he Jerusalem basketball arena, Israel’s largest indoor sports venue, has been closed to fans for nearly a year now. Eight weeks ago, it was reopened to the public for a different purpose. The country’s two largest healthcare providers transformed the arena into a massive
Covid-19 vaccination centre, with the wide passages where sports-goers would once queue for hot dogs filled with little blue booths.
At the turnstiles, arrivals swipe their health-fund membership cards and within minutes are whisked through to one of the booths where, after a few perfunctory questions, they’re given the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Those who have just had their first dose are automatically allocated an appointment for their second in three weeks’ time.
It is a swift and efficient process and for the past three weeks every Israeli citizen over the age of 16 has been allowed to turn up for their jab without even making an appointment. In the first few weeks of the centre’s operations, the place was packed and bustling and all the booths were in constant use.
But over the last few weeks the stream of Israelis coming for their vaccinations has slowed down. Only a third of the booths are occupied. In one of them, Sundous Manar, a nurse who has been working at the centre since it opened, said: “In the first few weeks, I was jabbing as many as 150 people in one shift. Nowadays it’s about 60.”
Similar reports are coming in from other large vaccination centres across Israel. In nearly two months, 45 per cent of Israel’s population have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Thirty per cent have been vaccinated a second time.
The country has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, but public health experts are concerned that those who have yet to be vaccinated seem in no rush. At the peak of its roll-out in mid-January, Israel was vaccinating 200,000 people a day. That has gone down to just half that rate in the last week, as plans are made to ease lockdown.
The third lockdown was not widely observed and was unsuccessful in bringing down the national rates of infection. For weeks, the British variant swept through Israel and caused a prolonged spike in cases, including those of much younger victims than in the past, those who had not yet been vaccinated. The number of hospitalisations, however, has now begun to come down, thanks to the vaccinations, rather than the failed lockdown. The vaccination roll-out has also been an integral part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election campaign. He was the first Israeli to be vaccinated nearly nine weeks ago and has made repeated media appearances at vaccination centres, as well as at the airport when the vaccines arrived by cargo plane from Belgium.
However, despite the roll-out’s success, it has failed so far to have an impact on the polls, in which Mr Netanyahu’s party, Likud is still languishing. It seems that many Israeli voters have longer memories and still blame the Prime Minister for the shambolic handling of the pandemic — the lack of clear exit strategies from three lockdowns and the late closing down of air travel, long after the British variant had arrived in Israel.
But could the early success of mass vaccination be stalling? “One thing we’ve discovered over the past two months that has quite surprised us is that younger people are much less eager to be vaccinated,” says Eyal Gabai, chairman of Meuhedet HMO, one of the four Israeli healthcare providers which are in charge of carrying out the vaccinations. Three-quarters of Israelis over 50 have been vaccinated but only a third of those aged between 16 and 50.
The reluctance of younger people to get their jab seems to be related to a number of factors. While the pandemic and lockdowns have impacted everyone, many more pensioners have spent the last year sheltering away from the rest of the world, not meeting any friends and family at all. For them the vaccination is liberation.
Another reason for the lack of urgency is the fact that in the first few weeks of the roll-out, it wasn’t clear how soon Pfizer would be shipping more doses to Israel and there was a fear of missing out on vaccination. Since then, Israel’s government and Pfizer have signed an agreement for early shipments of sufficient doses for Israel’s entire population in return for real-time access to the data on the vaccinations’ effects. As a result, no-one is worried they’ll miss their chance.
On Thursday a joint team from the Israeli health ministry and Pfizer released their first major survey on the vaccinations’ effect. The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, reports that the Pfizer vaccine is 94 per cent effective in preventing severe and critical cases and 90 per cent effective in preventing overall infection. But it’s not enough for everyone. Another reason for the lower rates of vaccination among younger Israelis is their much higher exposure to social media and the vaccine scepticism which can be found there. There’s a wide range of anti-vaccination propaganda, ranging from conspiracy theories on the components of the vaccine, claiming that Israelis are “guinea pigs for the rest of the world” and people masquerading as rabbis inveighing against them for spiritual reasons.
Some militant anti-vaxxers have even tried to sabotage the roll-out by encouraging their followers to swamp the websites of the healthcare providers with appointments for vaccinations and not turn up.
The government has tried to create a standardised vaccination certificate which will be required to enter a restaurant or performance. However vaccine sceptics have already worked out a way to fake the certificates online and the scheme will have to be overhauled.
The Health Ministry has established a team of internet monitors who surf the web around the clock, looking for social media posts and websites spreading anti-vaccination propaganda. When they locate it, they notify the authorities and contact the social media platforms, requesting the posts be removed and the accounts of the authors shut down.
Meanwhile, local authorities across Israel have begun organising public events aimed at younger people to encourage them to get vaccinated. In some towns, they’ve been invited to beer and pizza parties, where they get vaccinated first before tucking in.
In Tel Aviv, the centre of Israeli nightlife, bar owners who cannot yet open up their premises due to Covid-19 restrictions, have joined up with City Hall to offer cocktails at special outdoor “vaccination bars”. In the nearby ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Berak, steaming bowls of cholent, the traditional meaty stew eaten by religious Jews on the sabbath, were offered last Thursday in a special event for the community where 3,300 people were vaccinated in just five hours.
“The food and drinks are just an excuse,” says one of the organisers. “Nobody is coming to get jabbed just for a plate of food or a beer, but it’s part of making vaccinations fun and cool and getting a crowd of young people to turn out and get their jabs.”
Having one of the highest levels of vaccination in the world is not enough. With infection rates still high, Israel will need to vaccinate many more younger people if it has any hope of reopening the country in the near future.
Anshel Pfeffer writes for Haaretz and The Economist. His biography of Netanyahu, Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, is published by Basic Books and Hurst Publishers