There is only one story this week and that is Corona Virus. There are currently 213 known cases in Israel, and 38 in the West Bank. None in Gaza so far, thank goodness. This is not yet in the same league as many Asian and European countries, yet the country lurches closer daily towards complete lockdown.
Measures announced over the weekend include the closing of all schools, nurseries, restaurants, leisure facilities and non-essential shops. People are strongly recommended to adopt social distancing and gatherings of more than 10 are banned.
In the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, people have been living in a locked down situation since four initial cases were diagnosed on 5 March. No-one can enter or leave the city and tourists have been sent home. The Palestinian Authority has declared a state of emergency.
This tactic seems to have been effective in slowing and managing the spread, but what happens when Bethlehem opens to the tourist trade again and the rest of the world hasn’t been so vigilant? The economy is fragile at the best of times and despite Palestinian resilience, the effects of lock down over a sustained period will be crippling.
So, are Israel and Palestine demonstrating the firm preventative measures that are needed to tackle the crisis or is this the disproportionate actions of a terrified nation and territory, ill-equipped to cope?
Over the past week, I’ve swung between these two views. I’ve watched in fascination as the UK takes a completely different and much more moderated stance. The UK view is that we can’t now stop the wave from crashing and the peak period could last around 12 weeks. UK scientific modelling suggests the UK peak period is still some 6 weeks away, so extreme measures should be held in reserve until that time. It might not feel like it, but in terms of caseload, this is being described as the calm before the storm!
I am surrounded by expat internationals living in Jerusalem, each of whom are influenced by the reaction in their home countries. We are all separated from our extended families and trying to hedge our bets on how long the storm will last and where it is best to ride it out. Travel in and out is getting harder, with restricted access, cancelled flights, and two weeks of self-isolation for people returning.
I know we are incredibly fortunate to have this choice in the first place. For people locked in the Palestinian West Bank or god forbid, in Gaza, there is nowhere to go. Bizarrely, the outrageous system of separation that Israel has imposed upon Palestinians through the separation wall and check point system, makes isolating whole areas simple to organise so lockdown can be achieved with relative ease.
This will probably help to stifle the spread of the disease in the short-term, but the economic impacts could be devastating. From 12 March the borders between the West Bank and Israel were closed until further notice. This has cut off many people from their families and places of work.
In every country, politics will set the tone of the response, but nowhere is that starker than here. The third general election in less than a year was held two weeks ago and with no clear outcome, Netanyahu is seeking to establish an emergency government. Where there is panic and crisis there is opportunity….for some. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority is still reeling from Trump’s Deal of the Century and this crisis is unlikely to provide the conducive environment needed for peace talks.
So, what does all of this look like on the ground? For many friends and colleagues, it has already meant up to 2 weeks of self-isolation as a result of having unknowingly visited infected areas, or border control measures. This means not leaving your house….at all! Food supplies have to be delivered and working from home accommodated alongside bored children and frustrated adults. Parents are now planning for a minimum of 5 weeks of home schooling/ Easter holidays.
In the Old City yesterday morning, life continued as usual with ka’ak stalls in full swing, falafel shops doing a busy trade and shopkeepers exchanging gossip over the morning coffee. It wasn’t clear if they hadn’t got the memo about the restrictions or if their roll out hadn’t reached the historic cobbled streets yet.
Everyone was there, except the usual tourists. A man entered the Holy Sepulchre and walked straight into the central tomb which is usually surrounded by a snaking queue. He said a prayer and then was ushered out by the guards. Access granted but loitering uninvited.
It’s unclear how stringently the current measures will be adopted. Unfortunately, I fear the stage has been set and the show is just beginning. How many twists and turns it will have no one can tell.
How have you been affected by corona virus? Do you think the response in Israel and Palestine is the right one? How can we help each other through this time?