COVID in Israel: Vaccination Rate Low, Infection High Among Arabs, and Officials Are at a Loss

Jack Khoury
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Medical staffer administers the COVID vaccine in Daliyat al-Karmel, Israel
Medical staffer administers the COVID vaccine in Daliyat al-Karmel, IsraelCredit: Adi Ofer
Jack Khoury

The fourth coronavirus wave, which Israel has been fending off with a world-first booster vaccine campaign, has hit its Arab community particularly hard.

Data shows that vaccination rates among Arabs are significantly lower compared to Jewish Israelis. While this explains at least a part of the worse COVID situation in the Arab community, officials point to other reasons, and call on the government to do more to curb the spread of the virus.

According to Health Ministry figures, the 10 cities and towns where the pandemic is spreading at the highest rate are all Arab. The leading communities – Taibeh, Nazareth, Yarka, Rahat and Kalansua – are all across the country, suggesting the worrying spike is not bound by a specific geographic area.

The Arab Emergency Committee, which helps coordinate Israel's coronavirus response in the Arab community, reported that only about 35 percent of Arabs eligible for vaccination got their third dose, compared to 56 percent among eligible ultra-Orthodox Jews and 73 among non-Haredi Jewish Israelis.

71 percent of eligible Arabs got their first shot, but only 62 percent got their second.

The disparities are also clear looking at specific age groups. According to the Health Ministry, 19 percent of Arabs aged 20 to 29 have received a booster shot, compared to 56 percent of Jews of the same age group. Vaccination rates are also lower among older adults, who are at higher risk: 66 percent of Arabs aged 60 to 69 got a booster shot, compared to 88 percent of their Jewish peers.

Out of seriously ill coronavirus patients, about 29 percent are Arab, exceeding their 21-percent share of the population.

School year drives infection

Ayman Saif, the Health Ministry official leading the government's coronavirus response in the Arab community, told Haaretz that what keeps many Arabs from getting vaccinated is “a lack of scientific and medical information explaining the importance and urgency of getting the third dose that’s accessible to and adapted for the Arab community.”

He added that “there’s also a kind of apathy, an absence of a feeling of crisis, which influences the slow pace of vaccinations.”

Vaccine drive at a school in Daliyat al-Karmel, IsraelCredit: Adi Ofer

Saif noted that in this wave of infection, unlike before, more than 60 percent of new cases are among teens and children under 18.

Majda al-Krum Mayor Salim Salibi said that 70 percent of new cases in the town are among primary school children. He halted face-to-face teaching in his town, as did Taibeh mayor.

In Kafr Kara, where two primary schools were temporarily shut due to outbreaks, Mayor Firas Badahi said that most new cases come from students, teachers or students’ parents. "The problem is that we have no tools to deal with this in a suitable fashion," he said. “If the public, and especially the parents, aren’t disciplined, it’s impossible to contain the outbreak.”

But Badahi rests much of the blame on the Education Ministry, which he accused of failing to prepare properly for the start of the school year. “We’re screaming, but no one is listening to us,” he said.

Umm al-Fahm Mayor Samir Mahameed added in a similar spirit: “It’s quite clear that most of the increase is the result of the education system’s carelessness,” he said, pointing out that plans to require students to show proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative virus test, as well as plans to conduct widespread testing in schools, were postponed until after September’s Jewish holidays, “as if we didn’t exist.”

He added that “the government should apologize and admit that it has abandoned the Arab community and take immediate action together with Arab local authorities to stop the infections.”

The Health Ministry's Saif also doesn't spare criticism from the Education Ministry, saying there is insufficient cooperation between it and municipal leaders. He noted that in some Arab communities where schools should have closed based on the government’s criteria, in-person classes are taking place anyway.

Ahmed al-Sheikh, a member of the Emergency Committee and head of the Galilee Society NGO, says a lack of compliance with regulations in some towns also contributed to the rise in infection rates among the Arab population. "There’s an urgent need to mobilize for an emergency plan, with an emphasis on increasing awareness and increasing vaccination rates,” he said.

A man speaking with medical staffer ahead of getting COVID vaccine in Tel as-Sabi in Southern IsraelCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In an effort to do exactly that, a committee of Arab doctors and senior clerics publicly appealed over the weekend for people to get vaccinated, stressing that research shows the vaccines pose no risk. Doctors on the committee explained to Haaretz that many Arabs are still afraid to get vaccinated, including some who fear the vaccine will impair their fertility.

'No appropriate response'

Last week, a forum of Arab mayors sent a letter to Education Ministry Director General Yigal Slovik to complain about the ministry’s flawed preparations for opening the school year. “Responses were not given appropriately, there was no evidence that the ministry had taken any action,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz.

“It seems that everyone was on vacation for the [Jewish] holidays, leaving Arab society without suitable answers despite the emergency, thereby exposing it, regrettably, to this terrible disease,” the letter read.

The letter also charged that Slovik had postponed numerous meetings and termed his behavior disrespectful. The mayors, therefore, decided to boycott a meeting with him that was supposed to have taken place this Sunday and asked instead to meet with Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton.

Women wait at a vaccine center in Shaqib al-Salam in Southern IsraelCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Education Ministry responded that Slovik “ascribes great importance to working together with the Arab community’s leadership, including school principals.” The last scheduled meeting, on September 22, “was postponed due to a meeting with the prime minister and other professionals, including people in charge of the pandemic in the general and in the Arab society, about steps to limit the spread of coronavirus in Arab society. The Director General will hold a meeting with Arab leaders as soon as possible in order to continue ensuring the routine of studies in Arab schools while protecting the health of students and staff,” the statement added.

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