Israel's Coronavirus Czar Weighs East Jerusalem Lockdown as Cases Surge

Most of those infected in the city live in its eastern Palestinian neighborhoods, top official says, arguing 'any other city with these numbers would be in full lockdown'

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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People walk wearing face masks in East Jerusalem, July 15, 2020
People walk wearing face masks in East Jerusalem, July 15, 2020Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Coronavirus point man Prof. Ronni Gamzu said Wednesday that according to accepted policies around the world, the number of cases in Jerusalem requires imposing a full lockdown on the city. He said he opposes a closure at this stage, but if the pressure on city hospital increases, there will be no other choice. In recent weeks, the spiking number of infections has occurred mainly in East Jerusalem neighborhoods.

Gamzu visited the city’s municipality offices, where senior officials presented some encouraging numbers regarding some decrease in the number of infections in recent days. Last week there was an average of 300 new cases per day, a number considered relatively stable. However, there are still 3,500 active COVID-19 cases throughout the city.

LISTEN: Trump's tragedy, Netanyahu's debt and Jewish unityCredit: Haaretz

“The numbers are still high,” said Gamzu. “Any other city with these infection numbers would be in full lockdown, with no one leaving their house or going to work, with no gatherings of any kind. What you’re doing here is unprecedented in the whole world. The situation in East Jerusalem – with the influx of people from the West Bank and the gatherings on Temple Mount – is very complex.”

Gamzu repeated that he opposes a lockdown. “I don’t believe that the solution for such large systems is a lockdown, but there is concern that hospitals will reach their limits, and they must be constantly protected, since a further rise in cases will place them in this situation. There is a limit to what they can withstand.”

A woman attends a coronavirus testing station in East Jerusalem, July 5, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

These days, most of the people infected with the virus live in Palestinian neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city, in contrast to the first wave and the beginning of the second wave, when most patients with COVID-19 came from ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. The most worrisome data deals with the incidence of positive tests in East Jerusalem – 43 percent of all those tested, compared to 7 percent nationally over the past week. Of the 3,678 active patients in the city, 1,703 live in the eastern part. A hundred and eighty‐nine new cases were diagnosed on Wednesday.

Furthermore, the numbers indicate a rise in the number of infected younger people of working age, ranging from 21 to 40 years of age, who now constitute 34 percent of the people infected in East Jerusalem.

Officials in the military's Home Front Command and the health system say this spike is because of lack of social distancing during the Muslim holiday of Eid al‐Adha, which began two weeks ago.

People wear faces masks as they cross the street, Jerusalem, August 11, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

The Home Front Command and the Jerusalem Municipality meanwhile say that links between East Jerusalem and the West Bank are contributing to the spiking infection rates. A source in city hall said local Palestinian families have recently held weddings in the West Bank to bypass the prohibition on large gatherings in Jerusalem. A Home Front Command representative at the meeting proposed closing the crossings between Israel and the West Bank. The city says that mass prayers on Fridays on Temple Mount are contributing to the growing number of infections.

The city’s two largest hospitals, Hadassah and Shaare Zedek, are carrying most of the burden, with dozens of coronavirus patients in each of them. There are also coronavirus wards at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in East Jerusalem. Gamzu said at the meeting that the al-Makassed hospital in the eastern part of the city should share some of the burden. Mayor Moshe Leon noted that this hospital is interested in doing so, but needs some funds from the Health Ministry for this purpose. Gamzu promised that this help would arrive and that the new ward would open soon.

Leon presented a plan developed by the municipality, whereby coronavirus “trustees” would be appointed in 30 neighborhoods across the city, and closely accompany the families of people quarantined or hospitalized. These trustees would be paid from the Ministry of Defense’s budget, helping with daily routines such as shopping, garbage disposal, looking after children and such to help these families comply with quarantine regulations.

“You’re doing all of this with an open city, with businesses and transportation functioning normally, yet facing great challenges,” Gamzu told city officials. “We have to continue to work on limiting gatherings and breaking the chain of infections. I think the course pursued by the municipality is the correct one. You know the communities better, and the way the crisis is being managed assures families that if they are restricted to their homes, the city will provide what they need.”

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