This Haredi City Has the Fastest Coronavirus Infection Rate in Israel. Here's Why

Haredi cities show much fewer people in isolation relative to confirmed cases, with technology and unprepared leaders posing challenges ■ 'Most of those who go into isolation here are people who heard through word of mouth that they were near a corona patient,' says one city official

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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An ultra-Orthodox man is stopped by police in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, March 30, 2020.
An ultra-Orthodox man is stopped by police in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, March 30, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

The Health Ministry has been having a hard time locating potential coronavirus cases who require isolation in ultra-Orthodox cities, according to officials in the ministry and in local governments.

Health Ministry data backs this up, too. The challenge comes from ultra-Orthodox Israelis’ lack of access to the media, said an official in the Health Ministry office dedicated to providing information to the ultra-Orthodox community.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 70Credit: Haaretz

“Yeshiva students do not have smartphones,” the official said. “They certainly are not connected to the internet and television. We are doing what we can through posters on the street, loudspeakers on the streets, letters from rabbis – but all this is in the area of giving information. To reach the individual citizen and inform him that he needs to enter isolation is an operation on a completely different scale.”

As of Monday afternoon, Tel Aviv has seen 261 coronavirus cases and about 15,500 people in isolation since the beginning of the crisis, according to data obtained by Haaretz. The majority secular cities of Haifa, Rishon Letzion and Be’er Sheva, have between 54 and 90 cases, and some 5,000 people in isolation, each. Similarly, there have been 75 patients in Modi’in and some 6,000 in isolation in the city, and 80 people infected and 3,400 in isolation in Netanya.

In Jerusalem, the Israeli city with the highest number of coronavirus patients – 573 – 13,000 have entered isolation since the beginning of the crisis. Bnei Brak has the second-highest number of those infected – 508 – and fastest pace of infection nationally. However, only 1,800 residents have entered isolation.

Elad, another ultra-Orthodox city, had only one confirmed case last Monday, and has 62 a week later, while the number of residents in isolation is just 500. Other ultra-Orthodox cities have similar numbers. Beit Shemesh has 64 infections and 1,000 in isolation. Modi’in Ilit has 34 infections and 450 in isolation.

“Most of those who go into isolation here are people who heard through word of mouth that they were near a corona patient,” a Bnei Brak city official said

Another official in ultra-Orthodox local government told Haaretz that the Health Ministry told him it does not have enough manpower to reach everyone who is required to go into isolation.

Bnei Brak received approval this week from the military’s Home Front Command to operate a municipal call center connecting residents with the Health Ministry, with the call center passing on information to residents in an attempt to reach as many people as possible who must enter isolation.

But even when they reach someone who is supposed to be in quarantine, this doesn’t always help much. The person will often enter isolation in a crowded apartment where a number of other people are living, without any real possibility of proper isolation.

Many older people with medical conditions have not been leaving the house for a long time, too, and this has affected their families.

“We almost don’t leave the house because I’m worried about my father,” said one resident. “My father has undergone complicated medical procedures and I’m worried I’ll bring the virus home. So I’m staying in the house with him, and only go out when I really have to,” he said.

Waking up late

Alongside the Health Ministry’s difficulty in locating those who need to be isolated, the Haredi leadership was also caught unprepared and insisted on broadcasting a business-as-usual message a long time after most other Israelis had adapted their lifestyles to the new regulations.

The change came about a week and a half ago, with the Health Ministry order closing down the yeshivas and schools, enabling the police to enforce the closure and forcing the Haredi leadership to fall in line with the instructions.

For weeks, Bnei Brak has ignored the coronavirus restrictions. Mayor Avraham Rubinstein allowed a relative’s large wedding to be held outside his house, gave residents reassuring remarks and presented a distorted picture saying the situation was under control.

Only on Tuesday of last week, when his wife and a number of people close to him were diagnosed with coronavirus, did the city switch gears.

On Sunday, the first breakthrough was made in addressing the issue when the Interior Ministry approved Bnei Brak renting a large compound in the city to house those required to be in isolation. Interior Minister Arye Dery was put in charge of the initiative dealing with the crisis in the Haredi and Arab communities. In addition to trying to reach those required to be in isolation, Dery gave instructions to find a place to house mild coronavirus cases in order to remove them from urban centers.

But it seems that the longer ultra-Orthodox patients remain in isolation in their homes, the situation among the Haredi community may worsen – and lead to the infection of entire families who live together.

The Health Ministry has yet to respond to this report.

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