I knew it was bad 'but not this bad' -- Haredi health expert

Two ultra-Orthodox bastions account for 37% of Israel’s virus deaths

Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, focal points of the community, were disproportionately hit by COVID-19, but the extent of that impact was not known until now

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Ultra-Orthodox men, wearing face shields as a protective measure against the coronavirus, study in an outdoor area in Jerusalem on May 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox men, wearing face shields as a protective measure against the coronavirus, study in an outdoor area in Jerusalem on May 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, two strongholds of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population, account for 37 percent of the country’s coronavirus deaths, according to official figures.

“We thought it would be bad for the Haredi community, but not this bad,” Tehila Kalagy, a Haredi academic who studies health policy in her community, told The Times of Israel on Sunday, calling the figures “quite surprising.”

“We’re really seeing how the Haredi community here in Israel, like in the Diaspora, has taken a major hit from the coronavirus,” said Kalagy, a lecturer at Ben Gurion University of the Negev’s Department of Public Policy and Administration.

Like many analysts, she believes that the ultra-Orthodox in Israel suffered badly because it was slow to adopt social distancing, and because people tend to live in large families and close-knit communities, where infection can spread quickly.

Ben Gurion University of the Negev health expert Tehila Kalagy (Dani Machlis/Ben Gurion University)

Israel’s coronavirus death count stood at 248 at time of writing, and the newly released Health Ministry statistics covered all fatalities apart from the latest 11. They do not provide any information on the religious affiliation of those who died, but they do reflect that the two strongly Haredi cities, where infection levels were known to be high, have suffered heavy fatalities.

The majority of the cities in the top 10 list of per capita cases of infection are home to large ultra-Orthodox communities. According to the latest Health Ministry data, four out of the top seven cities with the most total infections are heavily ultra-Orthodox, including Bnei Brak, Modiin Illit, Elad, and Beitar Illit.

Jerusalem, where most cases have been in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, has seen the most total infections, and Beit Shemesh, which has a large plurality of ultra-Orthodox residents, has the fourth-most cases.

In the statistics for fatalities, Bnei Brak residents account for around one in every seven of the deaths — a total of 33 people. The heavily Haredi city became a hotspot for the coronavirus, and was under state-imposed lockdown for two weeks in April.

Jerusalem, where heavily ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods also faced local lockdowns, accounted for 54, or just under 23%, of the deaths, according to the statistics.

Paysach Freedman, a Jerusalem-based Haredi rabbi who runs a crisis helpline, said that the reality in his community has been dire, but suggested that it should be kept in proportion. “There isn’t a feeling that there’s a plague with people dying on every street,” he said, stressing that the people who have died represent a tiny proportion of Israeli’s Haredi community.

A man wearing a protective mask and gloves sells products at the door of a pharmacy in Bnei Brak on April 6, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The Health Ministry figures only explicitly enumerate the number of deaths for Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, and Bat Yam, a coastal town near Tel Aviv, which accounts for 17 deaths, or 7%. Others who died are identified only as residents of a “locale with fewer than 15 deaths.”

The statistics are Israel’s official tally and only include deaths in hospitals or assisted living facilities. It is unknown whether there have been fatalities in private homes or other locations.

More men have been recorded as coronavirus fatalities than women — 124 compared to 113. This appears to dovetail with statistics from Asia and Europe, where a slightly higher proportion of fatalities were male. The youngest Israeli to die from the virus was 30, and the oldest was 100. The average age of those who died is 81.3.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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