Israel's Efforts to Contain the Coronavirus Move to a New, Long Neglected Hot Spot

The Bedouin town of Hura faces cultural and technological challenges all of its own in facing the pandemic

Almog Ben Zikri
Jack Khoury
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A boy undergoing a coronavirus test in the Bedouin town of Hura, Israel, April 2020.
A boy undergoing a coronavirus test in the Bedouin town of Hura, Israel, April 2020.Credit: Ilan Tibi / Clalit HMO Southern District
Almog Ben Zikri
Jack Khoury

On April 20, two months after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Israel, the number of confirmed cases in the Bedouin town of Hura was zero. Only 70 tests had been conducted in the low-rise Negev sprawl, home to 21,000 people.

Twelve days later, while the rate of infections dropped in most other places in the country, 99 people had been diagnosed with the virus, according to the Health Ministry; 110 according to local health officials. Over the first weekend of May, there was a 43.5 percent spike, after 897 tests were conducted there and in two other adjacent communities.

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According to the Health Ministry, as of Saturday, 16,152 Israelis had been diagnosed with the coronavirus, with 148 new cases registered in the last 24 hours. So far, 227 Israelis have died from the virus, 103 are in serious condition, 83 of whom are on ventilators.

The residents of Hura are not surprised by the disconnect with the rest of the country: Here, even in normal times, the state is hard pressed to address problems in the town.

A Bedouin tends to his sheep, with the town of Hura in the background, October 21, 2015.
A Bedouin tends to his sheep, with the town of Hura in the background, October 21, 2015.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Testing started late in Hura, with Health Ministry guidelines not adhered to strictly, and many people continuing to work. The outbreak started with a wedding attended by hundreds of people. Many of those infected belong to one extended family.

Even if all those infected seem to have now been identified and efforts are being made to isolate them, the deficient population registry in Hura makes it difficult to control hot spots of infection and to provide a definite picture of the situation.

Dr. Fuad al-Sana, who heads the southern Negev branch of the Clalit Health Maintenant Organization, says that using technology in Bedouin communities is pointless. “I use realistic tools, not irrelevant ones. Mapping people’s location is more suitable to the Jewish population,” he says.

Instead al-Sana utilizes his familiarity with the tribes to try to combat the outbreak. “We use personal connections, ties with local physicians and leaders,” he explains. But the problems in registering the population have not been resolved.

Not keen on hotels

Methods used to prevent the spread of the virus are also difficult to implement. Only 40 percent of those testing positive have agreed to move to a hotel used for quarantine purposes, although opposition seems to waver as the situation deterioriates, al-Sana says.

A mobile testing station set up in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm Al-Hiran, near Hura, April 2020.
A mobile testing station set up in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm Al-Hiran, near Hura, April 2020.Credit: Ilan Tibi / Clalit HMO Southern District

Al-Sana tried to have all the people evacuated moved to one location, in Ashkelon, in order to maintain their sense of community. He believes a location designated solely for Arabs would have made things easier. Two such quarantine sites were set up in Jerusalem and Nahariya, but those are too far away to be of use to Negev residents.

In some cases, entire families were evacuated to a hotel in Ashkelon after some members were infected, says the head of the Negev branch of the Arab Medical Association, Dr. Naim Abu-Freha.

“These families live in high density, and it’s hard to convince them to evacuate. Most of those infected are women. It’s hard to send them to a hotel,” says local council head Habas al-Atouna, noting that it is culturally unacceptable to send a woman somewhere unchaperoned. He tries to ensure that those who don’t evacuate at least stay in quarantine at home.

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