90 Percent Drop in Number of Coronavirus 'Red' Arab Towns in Israel in Six Weeks

Administrators caution against accepting official figures, saying many are avoiding testing as number of Arab towns in high infection category goes down from 32 to four

Jack Khoury
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Prof. Fahd Hakim, director of the EMMS Hospital in Nazareth, in October 2020.
Prof. Fahd Hakim, director of the EMMS Hospital in Nazareth, in October 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush
Jack Khoury

Coronavirus infection rates in Arab towns has plummeted over the last six weeks, and the number of “red” cities where infection remains high has consequently fallen from 32 to just four, according to data from the Arab community’s emergency committee – although some hospital officials warn against taking the numbers at face value.

The towns still defined as “red” are Deir al-Assad, Bi’ina, Madjal Krum and Hurfeish, it said. But many cities on the red list six weeks ago, like Umm al-Fahm, Sakhnin, Tira and Kafr Qasem, are now defined as “green,” meaning incidence of the virus is low (the two intermediate levels are yellow and orange).

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Umm al-Fahm Mayor Samir Mahameed was very worried about the daily rise in infection rates in his city until two weeks ago. But over the weekend, Umm al-Fahm received the coveted “green” label.

He said the city had worked hard to achieve this, by setting up a contact-tracing system and making efforts to explain the necessity of obeying the coronavirus regulations to the public. He also praised the police and the army’s Home Front Command for their contributions.

“The police as an enforcement agency did what it was assigned to do with maximum cooperation with municipal agencies,” Mahameed said. “The Home Front Command also helped a lot.”

Arab municipalities cited two factors as having a major impact on incidence of the virus – preventing gatherings such as weddings and closing the schools. Sheikh Safwat Freij of Kafr Qasem, the deputy head of the Islamic Movement, said discipline and social solidarity also played a role.

Clerics, like municipal officials, “didn’t hesitate to say we’re banning weddings,” he said. “We also called for minimal attendance at funerals. Admittedly, there were exceptions here and there, but there’s no doubt there has been compliance over the last month.”

Freij also cited clerics’ role in preventing mass prayers at mosques, especially on Fridays: “There were unequivocal orders and religious rulings about obeying the rules, and that reduced attendance by 60 to 70 percent, and also [increased] mask-wearing and social distancing.”

A policewoman and pedestrians in the city of Shfaram, October 12, 2020.
A policewoman and pedestrians in the city of Shfaram, October 12, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Majdal Krum, in contrast, is still contending with high incidence of the virus. But Areej Nasara, who runs the town’s crisis control center, said declines elsewhere should be taken with a grain of salt.

“There’s a significant decline in infections, but there’s also apathy toward or avoidance of testing,” she said. In her own town, she knows of people who developed coronavirus symptoms but didn’t get tested for fear of being quarantined or losing their jobs, and the same could have happened elsewhere, she said, noting that such behavior is especially common among younger people.

“You can’t treat the declines or the red and green labels as if they accurately reflected reality,” she warned.

Imran Kanaana, a member of the emergency committee, said Nasara had a point, but the decline in testing wasn’t the whole story. “It’s true there was a drop in the number of tests, but there’s also a tangible decline in incidence of the virus,” he said.

Two weeks ago, he noted, 18 percent of tests in the Arab community came back positive. Today, the figure is seven to nine percent – a significant drop.

Nevertheless, given that the decline has stemmed in large part from curbing attendance at weddings and closing schools, “The question is what happens next,” he said. “Therefore, we must not go in the direction of a full reopening. Everything must be done gradually.”

A drive-through coronavirus testing facility in Umm al-Fahm, September 2020.
A drive-through coronavirus testing facility in Umm al-Fahm, September 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Hospitals in the north, the main locus of the virus in the Arab community, have also reported a drop in the number of coronavirus patients, though the drop in seriously ill patients remains modest.

The EMMS Hospital in Nazareth, for instance, reported 31 patients on October 7, of whom 16 were seriously ill and three were on ventilators. On Monday, the number was down to 21, of whom 10 were seriously ill.

“We have fewer patients and fewer hospitalizations, but also fewer people being tested,” said the hospital’s director, Prof. Fahd Hakim, warning that the latter fact makes the situation “highly explosive” and mandates caution.

“The most important thing is how we exit the lockdown,” he added. “We must not become apathetic.”

Dr. Masad Barhoum, director of Western Galilee Hospital, also noted a significant drop in the number of patients.

“For the past day, we’ve had 66 hospitalized patients, of whom 36 were seriously ill and 11 were on ventilators,” he said. “On October 4 there were 100 patients, about half of them in serious condition.”

Nevertheless, he shared Hakim’s concerns about what lies ahead.

“The moment there was control over weddings and big events, we saw a change,” he said. “The question, the challenge, is how we maintain this trend in the coming weeks and months – especially during the winter months.”

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