As the UK approves of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine, the latest jab to gain approval, a global effort to vaccinate billions gathers momentum. Governments worldwide will be looking at Israel, which is roaring ahead with an ambitious inoculation drive.
By the end of this week, the country of 9 million is expected to have injected more than 10% of its population with vaccines, a far higher fraction than other states including the UK, which began vaccinating almost two weeks earlier.
The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has promised Israelis that the country will be the first to “emerge” from the pandemic if they cooperate.
Having ramped up to a 24/7 operation, health providers are administering the first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at a rate of 150,000 people a day – almost 2% of the population.
Over-60s, healthcare workers, carers and high-risk people, are being prioritised. Local media have reported deals with Pfizer and Moderna to procure several more million doses for early 2021, which will be critical if the rollout is to keep up the pace.
Israel has some natural advantages, being a relatively small country, both in terms of geography and population.
Still, many other countries share those characteristics. Israel’s initial success is also being attributed to its healthcare system, which pre-dates the state’s creation and is now highly digitalised. Everyone over 18 is obliged to register with government-linked insurance agencies, and army medics have been called in to help.
In tandem, the government has launched a vigorous campaign against anti-vax misinformation. The justice ministry successfully petitioned Facebook to remove four groups that published “content designed to mislead about coronavirus vaccines”.
Citizens are also being encouraged to get the jab by officials who have dangled the prospect of a “green passport”, a document that would allow vaccinated persons to eat in restaurants, travel freely and be exempted from quarantine. However, as there is no proof that vaccines reduce transmission, the idea has been met with scepticism.
Yes, a huge one. Netanyahu is due to fight a competitive national election on 23 March, giving the prime minister a massive incentive to get Israel back to some form of normality in the next three months – and then claim credit for it.
Earlier this month, after Pfizer released positive preliminary results, Netanyahu said he had been working “around the clock” to strike a deal, including making calls to the company’s CEO at 2am.
Many Israelis have been disappointed with their government’s response to the crisis so far. The country is under a punishing third national lockdown, with accusations that authorities have squandered opportunities to keep infection rates low.
Millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are not included in the vaccine drive, leading to accusations the country is skirting moral, humanitarian and legal obligations.
While Israeli settlers living deep inside the West Bank are already being vaccinated, Palestinians around them may have to wait for months.
Palestinian officials hope to get some shots through a WHO-led partnership called COVAX. Still, Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of office at WHO Jerusalem, said it could be “early to mid-2021” before vaccines were available for distribution in the Palestinian territories.
Israeli officials have suggested they might provide surplus vaccines to Palestinians, and the Palestinian Authority has not officially asked for help.
Gisha, an Israeli rights group, said cooperation between Palestinian authorities and the international community “does not absolve Israel from its ultimate responsibility toward Palestinians under occupation”.
The disparity not only represents a stark microcosm of what is happening at a global level – with richer, more powerful countries first to be vaccinated – but it could also affect Israel’s own ability to exit the pandemic.
Thousands of West Bank Palestinians work in Israel and Jewish settlements, potentially slowing the country’s path towards the goal of herd immunity.
Bahrain, a Gulf country with a population of about 1.5 million, is in second place, with 3% of its population having received a jab. Other small, rich states in the region, such as Kuwait, could possibly soon catch up with Israel.