Coronavirus in Israel's Arab sector 'was a matter of time'

Authorities fear the number of cases will rise and call on the government to impose a lockdown for Ramadan

IDF soldiers in the Arab town of Deir al-Asad (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
IDF soldiers in the Arab town of Deir al-Asad
It was a matter of time before the coronavirus struck the Arab villages in Israel, spreading like an unchecked wildfire among families living in multi-generational homes.
Complaints have mounted in the Arab sector regarding the state’s slow response to halt the spread of the deadly virus in villages across northern Israel. While there are some 510 confirmed cases of the virus among Arab Israelis, officials are concerned that the real number is much higher due to the relatively small number of tests done.
“Corona caught us with our pants down,” said one officer in the IDF Homefront Command working day and night to curb the highly infectious coronavirus. “We trained for rocket attacks, tsunamis and earthquakes, nothing like this.”
With the number of cases continuing to climb, the Health Ministry called on residents in the Galilee village of Deir al-Asad to remain home due to an “unusually high rate” of the virus.
But Deir al-Asad was just the latest town to make the headlines in recent days, after clusters were found in the towns of Jisr al-Zarqa and Umm el-Fahm in northern Israel. Jisr al-Zaraq, one of Israel’s densest and poorest communities, has at least 35 confirmed cases including 11 cases from one family alone.
(Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)(Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
“This just shows what happens when there is no quarantine,” said Lt.-Col. Yoram Cohen, Assistant Commander of the Homefront Command’s population work team in the sub district of Gador.
Cohen, who spoke to the Post outside the command center in Jisr al-Zarqa, said that of the 35 confirmed cases, two had recovered. Another 14 are self-quarantining in the village, the rest are in hospital or state-run quarantine facilities.
Cpt. Sayed Amash, the IDF’s Liaison Officer to the Local Authority of Jisr al-Zarqa, told The Jerusalem Post that he was “concerned that because of the densely populated living conditions and that so many people work in hospitals, that it was just a matter of time that we would find cases of the virus here.”
Amash, who lives in the coastal community of 14,750 residents, explained to the Post that the first cases of the virus in the village were of two women who work as cleaners in the Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba.
“They returned to the village in a bus with over a dozen people, first they were diagnosed and then more and more people started showing symptoms,” he said. “It was like a domino effect.”
The two women, who continued to go back and forth to work, then went on to infect their families, some 60 people, including their grandmother in her 80s who is now in serious condition and on a ventilator in Hillel Yafe hospital.
“Their salary paid for their family’s food,” said Cohen, adding that the two “didn’t really understand the significance” of the event. On top of not fully understanding the danger of the highly infectious virus, there was no place where the sick could safely quarantine.
Following the outbreak of the virus in the community, all residents working in hospitals or nursing homes were told to stay home until they tested negative for the virus, a move which angered Amash who questioned why the hospitals didn’t test their own workers.
“Why didn’t the hospitals check their workers from the start?” he asked as we drove through the town. “Why did they just send them home and then after a week test them? Even cleaners because if one person is sick then the entire busload gets sick, then everyone else. That’s exactly what happened to us.”
The day before the Post visited Jisr, a corona drive-through test center was set up in the town and carried out some 258 tests in addition to the 1,200 tests done in the past month.
And while Cohen said “the country has understood the issue here,” Cohen said, Amash believes the number will continue to rise.
Ahead of the holiday of Ramadan, the Homefront Command has been working tirelessly to increase the knowledge of the town’s residents, with community and religious leaders and thousands of youth volunteering to hand out fliers and hang placards and post on Facebook and other social media sites explaining the dangers of the virus.
“We explain that it’s not only about their individual health but the entire village,” Cohen said.
A short drive away, in the Basma Local Council, less than a handful of cases have been confirmed but officials are also concerned that the numbers will rise.
Raed Kabha, the Head of the Basma Local Council, told the Post that there is one confirmed case in each village in the council of 10,300 citizens- Barta'a West, Ein as-Sahala, and Muawiya- and another 16 in quarantine.
But while only three people have been diagnosed with the virus “the number of sick will rise” as more coronavirus tests are done on family members who were in close contact with the confirmed patients.
“The moment that there will be more tests, there will be more cases,” Kabha said, explaining that with some people not showing any symptoms the risk of the virus spreading remains. “If I had the ability, I’d check every resident of every village.”
Kabha told The Post that the council met with authorities including the police and Homefront Command three weeks ago to discuss the virus and how to contain it from spreading in the council's villages.
“The Homefront Command is an essential link in keeping this virus under control,” he said. “They are an address that we can go to in order to deal with immediate and pressing issues like tests. When you have the right address we can work faster and our residents feel safer.”
Lt.-Col. Avner Ofer, the IDF’s Liaison Officer to the Local Authority of Basma, told the Post that at first authorities thought the community would escape unscatched from the deadly virus.
“I thought corona would last for some two weeks, I didn’t think it would be this long. At first villagers didn’t get sick, we thought we had escaped but then villagers started getting sick.
Nevertheless, with the  “there is no panic or pressure” as the municipality and homefront command are working to educate the population on the virus, Ofer said.
“When there’s knowledge, there’s less fear,” he said.
According to Kabha, the large majority of residents are following the directives of the health ministry and are staying at home.
“Everything is closed,” Kabha said. “Imams who never thought that they’d have to close their doors, closed their doors...At the beginning people didn’t really care but now since they understand the severity of the situation, 90% are staying home.”
The entrances to the villages also have volunteers questioning drivers and turning away those who don’t live there.
With Ramadan around the corner, Kabha is calling on authorities to place a lockdown on Arab communities in Israel similar to what the one imposed on Jewish cities for the Passover holiday.
“If the regulations are clear during Ramadan then people will stay home. People are scared, it’s a matter of life or death,” he said. “Everyone wants a lockdown. If we can close the entire country we should. We will suffer for one or two weeks, and that’s ok. People might not die from an economic recession but people die from the coronavirus.”