that the local authorities have to assume, including not just establishing the facilities themselves but hiring attendants and [medical] staff,” he explained. “These are expenses that can go as high as hundreds of thousands of shekels, and for some local governments, that’s just too much.”

Dr. Nour Abdel Hadi Shahbari agreed. She is a member of the government’s Arab desk in the effort to combat the pandemic. “The local authorities are tapped out. For them, setting up permanent testing centers requires resources such as personnel, infrastructure and funding,” she said.

And the financial situation of many Arab families, particularly those with a large number of children, precludes them from buying home antigen test kits. “Quickly changing guidelines and the shift to antigen testing and limits on PCR tests have further undermined their faith in the system and in the experts,” Shahbari added.

But she remains cautiously optimistic and hopes that the effect of the new government rules will be felt shortly on the ground “particularly due to the resumption of classes in the schools and the rise in the case numbers.”

According to data from the Arab desk, 83 percent of all PCR tests administered on Sunday were in the Jewish community (excluding ultra-Orthodox Israelis). Only 9 percent were performed in the Arab community, even though Israeli Arabs represent more than 20 percent of the country’s population.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visits a vaccination center in the Arab Israeli town of Taibeh, in August.Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO

When it comes to the more rapid antigen tests, 92 percent of them were administered on Jewish Israelis and just 3 percent on Arabs. Six percent of those who tested positive from PCR tests were Arab as were 2 percent of those who received antigen testing.

On Sunday, 15,526 COVID tests were administered in the country’s Arab communities, and 9.13 of them came back positive – lower than the nationwide rate of 13.3 percent. In addition 3,846 professionally supervised antigen tests were performed, of which 237 came back positive.

The vaccination rate among Israeli Arabs is also not particularly high. As of last weekend, 67 percent of Arabs had received their first vaccine dose and 56 percent had gotten two doses, the Arab Emergency Committee reported. But the percentage who had received a booster shot, including patients who have recovered from the coronavirus, is less than 48 percent, compared with 74 percent among secular Israeli Jews.

“Arab society is clearly treating [the current COVID wave] with skepticism, a lack of interest or even contempt,” said Dr. Mohammad Khatib of the Safed Academic College and the Galilee Society – an Arab medical service and research organization. The lack of clarity regarding frequently changing guidelines has exacerbated the crisis of confidence that already existed between Israel’s Arab citizens and the political and health care systems, he said. “And, if you add to that the economic burden anticipated from the [new rules mandating] home antigen testing, it’s no surprise that Arabs aren’t getting tested.”

Many of those responsible for pandemic-related issues at Arab schools said that if demand for testing now grows, they won’t be able to cope with it. And a large number of students, as well as teachers, prefer to conceal that they have symptoms due to the prospect that they will be confined to isolation, the sources said.

“The sense is that there’s interest among adults and higher-risk people, but young people and children aren’t troubled at all,” by the pandemic, an official responsible for COVID issues in the Galilee said. “We’re relying on parents to report truthfully to us, but I have no way of knowing who really did a home test,” he acknowledged.

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