Tel Aviv Testing Station Aims to Stamp Out Coronavirus Outbreak Among Migrants, Asylum Seekers

With limited access to health services and after 20 new cases were diagnosed among the migrant community, activist says 'We are acting responsibly, but the situation is worrying. The population is stressed'

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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Coronavirus testing in south Tel Aviv.
Coronavirus testing in south Tel Aviv, May 31, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

Dozens of foreign migrant workers and asylum seekers got tested for the coronavirus on Sunday at a designated testing station in south Tel Aviv, amid concern that they represent a segment of the population that is seeing a spike in cases.

The station was set up by the Magen David Adom medical service in the neighborhood of Neveh Sha’anan, which is home to a large migrant population.

The new station was established after the Health Ministry ordered an expansion of coronavirus testing facilities for foreign migrants. By 3 P.M., when the station closed on Sunday, 157 people had been tested and dozens of others had to be turned away, although the station was slated to reopen the following day.

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Letters from Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital and the Mesila organization, a migrant aid group established by the municipality, were distributed Sunday morning at schools in Tel Aviv's neighborhoods with large numbers of foreign migrant workers and asylum seekers. The letters urged parents to take their families to be tested for the virus, even if they have no symptoms, after 20 new coronavirus cases were diagnosed among the migrant population over the past several days.

Migrant workers without official status in Israel are not entitled to state medical coverage, meaning that they are also not eligible for testing through the country’s health maintenance organizations or at drive-through testing sites that have been established by Magen David Adom around the country. As a result, in April, and again last week, Ichilov set up a mobile testing station for these patients. On Sunday, Magen David Adom set up a testing station of its own in the Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood, which was expected to remain in operation Monday as well.

Civil society groups throughout the country have issued a call for migrant workers to come to the testing facility in Neveh Sha’anan. At the height of the pandemic in Israel in April, 204 foreign migrants were tested over an eight-day period and seven were found to be infected.

In addition to the testing site at Neveh Sha’anan, a Beterem clinic for refugees has opened that is administering coronavirus swab testing and blood tests to gather data on the extent of infection in the foreign migrant community.

A community leader is infected

Yonas, a foreign worker who lives in the south Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood, said that he had returned to his job as a cook in a bar, but following media reports of an increased rate of COVID-19 among migrant workers, he had been asked not to come to work. “They told me to go and get tested and to come back to work only after the result is negative,” he said. “I’m not angry at the owner. I understand him.”

Dajan Menashe, a leader of the foreign migrant community, was diagnosed with the coronavirus on Wednesday. He is being kept in isolation at a motel in Ashkelon because he cannot quarantine at his home, which he shares with roommates, including children. He said he went for testing to set an example and wasn’t expecting to get a positive result. He assumes he was infected on visits to the homes of foreign migrants this past month, which he made with other volunteers, to offer assistance.

The line for coronavirus testing in the Neveh Sha'anan neighborhood of Tel Aviv, May 31, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Menashe complained that testing was not being made available to foreign migrants elsewhere around the country, noting that no such tests were available in Be’er Sheva, Netanya, Haifa or Ashkelon. Ten of the 20 foreign migrants who have recently tested positive for the virus are from areas around Tel Aviv, including Lod and Netanya, rather than from Tel Aviv itself.

“If there had been more publicity, we wouldn’t have reached this situation,” he said. “The community leadership fought. We translated every announcement issued by the Health Ministry. I would get 20 calls a day from people asking where to get tested, and I didn’t know where to send them.”

Menashe expressed concern about the possibility of stereotyping of the community of asylum seekers due to the increase in coronavirus cases. “I know that now they will say: ‘See, all the refugees have diseases,’ but it’s not true. We are acting responsibly, but even so, the situation is worrying at the moment. The population is stressed. People had started to go out and breathe and return to work, but within a day, they’ve discovered there’s an epidemic in their own homes.”

For her part, Suzanne, a home nursing caregiver from the Philippines said she feels fine but she came to get tested to make sure she is not infected. “Neither I nor my child have symptoms, and we haven’t been near a confirmed patient, but when we came to school [on Sunday], the security guard and the teacher gave my child and me a letter asking us to get tested.”

Meytal Russo, who is in charge of the caregiver department at Kav LaOved, a nonprofit that provides services for foreign migrant workers, said many of the caregivers with whom she has spoken know the directives but are afraid to get tested. “The most important thing for illegal migrant workers who lack a work permit, some of whom work at old-age homes, is to let them know that they won’t be harmed,” she said, “that they are not exposing themselves to deportation after going to get tested.”

“The Interior Ministry should allow employed workers to get tested,” she said. “It should help them find a place to be quarantined and receive medical treatment, even if they are uninsured.”

When in the past workers without legal status in Israel had called Magen David Adom to find out where they could get tested, they were told that the testing stations “only deal with Israelis,” she recounted.

The line for cornavirus testing in Tel Aviv's Neveh Sha'anan neighborhood. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Tesfagaber came to the Neveh Sha’anan Magen David Adom testing station on Sunday with his children after one of their kindergarten classmates in the Levinsky neighborhood of south Tel Aviv tested positive for coronavirus. “He feels fine, but he needs to be tested,” the father said of his son. “I took a day off from work today, but we didn’t make it in time before they stopped testing.”

Mula, an asylum seeker from Eritrea, came alone on Sunday and stood at the side with his mask on. “I was home for three months. I returned to work yesterday, and all of a sudden, they told me that some migrant workers have the coronavirus,” he said. “I didn’t feel too good yesterday evening and I went to the doctor. Now I’ve come to get tested.”

Mula expressed concern over a spike in cases in his community. “Look how close together everyone is here in line. No one is doing anything about it,” he remarked. “A lot of people will leave here infected.”

And yet, he claimed, the migrant community is observing the health directives better than Israelis.

“A lot of us in the community wear masks in the street,” he said. “I went to the beach a few days ago with the kids, and I didn’t see any Israelis with a mask.”

Short notice

“I hear complaints that they are telling people two hours in advance that they have a test today,” said Zoe Gutzeit, who heads the migrant and refugee department at Physicians for Human Rights. There is an increase in the number of those being infected, she said, “but there is a lack of access to testing, particularly for a population that is excluded access to public services.”

For its part, the nonprofit Hotline for Refugees and Migrants commented that “the scenes at the testing station set up in Neveh Sha’anan demonstrate the responsibility the [migrant] community has demonstrated in the face of the crisis.” The organization called for similar testing stations to be established elsewhere in the country.

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