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Ultra-Orthodox Rebellion Threatens the Fight Against the Coronavirus

Prof. Ronni Ganzu has to do whatever he can to prevent a nationwide lockdown until the High Holy Days begin

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Ultra-Orthodox men walking near a police cordon in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak, September 6, 2020.
Ultra-Orthodox men walking near a tape cordoning off a high coronavirus infection area in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak, September 6, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The mayors of Israel’s Haredi towns have raised the banner of revolution. They won’t cooperate with coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu who wants to impose a lockdown on the so-called red cities worst affected by the coronavirus. The Haredi interior minister, Arye Dery, went even further and said that instead of locking down red cities, the entire country should be locked down.

At first glance, it appears that the ultra-Orthodox are saying that they’re not prepared to make any sacrifice for the good of everyone. But the reality is a little more complicated. Dery’s opposition stems from doubts about the effectiveness of a partial lockdown. Even Gamzu admits it won’t have a big impact on the rate of infection.

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The eight cities that had been designated for lockdown account for a fifth of all COVID-19 cases in Israel right now. All told, there are 30 red cities, which account for 30 percent of all current cases. The goal of the lockdown is principally to stop the ongoing increase in the rate of infection. In other words, the proposed lockdown will simply stabilize the pandemic at current levels.

Another goal is to prevent COVID-19 from spreading out of red cities, most of which have Haredi or Arab populations, to the rest of Israel. But the problem is more complicated than that: While the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs lead in incidence of infection, they are not leaders in rates of mortality, and that’s because their populations are relatively young. As long as the coronavirus is concentrated on these two populations, there won't be an increase in critical cases or deaths. As a result, the health care system won’t be threatened with collapse.

What may bring about a collapse is the spread of COVID-19 out of those cities to other, mainly Jewish communities, with larger elderly populations. Actually, if it were possible it might even make more sense to impose a lockdown on Tel Aviv and Rishon Letzion – not because they are coronavirus epicenters but in order to defend them from contagions originating in Bnai Brak and Kfar Qasem.

Shas leader and Interior Minister Arye Dery at the Knesset, Jerusalem, July 7, 2020.Credit: Adina Valman/Knesset

In any case, the goals of the "red city" lockdown are modest and do not purport to accomplish the most important goal of all in the fight against the coronavirus, which is to prevent a nationwide lockdown during the High Holy Days.

This explains Dery’s position on the matter. When he asked Gamzu whether the partial lockdown would prevent a general one, Gamzu candidly answered that he wasn’t sure. If so, wondered Dery, why are the Haredim being asked to pay such a heavy price, if it won’t necessarily achieve the results? “No secular city would agree to pay such a price if there are no such expectations,” Dery said.

It’s not hard to see Dery’s rationale: If a nationwide lockdown is unavoidable why waste time shutting down red cities. Let’s cut to the chase and order a general lockdown.

However, two questions undermine his rationale. The first: Do we really have no choice but to impose a nationwide lockdown? There is no fundamental agreement on this. The second question is simpler: When should we impose such a lockdown?

The heart of the dispute between Dery and Gamzu is over the second question. Even if Gamzu is convinced that Israel will have to go into a general lockdown, he wants to buy time before we have to do it. Gamzu wants to prevent a general lockdown before the High Holy Days starting September 18 and that’s for two reasons.

The first is that ordering a lockdown for the High Holy Days will be especially effective as it will prevent excessive crowding in public and private spaces as people alternatively pray or gather in hotels. A holiday lockdown will do less damage to the economy because people aren’t working anyhow.

The second and more important reason for delaying a nationwide lockdown till the holiday season is that the mechanism the government plans for curbing the spread of COVID-19 won’t be ready until the middle of October at the earliest, just as the holiday season is ending.

Gamzu wants to avoid the mistake Israel made last March – a lockdown that brought the economy to a standstill, with all social and political ramifications, and all for nothing because no mechanism had been established to contain the virus once the lockdown ended.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu.Credit: Moti Milrod

It’s not at all clear that one key element of this mechanism – the public’s cooperation in adhering to the rules – is in place. Certainly, the Haredi revolt casts doubt on this. But at least the other major element, the tools to break the chain of infection, will be in place by next month.

The decision about when to impose a general lockdown depends more on Brig. Gen. Nissan Davidi, who has been appointed to head the Home Front Command’s contact tracing efforts. Originally, Gamzu had set a September 1 deadline for starting operations and aimed to have the system up and running by November 1. By now, it’s clear the system must be functional by mid-October.

Davidi has to hire 2,000 epidemiological investigators, each of whom performs two examinations daily, involving eight to 18 contacts. That’s twice as many as there are today and the recruiting process has only just begun. In addition, there’s testing. The number of tests has grown to 37,000 daily from 27,000, but is far short of the target of 85,000 to 100,000.

Davidi says the problem in reaching the targets is not the budget, and the bureaucracy is another story. Thus, for now his unit isn’t conducting investigations on weekends because of a dispute over work conditions for Health Ministry nurses.

The Home Front Command believes it will meet the deadline, but the Haredi rebellion could render it irrelevant.

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