You can help us find out the impact of Covid-19

'JPR is launching a major nationwide survey of Jews next week'.

July 09, 2020 14:21

As the claims have intensified about a disproportionate number of Jews dying from coronavirus, I recalled a finding from a survey of British Jewish university students we conducted about a decade ago. In that study, we asked the students — mostly aged 18 to 22 — what their biggest worries were — passing exams, finding a job, paying off financial debts, antisemitism on campus and such like.

One of the options was “personal health concerns”. And we found something that continues to strike me as remarkable to this day. A staggering 28 per cent said they were either “very worried” or “fairly worried” about their health — twice the rate found among university students in general and higher than the proportion who said they were concerned about antisemitism.

My first reaction at the time was to wonder whether young British Jews are genuinely afflicted by health issues in ways others aren’t. But I knew then as I know now that there is no evidence of that at all; on the contrary, Jews are typically healthier than average, essentially because they tend to be well-educated, comparatively wealthy and avoid destructive health habits such as smoking or excessive drinking.

So, the only real explanation for the finding is that young Jews are more likely than average to be health-conscious, or more fastidious about checking out any health concerns. Or, if Woody Allen were interpreting the findings, they are more likely than average to be a little neurotic.

What does this have to do with coronavirus? Well, under normal circumstances, we would not expect Jews to suffer from it disproportionately. Irrespective of how unhealthy we may think we are, the empirical truth is we’re healthier than average. So if the recent findings published by the Office for National Statistics are correct — most notably that Jewish men are twice as likely as Christian men to contract Covid-19 and die from it (after accounting for all relevant socio-economic and demographic differences) — we urgently need to find out why.

We are testing numerous hypotheses. Perhaps, as suggested above, Jews are more likely to get themselves tested for coronavirus, and therefore Covid-19 is more likely to be attributed as a cause of death when it occurs (compelling, but actually looking increasingly improbable). Perhaps the way in which the data has been collected is problematic (unlikely). Perhaps, simply by misfortune, some Jews contracted it early, inadvertently causing it to spread within the community before lockdown (distinctly possible, not yet proven). Perhaps any number of family or community events, including those that took place at Purim, aided transmission (still very much on the table). Perhaps the critical factor has been non-compliance in the Charedi community (no; overstated).

There’s still more work to do before we reach definitive conclusions. And partly for that reason, JPR is launching a major nationwide survey of Jews next week. Because as much as this question of disproportionate mortality has generated headlines recently, there are many other issues we also need to explore. Covid-19 has clearly affected our health, our jobs, our finances, our relationships and our Jewish lives. But we know very little about any of this. We can all speculate about it of course, but we have almost no empirical evidence.

How many Jews have been tested for, or contracted coronavirus? How many Jews have been furloughed or made redundant? How many are less able to pay synagogue membership fees or make charitable donations due to their changing financial circumstances? How many have experienced mental health difficulties? How many need help or support, but aren’t receiving it? How many have lost valuable links to Jewish life?

Quite simply, we don’t know. But it’s essential we find out, so Jewish charities have the data they require to respond to the real needs that exist, and to steer a path through this crisis.

So look out for an email invitation to participate in the Jewish Covid-19 survey next week. It could come from any of the numerous Jewish organisations that are helping us promote it. By participating, you will be helping all of us to figure out how the pandemic has affected our community and how we can get through it together. And, you never know — as those students taught us, some of the findings may well be surprising.

Jonathan Boyd is executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR)

July 09, 2020 14:21

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