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Voices From the Pandemic: In the Epicenter of Bethlehem

Muna Salman is a civil engineer in the Bethlehem office of Association Pro Terra Sancta (ATS), a non-governmental organization that carries out projects to preserve cultural heritage, support communities and provide aid in humanitarian emergencies in Palestine.

On 5 March 2020, Bethlehem, an important tourist location, announced that it had the first COVID-19 infection in Palestine, evidently spread by tourists visiting the city. That same day, President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree declaring a state of emergency. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh also issued a series of orders, including the closure of schools and educational institutions, from kindergartens to universities.

Bethlehem is the area’s coronavirus epicenter: people are under house quarantine and thousands of workers have lost their jobs, many in hotels or the tourism sector. Since so much of the city relies on tourism, the COVID-19 emergency has heavily impacted the economic conditions of most of the population.    

Since the day president Mahmoud Abbas called for a state of emergency, we as employees of ATS have been working from home. This was extremely difficult, since our major job is to help people in their everyday lives within the projects we have; now everything has to be stopped and postponed. No one is allowed to leave their home, except for urgent necessities.  And it is terrifying to leave the house. You need to take the maximum precautions to go outside — from wearing the gloves and masks, to cleaning every single bag we bring home. It is like living in one of the horror movies we watch on TV.

Everyone has been affected financially from the COVID-19, especially the poor and those in need, since many relied on day-to-day income or needed help from the organizations serving the poor or the church. Since the beginning of the crisis, many young people started to form small groups to help those in need, gathering money from organizations or from people who have the means to give. Many people started to give donations to help each other. The church is helping those within the parish who are poor and need help to survive.

“In Bethlehem, people from different religions have been living together in peace for centuries; during the crisis, this bond got stronger and stronger, with people standing with each other, helping each other.”

Muna Salman

Easter came while we were in quarantine. It was the first time in history that the churches closed, which was one of the hardest times for us. Yet, watching the liturgies for Holy Week from home and not being able to go to church made our faith stronger. There were cars going through the city broadcasting holy hymns and there were processions with incense during Holy Week; the sisters of Carmel monastery walked through city with the relics of Mary of Carmel, chanting and praying for the pandemic to vanish from the holy city of Bethlehem and the world.

In Bethlehem, people from different religions have been living together in peace for centuries; during the crisis, this bond got stronger and stronger, with people standing with each other, helping each other. Neighbors have been looking after their brothers and sisters from other religions to help them get through this pandemic.

The world is facing an uncertain economic future. Every city in the world has been affected by this pandemic, and even the strongest cities financially are facing an emergency. People now are more worried about their financial situation than the virus itself, since no one knows when it will end or when there might be a cure to help control it.

This is one of the hardest times I’m personally facing. I have family members living in France, the United States and United Arab Emirates. I wake every day with the prayer of simply having those loved ones safe. I live with the uncertainty of being able to see them again, especially the very old members and grandparents. Mixed emotions of fear, uncertainty and anxiety have marked my daily life.

I try to hide my emotions away to make my little daughters feel safe. This has been the most difficult time on both young and old — on children, for understanding what’s happening in the world, and on old people, who are just trying to keep themselves alive.

I thank God every day that none of my family members has gotten sick.  I pray every day for God to keep them safe and keep the world safe.

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