Arab hospital chief: It’ll take deaths in villages to get virus taken seriously

Government adviser Masad Barhoum is ‘afraid,’ warns that people in his community will only wake up to threat when they see ‘many from their village dying’

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A worker checks the temperature of a customer at a store in the northern Arab Israeli town of Deir al-Asad on April 18, 2020. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
A worker checks the temperature of a customer at a store in the northern Arab Israeli town of Deir al-Asad on April 18, 2020. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Arab Israeli society hasn’t grasped the seriousness of the pandemic and will only realize the gravity of the situation when people see many deaths in their neighborhoods, according to a government health adviser on the Arab community.

“Until people see there are deaths from their own city, they will not accept that something really serious is happening,” Masad Barhoum, who heads the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, and sits on a virus advisory committee to the Health Ministry, told The Times of Israel.

Barhoum, the first Arab director-general of a government hospital, predicted: “Only if many people were dying from their village would they accept it as a big event.”

He said that with the virus “exploding” in some Arab families, including ones that live in multi-generational homes with elderly relatives at risk of infection, a grim situation of widespread deaths in the community is a realistic prospect.

Staff at the third coronavirus ward at the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, which Masad Barhoum heads, newly opened to cope with rising patient numbers. (Galilee Medical Center)

“I hope I will be proved wrong,” he stressed, but added that he is “not just concerned — I’m worried, or even afraid.”

His particular concerns about Arab society stem from high infection rates and the continued holding of especially large gatherings.

However, Barhoum noted, “The problem is not only in Arab cities; in all cities in Israel, if [people] won’t see deaths in their cities — and I hope I’m wrong — they won’t be convinced.”

He said that denial in Arab society is so intense that mass weddings are still happening in “red” villages close to his hospital, but are simply being rescheduled so they conclude before the 7 p.m. curfew.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “We have the [nighttime] closure in order to prevent weddings, but they just move the wedding.”

A wedding held last week in a northern Israeli village, in contravention of coronavirus rules, which was subsequently shut down by police (Israel Police)

“In the first wave everybody was in lockdown and there were no weddings,” he said. “But wedding season is from April to September, and once you are with lots of people, singing and hugging, if one person has coronavirus it will be passed to others.”

His comments come as controversy has also been raging over large weddings in the ultra-Orthodox sector, and gatherings in general Israeli society.

On Tuesday, Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush attended a mass indoor wedding in Haifa, along with several hundred followers of the Seret-Vishnitz Hasidic dynasty, that was held in contravention of Health Ministry guidelines.

Videos have also emerged of people dancing in tightly packed nightclubs.

A screenshot from a video said to show thousands of ultra-Orthodox at a wedding in Jerusalem, in violation of coronavirus restrictions, on August 5, 2020. (Screenshot/Channel 12)

Speaking to The Times of Israel as the government was poised to approve a national lockdown, Barhoum said that the refusal to halt mass weddings in his community has convinced him that Israel has no choice other than a lockdown.

“I used to say there should be no closure, but if people will actually move weddings, today I believe there should be total closure, 24 hours a day,” he said.

He also raised concerns about the Arab community that won’t be addressed by a lockdown, including poor observance of the requirement to wear a face mask.

Barhoum reported high levels of admissions from nearby Arab communities at his hospital, and said that wards are becoming so busy that his doctors may soon need to refer new coronavirus patients to central Israel.

When people get infected in the Arab community, the necessary steps sometimes aren’t being taken to protect elderly relatives, who often live in the family home, Barhoum warned.

Masad Barhoum, director-general of the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya (courtesy of the Galilee Medical Center)

”There are explosions in some families,” he said. “People come to us from families where someone was sick and they didn’t agree to go to a [coronavirus] hotel and be alone.

“Some people who are in quarantine leave their homes and go around in villages, endangering others,” Barhoum added. “Among some people, there is no discipline.”

He suggested that efforts to communicate the severity of the situation were hampered by belief among some Arab citizens — in cases accentuated by a complicated relationship with the government — that dangers are being exaggerated. “Some intelligent people say it’s politics, that not so many people have died, that they are lying to us about how risky it is,” he said.

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