Coronavirus Update: Weathering the Crisis in the Holy Land

We received the following email yesterday from Joseph Hazboun, CNEWA’s regional director in Jerusalem.

It became troubling when more reports of the Covid-19 virus began spreading out of China and infecting large swaths of the global population. I never thought that it would hit so close, so swiftly, in Bethlehem. The discovery of confirmed coronavirus cases at the Angel and Paradise Hotels in the heart of the city quickly created panic among residents; the Palestinian Authority issued strict orders, placing the entire governorate in isolation in an attempt to try to prevent the virus from spreading. The PA knows that the West Bank is not prepared nor equipped, to deal with such emergencies. Following the closure of Bethlehem, the President of Palestine declared a state of emergency for all of Palestine for one month! This means complete closure of all educational institutions, banning all foreign tourists and the complete closure of all religious and tourist sites, the cancellation of all local and international conferences and any large public celebration. All effects are far reaching, as restaurants and cafes in Ramallah were shuttered while local Churches and Mosques were sealed, including the Church of the Nativity.

In a phone call Beit Jala Mayor, Nicola Khamis, confirmed that medical supplies and medicine are available and people of good will are weathering the crisis. The local authorities have launched public awareness campaigns in efforts to combat the spread of the virus; however, it would have been more beneficial if safety instructions were given prior to the closure. Israel was also swift to close the Palestinian territories upon the discovery of the coronavirus; Defense Minister Naftali Bennet, seized the opportunity to impose Israeli closure on the Palestinian territories, yet public movement between the West Bank and Jerusalem continues, since it is almost impossible to distinguish between cars coming from settlements and those from Palestinian areas.

Israel’s borders were kept open and containment measures were grossly delayed until after the Israeli elections. It was only recently that the Israeli authorities enforced home quarantine for every citizen arriving from abroad. Israel has also issued travel bans for its citizens to countries that have been affected by coronavirus. Father Ibrahim, Director of the Casa Nova Guesthouse in the Old City of Jerusalem, was hosting an Italian group; all were immediately instructed to leave the country on Friday 28 February. I personally felt sad for the pilgrims who were unable to complete their pilgrimage. East Jerusalem residents are also on edge, as a Palestinian Christian bus driver is still hospitalized in serious condition after he was in contact with a Greek tourist group which was later found to have been infected with the coronavirus. We pray for his recovery.

Israeli government officials continue to have serious discussions about the economic repercussions as more containment measures are put in place. There are continued concerns about the tourism sector, which is a major source of income for both Israel and Palestine. The Jewish holiday of Purim seems to offer ‘a short breather’ since Israeli and municipal schools are already closed (10- 11 March). We will have to wait until this Thursday for more instructions by the Israeli government.

As for CNEWA/Pontifical Mission, half of our programs are on hold. The final phase of the photovoltaic solar panel project will be delayed due to movement restrictions of key stakeholders to project sites; the implementing partner is in Ramallah and the project’s supervising mechanical engineer is in Bethlehem. PMP’s educational guidance program involving East Jerusalem schools is also on hold as all schools are closed until further notice. Another program — the Bible competition program which involves 9th graders of various schools as well as youth Bible study groups — is also on hold, as there are movement restrictions.

We ask people of faith to pray that science may be able to find a vaccine; and we encourage scientists to have faith and seek God’s guidance as they search for a cure.

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