It is astonishing what hatred and fear can do. Until Israel opened up its anti-COVID vaccination plan to all citizens over the age of 16 last week, there was a certain hysteria surrounding the whereabouts of available shots.
The country’s four health maintenance organizations were offering people vaccinations according to risk factor and age groups in an impressively orderly fashion. To prevent the waste of valuable unused vials at the end of the day – vaccines that could not be re-stored – the general public was invited to the vaccination centers before they closed at night.
Early in the rollout in December, when the vaccinations were still aimed at the over-60s, Facebook and WhatsApp groups flourished by directing vaccine-seekers to the places where they stood a high chance of receiving the desired shot in the arm. On the night I received my first jab, following a WhatsApp lead forwarded by a friend, hundreds of hopeful people lined up outside the Jerusalem sports and entertainment complex that had been converted into a mass vaccination center. Some dedicated acquaintances traveled from city to city following leads.
That was then. Now, with the vaccinations having been injected in more than a third of the population – some 3.5 million first doses and at least 2.1 million second doses out of a population of 9 million – a new phenomenon has shown its ugly face. Facebook this week closed down groups aimed at spreading fake news about the vaccinations, playing on fears and conspiracy theories. The N12 news site reported that among the groups was the 14,000-member “No to the Green Passport” movement.
The ban followed calls by fanatics to make appointments to be vaccinated and then not show up – aiming to increase the number of vaccines that would have to be destroyed at the end of the day. Some activists even posted announcements celebrating having tricked the system. In contrast, most of my friends shared photos when they received the vaccination.
Some of those trying to confound the vaccination program reportedly were acting not out of fear of the Pfizer/BioNtech product’s effect on the human body, but out of political fear – fear that the successful vaccination program could help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his hopes to be reelected in next month’s election.
How sick can you get? No, not with corona – with political hatred. Political beliefs are something to live by not to kill for.
Yardena Schwartz, writing in the Forward last week, interviewed anti-Netanyahu anti-vaxxers. One, Liat Kuttner, described as an activist and entrepreneur, referred to Israel’s data-sharing agreement with the pharmaceutical giant that produces the vaccine and the agreement that the company cannot be held liable for side effects. She went as far as telling Schwartz: “I think Netanyahu signed an agreement with Pfizer like Mengele. This is a human experiment we haven’t seen since the Holocaust.”
Any sentence comparing the mass vaccination to the Shoah makes me feel sick – particularly as it is by now well-known that Pfizer CEO and Chairman Dr. Albert Bourla is the son of Holocaust survivors from Thessaloniki who sees his ability to help heal people today, in partnership with a German company, as a triumph over Nazi evil. Ah, yes, before you mention it, I have seen the excerpt of an interview circulated by anti-vaxxers in which Bourla, 59, seems to say that he would not take his own vaccination. I have also seen the rest of the interview, in which he explains that he doesn’t want to be perceived as receiving preferential treatment as CEO and that he was waiting for his allocated age group.
This week he shared on Twitter a photo of his father-in-law receiving the first dose of the vaccine.
“At 84, he is high-risk & graciously waited his turn in Greece. I’ve heard many stories from people filled with emotion at seeing their loved ones get vaccinated. Now, I know the feeling,” Bourla tweeted.
Part of the anti-vaccination movement is propelled by rumors – I have also received alarmist YouTube clips claiming that the vaccination is impregnating recipients’ bodies with aborted fetuses. Some of the opposition stems from a basic mistrust in the medical system and vaccinations in general. And in some cases the fears stem from the sensationalist reports of bad reactions. A call for Israel’s vaccination program to be separately approved by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights was a classic example of turning the project into a vast human experiment rather than a preventive health program based on vaccines that have already been approved (for emergency use) by the FDA and other regulatory bodies. The corona crisis is definitely an emergency – unless you believe it’s all a hoax.
Encouraging people to waste life-saving vaccinations is perverted. It’s immoral, whichever political extreme it’s coming from.
While the vaccinated are protected to a great extent from the coronavirus, the unvaccinated could still get ill and put an intolerable strain on the health system. And the country has reason to be proud that it has now begun offering free vaccines to illegal migrants and asylum-seekers.
There is a backlash against those not getting vaccinated, whatever their reasons and reasoning. This, too, is becoming increasingly strident in tone and radical in its recommendations. While I want to encourage everyone who can to get inoculated, individuals should have the right to choose. Mandating compulsory vaccinations is a dangerous attack on civil liberties. The threats to fire workers who refuse to get the shot only serve to boost support for the theory that the pandemic is just a tool for political control.
I prefer a system of encouragement. KAN 11’s ace economic reporter Shaul Amsterdamski, for example, declared it to be the right time to hand out an economic stimulus – but it should be given only to those who have been vaccinated.
The politicization of the vaccination campaign can also be attributed in part to Netanyahu’s many rivals who want to emphasize the prime minister’s failings in handling the health crisis, in the same way that Netanyahu wants the focus on the inoculation program (and ignore the faults). The infighting within the government was evident this week as the ministers failed to come up with a comprehensive strategy for lifting the third closure.
This is particularly troubling as by now it should be clear to all that an exit strategy should be prepared when a lockdown goes into effect, not the night before it is meant to be lifted.
Unless ordinary people are informed of the regulations – and can follow the reasoning behind them – there will be a problem of non-compliance and a lack of faith in the system.
There was also some encouraging news this week. As The Jerusalem Post’s Maayan Hoffman reported, 29 out of 30 moderate-to-severe COVID-19 patients who were administered a treatment developed by Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov Hospital) as part of a Phase I trial recovered from the virus and were released within three to five days. The 30th patient also later recovered. There are other promising trials of different treatments being carried out elsewhere in the country.
I’m not sure that there is a cure for Bibi Derangement Syndrome so severe that sufferers prefer to trash vaccines rather than see them go to those who want them. But an Israeli treatment for COVID-19 just might cure another type of BDS – the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Both types of BDS go to show that obsessive hatred is not healthy.