Counting the cost of the pandemic’s devastating impact

Sanitizing a synagogue. Vladimir Gerdo/TASS (Via Jewish News)
Sanitizing a synagogue. Vladimir Gerdo/TASS (Via Jewish News)

This week we reached a sombre milestone. Two years since the Coronavirus pandemic reached the UK, we have recorded the 1000th death in the Jewish community where the deceased was diagnosed with Covid-19.

Covid has had a devastating impact on our community – particularly in the first wave where Jews seemed to be disproportionately at risk of dying from this awful disease. Because of the anxiety in the community and so that we could have an accurate record of how many had died, the Board of Deputies made the decision to record death figures which could inform our discussions with Government departments as well as recommendations and advice.

Initially, the numbers were alarming. Our figures (which tallied with ONS statistics) indicated that Jews were far more likely to have died of Covid in the initial wave than the general population. Could it be that there were genetic factors in the Jewish community which predisposed us to severe Covid?

With the information we have now, it seems this is the least likely explanation. Other factors mitigated against the Jewish community when the disease first started claiming lives in March 2020. The first of these was where we live. The Jewish community is located in major metropolitan areas, particularly in London and the South-East, and this was where Covid first struck in the UK. We are also an older demographic than the general population. As we soon discovered, Covid finds its victims disproportionately from the aged.

We could also speculate that because the first wave of Covid coincided with Purim, a very sociable time for the Jewish community, many could have been infected before lockdown regulations were introduced, with devastating consequences.

Whatever the reason, the figures were depressing. Between 2 March 2020 and 15 May 2020, the Board recorded 457 deaths. Almost half of all Jews in the UK who succumbed to Covid did so in the first two months of the pandemic.

From the second lockdown onwards, the picture has looked very different. All parts of our community, from the completely secular to the strictly Orthodox, proved very enthusiastic about vaccination. In the first three months of 2021, the most vulnerable in the Jewish community were inoculated, giving them a high degree of protection against hospitalisation and death. The vast majority of the Jewish population followed lockdown regulations, meaning that in later waves Jews were not exposed to the virus any more than others. Although the numbers of members of our community dying in the current Omicron wave have sadly increased, this number is not disproportionate to the general population (and while every death is a tragedy, the number of deaths is now far smaller than early on in the pandemic).

From the very start of the pandemic, where we were able to help, we did. Along with Muslim communities, the Board of Deputies managed to avert emergency legislation which could have meant bodies being cremated against their families will. Each week we shared our Thank you Thursday posts, highlighting the enormous amount of volunteering happening across the community. Members of the Jewish community selflessly came forward to support those in their local communities, delivering food and medicine, telephone-befriending and working to transform community spaces to be virtually accessible.

Along with physical illness there was an inevitable rise in mental health problems as individuals were faced with isolation and economic hardship. Organisations across the community stepped up and gave help and offered friendship wherever necessary.

Thankfully, as of this week, Covid cases are falling and Omicron is proving to be less lethal than previous variants. However, we know from recent history that we cannot be complacent. We need to be on our guard so that if there is a resurgence, we are ready to take whatever precautions are required.

Few if any of us have been untouched by this pandemic. It is my earnest hope that we will be soon able to create a proper memorial to those who died. In future years, while we carry on with our lives, we must never forget those whom we lost in the worst health crisis of any of our lifetimes.

May their memories be for a blessing.

Marie van der Zyl is President of the Board of Deputies

About the Author
Marie van der Zyl is the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews
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