What are the characteristics of those communities in which the coronavirus infection rate is higher?
According to a new study by Prof. Ayal Kimhi, three factors can explain the gaps in infection between municipalities: the fraction of the population living in religious yeshivas or boarding schools, population density and the percent of people in the 75+ age group. If his study is verified, it could impact Israel’s closure policies in any second wave of coronavirus, which most scientists expect will occur sometime in the coming winter.
“The policy ramifications suggest a middle ground between the policy of overall shutdown that was imposed in Israel, with its enormous economic damage, and a policy of selective isolation on an individual basis founded upon a wide and efficient testing system that is not currently in existence,” a policy abstract by Kimhi recommends.
Kimhi, vice president of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research and Head of the Department of Environmental Economics and Management at Hebrew University, conducted his study by merging data published by the Health Ministry on infection rates in urban municipalities with at least 2,000 residents with data on municipal attributes – including various socioeconomic attributes – published by the Central Bureau of Statistics. The municipal attributes are from 2018, while the infection rates reflect the situation on May 5, 2020. The analysis was conducted with 196 municipalities for which data from both sources were available.
The study showed that in towns with the lowest infection rates (31 per 1000,000 people) less than 1% (about 0.11%) of residents lived in religious boarding schools. In contrast, in towns with the highest rates (560 out of 100,000), 2% of the population lives in these schools. Kimhi shows that had the percentage of population in municipalities with the lowest infection rates living in religious boarding schools rose to 2%, their infection rate would have increased by 232 per population of 100,000.
What explains this phenomenon?
“My first guess would have been that they don’t understand the virus and why staying away from each other will help keep it from spreading," he told The Jerusalem Post. “Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] don’t learn the core curriculum."But he said such an answer was “insufficient," especially since the same could be found among communities with Religious Zionist yeshivas.
He also felt that it might have to do with the fact that some yeshivas “do not have respect for the authorities of the State and therefore do not obey social distancing regulations.”
Kimhi noted that there was anecdotal evidence about some religious leaders who told students to keep going as usual because studying Torah is more important than anything else.
He added that there was no statistical relationship found between infection rates and the percentage of population living in non-religious boarding schools, in medical institutions, in assisted living accommodations or other institutions.
When looking at population density, Kimhi found that rates were lowest where there were fewer people (9,300) per square km. and highest where there were more (25,000) persons per square km.
At the same time, there was less infection where the percentage of the population was over the age of 75, likely, he said because these people understood their risk and strictly adhered to the country’s social distancing and isolation orders.
Kimhi said that despite the study, he could not say that the majority of coronavirus patients in Israel were religious, as this is data that is not released to the public. However, he did say that in any future closure strategy, “religious boarding schools and municipalities with high population density should be candidates for such selective closures, if such a need should arise.”