Palestinian refugees and the coronavirus: mandatory and voluntary isolation

Palestinian refugees and the coronavirus: mandatory and voluntary isolation
 *The Palestinian Media Collective in Lebanon “Interact”

Firas removed from his car everything that reveals its Palestinian identity, such as a small Palestinian flag hanging from the roof of the taxi, a small sticker on the outside of the windows indicating the right of return, and some accessories scattered on its doors and mirrors.

He extensively used those accessories as they gave him a sense of patriotism and belonging while mildly checking his nostalgia for his village, Umm Al-Faraj, in northern Palestine. However, with the increase in coronavirus cases in the Rashidieh camp in south Lebanon, these small items have become an obstacle to attracting passengers.

Firas, nicknamed Abu Al-Fida by his friends in the camp, said that “when the websites began to post the number of coronavirus cases in the camp, the fears of Lebanese people living in the vicinity of the camp increased, and the camp was perceived as an epicenter of the pandemic. So the passengers preferred Lebanese to Palestinian drivers.” Thus, he had to remove the accessories from his car.

Firas added sarcastically, “With the coronavirus, we sealed all sorts of epicenters, from security to economic, and today health-related ones. I never felt afraid while driving my car. Some people are usually afraid of car accidents, but I am not. However, I am now afraid of the coronavirus because I have children and a family. I am afraid of contracting the virus when in contact with passengers.” 

On the road from Al-Rashidiya camp towards Tyre, there is a Palestine Red Crescent Society checkpoint was distributing awareness booklets and masks to pedestrians and cars, while association volunteers pasted pictures on the walls of the camp to raise people’s awareness of the threat of the virus. Firas was impressed with the initiative.

He lives in a small house in the camp, and he has a family of five. He has worked as a taxi driver for years to provide for his family. As the economic situation worsened and the virus has spread, his living conditions became more severe.  “Every day I see people from all walks of life- he said. I have been a taxi driver for years now. I like this job because it is routine-free. But for the first time I feel that I hate it. I cannot stay at home because I have children who need to eat and drink, and at the same time I am afraid to come back home and pass on the virus to my family.” But what shall I do! I have to work. I am trying, as much as I can, to comply with the measures and instructions, but we starved during the lockdown. Now I am keeping the sanitizer and at the same time I am limiting the number of passengers.”

The virus scared off customers

Mohammad Murshid (24 years old), is one of the coronavirus recovered patients from Al- Maashouk Gathering in south Lebanon. His mother was infected at first. Her family was not aware she had contracted the virus, but as her condition worsened, she was taken to hospital. The medical staff requested a PCR test, and it was found out that she was infected.

He said, “After I read the report, I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid for my mother, and what I was scared of happened.” Mohammad’s painful experience was not only about suffering from the disease and its symptoms, but it was about its severe consequences. The three-room small family home shelters the seven family members. So, the infection was serious, and isolation was even more difficult.

Mohammad added saying, “I could have avoided contracting the virus, but our house is small and I do not have another place for self-isolation. Thus, we were all infected in the family and we were trapped in the virus cycle. The coronavirus was not the most difficult problem for the family, but the burden of the cost was also heavy. First, UNRWA covered the costs following the pressure we exerted. As for medicines, sanitizers and food, assistance was minimal and it was offered by a few benevolent people. During self-isolation, we felt that we were living alone on an island. Everybody was afraid of us, and no one would approach us. Our house is too small and there isn’t enough space for us to rest.”

After Mohammad and his family completed the home quarantine period and recovered, the Sheikh, as nicknamed by the Maashouk Gathering residents, opened his shop. He mumbled some morning prayers while waiting for customers. He said, “The turnover significantly dropped after I became infected. Maybe people are still scared, and the shop is our source of livelihood. The virus has done considerable harm to me.”

Abou Abdallah greeted Mohammad and checked in on his health condition. Mohammad responded with a cheerful face that took away all the signs of grief and said, “Praise be to God, Abou Abdallah. Thanks to God for sending someone like you to stand by me.”

The coronavirus prevents hugging

Abou Abdallah Al-Takli is the officer of the Palestinian Civil Defense in the Bourj El-Shemali camp for Palestinian refugees. He followed up the case of Mohammad Murshid and his family, and visited them frequently to bring food and sanitizers.

Al-Takli and the members of the Palestinian Civil Defense handle coronavirus cases in the camp and the vicinity. They transport patients in the civil defense vehicle to hospital, if necessary. They also bring them their needs and disinfect neighborhoods and homes, in addition to burying the virus victims.

 He said, “I get very upset when I see people’s recklessness toward the virus or their disbelief. I am witnessing critical cases. People can hardly breathe. Others are alone and isolated and no one dares to get close to them.”

 “The most difficult situation is the burial ceremony, he said How hard it is when your father or mother is dead, and you cannot say goodbye to them or even touch them.”

The coronavirus experience made Al-Takli more cautious, as he has a family of five. When he enters his home, he goes straight to the bathroom, and even when he finishes washing his hands, he does not get close to his children. “My five-year old son Jamal is spoiled. I haven’t hugged for six months and I miss him a lot, but our work conditions force us to do so.” Al-Takli said.

The coronavirus has spread all over the world, but as is the case with any event, some people are more affected than others. Perhaps the Palestinian refugees are among the most burdened with its impact. Health and economic conditions do not increase their resilience and the environment is not favorable for quarantine. Infected refugees live in voluntary isolation to protect others or due to high unemployment and poverty rates in Palestinian camps and gatherings.