Israel is waging a war on the unvaccinated as it races to be the world's first inoculated nation
- Israel is offering benefits to its fully vaccinated citizens to try to incentivize inoculation.
- From Sunday, those who can show a certificate of vaccination will be allowed to go to gyms, sports events, cultural events.
- Officials have been explicit that people who avoid vaccines will be "left behind."
Israel has been praised around the world for its rapid rollout of coronavirus vaccines, outstripping all other nations.
But, as the campaign bumped up against parts of the population who didn't want a shot when it was their turn, officials turned harsher.
The nation is rolling out a two-tier system for its reopening, with incentives and freedoms for those who get a jab, and ostracism for those who don't.
As of this week, Israel goals is to vaccinate its entire eligible population by the end of March.
More than 4 million people over the age of 16, which is two thirds of all who are eligible, have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Israel's health ministry said on February 16.
But vaccination rates dropped in the middle of February, prompting a harder policy.
From Sunday, as part of the government's plan to exit its third lockdown, hotels, gym, shops, sporting events and cultural venues will open. But only for those who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19.
The scheme will be relying on what Israel calls its green badge, a certificate from the Ministry of Health for those who get both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The badge will exist as a QR code on a government app developed by the government, according to Nachman Ash, Israel's leading coronavirus official. People without smartphones can print it out instead.
Two weeks later, restaurants, events halls and conferences are also due to open to those who can show a certificate.
The government makes no secret of the fact that this system is meant to make more people get jabs.
In comments reported by The Jerusalem Post, health minister Yuli Edelstein told a meeting of ministers: "The people of Israel are getting vaccinated! And this is the way to fight coronavirus.
"The green passport is also our way of encouraging more and more people to get vaccinated and also true in its essence. Those who are vaccinated are not dangerous."
His public statements are similar.
Here is a translation of a tweet Edelstein posted in Hebrew:
"On the verge of 4 million vaccinated! Today we will pass 4 million vaccinated in Israel, of which 2,612,000 have also received the second vaccine. We're continuing to increase daily vaccinations: Yesterday 156,000 were vaccinated.
"Those who are not vaccinated will be left behind. The coronavirus cabinet has confirmed our stance that only vaccinated and recovering people will enjoy gyms and leisure culture. Go get vaccinated!"
—Yuli Edelstein יולי אדלשטיין (@YuliEdelstein) February 16, 2021
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be right beind him. "Whoever doesn't vaccinate endangers us all, because they can cause the health system to collapse", Netanyahu said in a cabinet meeting, the Times of Israel reported.
While seeing home its vaccine drive, Israel is fighting a third wave of COVID-19 infections. Although the number of daily cases is on a steep decline since mid-January, the number of cumulative deaths is still rising, with 5,473 total deaths on Wednesday, according to Our World in Data.
Reaching the March vaccination deadline is politically important for Netanyahu, who is hoping to see his hand strengthened in Israel's upcoming snap election on March 23.
Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations and a fellow for the think tank Chatham Hous, explained the stakes in an interview with Insider.
"He doesn't want to go with high numbers into the elections, he really wants to show that numbers are down", he said.
To date, scientists still don't know if a person who has been vaccinated can still spread the virus. It is also not clear whether the vaccines protect against new strains of the virus causing worry around the world.
Dave Archard, Chair of the UK's Nuffield Council on Bioethics, told Insider in an interview that these uncertainities undermine certificate programs like Israel's.
"The whole point of the vaccine certificate is to show that the holder of it, in virtue of having been vaccinated, will not transmit COVID-19 or its variants. At the moment, the evidence is not in", he said.
Archard said that there is a danger that putting too much emphasis on the vaccine risks people forgetting other public health measures such as social distancing.
Israel has launched a number of initiatives to encourage people to get vaccinated, such as offering free food with the shots, giving vaccinations on forest trails and in bars, and businesses offering incentives for employees to go and get the shot.
Here a video shows how Israel's Health Ministry giving out free pizza:
In Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, officials offered chulent, a traditional Jewish stew, to encourage vaccination among Ultra-Orthodox community. That group in particular has been suspicious of the country's mass vaccination campaign, the Wall Street Journal reported.
On February 1, thousands gathered to mark the funerals of two famous rabbis who died from the coronavirus, with little regard for distancing requirements.
Bnei Brak has also seen anti-lockdown protests, where rocks were thrown at the police.
Israel is considering a number of more strigent measures to up the pressure on those who decline vaccines.
The government is contemplating a bill to require workers who are highly exposed to the public to either get a vaccine or have to take a COVID-19 test every two days, the Times of Israel said.
According to the Israeli news outlet Hareetz, another, separate plan could see the Education Ministry receive the names of teachers and students who have been inoculated. That information could be given to school leaders in case of an outbreak to identify those most at risk, the outlet said.
The government also had harsh words in particular for teachers who refuse vaccination.
Here is another translated tweet by Edelstein, the health minister, who mentions the require vaccination proposal:
"A teacher who does not get vaccinated disregards the safety of the students and abuses his office. A law has been enacted that will make it possible to obligate workers in public settings that have not been vaccinated to take a coronavirus test every two days."
"I will not compromise on public safety. We're also returning to increasing the rate of vaccinations: 3,907,000 were vaccinated, 2.2 million are entitled to the green label. Yesterday we vaccinated 142,000. Run to get vaccinated!"
—Yuli Edelstein יולי אדלשטיין (@YuliEdelstein) February 15, 2021
(Despite his confident assertion, as of Thursday the law on obligatory vaccination was still under discussion, per the New York Times.)
The health ministry is also considering proposing legislation to release the names of those who have not been vaccinated to local authorities.
Israel has previously come under fire for its approach to data privacy during the pandemic. Last year, Netanyahu and his cabinet approved measures to allow Shin Bet, the country's internal security service, to tap into people's cell phone to make sure that they were respecting quarantine.
On January 25, Facebook deleted a post and suspended a chatbot on Netanyahu's Facebook page after noticing that the chatbot was asking followers to share information about friends and family that are over 60.
The Israeli vaccination campaign seemed to be losing steam in February.
In January, 150,000 people were receiving their first vaccine dose every day. In February, although the vaccination campaign was extended to those between the age of 16-35, only 60,000 people were receiving their first shot a day, the Guardian reported on Monday.
Following the announcement that certain venues would only be open to those who are vaccinate, the Times of Israel has said that rates of vaccinations are on the rise, suggesting that the aggressive policy may be working.
Israel's war on vaccine refusal also involves a robust response to misinformation, a problem facing nations all over the world.
Hareetz reported how a dozen employees scour social media and mainstream news outlets from dawn to midnight, flagging posts for deletion in concert with companies hosting them.
"We have to put up a fight on social media, as well as disseminating information through diverse channels" the deputy director of the Health Ministry's information department, Einav Shimron, told Hareetz.
However, the government's persuasive and technological powers are not total.
Ran Bar-Zik, a cybersecurity expert, noted on Facebook on Tuesday that the digital certificate was very easy to fake, according to the Times of Israel.
100,000 people have joined a group offering forgeries of the certificate on the messaging platform Telegram, according to an investigation from the Hebrew-language Channel 12 news reported by the Times of Israel.
"Counterfeiters may also end up in prison", Edelstein, the health minister, said in a press conference on Thursday, but it is unclear how officials would spot them.
Talia Lakritz contributed reporting to this article.
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