Opinion |

Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews Face Coronavirus Devastation. They Need Face Masks

COVID-19 is spreading wildly through a Haredi community ill-equipped to understand the nature of the threat. Simple homemade face masks heighten awareness - and could help flatten a frightening curve

Jessica Apple
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An Ultra-Orthodox Jew wearing a protective mask walks on an empty street in one of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem.  March 31, 2020
An Ultra-Orthodox Jew wearing a protective mask walks on an empty street in one of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. March 31, 2020Credit: AFP
Jessica Apple

Coronavirus is spreading faster in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods than anywhere else in Israel. 

In Bnei Brak, Israel’s largest ultra-Orthodox city, 35 percent of coronavirus tests have come back positive. 

The many reasons for this include a lack of social distancing enforcement, crowded living conditions, and a dearth of information that is both scientifically sound and presented in a manner that the majority of the community is able to comprehend. 

Israel has allowed members of the ultra-Orthodox community to forego basic education in the subjects that are crucial to understanding the threat of COVID-19. 

A population that knows no science is not equipped to comprehend the threat of a virus. And a person who has never learned basic math cannot be expected to understand the graphs about flattening the curve. When a population that regards its religious leaders as infallible are told that the Torah will protect them and that the secular law enforcement agencies are Nazis and anti-Semites, there is no motivation to comply with orders. It is easy to underestimate the risk of the virus, if you have no way to grasp it.

Israeli police detain an ultra-Orthodox man during scuffles as they enforce a partial lockdown against coronavirus in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem. March 30, 2020
Israeli police detain an ultra-Orthodox man during scuffles as they enforce a partial lockdown against coronavirus in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem. March 30, 2020Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Of course, it hasn’t helped that the Yaakov Litzman, Israel’s minister of health, believes that this is going to end with messianic intervention. It hasn’t helped that some rabbis have insisted yeshivas and religious schools stay open when secular schools across the country have been closed for weeks.

And during a time when the lines between health and defense are blurred, it may turn out to be a very deadly mistake that Benny Gantz has helped form a new government, taking the ministry of defense for himself, while - despite the urging of senior medical officials - leaving an expert in Torah studies in charge of our public health.  

It’s now critical that measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are adopted by the ultra-Orthodox community. Alongside the more forceful application of the law regarding quarantine, congregating and curfews – which is now taking place – there is a need for community buy-in, prevention at the grassroots level. Counter-intuitively perhaps, one route could be a campaign that goes far beyond the recommendations of Israel’s Health Ministry: the universal wearing of face masks.

A growing global movement #masks4all questions the World Health Organization and CDC’s guidance stating that only those who are sick and show symptoms, and those who are caring for people who are suspected to have the coronavirus, should wear masks. Many countries in Asia, and now in Europe, too, are taking a different approach, requiring all citizens to wear a face mask when leaving home. 

While there are some concerns over widespread use of masks, there is no scientific data that shows wearing masks is ineffective at slowing the spread of the virus. And wearing a mask is not likely to be viewed as a hardship by a religious population who already covers up the majority of their bodies before leaving home. This is not a replacement for all the social distancing and hand washing that must be preached by rabbis and leaders of the community, but an added measure of protection. 

The New York Times reported that when "researchers conducted systematic review of a variety of interventions used during the SARS outbreak in 2003, they found that washing hands more than 10 times daily was 55 percent effective in stopping virus transmission, while wearing a mask was actually more effective — at about 68 percent." 

And the latest biological findings on the coronavirus’ entry into human tissue and sneeze/cough-droplet ballistics suggests that the major transmission mechanism is not via the fine aerosols but large droplets. There are now reports that the CDC is indeed considering recommending the universal wearing of face masks.

This means that we don’t need medical grade masks to protect us from coronavirus. DIY masks or surgical masks may not provide complete protection, but they will create a barrier that will block "big projectile droplets" that land in the nose or throat. This method of protection does not require the use of precious n95 masks that are in short supply. 

Every second our government wastes trying to decide which step to take next is a win for coronavirus. We know the virus can shed for about two days before symptoms present. Putting on a mask when leaving the house can prevent transmission from those individuals. Starting immediately. Wearing a mask also a reduces the amount of times a person will inadvertently touch their face.

Is it a perfect solution? No. Is it better than not wearing a mask? Almost certainly, if our goal is to flatten the curve and slow transmission. 

Magen David Adom ambulance staff wearing full protective kit against coronavirus leaving a home in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood. 31 March 2020
Magen David Adom ambulance staff wearing full protective kit against coronavirus leaving a home in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood. 31 March 2020 Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A mask is a powerful visual reminder of the danger of coronavirus to anyone who doesn’t understand the mechanisms of viral transmission. We will not beat COVID-19 until we assume that anyone, even a healthy person, could be a carrier of the virus.

With a simple homemade mask we can all protect others from ourselves. And the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel could help put the brakes on rising ill-will towards their community and its role in spreading the virus – while protecting themselves from further devastation.

Jessica Apple is a writer in Tel Aviv. She is the editor of diabetes magazine ASweetLife.org and cofounder of the nonprofit Diabetes Media Foundation. Twitter: @jessapple

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