After a Ramadan under partial lockdown, this year, the Muslim al-Fitr holiday was particularly joyous for Israel’s Arab community.
“People are celebrating Eid, and it’s also Victory Day against the coronavirus,” said epidemiologist Emil Agha on Monday, the second day of Eid al-Fitr festivities, of the “double joy” felt in many Arab Israeli communities.
As a country, Israel has so far escaped high infection rates and death counts from the coronavirus — and there are strong indications that the virus affected the Arab population particularly lightly.
“We’ve seen lower rates of infection and death in Arab and communities than elsewhere in Israel,” said Agha, epidemiologist and infectious diseases supervisor at the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya. “It’s very striking.”
The government hasn’t released data on the religious or ethnic background of people who died or became infected, but the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies has crunched numbers on infections according to location.
Some 13% of Israel’s citizens live in Arab or Bedouin locales, but only 9% of new infections were in these areas between March 31 and May 12, the Taub Center reported, with its calculations drawn from Health Ministry data.
There are some other figures in circulation, but they aren’t based on verified data. Agha believes that fewer than 10 of Israel’s 280 fatalities were Arabs. He bases this on the assumption that communities are close-knit and most deaths would reach Israel’s Arabic-language media, but acknowledged that the estimate can’t be checked.
Taub’s research director Alex Weinreb told The Times of Israel that even the differential in his analysis is “surprising” in light of all that the Arab community was up against.
He said: “This is surprising, as we’d actually expected rates to be high, given that people often live in large family homes where different generations reside together. What’s more, there are disproportionately high numbers of people working in healthcare, where they have been exposed to the virus.”
Taub’s statistic doesn’t tell the full story of infection levels among Israel’s Arab and Bedouin populations, which represent about 20% of citizens. It doesn’t include data for people who live in mixed Jewish-Arab locales, or in places with fewer than 5,000 residents, as information showing infections rates in those areas isn’t publicly available.
Agha believes that as a fuller picture emerges, it will show Arabs as significantly less infected than Israel’s overall population. “Also among Arab populations in mixed cities, we’ve seen low rates of infection,” he said.
Weinreb acknowledged that non-Jewish populations have an advantage in terms of infection rates, as Israel’s ultra-Orthodox were hit particularly hard, boosting the overall rate for Jews and — by extension — lowering rates for non-Jews. But he still believes that the low figures he is seeing are far from obvious.
Agha agrees, saying that there were deep concerns in Arab communities early in the pandemic. “Infection rates is something we worried about from the start,” he said. “People live with different generations together, and this created a high level of risk. But fears weren’t realized, and we came out of this well.”
Agha said that multi-generational living, far from turning out to be a disadvantage, ended up being one of the biggest assets of Arab Israelis.
“In the Arab sectors we don’t really have retirement homes,” he said. “People live at the family home and this makes a difference.” Retirement homes have proved major hotspots of infections and fatalities, Agha noted, suggesting that their absence in the community had benefited elderly Arabs.
More health workers, but less interaction with travelers
Last week, a Tel Aviv University research team found last week that seven out of every 10 Israelis who caught the virus to date were infected with a haplotype — variant — that arrived in the country from the United States. Tel Aviv University evolutionary virologist Adi Stern told The Times of Israel that she thought this may reflect, in part, the unusually high level of interaction that Jewish visitors from the Diaspora have with Israeli citizens.
Asked on Monday about infection rates in Israel’s Arab communities, Stern said it is “one of the big questions people are trying to answer.” She said that less propensity to travel and less exposure to visits from overseas may contribute to lower infection rates among Arabs.
“We see that in general in affluent places with more global connections the virus reached more quickly,” she said.
But she said this is only a partial explanation. “I also suspect there’s a lot to do with genetic background that may impact the extent to which people are susceptible to the virus, which may be playing a part here.”
Agha said there was still a lot of mystery surrounding what determines infection rates, and he is intrigued by whether lifestyle factors, like diet, play a part. But he also believes that the response of Arab communities played a significant role in preventing infection.
Religious leaders stepped up to the challenge, he said, using personal connections and social media platforms to reinforce the importance of precautions. Mosque calls to prayer were used to broadcast directions to prevent the spread of infections.
In some towns and villages such as Deir al-Asad in the Galilee, at the height of the outbreak, local leaders asked nonresidents not to enter, according to Agha, and he said this helped, as did formal lockdowns imposed by the state on a small number of Arab hotspots, which halted the spread of infection between Arab communities.
The disproportionate number of health workers, rather than being a risk factor, emerged as a protection, Agha said.
“Every health worker ended up being a kind of ambassador, getting out information on coronavirus in their home, their neighborhood and their village.
“This was a source of reassurance to people, as the instructions were coming from someone they knew and therefore saw as trustworthy. Instructions were clear and from a source people identified with, and this made a big difference.”