As of Sunday, the coastal town Jisr al-Zarqa had more confirmed COVID-19 patients than any other Arab community in Israel – not including mixed Arab-Jewish cities – 32. Out of a population of 15,000, the town south of Haifa had two patients for every 1,000 residents – including an 82-year-old woman who is in intensive care in nearby Hadera.
Despite the grim statistics, on Sunday the town center was abuzz. A knot of people – mainly women, most of whom weren’t wearing face masks and thus were violating the Health Ministry directive that took effect that morning – stood and waited patiently for the bus to Hadera.
A cafe was open – another violation of the emergency regulations – and men, women and children walked around outside, without masks and without maintaining the social-distancing guidelines when they visited the town’s tiny grocery stores.
The contrast between life under the coronavirus in Israel’s poorest town – where the average household is eight people – and nearby largely Jewish towns, cities and agricultural communities is enormous.
The streets of the city Or Akiva are desolate, its shopping mall shut. In Caesarea there’s a short line at the post office, but everyone there is wearing a mask and keeping a distance. Moshav Beit Hanania has an automatic gate at the entrance and a big sign saying entry is prohibited for the sake of residents’ health.
Jisr al-Zarqa, in contrast, a COVID-19 hot spot, is open to everyone. There’s no roadblock, and a police car is parked outside the town, with two bored officers inside. They declined to say what they were doing there, but if they stopped anyone it had to be people leaving the community rather than entering it.
It’s no wonder, then, that the head of the local council since 2013, Murad Amash, is very troubled. “We took initial steps. The mosques are closed, and we forced cafes to close. It was hard, because people weren’t convinced that it had to be done,” he said.
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“At the end of the day we reached every home. Among other things, we announced a contest between the schools and the kindergartens to make the best videos that explain the situation to the children’s parents. It turns out that the children are better informed than the adults,” he added.
“Seven patients are in isolation at home, and all the rest have been removed from the village and taken to hotels or hospitals, depending on their condition. Also, this week a drive-through testing site will begin operating, a mobile testing center, in order to increase the number of tests in the community. But the most important measure is to comply with the directives, and we need help to do this.”
Pressure to be tested
One of the biggest employers in the community is Meir Medical Center in Kfar Sava, where more than 120 Jisr al-Zarqa residents, most of them women, work. Two young women from the town who work at the hospital tested positive for the coronavirus after complaining of a cough and fever.
“They were told to go into isolation, but they refused,” Amash said. “They also refused to be treated and to leave the village for a hotel or a hospital, in part because at the time there were no hotels for the Arab community,” he added, referring to the state-operated isolation facilities that have been set up in a number of hotels around the country.
“We pressured them and the family, but it was too late: They had already infected other family members. Among them was their grandmother, who at first refused to be tested.” The young women are now in a hotel in East Jerusalem, and their symptoms are very mild. The grandmother is the 82-year-old in intensive care.
In the next phase, the mayor insisted on having all 120 Meir Medical Center employees in the village tested for the virus. Some have tested positive, and results are still pending for others.
Only around 600 Jisr al-Zarqa residents have been tested overall, most of them through their respective health maintenance organizations. Amash is hoping that the drive-through testing site will increase the numbers, but he’s already looking ahead anxiously to Ramadan, which starts late next week, when the problem is likely to worsen.
“Since not everyone observes the regulations, a strict lockdown must be imposed and enforced here. I don’t think people realize that this year Ramadan will be different, without [communal] worship and without family gatherings,” he said.
Asking the town for food
“There are no banks or gas stations here, only one pharmacy and you can only buy the most basic staples, so for now the roadblock is porous. The police let people leave and return,” Amash said.
“The police are stationed on the village’s access road, but they don’t patrol among the homes – maybe they’re afraid there will be friction. But we’re in an emergency situation and we need the police to prevent people from going out. Every resident is a ticking bomb.”
The economic effects of the coronavirus crisis are being felt in Jisr al-Zarqa as well.
“Many people have already asked the local council for milk for their children, and for food. We try to help,” Amash said. “The problem is that even healthy people have received messages telling them not to come to work; employers hear ‘Jisr al-Zarqa’ and let go of the workers.”
In a written response, the Israel Police said the force complies with the government directives for the coronavirus pandemic. “As of [Sunday], Jisr al-Zarqa is not among the communities under a full lockdown, so there is no permanent roadblock or restriction on entry. However, every day police officers operate in the community, along with the local council, to enforce the emergency regulations and the public health order via patrols, moving checkpoints and more,” the police said.
“Of course, the policing forces cannot be in every point in the community at once, but in recent weeks significant enforcement has been carried out and many tickets have been issued for violations of the regulations. We will continue the supervision and enforcement activity in accordance with the law in order to protect the health and welfare of the public, in Jisr al-Zarqa and everywhere else.”
In Daburiyya, an Arab village near Nazareth that has 29 confirmed COVID-19 patients out of a population of 10,500, local council head Zuhair Yusuf says that by Ramadan everything will be fine. He says that as in Jisr al-Zaqr, the coronavirus was brought into the community by residents who work elsewhere, in this case a nursing home in Yavne’el that employs 35 Daburiyya residents.
“People didn’t receive clear instructions, and even after it became clear that the virus had reached the nursing home, [the employees] were told to keep coming to work,” Yusuf said.
He says that all the town’s residents with COVID-19 have been isolated from the community and that hundreds of villagers who have been tested in recent days have received negative results.
“The residents comply with the instructions and they don’t leave their homes, and the village is closed,” he said.” In a few days we’ll have a drive-through test site. If we continue like this we’ll stop the infections.”