Who matters? Pandemic in a time of structural violence

Palestinian workers disinfect the Gaza seaport, as a preventive measure amid fears of the spread of the coronavirus, in Gaza City, on March 24, 2020. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)
Palestinian workers disinfect the Gaza seaport, as a preventive measure amid fears of the spread of coronavirus, in Gaza City , on March 24, 2020. (Photo: Ashraf Amra / APA Images)
A combination of structural racism and apartheid, reliance on military solutions, and a disregard for the health and lives of Palestinian people create a pre-existing condition in this pandemic public health crisis.

By Alice Rothchild  |  Mondoweiss  | May 5, 2020

One of the critical points to this discussion is that the occupation and underlying racism and discrimination in Israel/Palestine persist unabated despite the public health emergency and the interrelatedness of communities and shared risk.

Focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic as it impacts Israel/Palestine provides us with a unique case study of the realities of health care and public health in a racialized and unequal society.

Israel reported its first case of the coronavirus on February 21, a woman returning from a cruise.* In the second week of February, the coronavirus was found in Bethlehem in the West Bank, introduced by foreign tourists, with another wave brought in by day laborers returning from Israel and Jewish settlements. Gaza’s first two cases were noted on March 22, two men returning from Pakistan. The data from East Jerusalem is difficult, partly because Israel considers East Jerusalem part of “unified Jerusalem” while the Palestinian Authority maintains that East Jerusalem is in the occupied West Bank. That said, on March 10, six East Jerusalem Palestinians were quarantined and the first death was reported April 18. The acclaimed world map and dashboard by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering initially erased the Palestinians altogether, then acknowledged the occupation, and finally changed their “country, region, sovereignty” to the West Bank and Gaza, with no separate designation for East Jerusalem.

While the virus recognizes no boundaries, each of these regions experienced the pandemic with a different underlying social and political reality. Israel, a first world country (the World Health Organization lists Israel in the “European region”) with a history of top-notch hospitals, research facilities, and universal health insurance, also suffers from a decades-long defunding of the social safety net and grave social and economic inequities. Since the 1970s, analysts note that investment in health, transportation and education has declined and the government has focused on tax cuts, welfare for the ultra-Orthodox, building settlements, and maintaining an expansive military. Thus decades of neoliberal policies have left critical elements of Israeli society neglected and poorly prepared. Much like the U.S., as the numbers of cases grew, physicians and senior health officials publically noted the lack of ventilators, “disparities between the central and peripheral communities,” structural concerns, inadequate care in retirement communities, the lack of PPEs, suboptimal leadership, and a lack of attention to other diseases.

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