Israel was originally praised for its approach to distributing the covid-19 vaccine and was hailed as a role model in getting things done. But the picture that has emerged since is much more complicated. Covid-19 infections have reached records, and a new lockdown was extended until the end of January. Meanwhile, there are inequalities and political turmoil behind the headlines, with the un among those who criticize Israel for refusing to share its vaccines with some 4.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
We spoke with Hadas Ziv, Policy and Ethics Officer at Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, about the successes and setbacks of this country. She was part of the team of experts who present covid-19 vaccine policy recommendations to the Israeli government, and the group was among those calling for prisoners to be vaccinated.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: If you are an Israeli citizen who wants a vaccine, what steps should you take?
A: It is very simple. You are notified that you are eligible, either by SMS or you can simply access the site of your [healthcare provider], and you immediately see if you are eligible or not.
You make an appointment on the Internet or they can send you a link to your phone. It’s very, very organized. And you just got the vaccine. That’s it.
Q: Is the vaccine free? Were there any obstacles or confusing deployment processes?
A: The positive side of Israel is that we have a public health system and everyone, all residents, are insured. So unless you are part of a specific group, like migrant workers or refugees or Palestinians in the occupied territories, you are insured and you are part of the system.
Q: Do you see any hesitation or refusal to get vaccinated problems?
A: I think the Israelis generally trust vaccines. There were a few conspiracy theories in the media, which made people wonder if they should wait and see how it goes for those who get the vaccine. But I think the fear of the disease is greater than the fear of the vaccine, and the publicity that the vaccine is safe has convinced many.
We have specific communities [like some ultraorthodox and Arab communities] where there is less trust and information. The health system and the government should make an effort to persuade and make information accessible to them so that they come to be vaccinated.
Q: Israel was seen as a role model for the rest of the world when it comes to rapid vaccine distribution. But cases have increased and the country is in yet another lockdown. What does this tell us about the role of vaccines in the fight against the pandemic?
A: There is a positive and a negative in vaccination [process]. It was quick – Israel acted like many other Western countries, in what is called a trend of vaccination nationalism. Each country for its own.
We have not resolved public compliance. There are big differences between the different communities in Israel and we do not enjoy social solidarity. For example, ultra-Orthodox are a little over 10% of the population but 30% of new cases of covid-19. There is a danger that once you say that this community does not obey social distancing or cannot because of [social conditions] that there is a lot of public anger towards them. It can even exacerbate social conflict in our society.
If you want to protect the herd, you need to reach at least two-thirds of your population. If we don’t reach the communities that are unlikely to currently want immunization, we will not reach that number.
Q. The government and Pfizer have agreed to exchange medical data for doses of vaccines. What is the impact of this? Was the public sufficiently informed of the details of this agreement?
We have a special agreement from Pfizer, and when they made the deal public, at least a third of it was blacked out. And I think it did more harm than good because now we don’t know how much information they’re giving us.
If indeed Israel is leading the way in immunizing its people and you want to know more about efficacy and side effects, why not give this information free to all health ministries, systems and laboratories? It is a global challenge. Why make Pfizer the only one with this knowledge? I do not know. This is something that we are trying to examine.