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WORLD | 17-02-2021 14:36

Israel's 'green badge' plan to open services to vaccinated stirs concern

Israel unveils "green badge" plan to re-open services to those fully inoculated, stirring controversy about unequal access for those who opt out of the jabs.   

Israel, the global leader in Covid vaccinations per capita, has launched a "green badge" plan to re-open services to those fully inoculated, stirring controversy about unequal access for those who opt out of the jabs.   

The country of about nine million people Tuesday delivered a shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to its four millionth citizen. More than 2.6 million of them have already received the second jab recommended for maximum protection.

Due partly to the rapid vaccination push, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has announced a timetable to lift lockdown restrictions and re-open long shuttered services such as swimming pools and restaurants.  

But the privilege of accessing such joys of life won't immediately be given to everyone – only to those who hold a so-called "green badge" as proof they have received both jabs, administered at least 21 days apart. 

The badge, which will also be given to those who have recovered from the virus, will from Sunday also allow its holders to enter gyms, cultural events, houses of worship and hotels.

"We are moving ahead with the responsible reopening on the principle of 'you're vaccinated – you're in'", Defence Minister Benny Gantz said on Monday.

Some facilities, like malls and museums, will open Sunday to all citizens, with or without a green badge, under a so-called "purple code", with crowd size limits and other restrictions that have applied through much of the pandemic.

'Delicate balance'

While many countries, both rich and poor, continue to struggle with vaccine supply, Israel has maintained a full stock of the Pfizer product thanks largely to an agreement to share data on its impact with the company.

A study from the country's largest healthcare provider Clalit of 600,000 people who received both Pfizer shots showed a 94 percent reduction in symptomatic infections. 

Those results have given the government confidence that it can begin to re-open while avoiding the disastrous missteps of last year, when a hasty lifting of a lockdown  brought waves of new cases and longer, economically painful closures. 

But Hagai Levine, a public health professor and researcher at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, stressed Israel's vaccination-dependent reopening plan required a "delicate balance" between public health needs and individual freedoms.

There is also "a right not to be vaccinated," he told AFP. 

"I think people should do it, but you cannot force them," he added, noting that those who opt out inevitably risk being denied certain services. 

'Backlash'

Levine also stressed that the vaccination push was playing a starring role in Netanyahu's re-election pitch ahead of a March 23 vote. 

Netanyahu's pandemic response has faced criticism, initially over his decision to re-open the economy too quickly as the first infection wave ebbed.

More recently he has come under pressure over failures to crack down on ultra-Orthodox Jews – the premier's political allies – many of whom have openly flouted lockdown rules. 

The veteran premier is hoping that his success in vaccine procurement and rollout will help him keep his job, even as polls suggest he may struggle to forge a majority. 

Levine, who briefly considered running for parliament with an anti-Netanyahu party, said the "green badge" initiative and its possible economic benefits are clearly "part of Netanyahu's campaign to get reelected".  

Launching it quickly without a real public education campaign, less than six weeks before the vote, creates "a risk that it will not be done professionally" and could make people feel forced to get a jab, he said. 

"There is a risk of backlash," Levine said. 

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by Guillaume Lavallée, AFP

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