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Orthodox Jews pray outdoors, keeping a 6 ft. distance, September 27, 2020.

Jews in parts of the United Kingdom, Sweden, Italy and Belgium were particularly badly affected during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with communities in London, Manchester, Scotland, Stockholm, Milan and Brussels showing unusually high mortality levels at that time.

Jewish mortality rates were noticeably higher than among non-Jews in all of these places during the March to May 2020 period, and at least twice as high as might normally be expected at that time of year. However, other communities – in selected parts of Germany, as well as Rome, Vienna, Budapest and Melbourne – showed little or no excess mortality at all, and in many cases appear to have fared slightly better than the non-Jewish populations around them. In Israel too, mortality rates were normal at this time.

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In between these two poles, several other Jewish communities – Paris, Strasbourg, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Toronto, Montreal and Florida – had somewhat elevated mortality rates, but not at the levels seen in the worst affected areas, and at similar rates to those found among the wider populations living around them. The data on Jews in New York were somewhat anomalous – there was significant excess mortality, but at a much lower rate than among others in the city.

These are some of the findings in a new study published today by researchers from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research’s European Jewish Demography Unit, titled COVID-19 mortality and Jews: a global overview of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, March to May 2020.

The study, which draws on data from Jewish burial societies all over the world and utilises the excess mortality method to assess the impact of COVID-19 (i.e. the extent to which the number of deaths observed in a given population at a given point in time deviate from the norm) finds no common pattern among Jewish populations. Indeed, report authors Dr Daniel Staetsky from JPR and Dr Ari Paltiel from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, conclude that Jewish mortality patterns during the first wave largely followed the patterns seen in the areas in which they live.

Staetsky and Paltiel also caution against speculation about why Jews were disproportionately affected in some places, but rule out two candidate explanations: that Jewish populations with particularly elderly age profiles were hardest hit, or that Jews have been badly affected due to any underlying health issue common among them. They consider the possibility that Jewish lifestyle effects (e.g. above average size families, convening in large groups for Jewish rituals and holidays), may have been an important factor in certain instances, noting that these are unambiguous risk factors in the context of communicable diseases. While they suggest that the spread of the virus among Jews “may have been enhanced by intense social contact,” they argue that without accurate quantification, this explanation for elevated mortality in certain places remains unproven.

The report also includes a strongly worded preface from Hebrew University Professor Sergio DellaPergola, the Chair of the JPR European Jewish Demography Unit, and the world’s leading expert in Jewish demography. In it, he expresses disappointment at “critical shortcomings in the measurement of the incidence and spread of the virus” in many countries, including Israel, which provided a “grossly inadequate basis for assessing the variable patterns of the epidemic and the policies to be adopted to counteract it.” He further highlights the importance of systematically testing representative samples of the population at the national and local levels, and, in Jewish community contexts, of routinely gathering Jewish population vital statistics. He states: “If there is one lesson for Jewish community research that emerges out of this crisis it is that the routine gathering of vital statistics – the monitoring of deaths, as well as births, marriages, divorces, conversions, immigrants and emigrants – is one of the fundamental responsibilities community bodies must take.”

Commenting on the report’s findings, JPR Executive Director, Dr Jonathan Boyd, said: “By focusing on Jews in many different parts of the world, this report offers a unique perspective on the incidence and spread of the virus that is designed not only to help community leaders shape their responses to the ongoing challenges, but also to make a contribution to epidemiological research. The pandemic has laid bare the critical importance of thoughtful, systematic data collection and analysis, and we remain steadfastly committed to that goal.”

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