While Israel leads the world in coronavirus vaccinations per capita, vaccination rates remain very low among the country’s Bedouin, many of whom are suspicious of the vaccine. In one instance, a village received 1,000 doses, but only twenty residents agreed to receive a shot, and the remaining doses had to be discarded. Mohammed al-Nabari—a physician and the former mayor of a Bedouin village—heads a nonprofit dedicated to helping his fellow Bedouin. He describes its efforts to rectify the situation:
The low vaccination rates in the Bedouin community reflected the low amounts of trust between the community and the government. Yet we were able to change that, thanks to strong pre-existing relationships among community leaders, the government, and those in the private sector with access to resources and expertise. Those relationships were built long before the pandemic, and could only be activated effectively in a crisis because of years of building the infrastructure of trust.
Nabari takes as an example the village of Sa’wa, whose residents were reluctant to be vaccinated before Hassan, the local imam:
In [the Bedouin] community, the imam’s word carries more weight than any scientist or government official could ever muster. Vaccinating the people of Sa’wa depended on Hassan, and he was eager to lead by example. But at forty-six, he was too young to be eligible for a vaccine during this early stage of the rollout, and waiting to vaccinate the imam meant further excruciating delays in vaccinating vulnerable residents throughout Sa’wa.
[A]fter calling upon relationships we had developed over the years with various ministries and medical insurance agencies, Hassan’s cell phone pinged with a text confirming his appointment later that day. Word spread rapidly that the imam had received the vaccine, even more so after he spoke about his vaccination at Friday prayers and encouraged others to make appointments. Over the following days, we saw a steady increase as more and more residents signed up.
In my hometown of Hura, we received unprecedented support from the Israeli Home Front Command; a Muslim cleric rode through the town with a bullhorn atop an Israeli military vehicle, shouting vaccine information to passersby. We still have much work to do, but early data of our efforts shows promise. Just three days after initiating our strategy, the number of people vaccinated in Hura surged from just 8 percent to 25.4 percent.