Israel battles Covid misinformation as vaccination drive slows

Plan for incentives to increase takeup, while study shows two Pfizer doses give 94% protection

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man is vaccinated in Bnei Brak, Israel
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man is vaccinated in Bnei Brak, where residents were enticed with an offer of free cholent, a beef and bean stew. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

Israel is considering a carrot and stick approach to persuade people to get vaccinated, including granting inoculated people access to restaurants, hotels and concerts, while forcing some vaccine refusers to get uncomfortable Covid tests every two days.

“Will you be eligible to enter gyms and cultural events, or will you be left behind?” tweeted the health minister, Yuli Edelstein. “Go get vaccinated!”

Meanwhile, the health ministry has expanded a digital taskforce to combat anti-vax misinformation online, hoping to block false claims before they spread. Trackers now monitor social media daily, and in several languages.

Israel’s vaccination campaign is being closely watched by other governments that see it as a test case for what lies ahead.

The country is also providing vital data on the impact of the jabs, with initial results largely positive. A study released on Sunday by the country’s largest healthcare provider indicated the Pfizer/BioNTech jab offered 94% protection against Covid-19. Clalit Health Services said its researchers tested 600,000 patients who had received the recommended two doses and a similar-sized control group.

Covid cases in Israel – graph

Although the country of 9 million has launched a world-leading vaccination drive, with more than 40% having received at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, a recent slowdown has concerned officials.

In January, when Israel was mostly inoculating older and vulnerable people, up to 150,000 a day were given their first shots. This month, despite jabs being made available to anyone over the age of 16, that figure has often dropped to fewer than 60,000, according to health ministry statistics.

It is hard to tell whether the slowdown is caused by apathy among younger populations, for whom the disease is significantly less likely to be fatal, or anti-vax sentiment. Health ministry trackers have found fake claims that the vaccine causes infertility and death.

Among the country’s isolated Jewish ultra-Orthodox population, who have been disproportionately affected by the virus, misinformation has spread offline. In some neighbourhoods posters have been put up that say rabbis are opposed to the vaccine.

Israel’s Arab minority, who are often distrustful of the government, also has low vaccination rates.

The prime minister has warned that more than half a million Israelis over the age of 50 have still not received a jab. “I remind you of the most dramatic piece of data,” said Benjamin Netanyahu. “Ninety-seven per cent of deaths and 93% of severe cases are in this group.”

Israel’s longest-serving leader is betting on a successful vaccine campaign to help him win re-election on 23 March.

As a further step, Netanyahu has suggested legislation to give local authorities lists of unvaccinated people “to encourage them to be vaccinated and save lives”.

The proposal has raised concerns about privacy and patient confidentiality. “[G]overnments rarely go one step forward and one step back when they start riding roughshod over constitutional rights,” Mordechai Kremnitzer, a public law expert, wrote in Haaretz newspaper.

The health minister has proposed another controversial measure – forcing all unvaccinated “public-facing” employees, such as teachers and bus drivers, to submit coronavirus tests every two days. Often those are uncomfortable nose swabs.

“Teachers who do not get vaccinated are responsible for taking unnecessary risks with students’ health and fail at their most important role: protecting the children,” Edelstein said.

As for incentives, the government is expected in the next couple of weeks to grant vaccinated Israelis entry to hotels, museums, restaurants, pools, malls and sports matches.

The “green passport”, which would be an app, also intends to allow international travel without quarantine to Greece, which signed a travel agreement with Israel last week. “We will get back to life with the green passport,” Netanyahu said of the proposal.

Other methods to entice people to get vaccinated have already started but at a more local level. In Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, DJs were brought in for a vaccination “party” to draw crowds of over 16s.

And in the nearby ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Bnei Brak, municipality workers encouraged residents to the vaccination centre with free “cholent”, a beef and bean stew often eaten on the Jewish sabbath. “Operation Cholent” brought in three times the usual number of people.

The Associated Press contributed to this report