BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The coronavirus has wreaked unprecedented havoc globally, and Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Redeemer, has not been spared. A Catholic hospital devoted to caring for mothers and babies in the city is struggling to keep its doors open during the crisis.
“I’ve spent time here during the Gaza War, and things were tense; but this is really the worst I’ve seen it,” Michele Burke Bowe, president of the foundation that supports the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem, told the Register. “It’s a perfect storm.”
Normally, 4,800 babies are delivered each year at the Catholic teaching hospital located on the West Bank, just 1,500 steps from the birthplace of Christ. It’s a state-of-the-art maternity and neonatal critical care center serving women and infants throughout the Holy Land. Its motto is “No one is ever turned away,” regardless of religion, ethnicity or ability to pay.
Since March 5, however, the entire region has been locked down in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus. Bowe says she was the last person out of Bethlehem on March 6 when she flew home to Washington, D.C. She has been speaking daily with doctors and administration at the hospital who say the situation is worsening by the day, primarily because of economic collapse in the region and services, including life-saving emergency surgeries for infants, are no longer accessible.
“The situation has really deteriorated. The lockdown is really tight,” Bowe said.
The 30,000 or so inhabitants of Bethlehem are used to dealing with economic strain. Ordinarily, the flow of people, commodities and capital is severely restricted in the Israeli-occupied walled city. Unemployment is high — among youths 17 to 23, for example, it’s as high as 90%. About 75% of the hospital’s patient population have an income of roughly $800 per month in a region where prices have soared year on year and where a loaf of bread, for example, costs $4. Political stability and economic survival has depended largely on the help of numerous Christian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and on a steady flow of pilgrims and tourists to the Holy Land.
With the COVID lockdown, however, tourism is nonexistent, and most NGOs have vacated the city, which is now isolated even from surrounding villages and communities. Unemployment has skyrocketed. “Even during intifada [Palestinian uprisings against the Israeli occupation on the West Bank] there were many more NGOs there helping people, but the pool has greatly shrunk,” said Bowe.
“It’s just devastating for people to not have their salaries,” said Bowe, especially those who are supporting extended families of a dozen or more members. Stores have extended credit to people right now, and some women’s groups are doing their best to check in on one another, bringing food to those without, for example. “Neighbor is helping neighbor, but it’s the story of stone soup,” Bowe said. “I just don’t know how long it’s tenable.”
Bowe, who is ambassador for the Sovereign Order of Malta, which took over Holy Family Hospital from the Daughters of Charity in 1987 at the request of Pope John Paul II, said the hospital staff is also very worried about being able to get seriously ill infants to the hospital in Israel if they require surgery. Specialized surgery is not provided at Holy Family Hospital, though delivery and neonatal care are. The hospital has routinely cared for premature infants weighing as little as 1 pound, and its youngest surviving patient was just 23 weeks and five days from conception.
Ordinarily, if a baby requires emergency surgery for a cardiac anomaly, for example, Holy Family would find a hospital in Jerusalem willing to treat and take the baby to a checkpoint, where the child would be transferred and taken to the surgical hospital.
“That’s not possible right now,” said Bowe. “There is a 30-foot wall drawn across the road, so if we have a baby born at the hospital that needs a same-day cardiac surgery, I just don’t think we would be able to work with the authorities to get that. We have lots of miracles at Holy Family Hospital, and that would be a miracle. I’m a little pessimistic now, with this great fear of COVID. With neonates, every minute matters. These babies need oxygen to the brain, and delays really affect what kind of life they may have.”
As well, Bowe said that the hospital’s mobile unit has been grounded. Equipped with midwives and basic medical equipment, it travels into the desert to deliver babies among the refugee camps and the Bedouin, the nomadic people whose ancestors include the shepherds who saw the angels and worshipped the Infant Jesus. So far, women in labor have been traveling great distances to the hospital and been allowed through checkpoints, but Bowe says that the current situation will put women and babies lives in danger if they cannot travel and are forced to deliver alone at home.
The hospital itself is struggling to keep running. “We’re going to have to take some drastic measures to keep our doors open,” said Burke. The cost of supplies has soared, and patients who are usually asked to pay 50% of the cost of care, if they can, have not been able to pay at all. This week, the hospital board decided to cut pay to the doctors and other staff at the hospital.
On March 12, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly sent five trucks of food to Bethlehem after 30 Palestinians were identified as having COVID-19 and 3,654 people were quarantined in the West Bank. “Even the Palestinian Authority is short on cash,” said Bowe. Because of high duties they pay on goods that cross checkpoints and the loss of production within the community, there is little coming in the way of aid.
Besides the fallout of the pandemic declaration, there is the specter of the coronavirus itself. As of March 26, there has been one death among the 84 cases identified in the region, including nine in Gaza. Seventeen patients with the disease, including one toddler, had fully recovered.
Burke said Holy Family Hospital has taken all the recommended measures for hand-washing and cleaning to prevent infection. Celebrations of births at the hospital, which are usually such a joyous occasion, have been severely restricted, said Burke. “Normally, our halls are filled with the family members; it’s a lively scene of people rejoicing and passing out chocolates.” Now, she says, only one visitor is allowed. “I can’t imagine how we could possibly sustain an outbreak.”
“2020 was supposed to be the year of prenatal care,” Bowe said. “We were supposed to accelerate, getting women the 10 prenatal visits they are supposed to have, removing barriers to care and increasing the care for postmenopausal women, cancer screening and so on. We were making great progress.” The declaration of the coronavirus pandemic put everything in reverse.
“Right now, the joy is suppressed by the fear, but it will come back,” said Burke. “What we’re asking for now are prayers and donations; and when it’s all said and done, we’re asking that people come back and make pilgrimages to see the beauty of the place where Jesus was born and the holiness and the hospitality of the people. The veil between heaven and earth is really very thin in Bethlehem. I’m hoping that by this fall, we’ll have this behind us.”
By: Celeste McGovern