Bnei Brak Struggles to Handle Outside Help in Its Fight Against Coronavirus

Specific obstacles to mitigating the spread of the virus exist in this largely ultra-Orthodox community, including a weak relationship between residents and authorities

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A policeman enforces coronavirus restrictions in Bnei Brak, March 30, 2020
A policeman enforces coronavirus restrictions in Bnei Brak, March 30, 2020Credit: Meged Gozani
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The severity with which the coronavirus struck in Bnei Brak led the mayor, Avraham Rubinstein, to seek help from outside. Finally, the state has gotten involved in the situation brewing in this largely ultra-Orthodox city. Rubinstein appointed Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa to head the fight against the coronavirus in the city. Numa recruited other reserve officers and is working closely with the Prime Minister’s Office, the Health Ministry and the Home Front Command.

The team work has only just begun and those recruited to help have encountered obstacles that are by no means simple, stemming from the special aspects of Haredi society and the need to face an unfamiliar crisis. One of the greatest challenges is accessibility to information. Many residents don’t follow non-ultra-Orthodox media and do not have smart phones or internet. There is also a problem of under-reporting. Not everyone with symptoms is in a hurry to report them, either out of shame or the desire to maintain privacy.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

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It is very difficult to assemble a clear picture due to lack of data. So far more than 750 cases have been reported in the city. Most of them are relatively mild and the people are remaining at home. Over the past two days the Home Front Command has been able to persuade only about 60 people with the virus to leave their homes and go to a hotel designated to receive them. But due to the overcrowding in Bnei Brak apartments, isolation is impossible at home and other members of the family are almost certain to contract the disease.

As opposed to the number of sick people, the number of those isolated who may have the disease is thought to be low. This is also connected to the lack of testing and the weakness of the relationship between residents and the authorities. Even after a coronavirus testing station was opened over the past two days in the city, the number of people who come to be tested remains low, especially considering the large number of people who are sick.

The government has been discussing the option of imposing a lockdown in some places or even of putting the whole city of Bnei Brak under closure. Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has expressed support for the idea. As of Wednesday night, no decision had been made. But increased police presence in the city has already reduced traffic to a minimum, in stark contrast with the situation at the beginning of the week.

The municipality and the special team fighting the virus have prepared a number of steps ahead of Passover, when there are usually many people in the streets. Residents say they are concerned about how they will manage over the holiday; they are worried about a possible lack of food and that few supermarkets will carry the products they need. Wednesday saw the first preparations by the city to supply residents with food and medications, with the assistance of outside bodies.

One problem unique to Bnei Brak is that every significant step requires approval by rabbis from at least three different political and religious groups: the Lithuanians, the Hasidim and Shas.

Another problem is Bnei Brak’s almost total lack of emergency preparedness. Communication between the municipality and the Home Front Command is not particularly robust. There is a shortage of personnel who know how to function in an emergency and a lack of basic data that would allow the city to function under the difficult circumstances created by the virus One step being taken now is to appoint a volunteer in every building and around every synagogue and kollel who will maintain regular contact between the authorities and the residents.

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