Israel verlangsamt Impfkampagne dramatisch

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Israel’s world-beating vaccination drive has slowed, dramatically.

Anyone 16 and over has been eligible for vaccination for the past week and, by all accounts, Israel has both plentiful supplies and medical staff waiting to inoculate all comers — an extraordinary privilege, when most of the rest of the world has neither.

Our HMOs say they have the combined capacity to vaccinate over 200,000 a day; on January 21, indeed, 230,000 Israelis got shots, the Health Ministry’s Hebrew statistics dashboard shows. But as eligibility has widened, demand has stalled:

About three-quarters of a million shots were administered in the past seven days (from Feb 3-9); which was down from just under a million the week before that (Jan 27-Feb 2); which was down, in turn, from a million and a quarter the week before that (Jan 20-26). As of this morning, 3.6 million of our 9.3 million population (about 40%) have had their first shots, and 2.2 million of those had also had their second. Those numbers could and should have been significantly higher by now.

The HMOs say they’re baffled and don’t know what to do about it. “We have no explanation for why people are not coming,” medical provider Clalit’s Dganit Barak said on Monday, as TV footage showed Jerusalem’s spacious Arena inoculation center conspicuously near-deserted.

“We send out messages telling people to come and get vaccinated, but still the response is low.” Jerusalem’s near-deserted Arena COVID-19 vaccination center on February 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Echoed her colleague Dr. Orly Weinstein, on Tuesday, “We’re even calling people now. People’s GPs are phoning them up and telling them to go get vaccinated.” Given the demonstrable lack of enthusiasm, you might be forgiven for concluding that Israel has basically beaten the pandemic and/or that the vaccines are proving ineffective or dangerous.

None of this is true. High contagion Israel now “boasts” the highest contagion rate in the OECD.

The number of new daily cases continues to hover around 7,000 a day, with 150 new serious cases a day, and 50 deaths a day — despite the fact that we’ve been under an ongoing national closure for weeks, with private and public sectors largely shuttered, and what was supposed to have been a particularly stringent lockdown for part of that time.

Meanwhile, our early start means we have the world’s first research of its kind showing that the shots are as effective as Pfizer’s trials showed in protecting the vaccinated from the virus, and that the side effects are broadly negligible. Barely a quarter of a percent of our millions of vaccinated Israelis have reported any side effects at all.

Health Ministry statistics released Tuesday, compiled on the basis of some 4.7 million first and second dose vaccinations, showed a total of 43 hospitalizations, most of them for people with pre-existing medical conditions, 28 of them in the 60+ age group, just 4 of them among under 40s. Dr. Tal Brosh, the head of the infectious diseases department at Ashdod’s Assuta Hospital told Israel Radio this morning that, as far as he knows, there has not been a single death attributable to the vaccine since Israel began vaccinating.

So if we’ve manifestly not gotten COVID beat, and if the vaccinations are manifestly central to beating it, why aren’t Israelis flooding to the inoculation centers? Plainly, the demand has ebbed as older Israelis have vaccinated and younger Israelis have been first invited, and now somewhat unsuccessfully implored, to follow suit. Younger people, I am still capable of recalling, unsurprisingly often think of themselves as invincible.

And that sense may have been exacerbated, when it comes to COVID, by months of data showing that the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions were most at risk from the pandemic. Now, though, due in part to the British variant, serious cases among younger Israelis are on the rise. Furthermore, getting vaccinated as an adult is an atypical experience.

We get most of our vaccinations as kids when parents make decisions for their children. Sure, travelers generally don’t think twice about getting the shots needed to visit certain countries — but that’s a situation in which direct, narrow self-interest holds sway. The conviction that there is a narrow, very personal self-interest to get the COVID vaccine is evidently not yet resonating sufficiently. High mistrust And then there are two other factors, related factors, both of them global but with particularly Israeli aspects: the staggering incapacity in our era of distinguishing truth from fakery, and the immense public skepticism about what people in authority are telling them — about pretty much anything. The science of the COVID vaccines is solid.

But public faith is clearly being undermined to some extent by the welter of fake news asserting that the vaccine is dangerous — with a deluge of social media messaging, including from “celebrity rabbis,” despicably claiming that the vaccine causes infertility, severe allergic reactions, and even death. Social media platforms have been slow to take down the lies, and mainstream media has not always been effective in highlighting the hard science.

On Israel’s most-watched Channel 12 TV on Monday, for instance, the anti-vaxxer organizer of a now-removed Facebook group which featured a post urging Israelis to make appointments for the shot and not turn up — so that the doses would have to be thrown away — was given long minutes to peddle her arguments by a clearly underprepared anchor, and then “countered” by a mild-mannered expert whose gentle demurrals, when he was allowed to get a word in, were no match for her ferocity. On Israel Radio this morning, by contrast, Assuta’s Dr. Brosh was invited to answer questions about vaccine concerns, and given plenty of airtime.

He was able to calmly explain that vaccine side effects overwhelmingly emerge right away rather than years later, and to invite listeners wondering whether to vaccinate to reach their own conclusions about the balance between a theoretical and highly unlikely risk of side effects down the line, and the manifest danger of COVID-19 here and now. An opinion poll published last night by Israel’s Channel 11, meanwhile, underlined the degree to which Israelis’ mistrust of our government’s handling of this crisis may be undermining public confidence in the COVID battle. A dizzying 56% of respondents said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial was influencing his handling of the pandemic, and another 17% said they didn’t know if that was the case, with only 27% convinced his COVID policies were unaffected by his legal battles. That high level of mistrust does not directly explain Israelis’ declining vaccination interest, but it shows how muddy the waters are: Many Israelis believe the prime minister’s lockdown policy has been shaped by his reliance on his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, and his need for their support in next month’s elections, and thus that the whole country has been kept at home because he dare not alienate the ultra-Orthodox electorate, in whose community many schools have defied the laws and where contagion has often been disproportionately high. Ultra-Orthodox men hold a rally against the coronavirus restriction, in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, February 9, 2021. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The coalition’s entire COVID stewardship has been skewed by narrow politics, Moshe Fadlon, the veteran mayor of Herzliya, complained on Army Radio this morning, as he announced that his and two other nearby local authorities are planning to defy national government and reopen schools in the next few days. Hotel groups have also announced plans to ignore government regulations and reopen next week. Shops and restaurants have been routinely defying specific lockdown restrictions in recent weeks — protesting that they simply cannot bear the financial costs of staying closed any longer, and complaining that it is unfair and untenable for them to be held to the letters of laws, again, that are so blatantly and indulgently defied in the ultra-Orthodox sector.

Where a government is greatly mistrusted in its overall handling of a pandemic, and where hitherto law-abiding citizens feel compelled to break laws designed to save lives, it is not surprising that public confidence and interest in a government-urged vaccination drive is also not as high as it needs to be. Vaccination incentives Yuval Steinitz, a minister in Netanyahu’s coalition, reportedly suggested last week, at one of the routinely leaked, interminable bickering sessions that pass for cabinet meetings these days, that Israel should make vaccination mandatory. He was, we are told, quickly shot down. Such a move would almost certainly be deemed illegal, but it’s also ill-conceived. Incentivization, rather than punishment, is the way ahead.

The hotel group rebels are planning to open only to guests who have been vaccinated and/or have current negative COVID tests. Rebel restaurants are doing the same. The cabinet late last night in principle approved a nationwide schedule along the same lines — reopening gyms, malls, hotels and more in two weeks’ time to the vaccinated and to Israelis with a negative coronavirus test — and coffee shops and restaurants to the general public by early March if vaccination numbers rise and contagion levels don’t. In her Channel 12 appearance on Monday, the woman behind the banned Facebook group protested that it was unfair that she faces being treated “as a second class citizen” by being barred from malls because she does not want to vaccinate. Hopefully, her preemptive bitterness suggested, a gradual reopening of Israel only to those who have had their shots should constitute a powerful incentive.

From an Eretz Nehederet satirical skit: Traffic light pedestrian signals? Just say no (Channel 12 screenshot) Mockery of the anti-vaxxers can help too. Channel 12’s Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Country) satire show this week recycled an old skit featuring the founding mother of an “anti-traffic light group,” dedicated to teaching children to ignore pedestrian crossing signals when crossing the street. “Hitting the bumper is the informed choice,” she sloganed.

“Whoever said you should avoid being run over?” Sadly, in any case, the sheer weight of direct evidence showing the ongoing vulnerability to COVID of those who are not getting vaccinated will gradually come to shatter all but the most entrenched skepticism.

Anti-vaxxer extremists will still not be persuaded, but one has to believe an overwhelming majority can still muster life-saving common sense.  

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