So much lazy journalism around the measles outbreak

A year or two ago, New York City reported that the Hasidic community in Williamsburg had the highest rates of lead poisoning in the city. I heard it on WNYC radio, during a very early morning drive to my 5:30 spin class, back when I lived in the suburbs and did such suburban stuff as be on the open road at 5am. I thought to myself then, hm, I wonder why Hasidim were most affected. I’ll find out later. But I never did find out. Not for lack of trying. I did look at all the news stories published in mainstream sources, I asked anyone and everyone in the Hasidic community but got shrugs and ‘dunnos’, I even bought the Yiddish newspapers regularly and read the reports there too – but no one explained why the Hasidic community had higher rates of lead poisoning than other demographics.

Now there is a new story of a public health issue concerning disproportionately the Hasidic community. And again the obvious question of why is on my mind. It’s about the measles outbreak, of course. 153 cases have been reported in Rockland County, where County Executive Ed Day declared a countywide emergency. There have been cases in Hasidic Williamsburg too, where medical facilities too are on high alert.

A lot of things might cause a virus that was previously considered extinct to spread, but I don’t know what specific issues added up to make it happen here. The problem is that journalists covering this story are taking the easy route of just saying “well, must be because of that vicious anti-vaxxerism”. The Times and other NYC beat journalists find the few misfits in the community who are into health mishigasen and alternative healing and who don’t vaccinate, and they tell readers about it. The New Yorker interviews a nurse who meets with these vaccine-fearful women and explains the science to them, without asking how many women really are vaccine-fearful (although that nurse is laudable and seems lovely and to have a big, great heart) And the comments sections on reddit have it all diagnosed most succinctly: “Their religious refusal to vaccinate is putting me at risk.”

Wait. Why does the public walk away with the impression that Hasidim are against vaccines on religious grounds? Why are people acting like this is a religious rights issue?

In case it needs to be said again, let me be clear: Hasidism as a culture is pro-vaccines. They are not with vaccines the way that Jehova’s Witness is with blood transfusion. In fact, Hasidic culture as a whole loves modern medicine. That’s a whole other fascinating contradiction, but that’s the reality. Which mother of eight has time to deal with kids getting sick left and right? You give vaccines, thank goodness! There might be some or many misfits within the community who go their own way. That would be analogous to the Hasidim who have smartphones even though you are officially not really supposed to have one. So the individuals who are anti-vaccine are actually going against the cultural grain. And how many such people are there? How significant is their influence on the measles epidemic?

We have no idea. You won’t find the answers from reading the news.

The Times reported that the original carrier of the virus came from Israel and was unvaccinated, and that the virus spread to unvaccinated kids. That’s all the data you get. Based on that alone, they assume that this is mostly an anti-vaxxer story.

But there could be a number of other reasons for a child to be unvaccinated. Maybe because the child is too young for the vaccine. Or because the parents were neglectful of it. Or because the school the child went to didn’t remind the parents. Or because when a virus is considered extinct, people get sloppy. Maybe people get sloppy because they hear rumors about it being scary. If so, is that the same as anti-vaxxers? If the Hasidic community can be brought up to speed on vaccines with a bit of intervention, is it fair to put them in the same category as obstinate believers of fringe theories?

It is reasonable to guess that at the time of the outbreak, many kids were unvaccinated. But that doesn’t tell us why. If I tell you that I didn’t get my flu vaccine this year (I didn’t), would you automatically assume that it is because I am afraid that vaccines cause autism and I’m an anti-vaxxer now? Or would you ask the question journalists should be asking: Why didn’t you? How could we ensure you get it? What can we learn from this?

(the answer is because, em, um, I was neglectful and my doctor was out of it and CVS said I should come back the next day and… it didn’t happen.)

Even before the measles story was so big, I called my son’s old medical center in New Square for his records, and was surprised that the automated system now announced: “If you would like to find out if your kids are up to date on their MMR, press X”. Clearly, there is an element of just sloppiness here. What else caused the virus to spread? Was it only the unvaccinated? Was it the age the vaccine needs to be given? Is there something about how the vaccine is given that we can take away here?

Instead of answering any of this, secular anti-vaxxers have been conflated with the Hasidic community. Which causes everyone on the outside to gleefully finger-point and blame the Hasidic community for the outbreak. In the story in the Yiddish paper, one Hasidic family recounts being told that they are Jewish and therefore must have the measles. Ugh, that’s a lot of ignorance that we are allowing people to believe.

Why does it bother me so much? Because this bothers me in a very deep way: incuriosity about the other. Making the “OTHER” into a monster of its member’s worst. Making assumptions in place of investigating facts. Mistaking a small minor part of a story as the WHOLE story. I get so upset when people do that, because it’s de ja vu for me. That is what Hasidim do. I always had a hard time with it, and I encountered it. A lot

Once on a tour, some Hasidic man, clearly a douchebag, stopped me and started to yell at me and my group that “she hates us, don’t believe her, it’s all BS.” I was dumbfounded by how upset this person was based on what he made up in his own mind about what was happening on my tour. I asked him “how do you know what the tour is about?” but he was sure he knew. He was making assumptions, and then building towers of logic and debate on them. But the underlying assumptions are laughably pulled out of his own head, based on information he has and his logic. But I feel like for a Hasidic person, this is forgivable. Because Hasidim are raised in a pre-enlightenment worldview where you don’t have the resources or education in checking a premise.

In the secular world, I see the exact same tendency all the time. But not out of a poor capacity for evaluating the evidence. It comes out of the fast, intensive news cycle. Where journalists need to keep churning out stories. If you need to report on the measles outbreak in a day, you don’t have time for finding out why; you just talk to this attention loving clown and that (Gestetner, I’m looking at ou), get your quotes, and voila, the story is filed. Filed, but not told.

3 Comments
  • Mina
    Posted at 10:53h, 02 April Reply

    Great Article! So few people are invested in being curious and everyone seems to be doing their own version of just spitting out or sometimes spewing out unverified information. As a former Hasid myself, I get asked a lot of time about what it was like to grow up so “close minded.” I find it amusing – and a bit unnerving. Do I tell the person across from me that they are possibly even more “close-minded” than the people I grew up with?! What is it about human nature that so many of us want the safety and comfort of “absolute belief” instead of searching, learning and improving our processes?

  • PM
    Posted at 16:56h, 10 April Reply

    I am fascinated by the Hasidic culture and traditions and realize that in being so, I might be accused of looking at the Hasidim as a curiosity. I don’t feel one way or the other about this post (as in, I’m neither in strong agreement or disagreement) as I don’t know enough. As a complete outsider, I can tell you why the assumption for not vaccinating has to do with religion – everything else (again, from the outside) seems backwards. Being anti-vax would be just one more thing. As with many other religious communities, there appears to be an adherence to religious practices no matter how outdated or senseless – especially hurtful when it suppresses an individual and his/her identity. If a religion prohibits one from owning a phone or switching on your lights on a Saturday (no disrespect to the concept of the Sabbath – I’ve just seen too many people follow it “technically” rather than genuinely), then it isn’t that hard to believe the community would not make use of the “modern” marvel that is the vaccine.

    All this said, I will definitely be taking one of your tours to learn more. Sometimes “incuriosity of the other” is nothing more than a nervousness about offending someone by asking questions or expressing opinions – like this one.

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 21:32h, 13 April Reply

      PM – I really appreciate your comment. It is nice to think that people don’t simply mean to deride the other. Which is how it sometimes feels from where I stand…

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