Prime Minister Naftali Bennett instructed Israel’s four health funds on Wednesday to step up efforts to encourage more Arab citizens of Israel to get vaccinated, as between 30% and 40% of all serious COVID-19 cases in the country are from the Arab population.
Bennett spoke to the heads of Maccabi, Meuhedet, Clalit and Leumit health funds on Wednesday morning, together with Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash, coronavirus commissioner Prof. Salman Zarka and Home Front Command head Maj.-Gen. Ori Gordin.
He was briefed on the situation from the health funds’ perspective and told them to work toward increasing the volume of people getting vaccinated each day.
There has been a decline in the number of inoculations in Israel, perhaps because of the Sukkot holiday.
But vaccination is specifically low among the Arab population across the country, which has led to a spike in morbidity among Arabs.
A situation report shared by the Health Ministry on Wednesday morning showed that while there were only 136 new cases among the haredi population and 971 among the general population at the time the data were pulled, there were some 1,125 in the Arab population.
In other words, some 34% of the infection is within the Arab sector, although the sector makes up only around 21% of Israeli society.
At the same time, only about 35% of Arabs eligible to receive a third dose have done so, compared to more than 70% among the general population.
Ministry data showed that only 15% of Arabs (compared to 54% of the general public) between the ages of 16 and 19 have had their third shot and only 19% (compared to 56%) among those 20 to 29.
Among nearly every other age cohort, there are between 20% and 30% fewer Arabs who have been vaccinated with the booster.
As Bennett boarded the plane in New York to return to Israel Wednesday morning, he told journalists that the 40 localities with the highest rate of morbidity are in Arab society and that unvaccinated patients comprise more than 90% of serious cases in Israel’s hospitals.
In total, the ministry shows about 100 red authorities, 130 orange and 300 yellow. Some 54 of the 100 red authorities are Arab.
Bennett stressed in his discussion with the health fund heads that the government’s policy is to keep the country open and the economy as functional as possible, while increasing immunization in all parts of society, mass testing and enforcing the Green Pass outline.
He then reiterated the policy as he boarded the airplane: “I very much respect the Health Ministry experts and cherish their professional work. However, imposing more and more sweeping restrictions on all citizens of the State of Israel is not the policy of the government.”
He said the meaning of “sweeping actions” is the immediate loss of thousands of jobs.
“Despite the pressures, we will at this stage refrain from imposing restrictions on the entire population,” Bennett said. “Canceling a Shlomo Artzi concert in Rishon Lezion or a wedding in Modi’in will not help the residents of Taiba or Umm el-Fahm.”
The No. 1 reason Arabs are not getting vaccinated is that they are afraid of vaccine side effects, a representative for the community explained. Some 70% of the Arab population is under the age of 25. Members of this age group are connected to social networks where they are fed fake news.
Bennett had been briefed about the situation in the Arab community before his travels to the US for the United Nations General Assembly, and formulated a plan, together with the coronavirus commissioner for the Arab community, Ayman Saif, and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, to work with Muslim faith leaders to reach these people and get them their first, second or third shots.
The plan, which is already under way, includes establishing vaccine complexes in every red Arab city and appointing a state-funded coronavirus commissioner for each of these cities who will help to set a vaccination target for his or her city. The commissioner will also work with primary care physicians to encourage them to talk to their patients about getting vaccinated.