Israel turns to carrots, and maybe some sticks, to persuade COVID-19 vaccine holdouts

Israelis received COVID-19 shots at a vaccination center set up in a parking lot of a shopping center in Givataim. (Oded Balilty / Associated Press)
Amid pulsing techno music and the clink of cocktail glasses, a young woman with long, dark curly hair sat outside a bar in Tel Aviv and gathered the courage to overcome her needle phobia in order to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Hila Baron, 29, flanked by a close friend on one side and a paramedic on the other, both patiently muttering words of encouragement, eventually joined. Your first injection was complete.
"You did it!" Her husband, Yotam Baron, cheered and rushed over to her as a stream of other young people in their twenties and thirties - the slowest age group in Israel to seek vaccinations - lined up for admissions at the same mobile clinic do . In return, they received tickets for free drinks at the adjacent bar.
While Baron has faced gentle persuasion (and perhaps the promise of a free cocktail) to get vaccinated, the Israeli government is considering incentives and some stronger, possibly enforced, measures to persuade holdouts to join the world's fastest and most successful national COVID-19 vaccine rollout. In addition to young people, some members of the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities have been reluctant to receive the vaccine, which is now available to everyone over the age of 16.
Half of the Israeli population has been vaccinated. The combination of official carrots and whips to accomplish the rest reflects the challenges the country faces in the race for herd immunity - as well as the fact that vaccination is both a political and a medical imperative. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces an election next month, has made the success of the vaccination and the promise of a return to "normal life" the centerpiece of his campaign.
Quoting the traditional Passover song asking what makes the first night of the holiday, which starts on March 27th, different from other nights, he quipped that the Israelis could give a new answer: “Because we are all vaccinated now are."
To achieve this, a controversial new law was passed on Wednesday that allows the Ministry of Health to provide municipalities with the names, addresses and contact information of unvaccinated residents. The law allows city workers to use the information to contact these people and convince them to do so. The measure also gives ministries of education and social affairs access to this information.
Haim Katz, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, said in parliament that the law was justified given the stakes. "I was asked," What about people's privacy? "Said Katz." Is privacy more important than life itself? "
However, civil rights groups and privacy advocates warn that this sets a dangerous precedent for violating medical confidentiality.
"We are concerned that this is not only an invasion of privacy and medical confidentiality, but also an irreparable breach of trust between civilians and the medical facility, and the possibility of information being misused by local authorities," said Maya Fried, director for international relations at the Assn. for civil rights in Israel or ACRI.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second from left, bumps the elbows with Theodor Salzen, the 4 millionth person in Israel to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. (Alex Kolomoisky / Pool Photo)
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Proposals have also been made that unvaccinated public sector workers, including teachers, should have a coronavirus test every other day and that those flying into the country from overseas should wear an electronic surveillance anklet to prevent them from being break the quarantine.
Another offer to encourage vaccinations is the “green pass”, which can be downloaded onto a smartphone one week after a person's second COVID-19 shot or when they have had the disease. Currently, this is the only way to attend major football matches, concert halls, theaters, gyms, swimming pools, and eat in restaurants after the reopening.
"Things change daily," said Fried, whose organization oversees the implementation of the Green Pass system. "It's not that black and white. It's about waiting to see what civil rights issues will look like."
The efficiency and speed of vaccination adoption in Israel has been attributed to the country's small size, nationalized and digitized health system, and plentiful supply of vaccines. It uses recordings developed by Pfizer and BioNTech and has purchased vaccines from Moderna.
The lowest vaccination rates are found among ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arab citizens, and younger Israelis. There is a mixture of apathy in these groups about the danger of the coronavirus, a caution about the potential long-term side effects of the vaccine, and an assumption that the shots could actually be harmful or lead to infertility - misinformation the government is tough on cleaning up works from social media. The reluctance of some Arab citizens and the ultra-Orthodox is compounded by their low level of trust in the government.
On Thursday, Netanyahu posted a humorous video to woo the unconvinced. Talking about the current Purim Carnival vacation, he approaches a vaccine skeptic in various costumes - a clown, a shaggy dog, an overgrown baby - and suggests reasons not to get vaccinated, including various conspiracy theories. He also says that Israel will soon go back to normal "thanks to the millions of vaccines we brought with us".
Yair Zivan, a spokesman for opposition Yesh Atid party, tweeted criticism of the video, saying that those who hesitate to take the vaccine “will not be convinced that a hilarious video is making fun of conspiracy theorists and internet trolls and deal with them. ”
Coupled with the international attention Israel is getting for being a leader in the distribution of vaccine per capita - and thus a living laboratory for the effectiveness of the vaccine - the government is being pushed back for its decisions on "vaccine diplomacy".
It has only provided a limited amount of vaccine to the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Your health is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, the government caused a stir when it announced it would be sending surplus cans to a handful of other countries, some of which have either officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital or signaled their acceptance, including Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary and the United States, according to local media reports Czech Republic.
After a knockback from Defense Secretary Benny Gantz, the government said late Thursday it would suspend the decision.
Critics, including Israeli human rights groups, say Israel has a moral obligation to help vaccinate Palestinians. It was recently confirmed that the government has agreed to vaccinate 100,000 Palestinians working in Israel. Approximately 4.7 million Palestinians live in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Palestinians waiting to receive the COVID-19 vaccine outside the old city of Jerusalem. (Mahmoud Illean / Associated Press)
Israel even made Saturday Night Live's radar when Weekend Update anchor Michael Che joked, "Israel reports that they vaccinated half of their population, and I will guess it's the Jewish half."
The comment has been attacked by some American Jewish organizations as imprecise at best - Israel has worked to vaccinate both Jewish and Arab citizens - and, at worst, as anti-Semitic.
With the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients declining after vaccination of most of the elderly, there is a general thirst for life on the ground to regain a semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy. This week the first plays and concerts were available for Green Pass holders.
Daniel Hoffman, an Orange County violinist, was thrilled to be back playing in front of an audience at a retirement home, a concert for medical staff, and a festival for the Purim holiday.
"It was amazing for everyone," he said. "People are hungry for live music."
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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