What bad things has Israel done

Coronavirus: Israel and the vaccine skeptics

Every Tuesday, for many years, the friends got together to play the Chinese board game Ma-Jon. But then the corona pandemic came and from then on everyone was sitting alone at home - until now: "It's really the first time since March that we meet. It's unbelievable and feels good," says Ruth Rogers. The 88-year-old US Israeli was able to invite her friends back to her apartment in Jerusalem for the first time.

For the past year they have only been able to play the game virtually on a computer. "It's good that everyone is okay, and that they got through the year in good health. Even if it was very lonely. And we haven't forgotten what we look like, even if we all urgently need a haircut," says Rogers with a laugh. The four friends clearly missed sitting at a table together again. "For the first time I feel free again. Being able to speak to people directly is wonderful," says Esther Taragin.

Ruth and her friends, between 84 and 95 years old, were among the first group to receive the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine in Israel. "Thank goodness my husband and I stayed healthy, we both got vaccinations and are proud owners of the green passport, even if we have nowhere to go with it," says Judy Feld. The "Green Pass" issued by the Ministry of Health is valid as a vaccination pass and should in future also allow certain freedoms for those who have been vaccinated.

Ma-Jon-Spiele: Now possible again together in one room - for many.

Debate about opening up the country

As the vaccination campaign continues, the Israeli government is now gradually easing the restrictions imposed on the last several weeks of lockdown. The small country with nine million inhabitants is seen worldwide as a positive example of the speed of vaccination and the resulting studies that provide the effectiveness of the vaccine almost in real time. The infection rate nevertheless remained high - especially among those up to 60 years of age. It was only last weekend that the numbers began to slowly decline. The number of critically ill patients with COVID-19 in hospitals is still high.

The public debate is now focused on opening up the country and what the rights and obligations of those who have been vaccinated and those who do not yet want to be vaccinated are. In February the number of daily vaccinations had decreased slightly. Some days in January, up to 200,000 people were vaccinated. In between, the value was around 50 percent less, according to figures from the Ministry of Health.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made the vaccination campaign an election issue, warned on Sunday that more than half a million Israelis over 50 years of age have not yet been vaccinated. "I remember a dramatic detail of the data," said Netanyahu. "97 percent of deaths and 93 percent of severe cases are in this group." Over 5,400 Israelis have died of COVID-19 disease since the pandemic began. January saw the highest number of deaths.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made the vaccination issue a campaign issue

Rapid vaccination campaign, but also vaccination skepticism

A total of four million Israelis have been vaccinated so far, of which around 2.6 million have received both vaccinations. Everyone over the age of 16 has been able to be vaccinated since February. "We're trying to see what attitudes people have about the vaccine. There's also a lot of fake news out there," says Boaz Lev, head of the vaccine task force at the Israeli Ministry of Health. "That worries us. But it will be a while before we can see how compliant people are."

The Ministry of Health recently set up a staff unit to contain false information and conspiracy myths on the Internet. Other information campaigns target certain sections of the population, such as Palestinian Israelis or ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are more vaccinated for various reasons.

"I recently spoke to rabbis who run religious schools about the vaccine, its safety, and its effectiveness. We are also bringing up false information circulating on fertility and other issues," says Lev.

A vaccination certificate for benefits?

But there are also vaccine skeptics among younger, secular Israelis. Michal, mother of two children, receives an invitation to the vaccination by SMS from her health insurance almost every day. "I think it should be a personal decision. I'm glad that the vaccination exists," says Michal. "But I don't think I need it. I'm 41, young and healthy." She simply has a different attitude towards medicine and strictly rejects any conspiracy myths. Her family and friends, who are all vaccinated, are not happy with her decision. "At the moment it feels like there is pressure from everywhere to get vaccinated," says Michal, but she doesn't rule out getting vaccinated in the near future.

Much will depend on how the government and health insurance companies proceed. From Sunday museums, shopping centers, libraries and shops are to be reopened - for everyone. In contrast, fitness clubs, swimming pools, cultural and sporting events should only be accessible to holders of the "Green Pass".

International travel may also depend on the vaccination certificate. At the moment, however, Israel's Ben Gurion Airport is still closed - with the exception of a few return flights for Israeli citizens. According to media reports, the government is also examining whether it is possible to legally require certain professions - such as teachers or bus drivers - to be vaccinated or to be tested for the virus every 48 hours. At the moment, however, one is officially appealing to general solidarity, such as Health Minister Yuli Edelstein in a tweet: "You have to decide whether you want to be there or stay behind alone."