Democracy
in the Shadow
of Coronavirus

"I'm not afraid. Israelis should be afraid. What are people without jobs to do?"

The residents of south Tel Aviv are less afraid of coronavirus than they are of its consequences: 10,000 refugees have been left without money for food and without a financial security net. Chaos is only a matter of time.

South Tel Aviv. Photo: Shomrim

Shomrim

March 29, 2020

Anyone who had forgotten, ignored, or was uninterested in the already explosive situation in south Tel Aviv־made worse by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic־received a horrifying sneak peek last Friday of the anarchy that could erupt in the area. Police officers trying to disperse a crowd of young asylum seekers at the neighborhood's stolen bike market met with angry opposition. A physical altercation ensued. Nobody, not the officers nor the rioting asylum seekers, were wearing protective measures such as gloves or masks.

Moti Katz, who lives near the old central bus station in south Tel Aviv and is a member of his neighborhood committee and other community organizations, got a close look at the brawl while accompanying Ynet News reporter Assaf Kamar. "The police went by the area maybe 10 times before the reporter got there and did nothing," Katz said. "When they saw the media had arrived, they probably wanted to show that there is enforcement, so they stopped and tried to disperse the youths, and that's what happened."

During a tour of the neighborhood on Wednesday afternoon, it appeared that the Israeli Ministry of Health's guidelines are, for the most part, being followed. Like in every other part of the world, it is the young people who are ignoring the rules. The problem is that in the central bus station area of Tel Aviv most of the residents are young men, asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan. They live in poverty and share crowded apartments, thus promoting the spread of disease and making any form of social distancing impossible. What's more, they sense the growing hostility and rejection from a society that has been trying to expel them in every possible way for the better part of the last decade.

Even in normal times, it would be hard to expect this group to show solidarity. But these days are far from normal. The coronavirus' economic tsunami is hitting asylum seekers with much greater force than any other group of people in Israel.

"There will be riots," said Moti Katz, who lives near Tel Aviv's old central station and is a member of his neighborhood committee. "Several police officers have told me that they let them go out for some air to prevent a violent outbreak. If people aren’t working for a while, the little money they have will run out and there will be anarchy."

"I anticipate a catastrophe," said Sari Bat־Ami, a social worker who runs the psychosocial department of Assaf, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. "I'm afraid that a month from now, entire families will become homeless. Not just individuals־who we must also help of course־but entire families. We have already seen landlords who have chosen this time to increase the rent for their refugee tenants."

"Imagine a family of six, two parents and four children, and the parents are out of work," said Sari Bat־Ami. "There is simply no money to pay for rent, bills, and food. Another thing this population doesn’t have is health insurance. As long as they are working, they are covered by their employers, but the moment they stop working, they lose that insurance, and this makes them even more vulnerable."

Moti Katz, for his part, is more concerned about the moment when all the stress factors־the pandemic, the financial strain, the frustration, and racism־just blow up. "In the last week, for example, cafes that cater to the Eritrean community are working as usual. They just leave the blinds half־closed so they look closed. When the police arrive to tell the owners to close, 20 people come out of each one of these cafes. ‘We’re just cleaning!,’ they tell the police. I hope to see some arrests of lockdown violators, be they Africans or Israelis. They will only learn the hard way. That said, it is important to mention that Eritreans with families are behaving differently. They are very afraid, and they are all following the instructions. You won't see a single Eritrean kid on the street nowadays."

So what will happen here when the financial hardship intensifies?

"There will be riots. Some police officers told me that they let them go out for some air to prevent a violent outbreak. If people aren't working for a while, the little money they have will run out and there will be anarchy."

Restaurants, hotels, everything is closed

In Israel today, there are some 30,000 adult asylum seekers, half of whom live in the southern Tel Aviv neighborhoods of Shapira, HaTikva, and Neve Sha'anan. The number of children is anywhere between 7,000 and 10,000; no one knows exactly, because the Israeli Ministry of Interior does not have a separate category for the children of asylum seekers and the children of foreign workers. The entire population, whose socioeconomic status is one of the worst in Israel even on a good day, has now been left without any social safety net.

"What we are seeing now is that this population has been completely marginalized," said Sari Bat־Ami. "There are many unemployed, maybe even the entire community. The Israeli restaurant association has reported that 10,000 asylum seekers were laid off this week. I estimate that the actual number is much higher, because the majority of jobs available to asylum seekers are in restaurants, hotels, and cleaning and maintenance services־all sectors that have completely shut down."

"This means that a very large part of the community has found itself at home. We are talking about extremely high percentages of the population. All the means that we Israelis have at our disposal at this very complex time are simply not available to them. They cannot sign on for unemployment."

South Tel Aviv. Photo: Shomrim

"Their very way of life־living in poverty in tiny apartments־increases the risk," said Sari Bat־Ami. "It means their ability to isolate is minimal to nonexistent, and that makes them a high־risk population. For single mothers, even if they still have a job, they cannot go because they have to stay home with their kids. There are many kids today who are at home without the option of remote learning. This is not the fault of the education system; they simply don’t have the means."

"If a family has three kids, you can be certain that they do not have three screens. The result is that all the means the government is providing us citizens to help us deal with this crisis are irrelevant to this population. Moreover, the regulations are not accessible enough to the Eritrean population. I'm experiencing a lot of stress from the community. I think people are less afraid of the disease and more afraid of the economic repercussions. Families that are not going to receive an income this month and maybe not even next month simply don’t have any reserves to fall back on."

"We are not afraid of corona, we’ve been through worse. But the government doesn’t take care of us, and I feel that no one there even remembers that we are here," said Berhe Teame, who runs the Eritrean Community School in Tel Aviv. "The first thing the government must do is give us back the money it is taking from us."

So what will happen?

"I have to say that the distress of this community will not impact only members of this community; it will impact all of us, especially those of us living in south Tel Aviv. I am not afraid of looting. This community does not have above־average crime rates. I am concerned about violence in general, because I can see that we are all under pressure, but not specifically within this community; here, I actually see a lot of mutual aid."

As a way of encouraging asylum seekers to leave and pressurizing them financially, the government has, for the past two years, collected 20% of the wages earned by asylum seekers into a special deposit fund that will only become available when they leave the country. Now, Sari Bat־Ami is calling on the authorities to return this deposit without the usual stipulations. In addition, she states, "We must make health insurance available to children and adults and allocate special resources such as setting up a designated quarantine area. We must establish an aid system that will answer all these special needs."

185 families on the "coronavirus list"

Berhe Teame, who runs the Eritrean Community School in Tel Aviv, said that members of the community are most frightened of starvation. "We follow the law and the health ministry’s directives," he said. "We are not afraid of corona, we have been through worse. But the government doesn’t take care of us, and I feel that no one there even remembers we are here. If something happens to us, history will remember that Israel did not help us. The first thing the government must do is give us back the money it is taking from us. This is our money! Think of the single mothers. They cannot work. They have to stay home with their kids with no money. Members of the community are trying to help, but there's little they can do because no one has work. Everyone is staying at home. Even if we want to help, there’s not much we can do."

Are you afraid of what might happen should the government keep holding on to the deposit funds?

"I am not afraid. Israelis should be afraid. You will be afraid," said Berhe Teame. "What are people without homes and without jobs to do? Do they have a choice? If a mother cannot feed her child and the community cannot help, what will the child do? Won’t the child do anything possible to bring home food?"

Over the last week and a half, social activist Yonit Naftali has done anything she can to try and stop members of the community from falling prey to starvation. The names and addresses sent to her phone multiply at the same rate as the numbers of confirmed Covid–19 cases. On Tuesday, her "coronavirus list" had 185 families signed up for food and assistance. In the few hours between morning and afternoon, 30 new families were added. In the coming days, the list, dubbed Food for the Soul, is likely to keep on rapidly growing.

"I anticipate a catastrophe," said Sari Bat־Ami, a social worker who runs the psychosocial department of Assaf, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. "I'm afraid that a month from now, entire families will become homeless. We have already seen landlords who have chosen this time to increase the rent for their refugee tenants."

"Unlike us, asylum seekers don’t receive unemployment benefits. The moment they are out of work, they have nothing," Yonit Naftali said. "This week, we started getting more and more requests for financial support, and we put together a group of activists to collect donations and buy food. We are supported by another food rescue organization that is assisting us with storage and giving us fresh produce and bread to allocate."

According to Yonit Naftali, food deliveries are dispersed primarily to families with children. "You don't have upper and lower classes in this community; everyone is in a lower socioeconomic class, but the single mothers, many of whom live with other single mothers, are the first to feel the impact. They are single providers and the moment they lose their jobs, they have nothing to fall back on. The next in line are people suffering from health and social problems. My biggest fear is hungry children walking the streets asking for something to eat, and I am already seeing that happening. When an entire community goes hungry, and is concentrated in one place, people will venture out in search of food. There is no other option. That is why we need a systemic solution."

"I know that large organizations like the city authorities and other agencies can take some time to mobilize, so, in the meantime, we are doing what we can. There is a nice mobilization of the general public and of bakeries that donate bread, but that is not enough."

Naftali reports that, in her opinion, many members of the asylum seeker community are in a dire psychological state. "They are terrified of the coronavirus. They are less informed about the disease and are in great distress. They don’t have the things that even the poorest Israelis have, they don’t know when this will end, and they have nothing to rely on. These are people who have no credit cards. The moment they run out of cash, they simply won't have bread tomorrow. These are people who are already living hand־to־mouth, and now their hand is empty."

Is the Tel Aviv Municipality aware of the ticking time bomb in its back yard? It appears so. Still, when confronted with questions about aid plans for starving asylum seekers and homeless families and the establishment of isolation locations for people who live in crowded apartments, the municipality directed us to the interior and welfare services ministries.

The Tel Aviv Municipality is, however, more than happy to report on its information campaign. This includes thousands of posters in English and Tigrinya listing the health ministry's directives, PA system announcements in English and Tigrinya, and the production and distribution of informative videos to prominent members of the community. The municipality also told us that its inspectors are patrolling the area and breaking up public gatherings, sanitation workers are cleaning the area intensively, and the police have shut down the brothels in the neighborhood.

In response to a request for comments, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Social Services said: "In addition to the ministry’s intense workload during this period, it is collaborating with other government ministries to provide a humanitarian response to Israel's asylum seekers who are impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. In the upcoming weeks, we expect to release detailed guidelines for social services departments."

A response from the Population and Immigration Authority stated: "The issue is under discussion. It involves legislation, and we are trying to find a solution, but it is not solely up to us."

The desperate are more desperate than ever

For the drug addicts and the homeless, the despair has never been deeper

A problem unique to south Tel Aviv which is unsettling local residents is the many homeless people and drug addicts that have been flooding the area for years־all the more so in the last two years. The small strides made by the municipality and the local police to appease residents have now gone by the board. Drug use and trafficking in the area was particularly noticeable this week as the streets emptied and the local police directed their efforts to other more pressing tasks.

Those passing by the tough streets of the central bus station area this week could see how the pandemic is affecting those who live on the outskirts of society. The addicts, the homeless, and the sex workers־many of whom suffer from severe mental problems־seem more lost than ever.

Every now and then, one can witness truly surrealist displays, such as the filthy and miserable homeless man who walks down Gdud Haivri Street with no shirt and no shoes, wearing blue medical gloves. Most other people seemed truly overwhelmed by the new status quo. On Tuesday afternoon, an addict was trying to panhandle on the typically busy junction of Chlenov Street and Begin Road, talking to herself in despair about the fact that the few cars going by were reluctant to stop and roll down their windows.

The next morning, another addict could be seen wandering in the middle of the junction between Har־Zion Boulevard and Kibbutz Galuyot Road with a particularly desperate expression. Four times the light changed from green to red, and not a single car was willing to chance exposure and give her a handout.

Neighborhood committee member Moti Katz says that while the asylum seekers community mostly follows the social isolation directives ("unfortunately, the young people are behaving much less responsibly, but that is a global phenomenon," he said), the homeless and the addicts are roaming the streets undisturbed.

The issue is particularly grave at the methadone station on HaMasger Street, where dozens of addicts gather in a hopeless attempt to score. The city, which has been trying for some time to shut down and relocate the station, is aware of the situation but says there is little it can do other than file yet another complaint with the health ministry.

Sharon Melamed heads the Tel Aviv Municipality’s Department of Social Services which routinely assists the local homeless and addicts. "The city operates shelters that are following the health ministry's directives," she said. "Following the city's appeal to the health ministry and the social services ministry, we have prepared a space that is suitable for the isolation of homeless people. The space (Kiryat Shlomo Hospital) has 30 beds and meets all the criteria and guidelines."

Melamed is unaware of any coronavirus cases among the city's homeless population but also does not know if any testing has been carried out among them. " We are working at full capacity even during this period and are patrolling the streets to keep the homeless population informed. Regarding food, we didn’t distribute food on the street even before this. Those who come to the soup kitchen operated by the Lasova organization will still receive a meal; they just can’t sit there to eat now but have to take the meal away with them."