Israel’s dilemma: Can the unvaccinated return to workplaces?

  • In this March 7 file photo, people eat in a restaurant as restrictions are eased following months of government-imposed shutdowns, in Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)

JERUSALEM — After spending much of the past year in lockdown, Tel Aviv makeup artist Artyom Kavnatsky was ready to get back to work. But when he showed up for a recent photo shoot, his employer turned him away. The reason? He had not been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

“He didn’t take me because I didn’t get vaccinated,” Kavnatsky said. “It’s discrimination, and it’s not all right.”

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The breakneck pace of Israel’s vaccination drive has made it one of the few countries able to return to much of its pre-pandemic routine. Bars and businesses, hotels and health clubs have all sprung back to life in Israel, where some 80% of the adult population is fully vaccinated and new infections and COVID-19 deaths have plummeted.

While Israel provides a glimpse of what may be possible with high immunization rates, it also offers insight into the problems that lie ahead: Workplaces and schools are now grappling with what to do with those who refuse to get vaccinated as the next phase in the pandemic again pits public health concerns against individual rights and possibly new questions of equity. One case has already ended up in court, and others are expected to.

Airlines are already considering if vaccination, or a recent negative test, might be required for travel, as is the European Union. Some officials in Britain and the United States are exploring if proof of immunization could help large-scale gatherings to return, though there remains significant resistance to such measures in the U.S. Whether a shot is necessary to go back to work or class is an even thornier question.

In many countries, the decisions may raise the prospect of further dividing populations along the lines of wealth and vaccine access. While the vast majority of the 100,000 Palestinians who live in the West Bank and have Israeli work permits have been vaccinated, immunization drives in the West Bank and Gaza have lagged far behind. Many parts of the world have received few, if any, vaccines.

So far, Israel has relied primarily on a series of incentives meant to encourage people to get a vaccine. It has established a “green pass” for the fully vaccinated whose holders can attend concerts, dine out, go to the gym or travel to popular vacation spots in places like Egypt, Cyprus and Greece. Those who do not have the pass are out of luck.

The system has worked well in areas of leisure and entertainment.

But now, it is moving into other realms. Health officials have recommended barring unvaccinated workers who have not recently tested negative for COVID-19 from schools, elder care facilities and other high-risk workplaces.

Israel’s health care system has also mandated that all employees — doctors, nurses, administrators, and support staff alike — receive the coronavirus vaccine.

If they refuse, they will be transferred to jobs that do not involve contact with high-risk patients.

Rights groups have expressed concern that such regulations could jeopardize workers’ income.

Similar concerns exist in education. Tel Aviv University, Israel’s largest, has found an uneasy balance for now.

As the university resumes in-person classes, Eyal Zisser, its deputy rector, said that only students who are vaccinated can be physically present. Those who are not can continue to learn remotely.

“In the initial stages, we are bringing back some of the students according to the green pass and making lessons accessible to the rest of the students,” said Zisser.

Even with Israel’s success, hundreds of thousands of people remain unvaccinated — some who are opposed to vaccines in general but many who are hesitant to take a shot that was developed so quickly. U.N., U.S. and European health experts have said the vaccines authorized by Israel are safe and effective.

Kavnatsky, the makeup artist, objects to vaccines and modern medicine more broadly, saying he doesn’t want to put “any needles in my body.” He is not alone. He is one of over 15,000 members of a Hebrew-language anti-vaccine Facebook group who are critical of what they see as forced immunization by the state.

Rappeh, a political party headed by outspoken anti-vaccine advocate Aryeh Avni, garnered over 17,000 votes in last week’s recent parliamentary elections. That was not enough to get into parliament but illustrates the challenge for policymakers.

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Israel’s Health Ministry acknowledges its powers are limited.

“We cannot force people to vaccinate,” said Einav Shimron, the ministry’s deputy director for international relations.

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