Purim curfew could do more harm than good among vaccine skeptics, 2 experts say

Medical professionals warn efforts to get all-important unvaccinated segment of Israel’s adult population inoculated could take a hit if the nighttime closure is unevenly enforced

Nathan Jeffay

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

School kids dressed up in costumes arrive to their school ahead of the the Jewish holiday of Purim, in Sderot, southern Israel, on February 24, 2021. (Flash90)
School kids dressed up in costumes arrive to their school ahead of the the Jewish holiday of Purim, in Sderot, southern Israel, on February 24, 2021. (Flash90)

Israel’s nighttime curfew for the duration of the Purim holiday, to be enforced Thursday-Saturday between 8:30 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., has the potential to prevent many coronavirus deaths. But it may have the potential to cost lives too.

The purpose of the curfew is to curb infections over the Purim holiday. It has been enacted by policymakers who are haunted by the celebrations of last year’s holiday, which are believed to have greatly contributed to the initial wave of coronavirus cases in Israel, as well as in the Jewish world at large. Questions have been raised as to how many lives could have been saved had mingling been prevented a year ago.

The logic of preventing gatherings on this most revelrous of Jewish holidays is clear, especially as it falls over a weekend, further increasing the odds of large events being held. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein has stressed the importance of preventing Purim infections. When revelers in Tel Aviv dodged the regulations by partying early, he said of them: “A spike in infection will be registered in your names, business closures will be because of you, loss of human life will be on your conscience.”

The curfew comes at a highly sensitive time, because the future success of the vaccine campaign hinges, to a large extent, on public trust in the government among the as-yet unvaccinated. If authorities are seen as acting unfairly in curfew enforcement, this could have a knock-on effect of making the unvaccinated less willing to role up their sleeves and take the lifesaving shots.

A health worker administers the COVID-19 vaccine to an Israeli at a bar in Tel Aviv, on February 18, 2021. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Half of Israel’s population has received at least one vaccine shot. But for Israel to reap the benefits of its vaccination success and establish a degree of community protection, it must convince the remaining adult population that is eligible for vaccines, almost 2 million people, to get inoculated. Major efforts are underway to do so, including special vaccination sessions in bars and on university campuses.

Hebrew University biologist Michal Linial (courtesy of Michal Linial)

Experts say that while logically, getting vaccinated should be based on trust in the vaccine-maker and a thorough regulatory process, rather than in the Israeli government, that’s not how many people perceive it.

“I’m 100 percent sure that citizens’ mistrust in government decisions and enforcement of rules has been a very important factor in causing people to delay or avoid vaccination,” said inoculation expert Michal Linial, a professor of molecular biology and bioinformatics at Hebrew University.

There has been intense public criticism of authorities’ failure to stop, or fine, those behind many of the violations that took place in Haredi communities during lockdowns. Linial believes the feeling that some parts of society are obliged to observe rules while some don’t has led to a “fracture between government and citizens that has become so extreme.”

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a funeral procession for the Head of the Brisk Yeshiva, Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, in Jerusalem on January 31, 2021, following his passing aged 99 due to months-long illness compounded by the coronavirus. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Based on the government’s track record, she said, “people are afraid that the curfew will work mostly on preventing parties in the secular areas and will not be enforced in Haredi areas.”

Prof. Nadav Davidovitch. (Courtesy)

Epidemiologist Nadav Davidovitch, a leader of Israel’s Association of Public Health Physicians and a Ben Gurion University professor, also said he is concerned about the impact that uneven curfew enforcement may have on public trust.

“There is lots of evidence regarding the relationship between trust and compliance with public health measures, such as vaccination and prevention of mass gatherings,” Davidovitch said.

He said he opposes the curfew in general. “We need to prevent mass gatherings, especially during Purim, this should be done mainly with voluntary actions taken from the bottom up,” he said. “Nighttime curfews are disproportionate and can lead to negative consequences, reducing trust and leading to non-compliance with other measures.”

Linial, by contrast, said that the curfew is a good idea, but thinks that authorities must get enforcement right, applying it even-handedly across society, otherwise they could create “another layer of mistrust.”

She commented: “The timing is terrible, it’s very sensitive, as bad enforcement could have negative implications for the coming weeks which are so decisive in the pandemic.”

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