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East Jerusalem medical community braces for spike in coronavirus cases

East Jerusalem hospitals are preparing for the potential of overcrowding if the mitigation efforts to restrict coronavirus patients fails to lower those affected.

The coronavirus has once again brought to the forefront the problems facing East Jerusalem's 350,000 residents, who are caught between Israeli apathy and the inability of the Palestinian government to provide assistance, as Israel is preventing the Palestinian government from engaging.

Abdel Qader Husseini, the president of the East Jerusalem Hospitals Network, told Al-Monitor that Jerusalem’s hospitals will face a huge problem if the number of coronavirus patients increases. “Only two hospitals in Jerusalem are equipped to deal with coronavirus patients," he said. "The Makassed Hospital, which has 22 beds isolated for coronavirus cases, and the Saint Joseph Hospital, which closed its surgery department and converted 28 beds for coronavirus cases.”

Established in 1997 with support from late Palestinian politician Faisal Husseini, the East Jerusalem Hospitals Network includes six medical facilities: Makassed Islamic Charitable Hospital, Augusta Victoria Hospital, St. John Eye Hospital, St. Joseph Hospital, Red Crescent Society Hospital and the Jerusalem Princess Basma Center for Disabled Children.

Abdel Qader Husseini, the son of Faisal Husseini, said the hospitals face a range of problems. “We only have 19 ventilators that are available for use in case of coronavirus emergencies, and we are trying to acquire or rent more in case things worsen," he said. "We are also worried about shortages in medical equipment and protective gear.”

Husseini said that Israel, as an occupying power, is responsible for the health of Palestinians. Yet Israeli health officials have done little to help. 

Jamil Kousa, head of the St. Joseph Hospital, told Palestinian TV that the Israelis informed him March 25 to prepare the hospital to take patients from East Jerusalem. “We were hospital number 23, the last hospital to be asked by the Israeli Health Ministry to prepare for dealing with the coronavirus," he said. "Within 72 hours, we did as much as we could to create a 28-bed isolation section, which will be able to handle regular cases, as well as room for three patients to be treated in the intensive care unit.”

A voluntary coalition of 81 Palestinian nongovernmental organizations and Jerusalem-based UN agencies, dubbed al-Tajamu al-Maqdisi, or the Jerusalem Alliance, is helping hospitals prepare for an onslaught of patients.

The alliance's coordinator, Ahmad Budeiri, told Al-Monitor that volunteers erected two large tents at St. Joseph Hospital, one for visitors and medical personnel to have their temperatures taken to avoid further infections in the hospital, and the other for potential coronavirus patients, who "are asked to wait for three hours until the results come back."

The Jerusalem Alliance has also worked to ease the burdens on doctors, nurses and other medical staff. More than 800 medical staff must cross through Israeli checkpoints from the West Bank every day, according to Husseini. Local hotel owners came through to help. “We are grateful to Musa Jarjui, who contributed the entire Christmas Hotel to be used by doctors so that they don’t have to travel across the checkpoints daily,” Budeiri said.

Both Husseini and Budeiri said Israel is shirking its responsibilities. “They [Israelis] contacted local East Jerusalem hospitals and told them you are on your own to deal with patients from East Jerusalem,” Budeiri said. “They threw at them 2 million shekels [$500,000] and said, 'You manage with that money.' This is peanuts compared to what is needed.”

An Israeli Health Ministry spokesman directed Al-Monitor's questions on the issue to Asher Salmon, the director of foreign relations at the ministry. Salmon did not respond to inquiries.

Husseini said that Jerusalem hospitals would be in better shape if the United States had not cut aid for Palestinian patients treated at their hospitals. “Since 2012, the US and the EU were helping our hospitals take care of the bills of the thousands of Palestinians from all over the occupied territories,” Husseini said. 

In 2018, the Donald Trump administration cut the United States' annual $25 million to Jerusalem hospitals in an attempt to pressure Palestinian leadership. 

Husseini welcomed calls from US senators to reactivate US support for Palestine to combat coronavirus. “If the coronavirus does not convince the US to rescind its decision, I don’t know what will,” Husseini said. “We are in the hole for $75 million in unpaid bills for Palestinian patients that we have provided care for. All these patients arrived by ambulance after Israel gave them security approval. This is a humanitarian issue, not a political one.”

The Jerusalem Alliance created a map of doctors and medical services to ensure access to backup teams, if needed. “If present expectations materialize, we will have a huge problem that will peak in June," Budeiri said. "We are not sure we can handle it.”

One way to relieve local hospitals is to encourage Jerusalem families to give birth at home. “We are calling on midwives to take over the issue of giving birth at home so that we can save pregnant women from having to travel and occupy hospital beds and also help avoid them from getting the disease in the process,” Budeiri said.

To avoid the predicted high rates of coronavirus infections in Jerusalem, the alliance has dedicated its efforts to prevention and awareness. “We want as many people as possible to stay at home,” Buderi said. Yet self-quarantine in Jerusalem is difficult.

“When you have very densely populated areas like the Old City of Jerusalem and neighborhoods like Silwan and Abu Tor — where sometimes an entire family lives in one or two rooms — you can’t apply self-quarantine," he said. "To deal with this problem the Jerusalem Alliance has been seeking support from local hoteliers as well as voluntary medical staff so that mildly infected cases can be quarantined in hotels.” 

At the end of march, East Jerusalem had 12 documented cases of coronavirus, despite the dearth of testing. Many East Jerusalemites work on the west side of the city and other locations in Israel, where infections reached 5,358 at the end of March, with 21 fatalities.

As Palestinians in Jerusalem brace for the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak, the virus has caused an unintentional redrawing of the 1967 green line. Volunteer efforts have become a de facto shadow Palestinian government, sending the message that despite unilateral Israeli annexations and the moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, East Jerusalem is still an occupied city.

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