Israel sends army to ultra-Orthodox city over coronavirus

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, some of them wearing masks, cross a street in the religious Israeli city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2020 during the novel coronavirus pandemic crisis. (AFP)
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Updated 03 April 2020

Israel sends army to ultra-Orthodox city over coronavirus

  • Authorities have enforced restrictions on access to Bnei Brak, a majority ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv
  • Many ultra-Orthodox Jews have refused to comply with confinement measures and social distancing

JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday gave the green light for soldiers to be deployed in a mostly ultra-Orthodox Jewish city seen as the center of Israel’s novel coronavirus outbreak.
“In light of the special situation in Bnei Brak following the restrictions due to the coronavirus, the IDF (army) will immediately present the necessary civil assistance to Bnei Brak municipality in fulfilling its responsibilities,” Netanyahu’s office said after talks with security and health officials.
Authorities have enforced restrictions on access to Bnei Brak, a majority ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv that is home to around 200,000 people.
More than 7,000 cases of COVID-19, including 36 deaths, have been officially declared in Israel.
According to local media, half of those infected are ultra-Orthodox Jews, a community which represents only around 10 percent of the Israeli population.
Many ultra-Orthodox Jews have refused to comply with confinement measures and social distancing.
This week has seen tense exchanges as police stepped up patrols of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that have become virus hot spots.
Army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said the military would deploy 800-1,000 soldiers in Bnei Brak to “assist” local authorities “because of the severity of the situation there and because of the relative lack of implementation of health ministry instructions.”
Soldiers will help distribute food and medicine and assist with the evacuation of people with virus symptoms, Conricus told an online conference call with reporters.
He said the army would also seek to ensure health messages were reaching the ultra-Orthodox community.
Motti Ravid, director of Mayanei Yeshua hospital in Bnei Brak, told AFP earlier this week that with Internet and television prohibited in the ultra-Orthodox community on religious grounds, government directives took a long time to filter through.
Even for those using mobile phones, access to the Internet and most message services is blocked, shutting them off from the main form of communication used by the health ministry.
Conricus said soldiers would wear orange and most of them would not carry weapons.
He said he anticipated there would be misunderstandings and frustrations among the community, but “we are taking that into consideration.”
Netanyahu himself re-entered precautionary quarantine this week after Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a leading member of the ultra-Orthodox community, tested positive for COVID-19.


Hagia Sophia prayers ‘sparked Turkey’s new COVID-19 cases’

Updated 4 min 25 sec ago

Hagia Sophia prayers ‘sparked Turkey’s new COVID-19 cases’

  • Government figures disputed by health professionals who warn that several provinces bearing brunt of pandemic

ISTANBUL: Prayers at Hagia Sophia sparked new coronavirus cases in Turkey as preventive measures were not strictly followed during the congregational worship, according to health professionals.
Around 350,000 people swarmed the Hagia Sophia on July 24 and the area around it after the Byzantine-era landmark became a mosque again after functioning for decades as a museum.
Some of the 500 guests inside the mosque, including parliamentarians and journalists, have been diagnosed with the disease. There was a lack of social distancing and mask wearing.
The number of new daily COVID-19 cases began rising and exceeding 1,000 just after the Eid Al-Adha holidays. The government’s decision to withhold figures about the number of patients in intensive care and those who are intubated has increased concern about the country’s coronavirus reality.
Health professionals contacted by Arab News said the pandemic had worsened in the last month, and that the opening of Hagia Sophia for prayers without appropriate and tough precautions in place was a reason for the surge.
“Following the opening of Hagia Sophia, we also heard of many cases among politicians,” a doctor who preferred to remain anonymous told Arab News. “But it is because they go through a regular screening every three days in order to make sure they are healthy.”
The doctor, who works in a hospital in the central Anatolian province of Sivas, added: “If ordinary citizens also get a similar test, the real case rates will be higher. If things go on like this, there will be nobody in the hospital who is not infected … There might even be a shortage of medical personnel who either resign from the job or become sick.”
A “long list” of Muslim and Christian world leaders, including Pope Francis, were invited to the inaugural prayer at the Hagia Sofia, according to Dr. Ergin Kocyildirim, who is a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon and an assistant professor in the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine. “It seems like none of them attended the prayer, but coronavirus did,” he told Arab News.
Kocyildirim said that a visit from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Hagia Sophia the following week made it look like social distancing rules were hard to uphold inside the landmark due to the large crowds who wanted to see the president or take pictures.
“I believe those images made many health care professionals feel upset, as a sudden step like this might ruin the months-long efforts to contain the virus. While trust takes time to be established, it can be lost quickly,” he added.
Health professionals warned that several Anatolian provinces were bearing the brunt of the pandemic with a sharp rise in local cases since the beginning of June, when anti-contagion measures were relaxed and intercity travel as well as crowded wedding ceremonies were permitted.
Government reports of daily cases have been disputed by some health professionals and the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), claiming that the actual daily figure is more than 3,000. The Health Ministry has also been criticized for ignoring the filiation method as a form of contact tracing among close relatives in order to artificially decrease the number of cases and open the way for tourism and the normalization of economic activity.
“When thousands of health professionals are fighting against the disease, and when dozens of citizens lose their lives because of the pandemic, everyone and especially public authorities should have been much more responsible,” Murat Emir, a parliamentarian from the main opposition Republican People’s Party and a doctor by profession, told Arab News.
“Unfortunately, during the opening of the Hagia Sophia Mosque, thousands of citizens gathered without respecting social distancing measures and wearing face masks. Various municipalities from Anatolia organized bus tours to this opening, and nobody knows whether they got an official code from the Health Ministry for domestic travel or sat with social distancing during transit.”
Emir warned that such gatherings where social distancing measures were not applied were enough to fuel the spread of COVID-19.
To date 5,858 people have died from the virus in Turkey, according to official figures, and the country is not yet on the list of safe travel countries regularly updated by the EU.