How COVID Rates Among ultra-Orthodox Affect Hospitals' Treatment of Secular Patients

Ram Fruman, Guy Hoshen
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Ultra-Orthodox men wearing masks walk in Jerusalem, January 17, 2021. The subjects have no connection to the content of the article.
Ultra-Orthodox men wearing masks walk in Jerusalem, January 17, 2021. The subjects have no connection to the content of the article.Credit: Emil Salman
Ram Fruman, Guy Hoshen

It suddenly hit me (Dr. Hoshen) after a conversation with a coronavirus patient hospitalized in my department in Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center at Ichilov Hospital – a 50-year-old man from predominantly ultra-Orthodox Beit Shemesh who had never been to Tel Aviv before he was hospitalized there.

In another case, an ambulance arrived from a Haredi city, got completely lost on the streets of Tel Aviv and ended up driving against traffic. The driver had no idea what he was doing. It was all completely foreign to him.

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A great deal has been said about the high rate of illness in the ultra-Orthodox community in the past month. About a week ago, the data indicated that while the rate of those testing positive in Tel Aviv was 4 percent, the rate in the ultra-Orthodox city of Betar Ilit was 29 percent.

Most of those writing on the topic are justifiably pointing to the high economic price the secular public is paying due to the lockdown imposed on it as a result of the illness in the Haredi community. There is less discussion about how the accessibility of the health care system is being affected by these figures.

As opposed to claims that the young age of the Haredi community is causing only mild illness among them, the relative percentage of ultra-Orthodox COVID-19 patients getting hospitalized is significantly higher than their percentage of the population. As a result, hospitals in the Jerusalem area are being forced to cope with an unreasonable workload, and are unable to serve the large number of patients in their surroundings. On the other hand, the number of those hospitalized in a mostly secular city like Tel Aviv is relatively low.

That means that patients are now being sent in the direction of Gush Dan, the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. A patient in the Jerusalem area who calls the Magen David Adom emergency service will automatically be sent to Ichilov or Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer in nearby Ramat Gan. The Jerusalem hospitals won’t even be offered as an option.

The result is that in Ichilov, an urban hospital in central Tel Aviv, at times over 40 percent of those hospitalized in the coronavirus ward come from Jerusalem and its environs: Betar Ilit, Modi’in Illit, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Neve Yaakov and others.

It’s important to clarify that this comes with a price. Internal medicine wards that served the residents of Tel Aviv and its environs are being turned into coronavirus wards, causing an overload in the other internal medicine wards. At the same time, staff from other hospital departments have been sent to the COVID-19 department. In other words, the pandemic that is running wild in the Haredi community is not only exacting an economic price from the secular community, but it is also limiting the ability of the health care system to provide it with optimal services.

This phenomenon is infuriating mainly because of the inconceivable disparity between the two populations in their observance of the lockdown orders. There is a direct connection between the places where the illness is concentrated and the areas where educational institutions are being reopened and illegal gatherings are taking place.

The Haredim operate according to different codes: Prayer and Torah study take precedence over health, solidarity and social responsibility. We have already learned that in their opinion, closing educational institutions or postponing weddings – activities that cause God to become angry – cause more infections than gatherings and transmitting viruses from one person to another.

If it were relevant only for them, it might have been possible to agree to the fact that they’re acting according to this order of priority and these beliefs. But this directly affects the secular public too, both in terms of health and the economy.

The difference between the communities is not limited to the difference in their order of priorities. These are populations that are separated by laws, standards, values and worldviews. The stories of the patient who in all his 50 years didn’t once visit Tel Aviv and the ambulance driver for whom central Tel Aviv is foreign territory may be anecdotal, but they symbolize the gap between the populations. The two worlds are totally separate and foreign to one another. With the exception of language, these groups have nothing in common.

That is one of the lessons of the coronavirus pandemic. There are communities in Israel that no longer have any connection with one another. For most of the secular public that is hard to accept, but in every sense they and the Haredim are living in different countries. The government, despite the fact that it includes representatives from the ultra-Orthodox community, or perhaps because of that, is able to force its will on the secular population and not on them. 

Haredi autonomy has already been established here, and incidentally, that happened even before the time of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu only strengthened the status of the autonomy, and we can reasonably assume that Gideon Sa’ar or Naftali Bennett will nurture it to the same degree, if that’s what will bring them the premiership.

As a result of the coronavirus crisis, many secular people have become convinced that there is a Haredi autonomy, but that leads them to conclude that we must once again impose government rule on it. We wonder whether this is a practical option, since in our opinion the rules of the game have changed.

In order to enforce government rule over the Haredi autonomy, there will be a need for long-term rule by of a government that will not include Haredi parties nor those looking in their direction – an almost unimaginable task in the present political situation. Even then, it won’t be easy to bring about a fundamental change in a society numbering about 1.5 million people.

The solution may have to be in the opposite direction. Instead of thinking about how to impose our strength on them, the time has come to think courageously about the question of how to extricate ourselves from this partnership, which no longer holds water. 

A lesson of the pandemic that might be hard for the secular public to accept is that in every sense, they and the Haredim are living in different countries.

Dr. Hoshen is the director of the coronavirus department at Ichilov Hospital. Dr. Fruman is the chairman of the Secular Forum and author of the book “The Secular Way.”