Sister Bridget Tighe, F.M.D.M., serves as Secretary General for Caritas Jerusalem.
I first felt the impact of the coronavirus in late February 2020. I’m a member of a religious congregation, Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood (FMDM), working with Caritas Jerusalem. We normally live in community but occasionally, as in my case, a sister is assigned to a mission where there are no other FMDMs. I had planned to visit my community in the UK in April, but when on 21 February the first cases of coronavirus were diagnosed in Israel and the government advised against all but essential air travel, I decided not to leave the country in case I could not return. Time with my community was postponed and I focused on protecting our staff and responding to the needs of the poor affected by the virus known as COVID-19.
Caritas Jerusalem, the humanitarian wing of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, serves the poor and marginalized in Palestine regardless of religion, race or gender. Our headquarters is in Jerusalem with projects in Jerusalem, West Bank and the Gaza Strip; to visit these projects, different permissions are needed depending on one’s nationality, ID and residence. As a foreign national, I can usually travel freely between and within these areas to support our staff, visit the various projects and, most importantly, meet the local people including church leaders, partners, and beneficiaries. But travel restrictions due to COVID-19 make such travel difficult.
On 5 March, pilgrims in Bethlehem were diagnosed with the coronavirus, so the entire Bethlehem area was placed under lockdown. We immediately closed our Elderly Day Care Centre in Ramallah to protect the vulnerable senior citizens. Work in the Bethlehem area ceased because our staff could not travel. The rest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were placed under lockdown a few days later. All our other work in the West Bank was suspended.
In the Gaza Strip, our Health Center on the edge of Al Shati refugee camp also serves as the administrative hub for our outreach work. All projects were temporarily suspended, the staff produced brochures with simple, clear health education messages on how to prevent spread of the virus. The staff also conducted health education sessions in the Health Center and through our partner Community Based Organizations (CBOs). Our medical consultant established strict hygiene and social distancing protocols and provided training and supervision for all staff on how to protect themselves and their patients. We procured Personal Protection Equipment; within a week, in coordination with the Ministry of Health (MoH), we resumed full services in the Health Center. All patients have their temperature checked before entering the building and those with fever are directed to a government or UN specialist unit. Mobile medical services were suspended for about two weeks.
The MoH held meetings with other health care providers, including Caritas, to prepare for a coordinated response in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. Three cases were diagnosed on 21 March and fear of spread of the virus was palpable among MoH, WHO and UN officials as well as the local population. An outbreak in the community would be catastrophic, given the overcrowding, poor sanitation, widespread poverty and malnutrition, and a seriously run-down health system exacerbated by years of occupation, blockade, and recent withdrawal of U.S. funds. In coordination with the MoH, we resumed our mobile medical work with the necessary social distancing and protection of staff and patients. We prepared a contingency plan to be activated if the virus spreads. The plan includes cessation of current outreach work, continuation of medical services in the Health Center and activation of three mobile medical teams to provide 24-hour service to treat non-COVID-19 patients in their homes. The Gaza Strip would be divided into zones, with Caritas serving Gaza City and other NGO health care providers serving other areas.
In Ramallah, our social worker maintained telephone contact with the senior citizens to make sure they were safe and cared for and arranged delivery of essential medication to their homes. Our Women’s Empowerment program that provides training in dress design and sewing, was suspended, along with all agriculture projects. By the end of April, restriction of movement in the West Bank was slightly eased and some of our HQ staff were able to meet West Bank staff in Ramallah. On 1 May, after we obtained permission for travel and work from the responsible authorities, all our West Bank projects, except the Elderly Day Care Center and Sewing Center, resumed.
In mid-March we contacted all Catholic priests in the West Bank to enquire about the needs of the poor in their parishes. The Bethlehem area was particularly hard hit, due to the total collapse of the tourist/pilgrim industry where so many are employed in hospitality, transport and souvenir trades. In other parts of the West Bank, thousands of men who worked in Israel as day laborers and low paid workers lost their jobs and many were placed in quarantine on return to the West Bank. Our Youth Officer and volunteers prepared and delivered 460 food parcels to the priests for distribution to the poor in their parishes. We recently received approval for other projects to provide home delivery of freshly cooked meals to elderly people living alone, plus food coupons and parcels, hygiene kits, and educational toys for children. We are working with parish priests, the Ministry of Social Affairs, and local organizations to ensure that we reach the poorest of the poor with this limited humanitarian aid. Representatives of Jerusalem’s Coordinating Catholic Aid Organization, of which Caritas is a member, meet regularly to share information on the needs of local Christians and to avoid duplication of humanitarian aid.
Of course, the COVID-19 crisis affects not only our work but our entire lives. In early March, all places of worship were closed and there were no Masses or other celebrations. Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter, when pilgrims from all over the world would have filled the churches, shrines and ancient streets of Jerusalem, passed with locked churches and empty streets. Celebration of Passover, when thousands of Jews on their way to the Western Wall would be negotiating the narrow streets alongside Christian pilgrims, was equally quiet. An eerie silence hung over Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and I found it hard to realize that this was actually Palm Sunday or Good Friday or Easter Sunday morning. Muslims beginning their Ramadan fast adapted a situation never before experienced.
During the lockdown, and especially during Holy Week and Easter, when the Caritas office was closed, I had time to reflect, not only on the extraordinary times in which we live, but on my own reaction to it. I’m comfortable with personal silence and solitude. But this is different. Beneath the surface of the imposed lockdown and what we’ve become accustomed to calling “social distancing” is a barely-concealed fear and anxiety. People in this part of the world, including myself, have lived through wars and experienced danger but the nature of the danger was known. The nature of COVID-19 is not known, not seen, and this creates a constant, underlying anxiety that we’ve internalized.
At first, keeping the recommended social distance required an awkward effort, but now many of us instinctively withdraw from anyone whom we feel, perhaps unconsciously, is physically too close. Normal social interaction has changed. When did I last shake hands, give someone a hug or place an appreciative or reassuring hand on an arm or shoulder? I lived in Gaza for three years and I loved working with the people whose warmth and resilience, despite their suffering, is amazing. After moving to HQ in 2018, I visited Gaza regularly, and in Jerusalem and the West Bank I got to know the priests, senior citizens in Ramallah, farmers in Jenin and Makhrour and our dress design women students; but since the arrival of the virus, I work mostly from the office using phone, Zoom or Skype. These technologies enable us to communicate and work but they cannot replace the human contact, the facial expression, the eye contact, simply being together.
People want to get back to work, but anxiety and fear of the unknown virus and an unknown future are ever present.