Coronavirus outbreak Bethlehem - an appeal
Immediate concerns caused by the Coronavirus crisis:
West Bank and Gaza
Although the current number of detected cases remains relatively low, the capacity of the Palestinian health system to cope with an expected increase in coronavirus cases is severely impaired by longstanding challenges and critical shortages. The situation is particularly severe in the Gaza Strip, where the health system has been undermined by the longstanding Israeli blockade, the internal Palestinian divide, a chronic power and water deficit and shortages in specialized staff, drugs and equipment.
The most vulnerable groups, who may require intensive medical treatment are the same as elsewhere, however, people living in overcrowded conditions, particularly in refugee camps and densely-populated, poor areas of Gaza and the West Bank, face a higher risk of contagion due to the precarious sanitation systems, including substandard and irregular water supply and shared latrines.
Hospitals across the West Bank have shortages of specialized staff in intensive care units and the laboratory infrastructure requires urgent upgrade, while in Gaza laboratory staff have significant gaps in training and lack specialized skills. In addition, new stringent national and international travel restrictions pose problems in adequately deploying emergency staff.
The City of Bethlehem and the workers who have lost their income from jobs in Israel have borne the brunt of the economic impact of the crisis so far. However, in the West Bank, the volume of people affected by the loss of income is expected to increase soon, following the tightening of restrictions and its impact on all sectors of economic activity (including services, manufacturing, construction and transportation).
The Israeli authorities have progressively limited the number of Palestinian workers allowed into Israel. On 22 March, both authorities agreed that Palestinians who intend to keep working in Israel, will be provided with accommodation by their employers and must stay in Israel for at least one month.
In Gaza, the initial economic impact of the crisis has been limited. However, the impact of long-term disruptions in Gaza raises serious concerns, given the already-dire economic situation there, with unemployment at almost 43 per cent in the last quarter of 2019, youth unemployment at 64 per cent. The poverty level can be seen with some 53 per cent of the population surviving on less than US$4.6 per day which compares with the UK Government current definition of domestic poverty calculated at £27.86 (US$33) per day.
The Government of Israel is preparing legislation for a relief package which would focus on assistance for the self-employed, wage earners, businesses and households. It builds on an initial government aid package of 15 billion shekels ($4.1 billion).
According to Bank of Israel estimates current measures to contain the novel coronavirus are likely to result in an unemployment rate of approximately 7% - an overall increase of 150,000 people - by the end of 2020.
An especially hard-hit population are millennials who account for 1/3 of currently unemployed Israelis. Especially vulnerable in these times of profound crisis are small and medium enterprises (SEMs). 20% to 30% of all SEMs opened within the last five years are likely to go bankrupt due to the forced shutdown of nonessential businesses, despite the government’s announced economic package. This is of particular concern as economic pressures on young Christian Arabs in the country to migrate after the crisis will intensify as family businesses fail and competition for new jobs increases.
Jordan – Refugee camps
The United Nations and aid organizations are now faced with the task of trying to protect the world’s 70 million displaced people from a virus that has devastated some of the world’s best health care systems. In Jordan, millions of people forced to flee due to the war in Syria, the fight against the Islamic State, and other conflicts remain displaced in camps, informal settlements, and overcrowded or unfinished buildings.
“All the basic things you need to prevent an outbreak are missing,” said Misty Buswell, the Middle East policy director for the International Rescue Committee. Often, it’s not that camps have weak health systems—which experts warn will be overrun by the coronavirus—but that they have no health system at all. Social distancing in a refugee camp is a cruel joke with as many as four generations under one temporary roof- each shack less than 5 ft apart. The approach of the Jordanian Authorities has been to seal the camps off. Those living in the camps are becoming fearful of outsiders entering, knowing that they could be bringing the virus. So far there are no confirmed cases of the virus in the camps, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there as testing in the camps has been scarce.
The Palestinian Authority declared a state of emergency in the West Bank Thursday as seven cases of Bethlehem residents carrying the coronavirus were confirmed. This means the Church of the Nativity and other places of worship in Bethlehem are shut, all tourism and religious sites across the West Bank are closed and all tourists banned from the West Bank for an unspecified amount of time. The Israeli army, in coordination with the Palestinian Authority, are enforcing a closure on Bethlehem, banning Israelis and Palestinians from entering or leaving the city.
Whilst this precautionary action is understandable and reflects similar situations in other countries, the impact on the Bethlehem economy is expected to be disastrous, especially in the lead up to Easter one of the key tourism seasons for the city.
Tourism is Bethlehem's main industry. More than 30% of the working population is employed in the industry with many more reliant on visitors’ business in shops, cafes, taxis etc. Tourism accounts for approximately 65% of the city's economy with around 2 million visitors last year. Employment conditions for most in the industry are fragile, hand to mouth with no safety net of social support. As reported this morning by our office, this lockdown is already having a devastating impact on the lives of most Christians in Bethlehem.
Our office staff provide front line support to the most needy every week. We ask you to help us gear up our levels of this support to offset those immediately affected by this lockdown in the weeks ahead - just £40 per week can put food on the table to feed a typical family whose breadwinner is now unemployed.
We also ask you to pray for our brothers and sisters for their relief and recovery as in the reports we have already received from our office, there is a great deal of fear in Bethlehem whose residents have been isolated from the West Bank and the World; a difficult step for a multi-cultural society which is used to welcoming so many visitors. We have prayer resources here.