Afraid to Call Authorities, East Jerusalem May Be Staying at Home With the Coronavirus

COVID-19 is likely spreading in East Jerusalem but residents are afraid of testing because of stigma ■ Red Crescent employees not yet authorized to take samples

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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A paramedic of the Red Crescent Society wearing a protective face mask near Hebron in mid-March.
A paramedic of the Red Crescent Society wearing a protective face mask near Hebron in mid-March.Credit: AFP
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Health officials in East Jerusalem are warning that many residents of the city’s Palestinian neighborhoods have been infected with the coronavirus, but have avoided seeking medical help because of the stigma involved. 

Officially, there is a very small number of coronavirus patients in East Jerusalem – no more than five. Three of them are members of the same family from the Beit Safafa neighborhood in southern Jerusalem.

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“My mother was infected in the bank when she went to withdraw money, and then my father and I were infected. My sister and her daughter and my two brothers are being tested, maybe they were infected too,” says R., who tested positive for the virus. “People are embarrassed to say they are sick, they think that what we have is like AIDS, people are afraid of us,” she added.

“I know a few people who are afraid and don’t want to call Magen David Adom, they are afraid they will be put into isolation, are afraid of the stigma. People look at them as if they have rabies,” said a senior medical official in East Jerusalem.

“The problem is that those who have the power in East Jerusalem are the HMOs [Health Management Organizations], but Magen David Adom and the Health Ministry are managing the crisis and they are absent from East Jerusalem. If they had cooperated with the HMOs it would have been possible to solve it. It is very frightening what is going on now,” said the official.

“People don’t understand that this is dangerous, they are afraid and it will explode a lot worse Israel,” said a member of the Red Crescent Society. 

The Red Crescent is the largest ambulance service in East Jerusalem, but so far, its employees are not authorized to take samples for testing for the coronavirus.

“There was someone who wanted a test, I told him that we couldn’t and to call [Magen David Adom]. Two days later I called him, but said he didn’t call, he didn’t want to,” the member of Red Crescent added.

To overcome this problem, in the coming days some of the ambulance service’s employees will undergo training with Magen David Adom on how to take samples.

“You think it’s logical that there are so few sick people? People are staying in their homes and infecting each other,” said a government official who works in East Jerusalem.

Another worrying problem concerning the spread of the virus in East Jerusalem is the migration of thousands of families from the neighborhoods beyond the separation barrier into Jerusalem, he said.

The separation barrier near Qalandiya checkpoint, February 18, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
A Palestinian woman enters Israel through the Qalandiya checkpoint, March 18, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

In the past few days, police officers at the Shoafat and Qalandiya checkpoints told those who are crossing that the checkpoints will be closed soon, and that only essential workers will be allowed through. As a result, many families have begun moving to the homes of their elderly parents inside Jerusalem, for fear that after the closure the situation in the neighborhoods beyond the separation barrier will greatly deteriorate.

People fear the absene of authorities and that they will be unable to make a living. “People took their children and moved to their parents’ homes. There will be an explosion of infection. I think thousands have done it, it’s a very large migration,” said a government official.

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