Coronavirus emergency in Bethlehem

Giacomo Pizzi13 March 2020

Stories from Bethlehem in the times of the Coronavirus. After the first cases of tourists tested positive, total closure of the city. Deserted streets and closed population. Association Pro Terra Sancta continues to remain on field to help the elderly and the sick, the group most at risk of being affected by the virus.

A video call on Skype, a phone call via whatsapp. “How’s it going there?” “We are fine but we are isolated.” Conversations in the time of the Coronavirus. Contacts, albeit virtual, which thanks to new technologies make us feel less alone. To separate the offices of Associazione Pro Terra Sancta in Bethlehem and Jerusalem is not only the barrier that divides the Palestinian territories and Israel, but also forced isolation due to the spread of the virus in the Bethlehem area.

The situation has also evolved rapidly in the Holy Land: after the first cases of infected Israelis returning from Italy and Europe, tourists themselves, expected in large numbers throughout 2020, brought the virus from their areas of origin. After the case of the nine Korean tourists who tested positive, the first four CV-19 cases were recorded in Bethlehem on March 5: four Greek guests of the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala, a town a few kilometers away with Bethlehem. From them the inevitable chain of infections started: the driver, some members of the hotel staff tested positive. Within a week in the West Bank, cases went from 4 to 31, 28 only in the Bethlehem area, 35 throughout Palestine.

All checkpoints closed

With the virus, the timely and, once joint, measures of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government have arrived. Schools and universities closed, churches, mosques and areas of worship closed. Closed the Basilica of the Nativity, it did not happen since the years of the Intifada. Crowds of people are prohibited. Even the Bethlehemites stay home. Tourists are forbidden to enter, ropes of buses leave the city. Tourism’s main source of livelihood, tourism, must be interrupted for reasons of force majeure and one can only hypothesize the damage that all this will entail in an economy that is already fragile and shaky in itself.

On Friday 6 March the checkpoints which allow the passage and exchanges between Israel and the Territories were closed. On March 8, Bethlehem became a red zone with all that – we know it well by now – means. Quarantine for everyone who has been in the area. The inhabitants go out as little as possible. Fear is so great.

“There are only a few that remained to help out, we are trying to help vulenrable people by taking all the necessary precautions. We cannot leave the Bethlehemis alone”

Vincenzo Bellomo, head of the Pro Terra Sancta office in Bethlehem, updates us on the situation: “We are not going to the office, but we are trying, each with our own strength, to work from home to carry out some ongoing projects and not to leave the only Bethlehemites “. Under Vincenzo’s guidance there are some young Italian volunteers and Palestinian colleagues who currently work from their homes. Some volunteers continue to go to the Hogar de Niños, the center for children with disabilities run by the sisters of the Incarnate Word. “Few left to give them a hand, we are trying to help them by taking all the necessary precautions,” said Umberto and Anna, two of the volunteers who stayed in Bethlehem.

The “Casa” and “Acqua” projects have stopped. Given the current conditions, it is not possible to carry out the renovations of the houses and to install new cisterns for the most needy families. But the work of Naila Nasser, social worker, who for Associazione Pro Terra Sancta deals with the medical emergency in Bethlehem does not stop. An emergency number has been activated to remain available to the sick and families and not to leave them alone in a difficult moment. The health situation in the area is what most worries citizens and cooperatives operating in the area. The strong risk is that the territories are lacking the strength to make up for an emergency of the extent of the Italian or Chinese one. For this reason, the Palestinians seem to implement the directives issued rigorously. The presence of military personnel on the streets has intensified and controls are strictly controlled for those who leave their home unduly.

As in other countries, there is also a strong concern for the elderly, the group most affected by the virus, and for those at risk with diabetes, hypertension and heart problems. “We have provided some masks, which have become almost impossible to find, for the elderly of the Antonian Society” – Vincenzo tells us – the nuns remained with a few operators to help the sick “. The Antonian Society, which hosts about thirty elderly people, is the work that is suffering the most at the moment and that needs our support, Bellomo reiterates.

It hurts to hear about this situation. We end the call with the promise to stay in constant contact and with a thought for Italy, the country dear to all the volunteers of the Holy Land. Our prayers and our support go to Italy, confident that only with the solidarity and collaboration of all can this world pandemic be defeated together.