The hot political debate over the past few weeks has centered over whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the one who should be taking credit for Israel’s vaccination campaign, or whether he’s stealing the spotlight from the professionals at the Health Ministry and the impressive operational capabilities of Israel’s health maintenance organizations.
Even without entering this argument, we can stop for a minute and praise the one side that hasn’t been getting enough credit - the Israeli public. Since the vaccination campaign began on December 20, Israelis proved that in an emergency, they know how to pull together particularly well, and the overwhelming majority know how to filter out fake news and scare tactics and rely on the science. The result is that 5 million Israelis have already received at least one vaccination against the novel coronavirus. This includes 89% of people age 50 and up, the main risk group, and even half of all 16-19-year-olds.
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By international measures, Israel is off the charts and is way ahead of other countries in terms of the percentage of the population that’s vaccinated, at 57 percent. The second country after Israel is the United Kingdom, at 33 percent, but it’s offering its residents only one dose at the moment, due to a lack of vaccines. In terms of the total number of people who received two doses, Israel is even farther ahead of the others.
The effects can be widely felt. Over the fast few weeks, studies have been published proving how effective the vaccines are in the real world, for both individuals and for the population as a whole. A report by the Health Ministry found that two weeks after the second dose, the vaccine was 98.9% effective at preventing death from the coronavirus, and 99.2% effective at preventing serious illness.
Other reports published by the heath maintenance organizations contain similar figures. Massive studies released by the Clalit and Maccabi health maintenance organizations show that the vaccine reduces the risk of serious illness by 94-95% a week after the second dose. Meuhedet reported a 96% figure for its members, while Leumit reported 90%. Other HMO studies showed that vaccine effectiveness peaked two weeks after the second dose, and not a week after as previously thought.
The combination of the vaccine’s impressive efficacy and the public’s massive turnout for the vaccination campaign can be seen in the national illness rate: The proportion of people age 60 and up among the seriously ill has been plummeting since January 20, exactly a month after the vaccination campaign began for this age group. Hospital executives have been reporting over the past few weeks that coronavirus departments, which used to be full of people from this age group, are now filled primarily with young people who weren’t vaccinated, or older people who weren’t vaccinated.
Thus, despite the significant rollback in limitations put in place to control the virus’ spread, the massive Purim parties and the gradual reopening of the education system and the economy as a whole, illness rates aren’t shooting back up, and they’re even plating, which enables continuing the rollback. In other words, the vaccines are achieving what the government failed to do over a year of virus management and lockdowns.
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Furthermore, now that 100 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA-based vaccines have been administered, we can say with a great degree of certainty that the vaccines aren’t just effective but they’re also safe. The overwhelming majority of side effects are localized and pass within a few days. Even the most serious side effect - anaphylactic shock - occurs in only one out of 1 million patients, and the medical treatment for it is straightforward.
We now know much more about the vaccine’s efficacy and safety, and we know that someone who gets vaccinated receives maximal utility with minimal risk, and that the vaccine offers not just personal benefits, but helps all of Israeli society to return to routine while protecting the weak and vulnerable.
This new situation may also lead to new limits when it comes to society’s patience toward the vaccine hesitant. For instance, people aged 60 and up who are choosing not to be vaccinated - even though the government has been making the vaccine extremely available to them for three months already - and others who are choosing to sit on the fence despite the impressive evidence for the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, need to take into account that given the new state of things, it’s not clear there will be moral justification for more limits or lockdowns should infection rates increase, as happened among the Arab community two weeks ago.
Likewise, school staff members and parents who still haven’t gotten vaccinated need to take into account that they’re putting at risk a massive population that still can’t be vaccinated - children under age 16 - and are causing damage to the entire country, due to the tens of thousands of cases of entire preschools being put into isolation due to a coronavirus case on site. And medical staff who choose not to be vaccinated but go on caring for patients are really beyond all comment.
So what of those people between the ages of 20-50 who still haven’t been vaccinated? They’re the generational link connecting the major reservoir of people who can’t be vaccinated (their children under 16) and those at high risk due to their age (their parents), and their activity level raises their risk of infection. They’re putting themselves at the personal risk, even if it’s relatively low, of becoming seriously ill and necessitating limited medical resources. It’s legitimate to expect them to be vaccinated as a mark of social solidarity.
This doesn’t mean that the government needs to take the extreme measure of taking the list of the unvaccinated from the HMOs and sending it to local authorities - this is a disproportionate blow to privacy, and creates disproportionate pressure that may just draw more opposition. However, there’s definitely justification for limiting entrance to various places to the vaccinated, in keeping with Israel’s green pass program, and of course there’s space for a conversation about solidarity and morality not just when it comes to issues of personal freedom - because in the case of a pandemic, these values may come at the expense of someone else’s life, health and income.