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MK Touma-Sliman: Arabs need access to all info in Arabic

Officials step up Arabic-language virus news, though Hebrew info more detailed

Several Joint List members demanded last week that authorities make information more accessible in Arabic; firm in charge says it translates info ‘important’ to Arab public

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Workers inside a building at Tel HaShomer Hospital which was converted to receive Israelis who were under quarantine on the cruise ship Diamond Princess in Japan due to the spread of the coronavirus, February 20, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Workers inside a building at Tel HaShomer Hospital which was converted to receive Israelis who were under quarantine on the cruise ship Diamond Princess in Japan due to the spread of the coronavirus, February 20, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry has stepped up its efforts to provide updates in Arabic about the novel coronavirus after coming under sharp criticism for largely failing to do so, but it still continues to share greater information in Hebrew.

At the beginning of the virus outbreak in Israel, the ministry dragged its feet in posting information on most of its official platforms in Arabic. For example, even after authorities announced last Monday that everyone returning to Israel from abroad must quarantine themselves for two weeks, the ministry’s website in Arabic continued to feature outdated guidelines, stating that only people returning from a handful of countries needed to do so.

Several lawmakers of the Arab-majority Joint List subsequently reached out to the ministry, demanding that it make vital information more accessible in Arabic. Shortly thereafter, the health ministry responded and updated its guidelines on its Arabic site.

It also hired a public relations firm to manage its media affairs in Arabic, such as communicating with Arabic-language news sites and radio stations.

However, the ministry continues to lack information in Arabic about the movement of those diagnosed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (right) and Health Ministry General Manager Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. Netanyahu is explaining how the coronavirus can spread from a sneeze. (Flash90)

On its Hebrew Telegram account, the ministry has shared such updates. But on its Arabic Telegram, it has only distributed information for less than a third of those who have contracted the virus.

The CoronApp, a smartphone application affiliated with the ministry, offers more details in Arabic compared to the ministry’s Arabic Telegram. However, it provides less content than in Hebrew.

Dozens of Hebrew posts in the app about places where infected people have visited do not have Arabic translations.

CoronApp’s settings, which include a mixture of Hebrew and English, have no option in Arabic.

Mervat Ashkar, who works with the PR firm hired by the ministry, said that she and her team were working around-the-clock to provide updates in Arabic.

But Ashkar stated that she and the seven other people working with her were receiving an “enormous” amount of information, compelling them to translate what she said was “important” to the Arabic public.

“We are not publishing information on every sick person,” she said in a phone call, pointing out that many of the patients come from places where most Arabs do not frequent. “We translate what our public must know.”

MK Aida Touma-Sliman leads a Status of Women and Gender Equality Committee meeting at the Knesset on November 21, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman said that the ministry should disseminate all of its Hebrew content in Arabic as well.

“We exist everywhere in this country and all information about the virus is relevant to us,” she said. “There is no explanation for neglecting to share it in Arabic. If we are not fully informed, our safety could be put at risk.”

Touma-Sliman also said she spoke several days ago to Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, the director-general of the Health Ministry, about making information in Arabic more accessible.

“I have seen an improvement since we spoke, but it is not enough,” she said. “The ministry needs to make sure we have access to all the information in Arabic.”

Touma-Sliman also sent a letter to Bar Siman-Tov on Sunday, demanding that an Arab public health expert participate in the government’s decision-making process regarding virus-related issues.

Health Ministry spokesman Eyal Basson did not respond to a request for comment as whether Arab public health professionals have played a role in that process.

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