Waiting for this moment, the most individual of endings to such a collective experience: an appointment in a plastic chair for a one-on-one encounter with a hypodermic needle. On Sunday, I was injected with the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine in a Jerusalem basketball arena doing duty as an inoculation center. Like many, I teared up as first my wife and then I got the shot we have all been waiting for through four seasons of anxiety, boredom and, for millions, grief.
So why did getting the shot make me think so much about those who haven’t?
I am 56 and suffer no underlying conditions that make me particularly susceptible to covid-19’s worst. There are many at far greater risk than I am who see no sign of getting the shot any time soon, including my elderly in-laws in Delaware and Palestinians living in the West Bank just miles from my apartment. There are health workers — in Pittsburgh and Johannesburg alike — who are heading into their second year of battling this virus protected only by masks and gloves, even as the superpower of immunity begins percolating in my nonessential bloodstream.
The arrival of the vaccine is creating tiers of haves and have-nots, the anointed and the frustrated, the essential and the stuck. The length of your pandemic endgame — whether you are days or months from feeling safe — has largely come down to geography and governance.
I’m lucky to live in a country that has achieved remarkable success in rolling out its vaccine program. Israel has already inoculated almost a third of its population, 2.8 million people, including a half-million who have gotten the second dose.
The pace is due in part to its small population of 9 million and its beloved universal health-care system. Its four nationalized heath maintenance organizations track every citizen’s digitized health records through an ID number, making it easier to contact and trace those eligible for the shot. American immigrants here shake their heads over what they hear from media and their stateside families of 50 separate U.S. vaccine programs struggling to get traction in 50 states.
The inoculation campaign has taken on a political tinge here. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu constantly promotes his own role in securing millions of doses, the very first of which he arranged to have injected into his right biceps on national television. National elections are scheduled for March, and Netanyahu, who has been roundly blamed for an overall coronavirus response that has the country mired in its third nationwide lockdown, is largely pinning his reelection hopes on keeping Israel ahead of the global vaccination pack.
The pharmaceutical companies have been supportive in part because Israel, which reportedly paid double what some European countries have paid, makes for an appealing test lab for a vaccine effort that roared into existence in record time. Part of the country’s deal with Pfizer is to let it mine data from the national health database. The government said privacy will be guarded.
But those are largely side issues for those waiting for their own shot at the shot. There had been talk here, as in other countries, of including journalists on the list of essential recipients. I appreciated the point of that argument every time I left my house to report on the pandemic’s effects around Israel and the West Bank.
In recent months, I have taken my lungs to ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods where the virus is raging, into a hospital’s intensive care covid-19 unit and into an assisted-living facility packed with octogenarian Holocaust survivors. And that’s not to mention airplane-heavy working trips to Istanbul, Beirut and Dubai. I have not been particularly scared of getting sick, but I have been terrified of becoming a vector.
In the end, it didn’t require any special status for me and other journalists to get the vaccine. Israel has begun including all foreign residents in its race to achieve herd immunity. Anyone with a B1 visa is eligible to join citizens at a vaccination center when their age bracket is announced, like gate agents boarding a plane from the rear. Right now, they are calling for those 45 and older to step up.
We were torn about how public to be after our shots, or the second round we are booked to get in about two weeks. Posting a vaccine selfie seemed like boasting when so many that we care about have no needles in sight. In particular, I wondered how my friends on the West Bank would feel about my benefiting from a system that has declined to do as much for them.
Israel is inoculating Arab Israelis, the 2 million Palestinians who remained in the country after the 1948 war, as well as those living in East Jerusalem under Israel’s control. But a debate over Israel’s responsibility to extend its vaccine campaign to cover 5 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza has erupted as the latest flash point in the decades-long conflict.
Human rights groups say Israel is morally and legally obliged to protect the population it effectively controls. Israel says the 30-year-old Oslo accords make the Palestinian Authority responsible. Palestinian leaders say they plan to rely on international donations, including thousands of doses of the Russian Sputnik vaccine that were scheduled to arrive this week but were delayed.
The Palestinians I’ve talked to were mostly glad for me, and for the broader “us.” One friend in Ramallah, in the West Bank, said it was good I was protected given how much time I spend jumping back and forth across the checkpoints. Better for him if I’m not a carrier.
But another also admitted it was hard to see me, and others, climbing out of the pandemic when he and his family and so many others can do nothing but sit and worry.