D'var Torah, Coronavirus: the Great Leveller?
Sat 18th April 2020

by Rabbi Danny Rich

The writing is the opinion of the author and does not necessarly reflect that of Kehillah North London.

This is, no doubt a time of, at least, changing routines, perhaps great uncertainty and, for some, real fear as coronavirus continues to stalk our minds, our bodies indeed our world.

Despite my extra daily exercise and even sometimes going to bed earlier, one thing in my life has remained consistent: I invariably wake just before three o’clock in the morning.  I did so this morning, got up and put on Radio Four which becomes the BBC World Service at that time of the night.

It began as usual with the world headline –a now familiar story about the tweets of American President, Donald Trump.  On this occasion he was observing how remarkable it was that the residents of three states (Virginia, Minnesota and one other) were not besieging their – all Democrat, as it happened, – Governors’ offices to protest at the lockdown.  This was despite his previous statement that the lockdown which he had imposed on the whole of the United States was his – and his alone – to rescind when he felt it appropriate.  The tweets, of course, were a precursor to his concession that, despite that previous bold statement, by American law the power rested with state Governors not the federal President – even Donald Trump!

However, my sleepy ears pricked up at a later report by a correspondent from the BBC’s Arabic Service who told how the coronavirus was affecting two particular sectors of the Israeli population: drag queens and the ultra-orthodox Jewish community.  Two drag queens, one a pastry chef, had become an overnight sensation on Israeli television by using their underemployment to create a comedy show based on the deprivations of the pandemic including the imagined shortage of toilet paper.  More interesting was the story about the coronavirus’ impact on Israel’s ultra-orthodox community where, apparently, large-scale weddings continued well into the lock down period – and elsewhere we had already learnt of Israeli police arresting men from that community at prayer.  There was some criticism of the Israeli Government which had kept public transport open but discouraged its use: a confusing message for an ultra-orthodox sector which is heavily dependent upon buses but does not have the means to hear the Government’s sophisticated messaging.  Why?  Because this sector of the population has no televisions and gets its news from rabbinic announcements posted on walls and lamp posts.  An interesting idea for the Liberal rabbinate of the United Kingdom!  The report ended with a real irony: the current Israeli Health Minister, Yacov Litman, is himself an ultra-orthodox Jew and last week his officials installed a television and internet into his home – presumably under the rabbinic dispensation of pikuach nefesh: the saving of a human life.

The Israeli situation demonstrates that the coronavirus may have different consequences for different sectors of a society. Nearer to home the British Prime Minster, Boris Johnson, remains at his official residence, Chequers, recovering from a serious bout of the coronavirus – a fact used time and again by government spokespersons to remind the population that the virus can strike anybody and by others to evoke a Second World War style slogan ‘We are all in this together’.

Clearly the virus is non-discriminatory in the sense that it does not choose to infect you rather than me, but it is undoubtedly true that the measures – even necessary – which societies take to tackle the spread of the infection have differing impacts.  As I said last week when preaching at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue (LJS) St John’s Wood and I make no apology for repeating: ‘those of us with ample gardens are arguably better able to ‘Stay at Home’ than a family cramped in a small flat on the 13th floor of a tower block. For two carers life is easier than for the single parent having to juggle home-schooling with working from home. People who might be described as ‘the just managing’ are bearing the burden of increased costs with many likely to be the key workers risking their health to deliver goods, staff supermarkets, drive the buses and keep our essential infrastructure going.’

There are further issues to consider.  The inability to provide proper personal protective equipment to social carers in both the domestic and care home settings has, for example, undoubtedly increased the risk of infection and death for these elderly and/or vulnerable residents. It may well be true that many of them might have died of other medical complications in a relatively short time but, even were that so, the policy has immoral implications and certainly requires examination.

There is growing evidence too that there are higher death rates per head of the population in both the Jewish community and the black/ethnic minority (BAME) communities.  It has been suggested that this results from Jews’ close family ties and frequent get-togethers although I suspect it may be simply a function of the community’s age profile.  More worthy of detailed exploration is the fact that the first dozen or so reported deaths of NHS staff were from black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, and I was pleased to learn that an official inquiry is being launched to investigate why people from BAME backgrounds appear to be disproportionately affected by coronavirus.  Although understandably the figures have not yet been broken down, early indications show that some 35% of almost 2,000 patients in intensive care units were black or from another minority ethnic backgrounds, despite BAME people making up only 14% of the population, according to the last census.

Even in the midst of this national – and indeed international – challenge, Liberal Jewish values call us to strengthen and rebuild links with BAME communities and beyond so that British society can learn the lessons of the recent past.  These will not only be about whether we can restrict car use to promote cleaner air, or how we promote ‘working from home’ for a similar objective or how we prepare the NHS and social care with resources to meet future challenges. 

We must also work tirelessly to ensure that the huge appreciation for the NHS, the care sector and other key workers – so many of whom are from BAME communities – are recognised in their pay and conditions and that their contribution is used to counter the tide of xenophobia and racism that arose in the wake of Brexit. Proper pay will go some way to ensure that the known discriminatory impacts of poverty on health are lessened as the acute phase of coronavirus moves to the inevitable chronic stage. Further, the break in schooling has exposed the challenges that young people from deprived backgrounds face, and, as part of our ‘We were all in this together and we shall do what it takes to rebuild Britain’, schools and local councils should receive the necessary resources to address the widening gap in learning and potential that these school closures have exacerbated in order that deprivation will no longer take its toll on the ‘have-nots’ into the next generation.

When the Rabbis selected a gloomy haftarah for a particular season they frequently selected a verse from elsewhere to end on an upbeat note.

It may well be that, in examining the impact of the coronavirus and its consequences on different sectors of our population, we may come a little closer to fulfilling the idealistic hope of Deuteronomy (15:4):

There shall be no needy among you. 

Shabbat shalom