How Covid ripped through London’s Jews

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Failed by their leaders, almost three-quarters of Haredi adults in the capital have been infected

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.”

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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.

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