As people from across England huddled indoors amid freezing temperatures and a nationwide lockdown, nearly 300 older men and women lined up outside a health center in northeast London to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
But the wide-brimmed hats and long black coats that protected them from the cold had more to do with religion than the weather. These ultra-Orthodox Jews are members of a community that has been especially hard hit by the virus, which has killed nearly 117,000 people in Britain.
Hoping to break down the barriers that sometimes isolate the Orthodox from mainstream society, community leaders organized the pop-up vaccination event for Saturday night to coincide with the end of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. They believed it was the best time to attract the worshipers because it would fit perfectly into the after-service hours, and people would be more relaxed since no one was working.
“I want to see the grandkids and I haven’t seen them in months, so you know this is an ideal time to get it,” said Asatr Walmberg, 66, after rolling up his sleeves. “And hopefully we can see you soon.”
As Britain’s National Health Service scrambles to reach its goal of giving a first dose of vaccine to more than 15 million people by Monday, including healthcare workers and all people over 75, workers health workers are trying to reach those who have been lost. The need is particularly great in Stamford Hill, the center of North London’s ultra-Orthodox community.
With many ultra-Orthodox avoiding social media and the internet, it was slow for people here to realize the dangers of COVID-19, and their community has experienced some of the highest infection rates in London. Many fell ill last March after the Jewish holiday of Purim, a day of celebration and joy.
Local leaders, determined not to allow history to repeat itself, raised 10,000 pounds ($ 13,840) and asked to be studied by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to find out why they were so affected.
An analysis of blood samples from 1,242 people found an infection rate of 64%, one of the highest in the world. In contrast, the Office for National Statistics estimates that around 16% of England’s population has had COVID-19.
Assistant Professor Michael Marks, one of the researchers on the project, said preliminary results suggest that the ultra-Orthodox saw many cases because public health officials did not fully understand the virus last spring and because their small community is tight-knit.
COVID-19 was likely circulating much more widely than initially thought, which meant that government messages about the virus lagged behind the actual risk. This allowed the virus to spread rapidly in the community.
“And then they had a big religious event, which everyone attended, because at that point the advice was to carry on, so I think that could explain the big rally at the beginning,” Marks said.
Community leaders now believe that one way to prevent a recurrence is to make sure as many people as possible are vaccinated. So they eliminated the excuses for not attending. In addition to the timing, the message being broadcast was broadcast through community channels, so people found out. In view of sensitivities, male and female vaccinators were staffed.
“It’s just about people being comfortable, people being comfortable,” said Joel Friedman, director of public affairs for the Interlink Foundation, a group that brings together Orthodox volunteer organizations.
Other religious leaders participated, such as Mustafa Field of Faiths Forum in London, a Muslim. They hope that an interreligious model will help community organizations take the lead. It’s a model that the British government hopes to use across the country as the NHS tries to ensure that the vaccination campaign does not bypass other hard-to-reach communities.
“Getting them to do this here is really a great lesson to see how we can replicate some of this,”
Jewish leaders also hope the vaccination campaign will help dispel the misconception that ultra-Orthodox Jews are ignoring the danger posed by COVID-19.
Police raided an Orthodox wedding at a local school last month because 100 people attended in violation of lockdown rules that prohibit large gatherings. An investigation by Jewish News suggested it was not an isolated event. Ugly headlines about the event were seen as affecting the entire community, rather than those breaking the rules.
“What happened was unacceptable. Hopefully scenes like that will never happen again, ”Friedman said. “But there is a strong feeling that they treat us a little bit unfairly, and the whole community is being marked with the same brush, which is very unfair.”
The vaccine is a “great step forward” for the Orthodox community and British society as a whole, Rabbi Michael Biberfeld said as he sat down to receive the injection. He said Orthodox Jews have an obligation “to get vaccinated as soon as possible to make sure” they stay healthy and do not infect other people.
“As I quoted one of the Israeli rabbis saying, ‘This is a jab for the person receiving the vaccine, but a huge step forward for all of us, for humanity,'” he said.