Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash on Tuesday warned the ultra-Orthodox community that large crowds such as those recently seen at a handful of funerals for top rabbis who died of COVID-19 — would further spread the coronavirus and lead to additional deaths.
Ash gave the grim prediction during a briefing for reporters catering to the ultra-Orthodox community.
His remarks came after recent weeks have seen several Haredi funerals attended by thousands despite an ongoing national lockdown to prevent the virus from spreading. Outdoor gatherings were restricted to just 10 people; some of the funerals of the leading rabbis drew more than 10,000.
“It pains the heart to see the photos of mass violations [of the lockdown] at funerals because those funerals will lead to more funerals,” Ash said.
Ash noted that while the morbidity rate in the Haredi community, which has been far higher than the national average, is dropping, it “is still high and worrying.”
Ash also warned against holding big celebrations during the upcoming annual Purim holiday, which this year falls on February 25. The holiday is usually marked by communal and family events across the country with revelers often dressing in costume as part of the festivities.
Ash urged a “responsible” celebration of the holiday and recalled that last year there was a major outbreak of virus infections in the Haredi community after Purim.
He said December celebrations of the Hanukkah festival caused a similar recent outbreak in the community, referring to reports that many Haredim ignored Health Ministry orders at the time limiting gatherings and held large events anyway.
Speaking of the broader virus outbreak across the country, Ash said that 90 percent of new cases are people infected with the Brtish mutation of the virus which, he said, is more infectious and causes more serious symptoms — as seen in the higher number of young people becoming seriously ill.
However, “we continue to see a slow trend of declining morbidity,” Ash said with the virus reproduction number, known as the R-value, ranging from 1 to 0.97. The R-value indicates the number of people that each virus carrier infects, with a value of less than one showing the virus spread is diminishing and above one that the virus outbreak is increasing.
Over the course of the pandemic, there has been growing public anger over frequent large-scale violations of lockdown rules in the ultra-Orthodox community, as well as the government’s apparent reluctance to strongly enforce health rules in that community.
Despite morbidity in the ultra-Orthodox community being far higher than in any other single societal group, Haredi lawmakers have decried attempts to enforce the virus guidelines in their communities, and have labeled such efforts discriminatory and unhelpful.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, has been seen as unwilling to anger his Haredi political partners, without whose support he has no hope of remaining in power.
Israel is still under lockdown orders, the third since the start of the pandemic, though some restrictions were rolled back at the beginning of the week. The country is also pushing a mass vaccination program that has so far inoculated over a fifth of the population.
Since the start of the outbreak 700,479 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Israel and there have been 5,192 deaths, according to Health Ministry figures released Tuesday.