Analysis |

Failing to Stem Infection Among Arabs and ultra-Orthodox, Israel Gets Closer to Full Lockdown

The two communities are hardest hit ■ Most recent cases in young, asymptomatic carriers ■ Coronavirus czar's first test will be return to school

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Mask at the beach front in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 16, 2020
Mask at the beach front in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 16, 2020Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The coronavirus infection rate in Israel has remained fairly constant lately. There has been some decline in the number of new confirmed carriers each day, but the decrease is very slow and still hasn’t dipped below 1,600 new cases on weekdays (when there is more testing). Meanwhile, the number of seriously ill patients continues to creep upwards, and has now passed the 400 mark. In the past week, the average daily fatality rate stood at 12.

But a more in-depth look at the figures bolsters an assessment from the first wave of the outbreak in late winter and spring, and which has been reinforced during the second wave: Confirmed cases are not distributed equally throughout the country.

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In recent weeks it’s become quite evident that two groups, Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities, are by far the hardest hit. These groups share certain characteristics – larger than average families, crowded living conditions, relatively low income and poorer communication with the authorities – that have helped to make them more vulnerable to the virus.

During the first wave, thanks to a concerted effort by residents and local authorities, the infection rate in the Arab communities was lower than the national average. This changed during the second wave, particularly since Eid al-Adha, a major Muslim holiday, at the end of July. Mass gatherings that violated Health Ministry guidelines and large family events where social distancing as not observed contributed to a steady spike in the rate of illness among the Arab population.

A man gets tested for the coronavirus at a testing station in Jabal Mukaber, East Jerusalem, August 18, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A similar thing occurred in the ultra-Orthodox community, in part due to the vacation period in August when yeshiva students leave their studies and spend more time socializing with friends and family. In the last few days, the upward trend in the infection rate appears to have halted, though the numbers are not yet declining.

Of the 20 localities (19 of which were designated as “red” localities) that had the highest rates of illness as reported on Wednesday, 14 are Arab and Druze communities and four have a large ultra-Orthodox population.

The high rate of infection in these two groups has been driving up the national statistics, particularly in the last weeks. In other groups, the infection rate has continued on a moderate decline. The figures are closely tied to the expanded testing policy: Israel conducts more than 25,000 tests on weekdays, a higher number per capita than most Western countries.

It bears noting that most of the newly confirmed cases are of young, asymptomatic carriers. However, the general situation remains bleak: The number of daily cases per million people – and lately, the number of COVID-19 deaths in Israel – are higher than any other Western country except the United States. Medical care here is considered excellent and the mortality rate in the second wave has been low (about 0.6 percent of identified cases), but many European countries are recording very few deaths from the coronavirus now. Some countries that were hard hit by the virus in the winter and spring now appear to be at the start of a second wave, later than in Israel, but the fatality rates there are still very low.

The high numbers in Israel are making it hard for the economy to resume effective activity, because nearly every new confirmed case causes dozens more people to have to isolate and miss long stretches of work. Israel being labeled as a “red” country is preventing reciprocal flight arrangements with countries where the infection rate is less severe. Only a few countries have so far acceded to the Israeli proposal to allow Israeli tourists to visit without having to quarantine upon arrival.

Men walk wearing face masks, Jerusalem, August 19, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

All of these statistics are well-known to the members of the coronavirus cabinet, which meets again on Thursday. When he stepped into the role of coronavirus czar a month ago, Ronni Gamzu promised to make effort to avoid imposing another total lockdown. Gamzu sought to instate a differential response policy that would focus on addressing “red” cities. Now his ambitions are colliding with reality.

The first hurdle concerns the return to school at ultra-Orthodox schools, which started this morning. The main issue here are the yeshivot ketanot, or junior yeshivot, attended by Haredi boys aged 14 to 17. Gamzu wanted to place restrictions on schools in “red” ultra-Orthodox locales. He is mainly concerned about students moving between home and school and spreading infection in both places.

But the steps that he tried to introduce ran into vehement opposition from ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians, with some of them even likening the plan to Antiochus’ decrees against the Jews. The Haredi leadership is fearful of the potential impact on the young students’ devoutness should they continue to wander around outside rather than return to the yeshiva. To them, this is a demand on which there can be no compromise, so studies will resume even if the coronavirus czar would prefer otherwise.

Women walk wearing face masks in Jerusalem's Old City, August 17, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Some ultra-Orthodox lawmakers are citing Education Minister Yoav Gallant, who announced that he aims to have all the schools reopen on September 1. If everyone else is going back to school less than two weeks from now, they say, why discriminate against our students?

The ultra-Orthodox leaders’ unwillingness to yield and the difficulties managing the virus in Arab society are leaving Gamzu little room to maneuver, and he is dependent on these groups to be able to show results. Without a substantial decline in the daily infection rate, he may ultimately have to recommend a total lockdown for several weeks ahead of the High Holidays a month from now, or possibly a little sooner.

Gabi Barbash, a member of the team of experts with whom Gamzu consults (and who usually takes harder line than Gamzu), is already saying openly that this must be considered. Government support for such a move appears to be growing too. But as they weigh this option, the decision-makers should keep the probable public reaction in mind. Given the lack of public faith in government policy throughout the crisis, many Israelis are liable to deliberately ignore the guidelines.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu at a press conference at Ichilov Hospital, Tel Aviv, April 20, 2020Credit: Moti Milrod

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