Rabbi Yoram Bogacz
Guest contributor for Judaism and science
The vaccine saga continues. Israel has vaccinated about 40% of its youngsters against COVID, and hopes to continue the effort in September, after new supplies arrive. Everyone in the establishment seems to blithely ignore basic ethical questions about vaccinating the young, like, Does the purported benefit outweigh the possible harm? Here is some information for the brave.
In Sweden, nine children (i.e., people under the age of twenty) have so far died of COVID-19. There have been 13 913 COVID fatalities in Sweden.
There are currently 2 414 000 children in Sweden. The death rate from COVID for Swedish children is thus 9 out of 2 414 000 = 0.0000037 (one in 268 000). And this is after 16 months of COVID.
Sweden has the safest roads in the world. In 2020, 15 children in Sweden died in traffic accidents. Thus, the risk of a child in Sweden dying of COVID during the pandemic has been about half the risk of that child dying in a traffic accident.
And in England? British media recently reported that in the twelve months to February 2021, 25 children and teenagers died of COVID in the UK. As expected, most of these children had serious comorbidities. From one article:
They found that 25 children and young people had died because of the coronavirus, equating to an absolute risk of one in 481,000, or approximately two in a million. Children and young people with complex neurodisability were at the highest risk of death.
[Professor Russell] Viner [who contributed to the research] said: “These new studies show that the risks of severe illness or death from Sars-CoV-2 are extremely low in children and young people.
And in Israel? Seven children have died of COVID, most of whom suffered from severe comorbidities.
Children in Glenhazel are more likely to die from a lightning strike or from drowning in a swimming pool than they are to die from COVID. And yet the purveyors of the mainstream COVID narrative continue to push for a jab in every arm – young and old, healthy and sick, recovered or not – despite a flood of evidence that children and youngsters, who stand to gain nothing from COVID vaccines, are vulnerable to a host of vaccine-related ailments like myocarditis.
Lopsided logic features not only in the area of vaccines. Barely one hundred years ago, parents in Lithuania occasionally sent boys as young as ten to yeshiva by themselves. The journey could take two weeks, and often, due to abject poverty, the only victuals the parents could furnish their children with consisted of a sandwich. The food came with the advice, “When you get to the next village, knock on a door with a mezuzah and ask for some food.”
Such was the mesirus nefesh for Torah then, and our generation is clearly lightyears away from such devotion. God surely does not expect such demonstrations of love of Torah from us. But to refuse to send your child to school because of a virus that is entirely indifferent to their age group or, worse, to campaign for schools to close, is nothing short of disgraceful.
A friend sent me the following email:
Dear R’ Yoram,
I am wondering if any of your views may have changed in light of the high numbers of infections and deaths in our community. A number of middle-aged people have died as a result of Covid in recent weeks and the overall number of funerals in June was over 50% higher than a regular June. Also, children are becoming infected much more commonly than before.
Let me begin by presenting a short list (by no means exhaustive) of my views on the COVID debacle over the past 15 months.
Consulting existing plans
In February 2020, disturbing news emerged from China of a flu-like illness spreading rapidly, followed by harrowing images from Italy. This type of event happens every few years (the SARS outbreak in 2002, the H1N1 epidemic in 2009 etc). Every Western nation has carefully-prepared plans for such outbreaks. In previous articles, I focused on the British plan – the 70-page manual entitled The UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011. The report envisages a pandemic so severe that between 210 000 and 315 000 people would die over 15 weeks, with perhaps half the deaths occurring in just three weeks. As I write these words, the official COVID death toll in the UK is about 125 000 after 15 months. These plans considered and rejected lockdowns, masks and border closures. But in a criminally-reckless move, the plans were completely ignored by all the COVID panic mongers, including those in our community.
In view of the emergence of a more infectious variant of COVID, have I changed my mind about the fact that these plans should have been consulted and followed? No.
Avoiding halachic meltdown
One mark of halachic competence is the unwillingness of the posek to bow to societal narratives. Whether it is pressure to ease the plight of agunot or to become more “flexible” about the gender spectrum, real Torah authorities do not play with halacha – it is what it is.
In 2020, the term pikuach nefesh was subjected to unprecedented abuse, as the air grew thick with innumerable mentions of this closely-defined concept. Pikuach nefesh refers, unambiguously, to situations of imminent danger to life, as when someone is drowning, or a building has just collapsed with people trapped inside. It is in such cases that we suspend virtually all other Torah injunctions and try to save lives. But davening with a minyan? Going to the mikveh? Inviting lonely people for a Shabbos meal? If you have to calculate a statistical probability that an action will result in death – an incredibly small number in the case of my examples – it isn’t pikuach nefesh. We don’t consider entering a car a situation of pikuach nefesh, notwithstanding the non-zero probability that the trip will end in death.
What I find amazing is that the same members of the Glenhazel medico-rabbinical complex who shot from the hip with their pikuach nefesh guns are all aware of what Chazal said about Eve and her creative interpretation of God’s instruction. She told the serpent that God forbade her (and Adam) to touch the Tree of Knowledge. This was false; they were only forbidden to eat its fruit. By this seemingly modest act of creativity Eve initiated a series of events so grievous that we all still suffer its consequences.
הגע בעצמך: The sum total of human suffering – a subject so immense and dark as to elude even the most capacious human minds – began with the distortion of a Torah concept. It makes not a jot of difference that Eve had good intentions.
The medico-rabbinical complex made the same mistake as Eve when its members mangled pikuach nefesh. It makes not a jot of difference that they had good intentions.
The wilful distortion of pikuach nefesh is just one part of the hashkafa meltdown that we have witnessed over the COVID period. Here is a crash course: In situations of pikuach nefesh, we drop everything and do whatever we can to save lives. But such situations are vanishingly rare (how often have you come across a person who had just been shot or someone who was choking on his food?). The rest of the time, the message of Judaism is that we continue living as normally as possible, even during periods of adversity. We do not shut down life, nor even seek to suspend it, even to flatten the curve. We take reasonable precautions and carry on. Even in the worst periods, we continue to bring children into the world (which means that mikvaos must be open); we do everything to ensure that הֶבֶל פִּיהֶן שֶׁל תִּינוֹקוֹת שֶׁל בֵּית רַבָּן is not silenced for a moment; we daven in a minyan.
In view of the emergence of a more infectious variant of COVID, have I changed my mind about the fact that Torah concepts and basic philosophy may not be distorted, regardless of one’s motivations? No.
The individual is the ultimate authority responsible for his/her health
One of the great achievements of Western civilisation is the notion that governments should exercise minimum interference in the lives of individuals. The West fought for centuries, at immense cost in blood and treasure, to entrench this basic idea in our daily lives – government should not tell me what to do. There are exceptions: war; a volcanic eruption. But COVID was never even remotely the kind of acute emergency which would justify the obliteration of human rights and individual autonomy that we have seen. Lord Jonathan Sumption, a former judge of the supreme court of the UK, has articulated with great eloquence the enormous harm done to Western democratic norms through COVID authoritarianism.
If certain individuals wish to suspend their lives for an indefinite period to protect themselves, it is their prerogative. You can live in your basement, wear a mask in the shower and use disinfectant as a condiment. But you have no right to foist such stupidity on me. Humanity has lived through countless pandemics – some as severe as COVID, like the 1968 Hong Kong Flu and the 1957 Asian Flu, as well as some that were an order of magnitude worse, like the 2018 Spanish Flu. We have lived through innumerable iterations of ordinary influenza seasons (which kill between 300 000 and 650 000 individuals around the world every year). Neither the goyishe world nor Torah society has ever imposed anything like the draconian restrictions on basic activities – education, pursuit of livelihood, socialising – as has happened over the past while. No Torah scholar or gentile legal scholar ever thought that completely healthy (asymptomatic, in the lingo) individuals have any culpability if they carry on with everyday activities. The vulnerable have the right to protect themselves, if they so wish (and we should not imprison old people – for their own protection, of course – if they wish to take the risk of living their lives fully), but not at the expense of everyone else.
In view of the emergence of a more infectious variant of COVID, have I changed my mind about the fact that the individual should be the one to choose what level of risk to expose himself to? No.
We could look at a few more examples of core ideas of my approach to the COVID fiasco, but it will be an exercise in diminishing returns. I suspect that at the heart of your question lies one concept that really motivates your question. That concept has driven the mainstream narrative since the beginning of COVID: the more draconian the measures we take against COVID, the more successful we will be, and the fewer people will die. In light of my suspicion, your question could be re-phrased as follows: In view of the emergence of a more infectious variant of COVID, would I concede that more drastic measures should have been taken in the past and should be taken now?
The answer is a resounding NO! I reject the premise on which the question rests. I maintain that the premise – that the more draconian our approach the better will be the outcome – is false. The American Institute for Economic Research has collected more than three dozen studies demonstrating that there is no correlation between the severity of lockdown measures and positive COVID outcomes. And if you prefer to look at real-world data rather than studies – a step I very much encourage – you will reach the same conclusion. The media stopped its coverage of Texas just after Joe Biden pronounced its governor a Neanderthal for daring to open the state completely. The media hasn’t bothered to follow up, because that would have meant conceding that Texas is doing very well indeed. The media stopped its coverage of Georgia after accusing it of conducting an experiment in human sacrifice for dropping lockdown restrictions. It hasn’t bothered to follow up, because that would have meant conceding that Georgia is doing very well indeed. The same could be said for Florida and many other jurisdictions. Bottom line: Measures that have not helped with more benign variants of the coronavirus are not going to help with more infectious variants of same.
Why is it that people persist in believing that if only we give up more and more elements of our lives that we will be better off with respect to COVID? Because there is a certain comfort in making sacrifices in times of crisis. It makes all the losses seem worthwhile. That psychological solace has motivated various errant ideologies for millennia. When the peasant Akhenamet brought an offering to the god of prosperity in Babylon thousands of years ago, he explained to his hungry wife and children that forgoing supper to satiate the god was worthwhile because this would ensure future prosperity. When the following harvest turned out poorly due to drought, he told them that his god was not satisfied and that they had better bring a greater sacrifice this year.
The mainstream media have pushed a similar narrative during the COVID period. If only everyone agreed to shut down life indefinitely; if only everyone agreed to wear two masks and a visor all the time; if only everyone agreed to never venture beyond the living room; if only everyone agreed to never take socialising beyond Zoom – the COVID monster would disappear in a jiffy.
I reject this narrative. Lockdowns achieved nothing as far as curbing the spread of COVID, nor did masking, nor did placing plastic sheets in front of students in class, nor did obsessive disinfection of surfaces and hands, nor did unrelenting censorship of views opposed to the COVID cult. Does any of this change because a new strain of SARS-Cov-2 has emerged? No. If, early in 2020, we had followed a century of accumulated wisdom in epidemiology, spelled out in documents such as The UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011, we would have been at least as well off as countries that took harsh measures (as proved by Sweden, Texas, Florida and others), and we definitely would not have precipitated the colossal medical, psychological, social and economic fallout from lockdowns that will blight our lives for a generation to come.
Now let’s look carefully at the situation in the South African Jewish community. The SA Jewish Report of 8th July 2021 contained, on the front page, an interview with the Chief Executive of the Chevrah Kadisha, in which he states the following:
‘We are dealing with many sad losses at the moment. We’ve just had the 200th Jewish death from Covid-19. in Johannesburg since the beginning of the pandemic.’
How does Mr Tomson know that 200 local Jews have died from COVID? I suppose that he gets the information from death certificates and the like. But as has been obvious right from the outset of the COVID saga, the standards for recording deaths have been egregiously compromised over the COVID period. In the UK, to use but one example, any death within 28 days of a positive PCR test was recorded as a COVID death. People who died from stroke, cancer or traffic accidents were recorded as COVID fatalities merely because snippets of viral RNA were previously found in their blood. Just last week, Santa Clara County in the USA decided to take a fresh look at their COVID accounting. Here is the result:
SAN JOSE (KPIX) — On Friday, Santa Clara County health leaders announced a drop in its COVID-19 death toll by nearly a quarter after it refined its approach in reporting the data.
The county reported that it had reviewed each COVID-19 fatality and was only counting those whose cause of death was from the virus and not those who tested positive for COVID-19 at the time of death but did not necessarily die from the virus.
The new approach meant that the death toll dropped by 22%…
Nearly one-quarter of COVID deaths were not COVID deaths! Back to my question – how does Mr Tomson know that 200 Johannesburg Jews have died from COVID? It is safe to assume that local doctors were caught in the COVID zeitgeist to the same extent as their colleagues around the world and recorded lots of deaths – from flu, pneumonia and other causes – as COVID deaths.
Secondly, has Mr Tomson made any effort to identify which of the COVID deaths are attributable to COVID and which are attributable to adverse reactions to COVID vaccines? Despite strenuous efforts by the COVID faithful to entrench the mantra – COVID vaccines are safe and effective – within the population, there is an explosion of evidence that the vaccines come with severe costs. Here is an introduction to the subject. VAERS is the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. It is a purely voluntary system run by the FDA and the CDC in which all affected parties – doctors, patients, family members – are encouraged to report adverse reactions to vaccines of all kinds. As you can see from the figure below, until 2020-2021, the number of adverse reactions to a multitude of vaccines was remarkably stable. What happened in 2020-2021?
The total reported post-vaccination deaths now stand at 9 048 (in the USA). In addition, there have been close to 1 000 post-vaccination miscarriages, more than 3 000 heart attacks, close to 20 000 severe allergic reactions, and close to 1 000 cases of heart muscle inflammation in people under 25. A recent analysis by researchers at Queen Mary University in London found that about 85% of deaths reported to VAERS were definitely, likely or possibly caused by COVID vaccines. And it’s worth remembering that everyone agrees that there is substantial under-reporting to VAERS. Now, given that the Chevrah Kadisha has been energetically vaccinating the elderly in its institutions (Sandringham Gardens etc) for the past few months, how does Mr Tomson know how many of the elderly were killed by COVID and how many succumbed to the vaccines?
But let’s assume that the figure of 200 deaths is in the right ballpark. Notice that Mr Tomson says that this is the death toll “since the beginning of the pandemic.” That means that over about 16 months, 200 people have died. And Mr Tomson also concedes what everyone knows – those who have died are overwhelmingly old and sick:
Are these deaths less tragic than the deaths of young and healthy individuals? No. But that misses the point. The correct question to pose is: Does the death of 150-200 mostly elderly and ill individuals over sixteen months constitute an existential threat to our community? A rational person can only say No.
The fact that COVID was never an existential crisis can be grasped immediately from the table below. After sixteen months of panic mongering, the reality is that COVID deaths rarely exceed one person in a thousand, and those deaths are hugely skewed towards the very elderly who suffer from comorbidities:
|COVID deaths||Population||Deaths/1000 population|
|World||4 055 963||7 674 000 000||0,5|
|Israel||6 483||9 326 000||0,7|
|South Africa||64 289||60 074 116||1|
|UK||128 425||69 251 655||1,2|
Early in the COVID saga, proponents of masks pointed to Japan and other oriental countries as models of COVID mitigation. Several countries in the East – Japan, Taiwan, Singapore – seemed to be almost immune to the ravages of COVID. “Look at Japan,” said the exponents of the One True Science. “Their culture of mask-wearing has delivered them from the COVID scourge.” The media, naturally, pumped out countless corroborations of this narrative. I will provide only a few examples of the genre, because these reports are all cookie cutter versions of each other anyway.
Here is National Review on 31st March 2020, at the very beginning of the saga:
The visible success Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and other East Asian countries have had in keeping the virus under control should prompt many in the West to revisit their mask-skeptical stance. The new mantra should take into account that masks and hand washing, taken together, have been shown to reduce the transmission of disease.
On 8th May 2020, Vanity Fair ran with this headline:
If 80% of Americans Wore Masks, COVID-19 Infections Would Plummet, New Study Says.
And why should we believe this? Because
There’s compelling evidence that Japan, Hong Kong, and other East Asian locales are doing it right and we should really, truly mask up—fast.
A host of articles extolled the virtue of Japan’s Cult of the Mask. Here are some choice headlines.
8th June 2020, AME Science: Face masks helped Japan avoid a coronavirus disaster.
12th June 2020, New York Times: Is the secret to Japan’s virus success right in front of its face?
30th June 2020, The Philadelphia Enquirer: Japan crushed COVID-19 by masking while Trump mocks masks.
14th October 2020, DeseretNews: To beat COVID-19, be more like Japan.
And who can forget that in our very own Glenhazel community, a certain medical specialist took it upon himself to circulate a grotesque cartoon vilifying those who had the temerity to analyse the mask evidence carefully and doubt THE EXPERTS? He managed to convince many acolytes that Japan was the New Jerusalem.
But despite the copious propaganda, the sad reality is that viruses do what viruses do, and SARS-CoV-2 is no exception. Let’s feast on some real-world data, shall we?
Since the National Review article at the beginning of the pandemic, cases in Japan have increased by 7 708%. And this is a country with mask compliance rates of 96-98%!
As a result of the gigantic surge in cases, the Olympic Games have been teetering on the edge of cancellation. On 8th July 2021, Reuters reported on the latest diktat – Tokyo has banned all spectators from Olympic events.
The load of hogwash promoted around the world (and in our community by well-meaning but hapless doctors) has finally crashed with a massive plop. Maybe a few perceptive souls will have noticed that despite the masks and lockdowns, nations that “defeated” the virus found themselves having to defeat it all over again, and countries that had an easy first wave were devastated by second and third waves. Here are just a few pertinent lessons:
Lesson 1: Masks have never worked
I won’t repeat here the basic lessons that I provided in earlier articles on how to distinguish science from ideology dressed up as science. The bottom line is that mass mask-wearing is utterly useless in preventing the spread of respiratory viruses. And not just useless – it’s dangerous. On 30th June 2021, the American Medical Association published a report on the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) concentrations that children who wear masks are exposed to.
CO2 usually makes up 400 parts per million (ppm) in air. Anything above 2000 ppm is considered unacceptable by the German Federal Environmental Office. The American Medical Association report measured averages of 13-14 thousand ppm of CO2 in the inhaled air of children wearing masks – over six times higher than the safety threshold. The study further pointed out that these levels occurred after only three minutes of wearing a mask. Children forced to wear masks at school find themselves wearing masks for hours, five days a week.
Let’s put aside the fact that this should have been obvious fifteen seconds after the beginning of the COVID pandemic rather than after fifteen months. After all, how far do you think your car will go if the front grille is swaddled with a blanket? And let’s put aside the fact that the paper, instead of saying “that children should not be forced to wear face masks” should have screamed “Do Not allow children to wear masks!” Having noted these caveats, can we focus on the fact that masks are both useless and dangerous? How long will it take parents in Glenhazel to stop following THE SCIENCE and actually follow the science?
Lesson 2: Those who promoted the Japan fantasy will never recant
As someone who has researched and written about science and society for twenty-five years, I assure you that those who promoted the Japan fantasy will not recant. The media outlets that pushed the Japan drivel have moved on. To the extent that there’s discussion about COVID now, it is about vaccines. Useless and harmful interventions such as obsessive disinfection of surfaces and body parts have been assimilated into the lexicon of hygienic practices practised by polite people everywhere, and they’re here to stay, a situation lamented by Chazal as שַׁבֶּשְׁתָּא כֵּיוָן דְּעָל עָל. Human beings employ an infinite array of rationalisations to justify their failures, and masks are no exception.
Lesson 3: Expertise (or otherwise) of doctors
One of the most common mistakes made during the COVID period by laymen and rabbis alike is the misapplication of Chazal’s standards to our situation. Our community imagines that statements of Chazal about medical expertise can be translated directly to our situation. This is a mistake. Modern medicine is immensely fragmented and specialised, and a typical doctor knows next-to-gornisht about areas outside his immediate training and experience. Your average anaesthesiologist knows about putting people to sleep, period. He has no experience – and until 2020, no interest – in the effects of mass mask-wearing on global epidemics. You may as well ask a truck driver about his opinion of carbon offsets for the transport industry because he happens to drive a lot more than you do. When doctors profess to know about issues like mask-wearing, apply the epigram at the top of this article: Where is the evidence? Do you have it from first-hand experience or from YouTube? Can you address counterarguments cogently?
In my previous article, I noted that those who took the lab-leak hypothesis (that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan) seriously were ridiculed, with “honorifics” such as conspiracy theorist levelled at them. A rapid turnabout occurred in May 2021, as the hypothesis came to be regarded as mainstream. This week, the editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal penned an article entitled Covid 19: We need a full open independent investigation into its origins. The article begins as follows:
When news first broke that a contagious and deadly new virus had emerged in Wuhan, many were struck by the coincidence of the city being the home of one of the world’s top virus research laboratories. But any suggestion that the virus originated in a laboratory was quickly labelled a conspiracy theory, dismissed by mainstream media, and even banned from Facebook.
The editor-in-chief continues
But… suppression of the lab leak theory was not based on any clear evaluation of the science… Instead, the lab leak theory sank under the weight of a concerted campaign by heavily conflicted scientists, leading to a “year of biased, failed reporting” by science journalists and journals…. We don’t know which theory is right, but a lab leak is plausible and worthy of serious inquiry.
Remember this: heavily conflicted scientists; biased, failed reporting. This assessment is just as true for masks, lockdowns, Ivermectin, PCR tests, COVID vaccines and a host of other COVID-related issues as it is for the debate around the origins of COVID.