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In Israel, we happily gave up privacy to get our pre-covid lives back

Theatergoers show their Green Passes before entering a show at the Cameri Theatre, in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 19, 2021. (Photo by Corinna Kern for The Washington Post)
Theatergoers show their Green Passes before entering a show at the Cameri Theatre, in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 19, 2021. (Corinna Kern for The Washington Post)
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A year ago, during the first lockdown in Israel, my dog was my lifeline. The situation at home was dire: Confining a war correspondent single mom and her preteen son indoors for weeks on end was a recipe for trouble. Taking our Canaan mutt for some exercise was the only government-sanctioned leisure activity that allowed me to leave the house and meet other humans.

Then the shipments of Pfizer shots began arriving in mid-December, and Israel’s government launched its massive vaccination campaign. Within two months, 90 percent of people over age 50 had gotten at least one dose, and Israel is one of the top countries in the world in terms of vaccinations per capita. That success depended on several factors: adequate supply, good infrastructure and high demand. And at each turn, the campaign hinged on our willingness to surrender personal data to the government — including our eager adoption of a national system for verifying our immunity status. Like my fellow citizens, I embrace Big Brother, at least when it comes to public health.

First, supply: The government agreed — without asking its citizens — to share anonymized data from the medical files of every vaccinated Israeli with Pfizer, in exchange for as many vaccines as the country needed (albeit at double the market price) to cover the adults in its small population of 9.3 million. This move did not attract much controversy; Israelis grow up with the idea that all of their data is easily accessible. At birth, every citizen is given a national ID number, which they use for transactions from buying gas to utilizing the country’s beloved nationalized health care. There was, however, a commotion when the government considered providing school principals with the names of vaccinated teachers, which would allow them to pressure others to get the shot. (Ultimately, the Education Ministry blocked access to this information.) Throughout the pandemic, the General Security Service used cellphone data to track people infected with or exposed to the virus, to make sure they stayed in quarantine; only last month did the Supreme Court end the program.

Then there’s infrastructure: Israel’s centralized health system means we have less control over our personal data and therefore less privacy than people in other countries. But that makes operations like mass vaccination more efficient. Citizens eligible for the shot were contacted by text message and email to tell them it was their turn, and getting an appointment over the phone or online was easy and fast.

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The big question concerned demand: The elderly, locked up in their homes, rushed to make appointments. But as the vaccine became available for younger Israelis, the rate of vaccinations dropped and hesitancy surfaced. Some people reasoned that they wouldn’t get seriously sick from the virus and didn’t need the shot. Anti-vaccine information spread on social media, claiming that the shot caused infertility and damaged the immune system. My neighbor, convinced by a rabbi’s YouTube lecture, told me that none of her family had gotten vaccinated; later, both of her parents became infected with the coronavirus.

In response, the government aggressively monitored social media, pressuring companies to remove false posts and videos. It also piled on incentives to get young people to roll up their sleeves: free pizza, vaccination sites at bars (with drink vouchers), even dance parties with professional DJs where people under age 30 could get their first shot. But by far the most powerful incentive has been the Green Pass.

Getting the pass is simple. A week after you get your second dose you can go to the Health Ministry website or a designated phone app and punch in your ID number. Your Green Pass shows up with a QR code. Businesses can scan the code and immediately verify whether you are vaccinated or recovering from the coronavirus, or neither. The government promised that it would be a time-travel ticket to your past life: concerts, hotels, university classes, gyms, pools, large weddings. 

The Green Pass is a brilliant idea. It makes the choice clear: Without the shot, you are shut out of public places and shut inside the country. I admit, I had wanted to wait a bit longer and see how others reacted to the vaccine before signing up myself. The Green Pass won me over: I wanted to feel free. A week after my second shot, I promptly printed physical copies for each of my purses.

Have I needed to use them yet? Surprisingly, no. Places such as concert halls and movie theaters, where numerous people may gather in a closed area, do require you to show your pass. As long as I’m wearing a mask, though, most shops and cafes will let me in without asking for it. Still, even if you’re rarely required to produce it, the pass has had a powerful effect: It gives everyone confidence in one another. I feel practically invincible. I can linger with my girlfriends over coffee, invite friends to my home and stand in line at the supermarket — all without fear.

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Normal life is returning. My father, who missed my nephew’s outdoor bar mitzvah in October, came over for a barbecue with his daughters and grandchildren. Gone is the worry that we might unknowingly kill him. At home, dare I say, things have even become pleasant: My son is back at school, and he’s a different child. He comes home with a spring in his step, talkative, greeting me with a hug.

The Green Pass has also allowed us to travel, though most of us are cautiously limiting ourselves to domestic trips for now. My best friend, for example, just flew to Eilat for a beach trip. Without it, she would’ve had to take a five-hour bus ride with windows open. Over Passover, my friends and I barely managed to snag an Airbnb to stay in the Galilee; it seemed like every vacation rental in the country was booked.

More than half of Israel’s population is fully vaccinated; the country has purchased millions more doses for use as booster shots in 2022. Coronavirus infections have fallen 98 percent since their peak in the winter. We’ve already begun to think of the pandemic as a thing of the past. Covid wards are closing. Newspapers have stopped printing the number of deaths on their front pages. Stores and malls have removed the free-standing thermometers at their entrances. The government just lifted its outdoor mask requirement; police had already stopped handing out the $150 fine. 

Meanwhile in the United States, there’s fierce debate over “vaccine passports,” even as the federal government has said it will not require Americans to carry an immunity credential. New York state has adopted its own version of the Green Pass; Florida has banned businesses from requiring proof of vaccination. America is large and decentralized, and more Americans believe their privacy is sacrosanct. Some fear overreach from a “bio-surveillance regime.” I wonder if they’d change their minds if they could experience the freedom — it is the only appropriate word — that comes from knowing that you can move about and be near other humans without fear.

These days, I no longer rely on my status as a pet owner to keep me sane. I can gather with my friends for a good dinner and a glass of wine, and covid doesn’t enter my mind.

Twitter: @JerusalemBureau

Read more from Outlook:

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I’m an epidemiologist. Here’s what I got wrong about covid.

My children have gone feral during the pandemic. It’s fine.

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