RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel’s plans to inoculate its population against Covid-19 are proceeding briskly. The country has vaccinated a larger share of its population than any other country, and its drive is being praised as an example of an effective vaccination program. But there is a darker side to this success story: Some five million Palestinians under its control are being sidelined.
While Israel has a plan to inoculate all of its citizens in the next few months, it is leaving Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to fend for themselves.
Gaza and the West Bank are suffering from a serious coronavirus outbreak. There have been more than 165,900 infections and 1,756 deaths in the two territories. More than 1,800 new cases are registered a day. The rate of infection in the two areas is 30 percent among those who are tested, in comparison with 7.4 percent in Israel.
While Israel is now struggling to curtail a new wave of infections, it is on track to vaccinate 25 percent of its population by the end of January and every Israeli by the end of March.
This includes about 600,000 settlers, who, according to international law, are illegally living in the West Bank, but who hold Israeli passports. They will receive the vaccine in the coming days while about three million Palestinians living in the same area will not. Israel has also ordered that vaccines be provided for prison guards, but not for the thousands of Palestinian prisoners.
Granted, Arabs living in Israel proper who hold Israeli citizenship are being vaccinated. But Israel also made a commitment in the Oslo accords to work with the Palestinians to combat epidemics, so it has a moral obligation to supply vaccines in the West Bank and Gaza.
Instead, it has so far dismissed a request by the World Health Organization and the Palestinian Authority, the self-governing body in the West Bank, to provide up to 10,000 vaccine doses for Palestinian frontline workers. Knowing that Israel will not share its vaccine supply anytime soon, Palestinians have to rely on the good will of foreign organizations and companies. But a vaccination program for the West Bank and Gaza will be far slower than the rapid rollout that Israelis are getting.
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While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.
No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
Covax, a coalition of international health organizations, has pledged to vaccinate Palestinians in the two territories but the vaccines aren’t expected to arrive before the end of February and they would be administered to only 3 percent of people there by April, with a further rollout throughout the year.
The health ministry of the Palestinian Authority has also made arrangements to receive more than two million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines but those are also not expected to arrive soon.
Israel has said that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are responsible for their own health care. It insists that the Palestinian Authority is in charge of the West Bank and that, with the redeployment of Israeli troops from Gaza in 2005, Gaza is also self-ruled.
But the reality is that Israel and its military still essentially have control over the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian Authority does not control the borders, crossing, or air space. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority is present in only 38 percent of the West Bank, land that is fragmented by the wall, checkpoints and Israeli settlements. Sixty percent of the West Bank, known as Area C, is off limits to the authority. In Gaza, the crossing, borders, sea and airspace are under Israeli control (aside from one part of Gaza’s southern border that is controlled by Egypt).
As outlined in the Geneva Conventions, an occupying power, which, despite its denial, Israel continues to be, “has the duty of ensuring and maintaining, with the cooperation of national and local authorities, the medical and hospital establishments and services, public health and hygiene in the occupied territory, with particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.”
The economic and geographic control Israel holds over the territory of the Palestinian Authority has led to great discrepancies and inequities. In 2018, the average expenditure on health care for a Palestinian in the Palestinian territories was a mere $344, compared to $3,324 for an Israeli.
The risk that the health care system will collapse increases daily in the West Bank, and even more in densely populated Gaza, where about two million Palestinians live, mostly in poverty. Until recently, hospital beds there were near capacity. While hospitals in Gaza have received a much-needed influx of oxygen, they are still suffering from shortages of medications and disposable equipment needed to treat Covid-19 patients.
The Israeli government’s decision to make the vaccine available only to Israeli citizens is not just a moral injustice, it is self-defeating. Herd immunity will not be achieved for Israelis without vaccinating Palestinians. There are more than 130,000 Palestinians working in Israel and the settlements, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis travel between Israeli settlements or engage in military activities in the occupied Palestinian territories.
When we received our medical degrees, I and other doctors swore an oath to not discriminate. Medicine and medical care should not treat some patients as less worthy of treatment. Such an approach violates the values and integrity of the medical profession and hurts everyone — including Israelis.
Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi is a medical doctor and a former Palestinian minister and Palestinian Legislative Council member.
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