Israel's Arabs dramatically cut virus infection rate

Anti Covid-19 campaign in Arab sector  / Photo: GPO

The 30 Arab local authorities and cities in Israel defined as high infection "red" a month ago have dwindled to just four. "Globes investigates how it was done.

Israeli Arab society has succeeded in dramatically reducing the rate of Covid-19 infection within just a few weeks. In August and September Israeli Arabs and the haredi community led in the infection rate in Israel as well the number of seriously ill patients and fatalities.

Dr. Khetam Hussein, Head of the Covid-19 Department at Haifa's Rambam Hospital reported at the beginning of September that about 60% of the seriously ill patients under his care were Arabs. Some 30 Arab local authorities and cities were defined as 'red' high infection locations and 30% of Israelis testing positive were from Arab society (Israel's Arabs are 22% of the population).

The authorities understood only too late the urgent need for dealing with the Arab sector in a focused way. Aiman Saif, Head of the Authority for the Economic Development of Minorities in the Ministry for Social Equality was appointed Coronavirus Project Coordinator for the Arab Sector and the Ministry of Defense Home Guard began operating a special program for Israeli Arab society.

Today there are only four high infection "red" Arab local authorities and the number is falling. The percentage of overall new cases in Israel in the Arab sector has fallen to 10%.

Saif says that one important contributing factor to this rapid fall in the Arab sector has been the lockdown, which closed down schools and halted weddings. In contrast to haredi society the prohibitions were fully observed. Muslim religious leaders have been in the forefront of urging Israeli Arabs to observe restrictions and at the start of pandemic leading Israeli imams issued fatwas says that restrictions must be obeyed including the ban on gathering in mosques for prayers. All mosques were closed during the lockdowns.

This week Saif and National Coronavirus Project Coordinator Ronni Gamzu met with leading imams in Kafr Kassem near Petah Tikva to ask them to renew their fatwa so that the achievements of the past month can be maintained and a further spread of the virus can be prevented.

Gamzu was reportedly very moved by the meeting and said, "If all Israel's religious leaders behaved like you our situation would be much better."

One imam told "Globes" that the saving of lives preceded the obligation to pray and other rituals. Saif says that the imams did not await government instructions but acted on their own instructions 'from above' to issue orders to reduce gatherings, and called on the instructions about weddings to be obeyed, even though they were only partially successful on this. Saif adds, "Even if they only prevented some of the weddings, each wedding was enough to infect an entire village or neighborhood."

Farida Jaber, chief editor of the popular Israeli Arab news website Panet said that the Israeli government reacted too slowly to warnings about the dangers that the spate of weddings posed to Arab society in the summer. Community and district doctors passed on warnings to the Ministry of Health and the police back in June. Jaber herself sent a warning letter to the Ministry of Health about what the doctors were telling her but there was little response.

Only after the rate of infection started soaring very high was there an information campaign and more enforcement. And only after the Israeli Arab leadership started crying out for help did the authorities start operating effectively. Jaber says it didn't help that the public lost confidence in the government's decision making capabilities and there was a widespread view that decisions that were taken were politically influenced by various pressure groups. All this makes the achievement of reducing the rate of infection in the Arab sector all the more remarkable.

Saif says that an important part of the success was stronger enforcement by the police, and reports of large weddings being broken up by them with fines imposed, as happened in Tamra for example, and this served as a major deterrent to those planning weddings.

Another factor was the growing number of fatalities and serious ill patients in Arab society from the virus. Saif recalls, "People were suddenly being told about a relative who had died or was hospitalized and every neighborhood and extended family started suffering losses."

Mayors and local authority heads also played their part in the campaign. Kafr Kasem Mayor Adel Badir saw his city transformed from "red" high infection in September to yellow and then green this month. He told "Globes" that he set up a professional team within the municipality and mobilized the Defense Ministry's Home Front and Ministry of Health to help. But he added that the major contribution was by the city's residents who observed the government's restrictions and instructions from the municipality.

Local leadership set a personal example. Badir and all Kafr Kassem's council members as well as local imams, doctors and other public figures all publicly committed to obey the instructions and not participate in any events like weddings, even if it was close family members.

As happened elsewhere in the country where the virus infection rate was dramatically reduced, it again proved how local authorities can be so much more effective than national authorities. According to Badir as soon as a resident of the city tested positive, it took Kafr Kassem's welfare workers just a couple of hours to conduct a thorough epidemiological investigation and track down all the virus carrier's contacts and give them instructions to go into isolation.

Regarding the weddings, he says, it was all about the information campaign. He praised the imams for their sacred work and they insisted that it was a religious commandment to save each life as if it was an entire world. The results were that there were virtually no infections in mosques and the struggle to halt the weddings eventually bore fruit.

Badir calls on the government and the Ministry of Defense to extend their assistance to Israel's Arab sector.

Jaber cautions that the medical success must be backed up by more economic assistance because the private sector has taken a lethal financial blow. She says, "Each day we feature stories about businesspeople large and small who are near collapse with debts that cannot be repaid and urgent need for government assistance. They cannot continue to keep going because of the lockdown and their financial situation is desperate.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 12, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Anti Covid-19 campaign in Arab sector  / Photo: GPO
Anti Covid-19 campaign in Arab sector / Photo: GPO
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