How Arabs Crushed the Curve and Became Israel's Coronavirus Success Story

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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Volunteers attend a coronavirus testing station in the Arab town of Tira, February 4, 2020
Volunteers attend a coronavirus testing station in the Arab town of Tira, February 4, 2020Credit: Eyal Toueg
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

There were two communities that worried the Health Ministry in particular during the coronavirus crisis – Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, two groups that live in relatively crowded confines, pray in their respective houses of worship and don’t always cooperate with the establishment.

But while the concerns about the Haredi community did in fact pan out, all the divisions of Arab society beat the forecasts and finished with the country’s lowest rates of infection and death.

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Only 1,040 coronavirus patients were diagnosed among Arab citizens, and only five of them died. A graph published Wednesday by the Taub Institute illustrates the community’s accomplishment: The Arabic-speaking communities (Arab, Bedouin and Druze) are at the very bottom of the graph of infections per capita, and have a significantly lower portion of coronavirus infections than their percentage of the population. Even the month of Ramadan ended without any outbreaks.

This significant accomplishment didn’t happen by chance. An unusual list of steps and partnerships made it happen, and some may lead to societal changes after the crisis is over.

The community was motivated by more than just a fear of the virus: the awareness that it is a minority, and the fear of sparking hatred.

“Arab society has an interest in not being attacked like the ultra-Orthodox,” said Rasool Sa’ada, who is responsible for Arab society within the Maoz Organization and is Arab society’s representative on Israel’s coronavirus task force. “Every time the ultra-Orthodox were attacked for ignoring the regulations and passing the coronavirus among themselves, we feared even more that there would be an outbreak among us, too, and how the media would cover it.”

Plus, he adds, “This is the first time in 70 years that we were part of an emergency event. Emergencies in Israel are generally connected to wars and military operations, and in the best case we’re not part of it, and in the worst case we’re the enemy. This changed in the case of the coronavirus: The enemy entered people’s consciousness and they understood that if they didn’t defend themselves, they’d harm their families and our society’s elderly.”

The starting point was pretty bad. Initially, government instructions weren’t even released in Arabic, he notes. “What created a feeling of urgency among Arab society in Israel was the steps taken by the Palestinian Authority,” he says.

Then, information campaigns began getting translated into Arabic, and the government itself began investing in outreach. “In the last few weeks the Health Ministry spoke much more in Arabic than in the beginning,” says Sa’ada.

Another issue was testing. Virus testing within the Arab community only began in late March, because before then Magen David Adom’s testing was not available to the community, says Sa’ada.

Only once testing began were outbreaks identified. For instance, an outbreak in an old-age home in the Jewish town of Yavne’el spread the disease into the neighboring Arab towns of Daburiyya and Shibli, because most of the workers at the home are from those towns, Sa’ada explained. Testing indicated that dozens of people in each town were sick.

That case changed Arab society’s consciousness, he says.

“People understood the disease was here; until then, it was hard to convince them.”

It helped that Arab society has a high proportion of medical workers, says Sa’ada; they helped get the message around. “It’s one of our society’s assets; it’s hard to find a family within Arab society that doesn’t have at least one health sector worker,” he says.

Despite the halting start, Arab society pulled together and decided it wants to stay safe, says Sa’ada. “There was unprecedented cooperation between the local authorities, the political leaders and Arab society. This is the first time we’ve all come together in one work process,” he says.

There were thousands of volunteers, and Arab businesses contributed money for food and equipment, he says.

An equally notable process was the cooperation with Israel’s government. “Suddenly Arab society is pulling together and working with the government. With the army, with the Health Ministry, with the Interior Ministry in everything that had to do with taking sick people out of their homes, with the Home Front Command, which was very visible in towns,” said Sa’ada. “There was unprecedented trust-building between Arab society and the establishment.”

Arab society very quickly understood the importance of protecting its elderly and its sick, says Sa’ada. Younger people were less inclined to follow the restrictions, as in many places, Sa’ada noted, but they still were very aware to keep their distance from the sick and the elderly, he says. “We conducted a survey that found that only 14 percent of them were worried about catching the coronavirus themselves, but 70 percent were worried for their family members,” he says.

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