Public distrust on COVID-19 not fixed by Israel’s kid vaccination debate - analysis

While at the beginning of the crisis, Israeli health officials and the public paid attention to the science. Two years later, the country has shifted to a culture of post-truth.

 A WOMAN receives a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Tel Aviv in August (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A WOMAN receives a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Tel Aviv in August
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

The Health Ministry’s lack of transparency throughout the COVID-19 pandemic could not be solved by a five-hour discussion on vaccines for children.

Last week, the ministry hosted for the first time an open discussion on the questions surrounding vaccinating children ages five to 11 with the Pfizer vaccine, and it is debating whether or not to open up this week’s discussion at which a final decision will be made.

Health Ministry officials have said they are considering closing Wednesday’s debate because committee members want to be able to speak freely and raise all relevant arguments without fear of potentially violent backlash by the anti-vaccination community.

“Unfortunately, the discourse on the part of anti-vaxxers is extreme at times, and even incomprehensible,” Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said Sunday morning in an interview with 103 FM. “We are in discussions and thinking about how to handle it. The discussion is different and our committee is different from the Food and Drug Administration’s.”

While most experts believe that it is important to live-stream the debate again, doing so is “just one small piece of a puzzle made up of non-transparent pieces” that have been laid by the Health Ministry throughout the pandemic, according to Dr. Tehilla Shwartz-Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

 Empty Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine vials for children aged 5-11 are seen in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, US, November 6, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/HANNAH BEIER) Empty Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine vials for children aged 5-11 are seen in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, US, November 6, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/HANNAH BEIER)

She said the decision to open the debate was an effort to appease some parts of the public more than an actual step toward bringing about greater transparency – something that is needed if the country is going to ask parents to vaccinate their little kids.

While in the beginning of the crisis, Israeli health officials and the public appeared to pay careful attention to the data and science, two years later, the country has shifted back to a culture of post-truth.

This phenomenon is defined by Oxford Dictionary as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In other words, the data presented at these debates is simply being leveraged by listeners to strengthen their own opinions.

People who believe wholeheartedly in the decision to jab children hear the data and become even more convinced that vaccinating five- to 11-year-olds is important. Those who are against giving the shots will not be convinced otherwise.

And the people who sit in the middle, who are pro-vaccination but are nervous about inoculating their young children, go largely unheard, Shwartz-Altshuler said.

She said the Health Ministry developed a lack of trust over the past 18 months that has led to deep divisions among the public who are unsure where to look for accurate information.

On the one hand, when the Pfizer vaccines were approved by the FDA, the ministry asked people to trust them because the FDA had given them the green light. Israelis flocked to the vaccination complexes in droves, and the country carried out the world’s fastest vaccination campaign.

On the other hand, while the ministry was touting the FDA’s procedures, it failed to hold itself to a similar standard and to conduct transparent conversations on vaccines for Israelis – clean of conflict of interests and in a way that was open and understandable to the public.

“The debates themselves were not transparent and neither were the protocols used for the debates and to make decisions,” Shwartz-Altshuler said.

THE MOVE to provide all people over the age of 12 with booster doses based on very little available data – even if it can be argued that the decision turned out to be correct – called the ministry’s decision-making process further into question.

There were also issues of conflict of interest.

“The fact that the Health Ministry was a regulator, decision-maker and researcher – that is a problem,” she stressed. “This is what caused the trust crisis.”

She said that the decision-makers are their own researchers and “sign all those papers in fancy journals” is a mistake and makes it hard for the public to trust the process.

The Health Ministry signed the business deal with Pfizer, oversaw the administration of the vaccines through the health funds and then wrote about the results of the country’s campaign.

There has also been an issue of access to raw data.

The Health Ministry has shared papers and presentations but has failed to provide raw data in many circumstances when asked by the public or academicians.

“The default should be that the data belongs to the public,” said Prof. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians.

When the pandemic started, the ministry did not have a system for providing data, he explained. And, although it has improved, in more than 18 months there is still not enough effort being made to professionally anonymize data and allow investigators to access and investigate it.

“You need people to prepare the data and transfer it to the relevant people, and it costs money,” he said, adding that the issue has not been properly prioritized. “It is an issue of transparency and professionalism.”

It would also provide other doctors and scientists an opportunity to better offer suggestions and collaborate on the efforts being made to combat COVID-19 in Israel.

Transparency, he said, does not only mean opening up a discussion and allowing diverse participants to speak, but also listening to their views and integrating them into your response.

Levine said he empathizes with his colleagues on the vaccination committee who are afraid of violent threats, but the answer is to stop those who are violent and not to prevent a crucial open discussion.

“The public should know who is sitting around the tables in these discussions, what each person says and how they vote,” Shwartz-Altshuler said. “But again, this is just a small piece of what needs to change – and it is not enough.”

The Health Ministry must share the data sets in full on which they are basing their policies. They should share the full protocols for this debate and previous and subsequent discussions and the decisions that are being made on behalf of the public.

And the ministry should commit to developing a better system to track side effects and share them in real-time and in full with the public.

“The bottom line,” Shwartz-Altshuler said, “the vaccination discussion is important, but it is not what is going to move the needle.”