Convincing the anti-vaxxers

by Brian on March 13, 2021

in Covid-19,Only in Israel,Politics,Uncategorized

So, it’s come down to this: bribes – as a way of convincing reluctant Israelis to get their Covid-19 vaccinations. 

Discount coupon for use at. Hadar Mall in Jerusalem

It started in Bnei Brak where officials promised free cholent – the traditional Shabbat meat, beans and potato stew –  for anyone coming in to get their jab.

Soon, the food-for-shots program had expanded to include knafeh, the cheesy sweet Middle Eastern dessert, for those getting vaccinated in Jaffa; blintzes and pirozhki in Petah Tikva; and real shots of alcohol at a pop-up vaccination stand outside a bar on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv.

Facebook pundits quickly chimed in with their own suggestions: gefilte fish in Givatayim, biltong in Ra’anana (to cater to the city’s South African population), croissants in Netanya (ditto, for French immigrants).

The exchange reached its economic epitome in Jerusalem where the Hadar Mall advertised it was giving out NIS 20 shopping coupons to those getting vaccinated.

The food-for-shots initiative is an indication that Israel is now firmly in the second phase of its speedy vaccination drive.

While those over 50 have enthusiastically embraced the vaccines – Israeli HMO Maccabi reports that it has inoculated 90% of its members in that age group – now it’s time to convince the more hesitant members of society. 

It’s a global challenge: a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 45% of Americans said they would either not get the shot at all or would “wait and see.” With infection rates still steep, though, we don’t have that luxury.

What can the world learn from Israel, the vaccination “beta country,” on how to flip the recalcitrant?

Israel was one of the first countries to roll out a “green pass” that allows only fully vaccinated Israelis entry into restaurants, universities and cultural events. It’s a smart carrot vs. stick approach, but it can only go so far. 

There’s a bigger problem and it’s one that no amount of cholent, cocktails or concerts can fix.

We’re getting the messaging all wrong. 

Listen to public health officials anywhere in the world and what you’ll hear is, “Great you’ve been vaccinated. Nothing changes. You still have to wear your mask and continue to social distance. You can’t hug your grandchildren or get on a plane.”

I understand why the communication is so negative: We don’t know conclusively yet whether vaccinated individuals might still be able to pass the virus to others (although we’re collecting data that indicates that’s likely not the case). 

And then there are all those terrifying variants that may make the vaccines less effective.

But “advising people that they must do nothing differently after vaccination, not even in the privacy of their homes, creates the misimpression that vaccines offer little benefit at all,” writes Julia Marcus in The Atlantic. On the contrary, “vaccines provide a true reduction of risk, not a false sense of security,” even for the most virulent variants. 

Yes, the vaccines are not 100% effective, but they are nearly that good at stopping severe cases, hospitalization and death.

“We’re underselling the vaccine,” University of Pennsylvania infectious-disease specialist Dr. Aaron Richterman told The New York Times.

“It’s going to save your life — that’s where the emphasis has to be right now,” Dr. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine adds.

Moreover, continuing to eschew even the lowest-risk changes in behavior “discourages the very thing that will get everyone out of this mess: vaccine uptake,” stresses Marcus. 

Public health officials’ motivations are mostly good. It’s just that, “as academic researchers, they are instinctively cautious, prone to emphasizing any uncertainty,” writes David Leonhardt in the Times.

But if there’s no perceived benefit to getting vaccinated, and with many already worried about long-term effects, negative messaging just feeds the public’s fears – the last thing we need. 

The best way to persuade people to act safely is to tell the truth. 

“I think the tendency of the Health Ministry is to create some form of hysteria, maybe in the attempt to push people to vaccinate,” Hadassah Medical Center director general Zeev Rotstein told The Jerusalem Post.

But “not being completely open because you want to achieve some sort of behavioral public health goal — people will see through that eventually,” Richterman says.

A more positive approach comes from Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at UC San Francisco, who told the Los Angeles Times that, “I think life can be back to normal when you are talking about what two vaccinated people can do together.” 

Or an entirely vaccinated family – like ours.

Last weekend, with our adult children all fully inoculated and a week past their second dose, we held our first Shabbat meal indoors without masks in nearly a year. It felt familiar, fun and fabulous.

The pièce de résistance – and a tantalizing glimpse of post-pandemic “normal life” – was when my wife, Jody, and I spent two nights at a hotel in Mitzpeh Ramon open only to guests who can present a Green Pass or proof of prior Covid-19 infection. 

Beresheet Hotel in Mitzpeh Ramon

Jody and I will still be wearing our masks in public and taking precautions outside our family circle.

But as Fox News contributor Dr. Nicole Saphier summed up the situation regarding what vaccinated people can do, “We have to stop saying no all the time and get to the answer of yes.”

To arrive at that point, let me offer one last bribe: Give everyone a night at a hotel (not a corona hotel), throw in a portion of cholent and a slice of knafeh and watch how fast any anti-vax sentiment melts away.

I first wrote about convincing the anti-vaxxers for The Jerusalem Post.

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