Israel Ramps Up Coronavirus Testing in Arab Cities Where Infection Rate Relatively Low

Government applications for unemployment benefits and municipal tax breaks still not available in Arabic ■ East Jerusalem independent council: 'If we don’t help ourselves, no one will'

Jack Khoury
Nir Hasson
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A man wearing a mask shopping in East Jerusalem, March 30, 2020.
A man wearing a mask shopping in East Jerusalem, March 30, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman
Jack Khoury
Nir Hasson

The new mobile coronavirus testing stations in the Arab cities and towns should within the next few days provide a more accurate assessment of the infection rate in the community, which so far has reported very few cases.

As of Monday there had been only 54 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Arabs, excluding East Jerusalem and mixed Arab and Jewish cities. Public health experts in the Arab community warn that those number do not reflect the real rate of morbidity, but rather the lack of testing.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon said he has been lobbying Magen David Adom and the Health Ministry to set up a drive-thru testing station in East Jerusalem so as to better map the spread of the virus in that part of the city. Civil rights groups are also complaining that the National Insurance Institute and Israeli Employment Service forms needed to apply for unemployment payments have not been translated into Arabic, nor have the Health Ministry forms for reporting self-quarantine.

Dr. Khaled Awawdeh, a public health expert and member of the National Health Committee set up in within the Arab community, warned last week that there would be a sharp rise in the number of confirmed infections as more people are tested.

More people have been coming to the English Hospital in Nazareth with symptoms of the coronavirus, said Dr. Fahed Hakim, the hospital’s director, but added that the rate of infection was still relatively low. As of Monday there had been only five confirmed cases in the city. “We are facing two critical weeks and I hope that with the increase in the number of [tests] we will indeed have a better picture in terms of real data.”

Dr. Mohammad Khatib, a public health expert and researcher for the Galilee Society, agrees that additional testing will produce a more accurate picture, but said there isn’t an atmosphere of urgency in the community – at least not yet.

He believes that in this regard, the Arab community can’t be compared to the ultra-Orthodox population, which has had a high rate of infection. “There’s no doubt that discipline in Arab society is far greater,” he said. “It’s true that there are exceptions, but all the things that lead to mass gatherings, like mosques and churches, are closed, and even weddings and funerals are held in a very limited fashion. I hope this trend will continue.”

A vegetable seller wearing a mask in East Jerusalem, MArch 30, 2020.
A grocer wearing a mask in East Jerusalem, MArch 30, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

On Monday, 224 tests were conducted at the testing station in Arara in the north; the Tamra station was expected to perform over 350 tests on Tuesday. Tamra is the Arab city with the greatest number of confirmed cases – 13. On Wednesday the testing station will move to Rahat in the south, and after that to several communities in the Triangle region and the north, including Nazareth and Taibeh, before returning again to the Wadi Ara area.

Monther Yunis, the head of the Ara-Arara local council, said he would prefer that there be permanent testing stations in his area. “We are in the process of intensifying our information campaign and so it’s important … that there be access nearby for a few days in a row,” he said. “That will increase the pace of tests.”

Through the nongovernmental group Sikkuy, Yunis contacted Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and the special coronavirus committee to demand that the Arab community be represented when the ministry makes decisions about handing the epidemic. “The absence of a cooperation and consultation mechanism doesn’t allow for Arab citizens’ voice to be heard and doesn’t allow for adapting government policy to the special needs of Arab society,” he wrote.

Lawmaker Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List, who among others was pushing for testing stations in Arab cities and towns, said the aim is to test as many people as possible. “We are pressing the public to get tested, particularly those who have symptoms. There’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s very important in the fight against the epidemic,” he said.

Fear of being stigmatized is a serious concern in the Arab community and one that is deterring people from being tested.

“There are people in the Arab community who are afraid of being labeled a coronavirus victim,” explains sociologist Nohad Ali, chairman of the center for multidisciplinary studies at the Western Galilee College. “Apparently they compare it to suffering from AIDS, despite the difference between the two illnesses.”

“Someone sick with the coronavirus is perceived as some kind of ‘deviant.’ He is afraid of being rejected by his social circle, fears for his self-esteem and the negative perceptions and that he won’t be able to keep his job because he’s infectious,” he says. “The fear of labeling – shaming, in this case – is destructive. We have to empower people against these fears. We have to explain the scope of the damage to his immediate environment and those precious to him, while infusing optimism about the chances of recovering from the illness.”

In East Jerusalem, a number of private initiatives have sprouted up to address the situation. Dozens of organizations and hundreds of activists have set up an emergency council, which two weeks ago began to assist the local hospitals, disseminate information, help needy families and even find a hotel that will open for people who must be in quarantine but cannot be properly isolate in the tight quarters in the Arab neighborhoods.

“We aren’t going to let our children contract the coronavirus while waiting for someone else to act,” said one of the council activists. “The feeling is that no one cares about us. If we don’t help ourselves, no one will.” The Jerusalem municipality’s official data shows 12 confirmed cases in Arab neighborhoods as of Monday, but a medical source said there were actually 38 cases in addition to the hundreds that probably remained undiagnosed.

Activists also say that while the NII and the employment service are trying to help Arabic-speaking applicants, the language barrier is a serious obstacle for those seeking to collect unemployment benefits.

“We’ve prepared a video that shows how to fill out the NII form, but it’s hard,” says Daud Alian, director of Atta’a, the assistance center for the advancement of workers’ rights in East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem residents are facing similar problems when they try to apply their discount on real estate taxes (arnona) on the municipal website. “I do believe that they’re making a great effort so that people will get their money, but they have to take another step and put up a system in Arabic,” said Erez Wagner, director of the Jerusalem branch of the Maan workers union.

There was no response from the NII or the Health Ministry by press time.

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