You have heard about the wet markets in Wuhan, the overwhelmed hospitals of Lombardy and the super-spreading ski resort of Ischgl. But for a sobering story of coronavirus contagion, Britain does not need to look so far from home. In fact, as a strikingly underreported new study has revealed, hidden away in the heart of London is a small section of society that has suffered one of the highest recorded levels of infection in the world.
The capital’s strictly Orthodox Jewish, or Haredi, community has an infection rate of at least 64% — UK-wide estimates range from 7% to 30%. And according to the new study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), that figure rises to a staggering 74% among adults and secondary school children.
When I visited the area in North London last week — the study’s researchers have asked the press to refrain from naming the community’s precise location for security reasons — there was little to suggest that it has endured a pandemic quite unlike any other in the world. Smartly dressed children skip down the steps of their schools into waiting minibuses; men with sidelocks and dark frock coats rush to synagogue, their wide-brimmed black hats draped with makeshift plastic coverings to protect them from the elements.
Storm Darcy is sending snow across this enclave of the city, with strong easterly winds wending their way from Ukraine — the same place from where the biggest stream in ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and its 18th-century codes of dress, originated. Over the past few weeks, a chill wind of publicity has also been blowing through the area, home to 25,000 Haredim — the word comes from the Hebrew “to tremble” before God — the largest community in Europe.
It culminated last month with coverage of an illegal wedding held at a state school and attended by 150 guests, though other recent stories about the community have covered everything from forced marriage to benefit fraud. But, like so much about this complex corner of London, the picture is far more nuanced than it first appears. Yes, life here is going on largely as normal, but most of the manifold physical interactions which may seem to break lockdown rules are, in fact, perfectly legal.
Unlike Christians, who may go to church once a week, Orthodox Jewish men pray three times a day, and the government has allowed communal worship in England since July 4. All Haredi children are also still allowed to attend lessons. They come under the government’s category of “vulnerable children” as they live in overcrowded households and attend schools that ban internet access at home. Even those who go to full-time unregistered “yeshivas” — which controversially escape Ofsted scrutiny because they offer a religious curriculum so restricted that they are not deemed schools under the Education Act — are allowed to continue attending, because the category also applies to “out-of-school settings”.
But their initial exposure to Covid-19 was also a product of bad timing. With its raucous celebrations and door-to-door gift giving, the festival of Purim fell in early March, less than a fortnight before the first lockdown was imposed. As one person who works in the community told me: “It was the Haredi Cheltenham Festival.”
As ever, there are also socioeconomic reasons for its high rate of infection. Larger families increase the risk of catching the virus and also mean higher-than-average levels of deprivation. The average Haredi woman has between six and seven children; the average British woman has fewer than two.
“Many families live in very crowded conditions, not out of choice but because there is a real dearth of housing,” explains Rabbi Herschel Gluck, as we talk in his back garden. The rabbi, his long white beard flowing from beneath his disposable mask, bristles at any suggestion that Haredim — known for being insular and resistant to modern mores — are “backwoodsmen” who simply don’t understand what’s going on. “I’m totally sick of this attitude that somehow we’re dealing with people who are not aware,” he says, pointing out that many use WhatsApp or have broadband for work.
And for those who don’t: “The message has been delivered in every way that you can think. We had a car going around with a loudspeaker, leafleting, advertising. If anything, I would say they are too aware. Because they are now also aware of all the conspiracy theories, the misinformation.”
One of the most unusual things about LSHTM’s study, which involved 343 households and 1,759 individuals late last year, was that it was initiated by the Haredim themselves. Its Medical Advocacy and Referral Service charity approached the scientists and even offered funding. “It’s the only time it’s happened to me in my career,” says Dr Michael Marks, who co-led the study.
Since publication, he has written in a local community newspaper warning that the data is no reason to relax. For while his findings are, on a human level, truly remarkable — some might say disturbing — they also raise profound scientific questions. If, for example, three-quarters of the community’s adults and secondary school children have been infected, does that mean that it now has herd immunity to the virus? And if that’s true, how should its existence influence policy decisions over the lifting of lockdown restrictions?
Dr Marks, however, is cautious about making any assumptions. “There isn’t a strict biological threshold for herd immunity,” he says, and especially because of the chance of reinfection and new variants, “we certainly wouldn’t think that the community has achieved [it].” Moreover, in more densely populated areas such as this one, where there are greater opportunities for viral transmission, any threshold would be higher than average.
Marks says he has no reason to believe that rule-flouting was a significant factor in driving up the community’s infection rate, pointing to non-compliance nationwide, and the fact that Haredim are merely hyper-visible. “When you see people who break the rules and they look like you, you think, oh, they’re probably just taking their dog for a walk. We notice when people who don’t look like us break the rules.”
Yet for many Haredim, it is judgment from within the wider Jewish community that is the most painful. One recent comment piece in Jewish Chronicle said that “much of the lifestyle for many Haredi communities is completely incompatible with the fundamental principles of Judaism”.
It certainly has exposed fault lines in Britain’s Jewish population. Even before the pandemic, mainstream organisations had been working hard to connect with a Haredi fringe that is in the ascendancy. Roughly 20% of all Jews in Britain are Haredi (about 60,000) — and within a decade, most Jewish children in Britain will be. But bridge-building has its limits. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, representing mainstream Orthodoxy, tweeted about the recent illegal wedding story, saying the event “amounts to a brazen abrogation of the responsibility to protect life”.
Eli Spitzer, a Haredi headteacher who knows 12 people in the community who have died from Covid, believes the runaway infection rate mainly “comes down to a lack of compliance”. He says Haredim were “just as scared as anyone else” in March and “paid an enormous price” to observe the first lockdown (you try entertaining seven children indoors without iPads or CBeebies). But he adds: “I think the horse had already bolted at that point in a community of this nature,” and it was then too late to tell people to continue turning their lives upside down to ward off a virus that had already run riot.
Though he says most have therefore “sat out” this lockdown, he is mystified by the idea that he and his neighbours have put religion above the preservation of life. “It sounds like they think there are people dropping dead all around us, that we just continue praying and we’re oblivious to mountains of corpses.”
True or not, it’s clear that Jews across the board have been disproportionately affected by Covid. Last year, Public Health England found Jewish men aged over 65 died at twice the rate of Christians, even after adjusting for socio-demographic factors. There is no data on the mortality rate among Haredim specifically, but while their infection rate is up to nine times the national average, it is unlikely their death rate will be anywhere near as high. This is because the median age of a Haredi Jew is just 14, compared with 40 for the rest of the country.
But locals are clearly conscious of the scrutiny. Signs outside schools warning that masks are mandatory are in Yiddish, the everyday language of residents here. A second set in English is there to send a message intended for non-Haredi eyes: “Look, we are upholding the rules.”
Rabbi Gluck detects a double-standard. While other minority communities — also disproportionately affected by the virus and more likely to display “vaccine hesitancy” — have received compassion, he suggests there is a sense among some that Jews have brought it on themselves. “I think people do not have the same sympathy for the Jewish community,” says Gluck. “Many people, their parents, their grandparents, were guinea pigs for science under the Nazis. We can understand that they have a certain amount of healthy ambivalence to accepting medical opinion without question.” Gluck himself was filmed being vaccinated, “so my position is clear”.
Even so, it is difficult not to conclude that there has been a catastrophic failure by a leadership that is able to wield extraordinary power. Spitzer points out that most UK Haredi religious institutions belong to global organisations that are capable of telling you “how to wear your socks”. But now, he explains, “the leaders will not issue directives that they don’t think will be popular, because they’ll lose their position.”
Still, perhaps the community’s extraordinarily high infection rate can be best understood by taking a look at those leaders who do “issue directives”. Take the case of Rabbi Yossi Teitelbaum, who allegedly circulated leaflets in December that highlighted spurious “loopholes” to the lockdown restrictions. His punishment? Earlier this month, he was put in charge of “Covid coordination” by the community’s main umbrella group.