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Israel struggles to contain coronavirus in ultra-orthodox town

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Via Financial Times

Israel is battling to control an outbreak of coronavirus in the ultra-orthodox town of Bnei Barak, where as many as 40 per cent of the population might be infected with the disease after ignoring government advice on social distancing.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, who depends on the support of Israel’s ultra-orthodox to govern, has struggled to enforce the closure of synagogues and yeshivas in the congested alleyways of ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods in Jerusalem and Bnei Barak, a suburb of Tel Aviv with some 200,000 residents.

The Israeli government placed restrictions on movements in and out of Bnei Barak on Wednesday night and could yet put the entire suburb under forced quarantine to contain the infection. Ran Sa’ar, the chief executive of Maccabi Healthcare Services, a private health insurer, told a parliamentary committee that at least 38 per cent of Bnei Barak’s residents — about 75,000 people — may be carrying the virus.

The ultra-orthodox community makes up about 10 per cent of Israel’s population, and its devout but impoverished members live in self-imposed segregation that makes it difficult to enforce nationwide laws.

On Wednesday night Mr Netanyahu said he had made progress in persuading the community’s rabbis to ask people to stay indoors and not to congregate for prayer. 

“There has been a very positive change among the ultra-orthodox public: they have internalised the danger of the spread of the coronavirus and are listening to the instructions with full backing from the rabbis,” he said.

But critics warn that a large cluster of the illness has already developed within the community. Ultra-orthodox patients make up a disproportionate number of those admitted to hospital with the disease in Israel, which has reported at least 30 coronavirus deaths and 6,000 cases of infection.

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Until Wednesday Israeli officials had been hopeful that early action to shut down international travel, rapid quarantining of those exposed to the virus and a host of other measures might have allowed the country to break the cycle of infection early.

Israel has only 1,500 or so respirators, and a mass outbreak would worsen conditions at hospitals that until now had appeared capable of handling the flow of patients.

Mr Netanyahu has himself been forced into self-isolation twice in the past few weeks after two of his ultra-orthodox colleagues tested positive for Covid-19.

Israel’s health minister, an ultra-orthodox rabbi who was mocked for saying that the Messiah would rescue Israel from the outbreak, tested positive on Wednesday night, putting nearly all of Israel’s top officials into self-isolation.

Those in quarantine include the director-general of the health ministry and the head of Israel’s secret service, Mossad, which has been involved in procuring masks and respirators from countries that do not have diplomatic relationships with Israel.

Yaakov Litzman, the 71-year-old health minister, received special permission from his rabbi to use a smartphone and have internet installed at his home to allow him to participate in government decision-making during his quarantine, according to the state broadcaster.

With large families living close together in small houses alongside elderly parents and grandparents, and a reluctance to interact with modern technology, Israel’s ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods were always considered at risk.

The government’s restrictions on social distancing and shutdowns were initially seen as incompatible with orthodox religious traditions. At least one sect within the larger Haredi community took two weeks to comply fully with closing its synagogues, despite riot police being deployed to arrest repeat offenders.

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Israeli authorities have prepared hotel rooms for the sick among the ultra-orthodox, so that they would agree to be removed from their homes for treatment, but officials said they were concerned that few would submit to testing before the religious holiday of Passover, in order to remain with their families.

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