Palestinians, for lack of a better word, are freaking out. And much like the rest of the world, they’re worried about the current outbreak of coronavirus disease.
While the global hysteria surrounding the coronavirus gained traction in Palestine in recent weeks as Palestinians looked to a growing number of confirmed cases in Israel, it reached new heights on Thursday, as multiple suspected cases were reported in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem.
COVID-19 is the name of the disease caused by the new coronavirus. It is a respiratory illness spread primarily person to person, and is related to the SARS and MERS viruses that have had outbreaks in recent years.
Locals woke up to the initial news reports that four people, alleged to be foreigners, were being held at the Beit Jala governmental hospital on suspicions that they had been infected with the virus.
People were initially wary to believe the reports, as fake news surrounding the virus reaching Palestine has been circling around social media for weeks.
But by Thursday afternoon, the Palestinian Ministry of Health announced that there were seven confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Bethlehem, and had declared a state of emergency in Bethlehem and Jericho, another popular destination for tourists visiting Palestine.
Those affected were confirmed to be local Palestinian hotel workers who had come in contact with a group of Greek tourists. According to the ministry, all seven were being held in quarantine.
The seven cases were the first confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Palestine.
Massive shutdowns spark frenzy
Over the course of Thursday afternoon, the situation in Bethlehem continued to escalate.
The Palestinian Authority had ordered that all hotels in the West Bank stop receiving tourists for two weeks.
The Church of Nativity, a major destination for millions of tourists from around the world every year, was shut down until further notice for the first time in decades.
Twenty-seven mosques in the city were also closed, and people were advised to avoid large gatherings like Friday prayers, Sunday mass, meetings, parties, events, and going to the gym.
All schools and universities were hastily evacuated, and government offices were closed until further notice.
Under the orders of the Ministry of Transportation, public health workers wearing hazmat suits began the process of fumigating all public transportation vehicles in Bethlehem, and were expected to continue the process throughout other governorates in the coming days.
Supermarkets and produce stores were buzzing, as people rushed to stock up on food and vegetables, for fear that stores would be forced to shut down in the coming days as well.
One store owner told Mondoweiss that he hadn’t gotten a chance to sit down all day because of how many customers were coming through his door. “It’s not even this busy during Eid,” he said, adding that “every single person whose come in today has been talking about corona.”
People across the city were suddenly wearing face masks, and pharmacies were flooded with people trying to get their hands on some masks and hand sanitizer before they ran out.
By Thursday evening, typically busy restaurants were empty, and the usually crowded streets of the city were quiet, as people retreated to their homes and prepared to ride out the coming storm.
Tourism industry takes biggest hit
While most Palestinians fear the spread of the virus for health reasons, a significant portion of the population, specifically in Bethlehem, have other reasons to be worried about the outbreak.
Every year, Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, attracts millions of tourists globally, making the tourism industry one of the largest sectors of the city’s economy.
Bethlehem’s streets are lined with dozens of hotels, souvenir shops, tour agencies, and restaurants targeting foreign tourists.
On any given day, dozens of mega tour buses can be seen driving throughout the city, busing groups from the Church of Nativity to other historical sites in the city.
In addition to the owners of hotels and businesses who depend on tourism, such businesses employ thousands of service-industry workers from across the city and its surrounding villages and refugee camps.
With so many people financially dependent on tourism for their livelihoods, a coronavirus outbreak in Palestine could spell disaster for Bethlehem, and the rest of the territory.
Yamen al-Abed, a local tour guide from Bethlehem, told Mondoweiss that in the past 24 hours, he has received some 23 cancellations for upcoming tours.
“It’s crazy how fast things are changing,” he said, adding that March and April are peak tourism season in Bethlehem, due to Easter and Spring holidays. The annual Palestine Marathon, which was set to be held in Bethlehem at the end of March, has also been cancelled.
Al-Abed said that he received a number of cancellations from German tourists, and tourists from countries that were put on a list by Israel to be immediately quarantined when entering the country.
“It’s not just the tourists who are scared, but the locals as well,” he said. “Just today I had a small tour in Hebron and Ramallah, and all the locals were really freaked out by the group I was guiding.”
Al-Abed told Mondoweiss that tour guides were expecting a spike in tourism this year, as the interest in “alternative tours” — tours showcasing the occupation and political conflict in Palestine — grew significantly in 2019.
“But now it’s looking like we could experience huge losses this year if things don’t recover quickly,” he said. “At this point, we just have to wait and hope for the best.”