While most Israelis aged 60 and older are rushing to receive the coronavirus vaccine, others are refusing to do the same as conspiracy theories and fake news spreads online.
Israel has already vaccinated nearly 15% of its 9.3 million-strong population in two weeks, far outpacing many other countries around the world. More than 1.5 million Israelis – mainly those over 60 years old or with underlying health issues – have already received the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine.
Despite the dizzying pace of the inoculation drive, virus cases continue to skyrocket; the country entered a tighter lockdown on Thursday night and hospital chiefs have warned that the third wave of the pandemic may be the worst.
Nevertheless, some Israelis are hesitating to get vaccinated, citing everything from conspiracy theories about Bill Gates culling the global population to unfounded concerns about serious side effects.
“I’m personally against the Pfizer shot and the shot from Moderna because it hasn’t been checked and there are a lot of side effects,” said 68-year-old Jerusalem resident Rachel during a conversation in the city's Mahane Yehuda market.
“First of all it goes into the brain and down the spinal cord. It causes paralyzation [sic] and we have feedback; we have the proof.”
Rachel declined to share proof of her claims but said that she believes the Pfizer BioNTech’s vaccine leads to fertility issues in women and referred to Israel’s successful inoculation drive as “outrageous.”
A young woman walking nearby who overheard the conversation also said that she would refuse to get vaccinated.
Meanwhile, several others at the market that day echoed this reluctance.
“I’m personally against it because there’s not enough research,” said a 35-year-old Jerusalem resident who identified himself as Jeremy. “It’s like we’re an experiment.”
“I don’t want it; I have a strong immune system,” said 64-year-old Bracha. “I’m scared of it. It’s been shown that it can cause facial paralysis.”
Bracha, Jeremy and Rachel are not alone in their views.
A poll carried out last month by Ynet's sister publication Yedioth Ahronoth showed that 63% of Israelis intended to receive the COVID-19 vaccination when it became available, while 11% would refuse to do so. Another 17% planned on waiting at least a year before making a decision on the vaccine.
A similar survey carried out by the Israel Hayom newspaper showed that 37% of Israelis would refuse to get the jab.
According to Dr. Bruria Adini, head of the department of emergency management and disaster medicine in the School of Public Health at Tel Aviv University, the public is losing faith in decision-makers and authority figures.
“We’ve been doing ongoing research throughout the pandemic,” Adini said.
“There is a growing distrust of the different authorities and the level of national resilience is going down. People believe that the decision-making is based on political interests and not on professional facts and figures.”
Adini and a team of researchers at Tel Aviv University and the Technology College of Tel-Hai recently released a study that showed that symptoms of anxiety and depression have significantly increased in Israel since the start of the pandemic.
Published last month, the study revealed that nearly one in three Israelis (29%) suffered from extreme or highly extreme symptoms of anxiety at the peak of the second wave in October.
By contrast, only 12% of Israelis reported being highly anxious in 2018 prior to the pandemic. One in five Israelis reported feeling highly depressed, almost double the 9% who reported feeling this way in pre-COVID-19 times.
At the moment Adini and her team are measuring the public response to vaccines and hope to present their findings sometime next week.
“Many countries have approved [these vaccines] so that’s a bit of a surprise to me that people are thinking that maybe this is a conspiracy,” she said.
“I’m not surprised about local conspiracies about decision making, for example concerning the lockdown. It goes very well with the high level of stress that we have found among the population.”
When it comes to public distrust, Adini said, there are several strategies that can help, including avoiding fear-based communication and increasing the level of transparency in government decision-making. In addition, health officials need to be prepared to share more data and information about the virus with the public.
“We do need a stable government because what’s happening now is something that is increasing the uneasiness and the distress of the population,” Adini said, referring the ongoing political stalemate in Israel.
Article written by Maya Margit. Reprinted with permission from The Media Line