The Palestinians finally have vaccines. But will people take them?

BETHLEEM, West Bank – Since the coronavirus first appeared in the occupied West Bank, Suha Gadeon has worn her mask diligently, avoided ...


BETHLEEM, West Bank – Since the coronavirus first appeared in the occupied West Bank, Suha Gadeon has worn her mask diligently, avoided mingling with friends, and refused to host family members or attend public gatherings.

But Ms Gadeon, 41, head of staffing at the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, refused to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, worrying about side effects such as blood clots, heart complications and hair loss. Although some harmful side effects have been discovered, they are extremely rare and health experts say the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks.

“I am strongly opposed to taking the vaccine now,” she said. “I wouldn’t be comfortable until after a three to five year study proved it safe to get it.”

For months, Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip struggled to immunize residents for lack of vaccine supplies.

Now they have received millions of doses, but they face a new challenge: persuading a majority of the public to get vaccinated.

“We have vaccines, but we urgently need people to be vaccinated,” said Shadi al-Liham, the top health ministry official in the Bethlehem district. “They are essential in helping us get through the pandemic. “

The number of new cases of the virus in the West Bank and Gaza has increased dramatically over the past week, reaching 868 in the West Bank on Thursday and 1,021 in Gaza on Friday, the highest daily figures in months. The number of hospitalizations in the two territories has roughly tripled in the past two weeks.

But only 37% of eligible West Bank residents received at least one dose of the vaccine, and about 18% in Gaza, according to health officials in the two territories.

According to Abdulsalam al-Khayyat, director of the public health department of the faculty of medicine at An Najah University in Nablus, in the West Bank.

“A lot of people just don’t get reliable information about vaccines,” he said.

Bethlehem, where the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was discovered in a Palestinian city in the West Bank, has perhaps been the hardest hit. In addition to causing at least 258 deaths in the region, the virus has ravaged the tourism industry in the city where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born. Hotels and restaurants have closed and tour guides have been made redundant.

But in the Old Town’s bustling open-air market, many fruit and vegetable vendors spoke almost as loudly of their skepticism about vaccines as they did while peddling their produce.

“I read online that people would die two years after receiving the vaccine,” said Issa Abu Huleil, 53, citing an unfounded rumor while selling a watermelon to a customer. “So I decided not to get the vaccine. Why would I risk it? My health is excellent.

Last week, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules Gaza, ordered government employees to get vaccinated in an effort to increase compliance.

Refusing to be vaccinated “is not a matter of personal freedom,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said when announcing the decision. “Your freedom ends when it harms the health of others. “

The authority said public sector employees who do not get vaccinated will be placed on unpaid leave until the pandemic ends. The government is the largest employer in the West Bank, and Palestinian officials said the number of vaccinations had increased dramatically in recent days after the government’s order took effect.

In Gaza, all government employees must be vaccinated or face legal measures, said Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesperson for the health ministry. And anyone in the private sector whose work puts them in direct contact with the public must also be vaccinated if they are to keep their jobs, al-Qidra said.

Human rights activists have expressed reservations about the harshness of the measures, arguing that authorities could have introduced incentives instead, such as extra vacations to get vaccinated, or allow employees who refused the vaccine to continue to work provided it is tested regularly.

“There has to be a balance between public health and personal freedoms,” said Ammar Dwaik, director of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, a body created by the Palestinian government. “But I think the authorities could have paid more attention to the alternatives here,” he added.

The reluctance to vaccinate is just the latest snag in the Palestinians’ torturous struggle against the pandemic. For much of this year, Palestinians have had very few vaccines, which has severe criticism of Israel for failing to protect the Palestinians under his occupation while conducting a leading immunization program for Israeli citizens.

But many of the doses that the PA has have been siphoned off to high-ranking officials of the ruling party, to media allies and even to family members of the highest ranking officials. Last spring, Israel vaccinated over 100,000 Palestinians who work in Israel but not the millions of other Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

And when Israel finally offered the authority over a million doses as part of a vaccine swap deal in June, authority refused them.

Since Palestinians began receiving international shipments in February, they have received more than 2.8 million doses, according to the World Health Organization, enough to fully immunize most of the currently eligible population. Authorities in the West Bank and Gaza are receiving or negotiating agreements for around 4.6 million additional doses, the organization said.

Palestinian health officials said more than 1.2 million doses had already been administered. A US donation of 500,000 doses arrived this week, and an order of four million Pfizer doses was arriving in batches.

Richard Peeperkorn, the WHO representative in the West Bank and Gaza, said authorities still need many more vaccines to inoculate the overwhelming majority of the population.

“There is still a long way to go,” he said.

At a vaccination center in Bethlehem on Thursday, the effect of the Palestinian Authority’s decision to require its employees to be vaccinated was evident.

Dozens of people gathered near a table where nurses administered a variety of beatings, while others filled out papers outside.

But several people who received the inoculation said they were getting the shot just because they had to.

“I am not at all convinced about the vaccine,” said Mohammed Quwar, 34, an aspiring taxi driver. But the Department of Transportation, he said, would only allow him to take a driving test if he presented proof of vaccination.

“I don’t see any benefit from the vaccine, but I want to be a taxi driver,” he said. “So I really have no choice.”

Iyad Abuheweila contributed reporting from Gaza.

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Newsrust - US Top News: The Palestinians finally have vaccines. But will people take them?
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