In this time of global uncertainty, people constantly in search of new ways to stay connected and share experiences across oceans. Over the course of the past few weeks, our Pathways to Peace learning series has introduced our community to Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders sharing their efforts to continue their work and aid vulnerable communities in this unprecedented time of social distancing. Many of these people are on the front lines, battling the virus and risking their own lives to help people in need. Recently, we were privileged to hear from one such hero, Dr. Yasmeen Abu Fraiha.
A long-time activist on behalf of the Bedouin community, Dr. Fraiha founded the organization Rodaina to help reduce the rates of genetic diseases in the Bedouin community by offering pre-marital genetic testing. This is a widespread issue, as these communities are incredibly insular and they often marry within extended families. Due to the ongoing crisis, Dr. Fraiha’s priorities have shifted, and she is currently working in a hospital in Beer Sheva, managing residents and interns treating COVID-19 patients in the region.
Dr. Fraiha gave us insight into the Bedouin community’s experience with COVID and the challenges dealing with some of the most vulnerable, impoverished people in Israel, exacerbated by the fact that their communities are not officially recognized by the state. These communities comprise one third of the Negev region’s population, and have no formal infrastructure. Because of social distancing measures, gaining education about COVID risks and prevention and access to medical care are heightened challenges. As of a few weeks ago, Fraiha was only seeing small outbreaks in Bedouin population. But testing only started to be offered very recently, so it is likely the numbers are inaccurate because there haven’t been the same rates of testing as compared to other parts of Israel.
Another contributor to the low infection rate could be Israel’s proactive approach to combatting the virus, reaching out to nursing homes and vulnerable populations early on by providing campaigns and other resources in Arabic. This does not negate the fact that quarantine measures have limited the ability of Bedouin populations to access grocery stores far from their home, and they cannot get deliveries due to their communities’ unrecognized status. They face additional challenges due to economic status – there are often huge crowds around the banks to get social welfare checks, making distancing challenging. Families also live in homes of 10-12 people on average without access to masks or alcohol, which raises the risk factor.
Fortunately, there has been a taskforce formed with the military to bring food to many of these communities. There has been a hotline set up to provide information, doctors dispatched to communities, increased testing in Rahat (the largest Bedouin community), and efforts are being made to bring anyone who tests positive to the hospital. A coalition of development NGO’s including Rodaina and AJEEC- NISPED are continuing these efforts in order to fulfill their mission of improving access to medical care for underserved populations in the Negev. The status of the outbreak and the number of cases is changing rapidly, and we cannot be sure what the situation is as of today. With Ramadan starting this week, communities might be tempted to join together to celebrate and this may increase the outbreaks among Muslim communities. Dr. Abu Fraiha is a vital part of the effort to do everything to protect this extremely vulnerable community. She acknowledges that the crisis has unified medical personnel across boundaries as “soldiers in the crisis of humanity.” We are confident these new soldiers will continue to fight battles and win this unique and challenging war.