Arab Towns Account for 45 Percent of Israel's COVID-19 Cases, and Rising

Testing is far too low, Arab Emergency Committee says, as is compliance with regional lockdowns – and it is unlikely to change without a proper economic safety net

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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The city of Nazareth during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, September 2020.
The city of Nazareth during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, September 2020. Credit: Rami Shllush
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Nearly half – 45 percent – of active coronavirus cases in Israel are in Arab communities, Health Ministry data show, and that number is rising.

The figure was cited by the Arab Emergency Committee, an organization established several months ago to curb the spread of the pandemic in the country’s Arab communities. Last week 2,168 new cases were confirmed. These figures do not include mixed (Arab and Jewish) towns, though Arabs are believed to account for many of the cases in these communities too.

The situation is also reflected in the list of “red” or “almost red” Arab or Druze communities, which includes Nazareth, Arabeh, Buqata and Isfiya.

According to the committee, only 12 percent of the country's daily tests for the coronavirus are taken in Arab communities. “This is a very low figure considering the number of active cases and the steady increase in the number of patients,” says committee member Ahmed al-Sheikh. “We must push to do as many tests as possible and bring as many people as we can to be tested, in order to identify most of the sick and cut the chain of infection.” He says young adults and breadwinners are avoiding testing for fear of having to quarantine. “Without an economic safety net, many will avoid testing, even if they have mild symptoms.”

Last weekend, 5.3 percent of 270 tests performed in Majd al-Krum came back positive. Local official Arij Nasra believes the real figure is much higher and says the main reason is noncompliance with coronavirus directives. “We have one family with a child in kindergarten, another in elementary school and a mother who works as a teacher’s assistant – all tested positive and infected others.”

Nazareth has been in lockdown since Saturday. Checkpoints were set up at the entrance to the city. But vehicles carrying people to workplaces all over the country left the city without any problem. “I don’t know what this lockdown means,” says a resident who gave only his first name, Bilal. “People wander freely around the city and hundreds go in and out every day.” Mayor Ali Salam has called for the city to be opened up immediately, saying the lockdown is only exacerbating hardships.

A coronavirus drive-in testing center in East Jerusalem, August 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Ayman Saif, leader of the response to the coronavirus in the Arab community, attributes the rising infection rate to large weddings that are still being held, to travelers returning from abroad (mainly from Turkey) and to infections in schools. “The problem can’t be denied, but the question is whether a lockdown is the answer to stopping the spread,” he says. “We’re trying to focus on promoting testing, but many people avoid testing for fear of quarantine and the financial implications.”

Though he also laments the low number of tests, public health expert Dr. Khaled Awawdeh thinks the lockdown could be helpful. “It’s hard to judge the effectiveness of a lockdown like the one in Nazareth after just a day or two,” he says. “You need to wait at least two weeks to see the results, it could lead to a significant drop in the number of cases.”

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