Movement restrictions and isolation for East Jerusalem health workers amid the pandemic

“We witnessed the suffering and sometimes the death of our patients, which had a painful impact on us as medical teams,” said Hassan*, a senior intensive care unit (ICU) and emergency doctor working in an East Jerusalem hospital, reflecting on the immense pressures he and his colleagues have been under during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We sometimes felt helpless despite our tremendous efforts to help them. More importantly, most of our patients were from Gaza or the West Bank, and some did not have companions [with them], so we felt bad that they were isolated from their families.”

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, living under occupation and blockade, face significant barriers to accessing effective treatment and care. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic across the occupied Palestinian territory, lockdown restrictions and Israel’s permit system have limited the ability of vulnerable Palestinians to access specialist medical services, particularly in East Jerusalem.

Healthcare workers are also affected by restrictions on freedom of movement. Hassan lives in Hebron and, particularly during the early stages of the pandemic, has to cross not only Israel’s checkpoints and separation barrier on his way to work, but also checkpoints imposed by the Palestinian Authority in order to limit the spread of the disease. “Heading to work was an impossible mission back then,” he said.

Due to the barriers on travel, the hospital Hassan worked at eventually provided accommodation in Jerusalem for staff members. He stayed in a hotel for three months but was separated from his family. “Although it was a relief to know that I will not infect my family or have to go through several checkpoints on my way to work, I felt isolated and lonely,” said Hassan.

Mohamad*, an ICU nurse, is also from Hebron and travels to work at the same hospital as Hassan. Staying in the hospital’s temporary accommodation caused Mohamad to feel anxious and stressed about being isolated from his family. “I felt guilty for not being around my family,” he said. “My wife and my daughter used to call me daily and the phone call used to last 40 to 45 minutes, but I did not feel it was enough.”

The Delta variant of COVID-19 in the West Bank has raised fears that a fourth wave of cases could be on the horizon in Palestine, threatening to put more pressure on the Palestinian healthcare system. This would inevitably exacerbate the burdens and workload placed on health workers like Hassan and Mohamad, and compound the serious impact of the pandemic on their mental health. “It was a very challenging experience and it is still ongoing,” said Hassan. “Everyone was stressed: the public and the medical team. We did not know what we were dealing with.”

As the occupying power, Israel is responsible under international humanitarian law for the health and welfare of the Palestinian people under its control, must therefore ensure the population’s access to adequate medical treatment. This includes removing barriers to freedom of movement for patients, their companions, and healthcare workers, so that medical treatment can be accessed and delivered effectively, particularly in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

You can read MAP’s new briefing on the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of healthcare workers here.

Read the briefing

*Names changed to protect identities.

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