Coronavirus: Bethlehem’s Holy Family Hospital at risk

The Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem is a specialized maternity and neonatal critical care center struggling to provide life-saving care to vulnerable families in the Holy Land as isolation and economic downfall impacts its capacity.

By Linda Bordoni

The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, affecting communities, villages, towns and cities across the world.

It has found its way into the Holy Land and into Jesus’ birthplace, Bethlehem, resulting in total shutdown and geographic isolation for the city and surrounding region since 5 March.  

The impact of the isolation is far-reaching and particularly risky for the most vulnerable, like those who receive life-saving care at Bethlehem’s Holy Family Hospital.

In 1989, at the request of Saint John Paul II, the Order of Malta took over the operation and management of the Hospital, converting it into a state-of-the-art maternity and neonatal critical care centre that serves women, infants, and children, throughout the Holy Land.

At the heart of its mission are the values of the Catholic Church. Regardless of religion, ethnicity, or ability to pay, no one is ever turned away. The Hospital stands as a beacon of hope for poor and at-risk families in the Bethlehem region, nearby desert villages, and refugee camps. 

The President of the Foundation that supports the Hospital is the Sovereign Order of Malta’s Ambassador to Palestine, Michele Burke Bowe. She spoke to Vatican Radio about how the current emergency risks undermining the work of the Hospital, putting the life of babies and their mothers at risk.Listen to the interview with Ambassador Michele Burke Bowe

Ambassador Bowe explains that the Palestinian Healthcare System is under huge duress and that the Hospital is suffering both because it is isolated within the walled city and because the increasingly impoverished people it serves are increasingly unable to support it.

“At Holy Family Hospital we deliver babies, about 4,800 a year; we have a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit that can care for babies as small as 500 grams – or 1 pound – and we are the only hospital in the region that can care for, and save babies, born before 32 weeks,” she says. 

It is the only critical care unit and the only Hospital equipped for high-risk pregnancies in the area, says Ambassador Bowe, noting it is a very important part of the fabric of the Palestinian Healthcare System.

She explains how the Hospital only employs Palestinian medical professionals and that it is a Catholic teaching hospital. Its mission is also to reach beyond the walls of Bethlehem with a Mobile Medical Unit that serves isolated villages and Bedouin communities.

A life-line for the entire region

The Ambassador expresses concern for the fact that, due to the current measures to contain the spread of Covid-19, patients are not able to come from the south because “not only is Bethlehem cut off, but each neighbourhood is cut off from the next.”

She says the Palestinian Minister of Health, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, is working hard to make sure there is humanitarian access.

Humanitarian crisis of an enormous scale

Ambassador Bowe elaborates on how the impact of the current situation on communities, that are already impoverished, has far-reaching consequences.

“I’m estimating that maybe only 10% of the people are able to receive salaries. Everything is closed like in much of the world, but it’s just a little more dire when everything is closed in a country under occupation, where prices are rising and they are already high because the Palestinian economy uses the Israeli shekel,” she says.

Impact of economic crisis on the Hospital

The Ambassador explains that, normally at Holy Family Hospital, patients are asked to pay, if they can, 50% of the actual cost of services, while the Foundation, along with other associations of the Order of Malta and generous donors from around the world, cover the rest of the costs.

“So if patients are poor, they have a sliding scale that goes down to zero. But what we’re seeing is maybe only 30% of the patients are contributing anything at all, and that’s going to have dire consequences on our hospital… being able to pay people, buy supplies and keep the lights on,” she says. 

Coronavirus infections in the Holy Land 

Ambassador Bowe says that on 18 March there were some reported cases of coronavirus infection. As elsewhere, she says, the Ministry of Health has tests kits from the WHO and people are being quarantined according to the guidelines. 

“So far, I’ve not heard of any cases in Gaza and we’re really praying for Gaza because they live in such tight borders. The refugee camps there are really packed and they just don’t have the infrastructure to take care of it,” she says, noting that also in Bethlehem there are three refugee camps “where people live in very, very tight quarters where a spread of the virus would just be untenable.”

Relations between Israel and Palestine

As diplomats, the Ambassador says, “we’ve been using some back door channels,” to try and counter difficulties caused by the complicated relations between Israel and Palestine.

“And I know that the health authorities in Palestine are working also with the Israeli health authorities to see what can be done,” she says.

And speaking about her specific concern, she says it’s an extremely serious humanitarian crisis, also because the Holy Family Hospital is a level three NICU “which means we can do all sorts of really technical medical services for the sick and premature babies, but we don’t do surgeries, we’re not a surgical hospital and right now we don’t have the ability to transfer a baby to Jerusalem for surgery.”

Hopefully, she continues, something will be worked out through governmental channels, “but the reality with these fragile new-borns is that when they need surgery (cardiac or brain surgery), they generally need it the same day,” and that could prove very difficult.

“So we’re just praying that the cases won’t be so complicated,” she says.

Looking ahead to a potential collapse of the Hospital’s budget due to economic hardship in the region, Ambassador Bowe appeals to people, “who are also in difficult economic situations at this time, to reach into their pockets, to help keep this Hospital afloat,” a hospital, she says, “that is only 1,500 steps from the manger where Jesus was born.”

Prayers for the Holy Land

The Ambassador also asks for special prayers for the Holy Land: “It’s such a blessed place, but it’s such a difficult place to live and particularly now, pray for our hospital, for the doctors, nurses, and midwives”. She invites people to contact the Order of Malta or the Hospital website for donations for the hospital.

“Because,” Ambassador Bowe concludes: “It would greatly help the mothers and babies of Bethlehem.” 

he Sovereign Military Order of Malta is a lay religious order of the Catholic Church since 1113.  A subject of international law, the Order, with its seat in Rome, has diplomatic relations with over 100 states and the European Union and has permanent observer status at the United Nations. The Order of Malta is active in 120 countries caring for people in need through its medical, social and humanitarian works.