Thursday, October 01, 2020

Are They Picking on Orthodox Jews?

Boro Park's Maimonidies  - 3 people died from COVID over the last 4 days (TOI)
I’m beginning to feel like a broken record. But the situation demands it.The risk of getting sick and dying from COVID has not changed. The dangers of COVID are the same now as they were six months ago. And the disease seems to be most prevalent in the heavily populated Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in New York. From the Times of Israel:

As cases of coronavirus tick up again in New York, particularly in neighborhoods with significant populations of Orthodox Jews, some residents of those areas say they feel attacked or insulted, accusing authorities of creating a stigma based on their faith.

First of all the question is why is this happening mostly to Orthodox Jews?

The answer I hear most from some religious leaders is that since their neighborhoods are so densely populated, the closer proximity increases the probability of testing positive. But, they say - they are otherwise doing nothing wrong. Or at least not doing anything differently than other residents of the city. Why, they therefore ask, are they being singled out and stigmatized?

First let me say at the outset that I am absolutely convinced that their explanation is true but only partially. The more significant reason is the very nature of Orthodoxy. Especially at this time of year when there are large indoor gatherings in Shuls for many long hours. Added to that is the not insignificant numbers of people that do not wear masks at all, or wear them improperly. And that social distancing is often compromised by cramped indoor conditions.

All of that makes it a perfect storm for spreading the infection. COVID-19 is highly contagious disease that is spread mostly by asymptomatic carriers. Whose viral load is greatest when they are asymptomatic.

As I keep saying there are a lot of people that are at great risk of serious illness. Which in some cases will have permanent damage even if they recover. Some will die.

Nonetheless, the attitude seems to be that even if the positivity rate is high, the risk of serious illness or death is very low and therefore an acceptable one. The problem with that is that people with underlying health conditions are the ones most at risk. Furthermore, not everyone knows they have an underlying health condition (like diabetes) until they find out the hard way and are put on a ventilator in the ICU.

It is also possible that even very healthy young people can get that sick and die. The percentages may be low. But it does happen. No one can therefore  know if they will be the next victim. If there is an increase in positivity, the community needs to hunker down. And do what’s necessary to minimize sickness and death.

What is happening instead – as noted - is that many of New York’s Orthodox Jews are complaining that their communities are being singled out implying that there is  some sort of subtle antisemitic intent.

Well… guess what? They are being singled out. But it has nothing to do with antisemitism on the part of government officials. They are singled out because they are the ones with the largest increase in positivity. Which means they are spreading the disease more rapidly than any other community. (Among themselves and possibly to people outside of their community when they venture out of them.)

This is a situation of their own doing. If you live in a densely populated neighborhood, you should become more vigilant about following the rules. But the opposite is happening. They are being more lax. Thus the increase.

If they are being stigmatized they need to look in the mirror to know why.

It did not help matters that religious leaders on the right encouraged Jews to not skip any part of the Davening on Rosh Hashana and more significantly on Yom Kippur which increased the time spent indoors significantly on those days . Far longer than the two or maximim three hours recommended by public heath officlais.   Add to that the likelihood that social distancing was not as carefully adhered to on those days - nor was it likely that masks were worn properly by all attendees for the entire time (or not at all in some cases)... it should not therefore be surprising that positivity rates have gone up since then.

I know that it’s important to Daven for salvation more now because of the pandemic. I know it’s important to open up schools since offsite remote learning is not nearly as good as in-person learning. I know people need to go to work and provide for their families. I know how psychologically damaging it can be to stay locked up for months at a time with no way of knowing when this will all be over.

 I do therefore believe that there is some level of risk that is acceptable so that we can do some of those very important things, even as COVID rages on. But it cannot be in the form of being lax about the precautions needed to take those risks.

Wearing masks in public should not be optional. In my view heavy fines should be issued to people that do not wear them. At least after they have been caught not wearing one and warned. Social distancing ought to be adhered to at all times even while wearing a mask. Both outdoors - and especially indoors. There should not be more than 2 or three hours at a time spent inside a building. Large indoor gatherings of any type ought to be forbidden. Violators need to be heavily fined if caught doing so.

People that test positive or people that have been around them need to quarantine for 14 days. That means not leaving your home for the entire time except for medical emergencies. If a student in any school has tested positive, unless they were in a bubble the entire population of  the school needs to be tested and quarantined for 14 days. If they were in a bubble then only those within it need to do that.

 One thing is certain. Complaining that the religious community is being picked on is the wrong attitude. Especially if that comes with accusations of antisemitism as the motive. Instead of complaining these leaders should be thanking public officials for caring enough about them to force them to comply - hopefully with stiff penalties if they don’t. Because that will save lives.