More than a week after Israel launched its COVID-19 vaccine drive, the Health Ministry suggests that the response in the country’s Arab communities is below that of the Jewish population. According to unofficial figures, only 3% of the Arab citizens have received the vaccine in the past week. While official figures on vaccination by ethnicity are hard to come by, Channel 12 reported on Thursday, December 31, that only 15% of Arab citizens of Israel aged 50 and up have received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, compared with 25.5% among non-Haredi Jews and 27.8% among the ultra-Orthodox. However, contrary to this allegedly overall trend, in the Arab city of Umm el-Fahm, more than 55% of residents over the age of 60 have reportedly already been inoculated with the first of two shots.
Making assessments about the willingness of Arab citizens to be immunized more confusing is the fact that, while a few vaccination centers have been erected in Arab towns and cities, many facilities reported that most of those waiting in line were Jews. In Umm al-Fahm, Shfaram, and Nazareth — three major Arab Israeli cities — more than 75 percent of those vaccinated over the past few days have been Jews according to reports. On the other hand, while it is clear that testing stations in Arab towns have seen, since the start of the pandemic, less demand by Arabs than health officials had hoped, a spokesperson for Clalit noted that not negligible numbers of Arab citizens were being vaccinated in Jewish towns.
Based on confusing and countervailing statistics, the overall impression that Arabs in Israel are less prone to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations than Jewish Israelis has caused health officials and public health experts to view this alleged phenomenon as “worrisome.” Indeed, public health expert Dr. Bishara Basharat, who directs a national nonprofit which promotes Arab health, agreed that some in the Arab community were reluctant to be vaccinated, a phenomenon he called “concerning.”
“To be honest, I didn’t expect this. There’s a lot of propaganda against the vaccine, lots of rumors on social media,” said Basharat, who formerly directed the Clalit health maintenance organization’s Northern District. To combat mistrust of the vaccine, Basharat recommended an aggressive awareness campaign among Arab family doctors. “Arab citizens trust their family doctors, the ones in their hometowns, whom they go to consult with on a regular basis. Once they are vaccinated, people will start being convinced,” Basharat said. Another positive factor in this positive direction is that Arabs constitute a disproportionately large number of Israel’s health care workers, especially nurses and pharmacists. A 2017 study found that around 40% of nursing students in Israel were Arab, even though Arabs constitute around 21% of the population.
In the Arab city of Sakhnin in the north of the country, for example, health officials have seen a promising increase in Arab turnout over the past week. As more residents got vaccinated, more overcame their fears. Dr. Nabil Abu Salah, who directs a Clalit clinic in Sakhnin, said that an all-ages vaccine drive in Sakhnin two days before had seen overwhelming turnout from locals, including young people. “Many, many young people have called asking for vaccinations,” Dr. Abu Salah attested. “People went nuts, it was so packed. We vaccinated 1,200 people and had to close when we ran out,” he added with a chuckle.
More Nuanced Factors Influence Vaccination Rates
While concerned about the spread of fake news and vaccine skepticism among Arab citizens, health officials and public health experts have also pointed out that other, more complicated, factors have played a key role in slowing the rollout of vaccines in the community.
Senior Clalit official Dr. Zahi Saeed, who advises the health provider on the Arab population’s health, emphasized that the Arab community’s relative youth was also a key factor in limiting its vaccination rate. Because vaccines are officially still available mostly to those over 60 or those who have risk factors, Saeed noted, a lower turnout was to be expected.
“We’re a young society. We’re a far smaller percentage of those over 60, even though we are a larger proportion of those with preexisting conditions,” said Saeed. However, several public clinics in Arab communities received approval from the ministry to begin vaccinating people under the age of 60, who are otherwise ineligible for the vaccine at this stage of the campaign. Nurses at health care services clinics in certain Arab communities say they have called friends and relatives to urge them to be vaccinated.
Structural Discrimination Does Make Access More Difficult
A structural impediment to the accessibility of the vaccine to Arab citizens is related to the national distribution of their clinics. The vast majority of Arab citizens are registered in Clalit, the largest of Israel’s four health maintenance organizations (HMOs). While slightly more than half of Israelis as a whole are in the HMO, around 70% of Arabs in Israel are Clalit members. However, only around 10 out of 145 Clalit clinics — around 6.8% of all the HMO’s stations — are located in Arab cities. Those cities are home to around 14.4% of the country’s population, making it even more likely that Arab residents will have to head to a Jewish-majority city to be immunized. Out of the 300,000 shots administered by Clalit, only around 5% — around 15,000 — had been distributed in Arab areas as of Wednesday night, Saeed told The Times of Israel. The figure does not include so-called “mixed cities” such as Lod, Ramle, Haifa, and Jerusalem, where around 10% of Israel’s Arab citizens live.
To counter misinformation about the vaccine on social media, Hadash has launched a campaign in Arabic against the fears that may exist among some Arab citizens that the vaccine is potentially harmful. Hadash MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List) posted a photo of herself on Twitter on Wednesday, December 30, while being vaccinated and called on Arab citizens of Israel put aside any reluctance and to get vaccinated as soon as possible.