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.
We today received an update from father Abusada the Director of School of Joy in Bethlehem and the impact the coronavirus outbreak is having on the pupils and their families. You can read it below.
Bethlehem & School of joy needs your prayers.
Help us help others as Bethlehem goes into a Coronavirus lockdown
Of all the cities and towns in the West Bank, Bethlehem is the most dependent on tourism. The small city has capacity for five thousand people to stay in hotels and guest houses and often it is hard to find a room as pilgrims’ visit to the birthplace of Jesus. Shops, businesses, farmers, crafts people, guides, taxi-drivers, cafes and restaurants are dependent on the people who come to Bethlehem.
From Thursday 5th of March hotels have been shut, mosques and churches have been told to close their doors for a fortnight, schools and universities have been closed and there is a strange silence on the street.On Friday morning we heard that a state of emergency had been declared and now it looks the West Bank will be closed for thirty days. Checkpoints are closed and movement between cities has been banned. There are twenty-five cases of Coronavirus already confirmed in the city and many people are in home quarantine after being in contact with those who have tested positive. It appears that the virus is out of control and we expect the number of confirmed cases to rise rapidly.
Our offices are closed, only government offices continue to function.At School of joy for slow learners we have a long tradition of looking out for our students, and their broken families, and widows, most of our children have no parents, some are orphans, some have divorce cases, some have separation cases, we know many people are going to be hard hit. Even those who are not affected by the virus will be affected by the impact on the economy of the shut-down. Many people will not be paid while the city is closed to tourists. We are dependent on groups and visits to fund the vast majority of our work. March was going to be a very busy month as we would normally welcome pilgrims from around the world before Easter in lent for the way of the cross. The visitors have already cancelled and no pilgrims can visit us. It is a worrying time for us and we are concerned for all who live in this city – especially those who live with the constant threat of poverty.
We would love to be able to buy food and other essentials for those poor families we know who may not be able to afford the basics they need. We would love to keep our missionary service that benefit local people running. we need funds to keep the school running in this difficult time, to pay salaries for the teachers in order to feed their families.
We would also value your prayers. Some of us are personally affected as our friends have tested positive for the virus. We are worried about our special needs students as they have no immunity, and their poor relatives, also the older people in our community and those with underlying health issues for whom the virus could be fatal. We need strength to keep going and wisdom to know how to support our community as much as we can.
Your prayers and support is appreciated to help people living in Bethlehem at this unusual and difficult time, please make a donation, however small by Friends of The Holy land. Remember us in your prayers and keep us in our thoughts as once again we find ourselves in the epicenter of a global crisis.Thank you for your solidarity and support in advance.
From School of Joy for slow learners with love .
United in Prayers.
Fraternally yours in Christ
Fr. Mamdouh AbuSada
A deserted Bethlehem Street that would usually be filled with pilgrims at this time of year.
For more photos take a look at our Flikr.
Jimmy Michael has produced a number of videos about the situation in Bethlehem at the moment. Please watch them for a first hand account: