The Coronavirus Crisis in Bnei Brak – the People, Culture, Processes and Leadership
The Untold Story of One of the Most Densely Populated Cities in the World Under the Threat of Covid-19
How a team headed by volunteers curbed Covid-19 in Bnei Brak – a crowded city of 210,000 inhabitants with one of the world's highest rates of infection?
This is a story of leadership and values, a story of amazing people, of dissonance and accord, grievance and love. It is a story of schisms and differences, transformation, elation and optimism. There is much to learn from this story and the lessons learned should be instilled at the national level for future critical events, of medical or another kind. This is why I have chosen to make the story public.
I spoke to one of a team of five volunteers who led the effort that turned Bnei Brak, a center of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, from the city with the highest rate of infection in Israel – 1.5% amounting to 3,000 confirmed cases out of a population of 210,000, to a city where ‘only’ 20 deaths have been recorded, vis-à-vis Italy and the State of NY, for example, where the rate of infection was 0.36% and 0.75% respectively.
My contact was happy to share the story with me but asked to remain anonymous. For convenience, let’s call him ‘Yair’.
In normal times, Yair heads a business activity. During the coronavirus lockdown, he took two weeks out to lead a complex, challenging and, many would say, almost hopeless task, to win the battle against Covid-19 in Bnei Brak, a city ranked 10th in global population density.
I’m sharing Yair’s story – as he told it to me – because it’s a meeting point of so many attributes – a health crisis, a public relations story, strategic thinking, a hardnosed tactical program and, surprisingly and almost inconceivably, connections made between people and cultures that are ordinarily in confrontation with one another. Above all, it’s about unbiased compassion coupled with a display of leadership from which we have much to learn. As such, it’s a story worth telling, and it definitely deserves to become part of the discourse on crisis management.
Imagine this scenario:
A city of 210,000 people with one of the highest rates of coronavirus in the world.
The city council is not in any way set up to manage crises… when the Covid-19 crisis erupted, the city councilors headed home to be with their families, so that there was no functioning municipality and no-one present to handle the largest health crisis ever experienced in the city.
In Bnei Brak, the state and the entities representing it, are often perceived as hostile by certain sects among its primarily Ultra-Orthodox population.
In normal times, rabbinic authority is the accepted authority in the city but, at this critical time, it was not functioning and its voice was not heard. Normally, rabbinic leaders guide and advise members of the community on their most personal choices (choosing a marriage partner, selecting names, where to live and almost every other aspect of their daily lives), but when the crisis erupted, these rabbis appeared to be struck dumb and all but disappear. As a result, there was a deep leadership vacuum. Yet the rabbis agreed to collaborate with state and army representatives.
Yair describes a population that had come face-to-face with existential anxiety, aggravated by the fact that they have no Internet access or smart phones (on religious grounds) and so their information on the spread of coronavirus was sourced mainly from Haredi communities in New York and Western Europe, where the situation was dire. In consequence, both the Bnei Brak Haredi community and the authorities feared that thousands would die from Covid-19 complications.
The spread of the disease was at its peak and there was no control over its spread.
Setting up an Action Team
At this point, Roni Numa came into the picture. Numa, a major general and Head of the IDF’s Central Command (Res.), decided to step forward to help curb the epidemic. He did so on a totally voluntary basis. In effect, he assumed management of the city under emergency conditions.
Over the course of two weeks he examined the situation, talked to different entities and recruited a team of four to assist him (org chart below). These four also stepped into the breech on a voluntary basis. Once the team was formed, and for the next two weeks, these five people would be the ‘machine’ that worked around the clock to achieve containment of the epidemic in the city. Following the two-week set up period, the team of volunteers went on to operate a blitz campaign to prevent further outbreaks and cut the infection rate in Bnei Brak.
The Team’s Authority
The team was composed of volunteers with no formal authority, budget or letter of appointment! In spite of this, all the authorities accepted the team’s authority.
The team worked to a coordinated methodology with all the relevant entities and organizations: The head of the police district, the medical and administrative district heads of the Maccabi Health Fund, the Director General of the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Defense, the National Security Council, people in the media, and others.
According to Yair, there was not a single moment of friction with any of these entities: In the parallel entities (i.e., government ministries), the team again found, as had been the case at the municipal level, that there were no mechanisms in place to help deal with a crisis.
At each entity, the team identified the person most suited to work with them – a selection not necessarily made because of that person’s place in the organizational hierarchy. At times, the director general of the entity may have been chosen, while in other cases they opted for a person from the ranks, whom they had identified as having the most suitable operative abilities to work in tandem with them.
Following analysis of the data, a number of significant steps were taken:
The elderly and senior citizens were isolated and food was distributed to them in their homes.
About 1,000 people were evacuated from the city.
A Covid-19 test program was set in motion with a focus on young people under the age of 18. This policy differed from government decisions and guidelines regarding the general population in Israel.
Certain areas and institutions in the city were closed.
A surveillance camera system was deployed in public parks across the city and drones connected to a control and monitoring system were used.
Up-to-date data on the rate of coronavirus infection at a very high resolution were collected and analyzed daily to strengthen decision making.
Almost Total Estrangement: a Lack of Trust among the Haredi Population
The Haredi public’s sense of disaffection was evident across several dimensions:
When the coronavirus disease broke out in the city, the rabbinic authority went silent and was not to be seen.
The population lost trust in the Haredi media and started to consume information from the general media. At the start of the crisis, non-Haredi media channels transmitted clear messages of anger and resentment against the Haredi population. The action team spokesperson contacted media entities in Israel and worked with them to get them to soften their reporting on the Haredi population, increase transparency and endorse the fact that most of the city’s population were honoring anti-infection guidelines.
Representatives of the establishment (previously considered “hostile entities”) were coming in to help and were doing so wholeheartedly. These entities suddenly had a face and were doing everything they possibly could to help the city’s residents. The Haredi public started to get to grips with the culture shock and a glimmer of light began to penetrate their worldview of the state and its representatives.
At the start of the crisis, Israel’s general (non-Haredi) population had an enormous sense of resentment against the Haredi population. Over this period, the dialog changed. Slowly but gradually, resentment and loss of trust were replaced by a new dialog.
Yair described this change as a very human moment. Collaborations that were previously unimaginable began to develop:
Joint teams of Haredi men and women, secular men and women, civilians and soldiers – were actually working together in the same room.
At some point, Roni Numa appointed a female Mental Health Officer to help support the local population, who were mentally affected by the situation.
What are the Main Lessons and What May Be Deduced from the Event?
In examining the key elements behind the successful handling of the epidemic in Bnei Brak, it must first be said that the crisis management team members were instrumental and these are the most important characteristics:
The team had the ability to work well within a dynamic, ever-changing situation.
Members of the team relied on one another and worked well together.
Mental flexibility: The team dealt with obstacles and setbacks, a shortage of resources in time and money through almost every stage of the event, which forced them to improvise and act in off-the-track ways to arrive at exceptional results. They also showed strong abilities for acting quickly and decisively (while improvising and harnessing ad hoc the kind of people with whom they needed to consult).
They are clearly people who don’t think according to classical mechanisms of authority.
Separately and collectively, they were fully committed to the task they’d taken on.
The epidemic as it played out in Bnei Brak was an extraordinary event, which may result in a sense that it’s an exceptional and unique phenomenon – one that may never repeat itself. But is this the case?
After the conversation with Yair, I continued to contemplate how the management team had acted and came to realize that the event was in fact a perfect school of management and leadership: with impressive speed, the battle for containment of the epidemic had succeeded in achieving life-saving results that calmed an entire community.
In other words, a group of people, without authority or formal letters of appointment and without a budget, had been able to:
create a turning point in the rate of infection of a population in a defined area;
quickly take forward complex logistical steps (evacuation of high-risk individuals);
provide food and supplies to elderly community members;
isolate areas and facilities, and
forge a connection between cultures and populations in support of a common goal.
An in-depth analysis of the event shows that all the elements of professional crisis management were present at the highest possible level.
In my view, it is important that this event be studied in depth and that a retrospective investigation be carried out, since it is important to be able to duplicate such high-level success in the future.
Yair ended our conversation, by saying that “I had the good fortune to participate in this undertaking – to have been part of this huge human effort. It’s about doing something great for others, without expecting anything in return. In short, it left me with a fantastic sense of satisfaction – of having been there and totally giving to others.”