By Linda Bordoni & Francesca Merlo
The Holy Family Hospital has been heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, but according to Michele Burke Bowe, Sovereign Order of Malta’s Ambassador to Palestine, the people of Bethlehem have not lost their Christmas spirit.
The Hospital 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.
Speaking to Vatican Radio, Ambassador Bowe describes some pictures she was given not long ago, on the Feast of St Barbara. On that day, one of the women who looks after the ladies on the ward overcame "the huge food insecurities" that have struck Bethlehem in order to keep alive hundreds and hundreds of years of tradition. She fed a huge batch of porridge-like traditional food to all the mothers and staff on the ward “bringing joy and radiance to their faces”.
This is just one example of the support this little hospital shows. The city is the poorest in the whole of Palestine, after Gaza, and since the lockdown started in March, “90% of the people living in Bethlehem have not received a salary”, says Ambassador Bowe. “A lot of people think that because it is a very Christian governate that it is wealthier” she notes. “It is not”. Ambassador Bowe explains that Bethlehem is “totally dependant on pilgrimages, restaurants, hotels” and tourism in general. “Any problem that strikes tourism, strikes Bethlehem”.
The hospital’s response
“The Hospital immediately shifted into pandemic gear” when the virus was found says Ambassador Bowe. Employees began 12 hour shifts and did not enter other departments and “an operating room turned into a covid isolation area”.
“71% of our employees are women, all looked for people to take care of their children so they could work these long shifts. They bravely stepped into action when there wasn’t even anybody in the streets, everything was closed, and they escorted pregnant women to the hospital.”
This was such a huge testament to their vocation, says Ambassador Bowe. “Their vocations as doctors, as nurses, midwives, technicians, cleaners… all coming together to care for the mothers and babies of Palestine”, she explained.
The scarcity of necessary equipment
At the beginning of the pandemic, “everyone in the world was scrambling” and trying to work out the correct protective gear to use, so "we just had to make do with what we had” says Ambassador Bowe. Through donations and grants, the Holy Family Hospital managed to do more than they had imagined. Ambassador Bowe explains that “Bethlehem is behind the separation wall. Everything that comes into Bethlehem has to come in through the State of Israel and there are often huge delays in getting things”. On top of the grants and donations, she adds, “some entrpreneurs in the south of Palestine began to make the masks and shields and covers, and so the PPE, which is much more expensive than regular supplies has been increasingly available”.
It was through another donation, from a group in Switzerland and a Church in the United States, that the Holy Family Hospital also received its own oxygen centre. Oxygen production has been essential to help those affected by the coronavirus, and Ambassador Bowe explains that thanks to the Hospital’s oxygen, they have been able to provide ill people in Covid centres with oxygen throughout the whole of the Bethlehem region.
Hope for the future
"My greatest hope is to end the pandemic", says Ambassador Bowe. "My hope is for pilgrims to return to Bethlehem, to see the joy and wonder of the birth of our saviour. To experience the hospitality of the people of Bethlehem, who in some way are all related to those original shepherds who saw the angels and climbed the hill to worship the Christ child".
Pilgrims returning to Bethlehem would bring the city's economy back and would "help restore the hope and health an joy in those faimilies" who celebrate Christmas all year round, says Ambassador Bowe in conclusion.
Finally, Ambassador Bowe asks for prayers: "Prayers for the safety of the mothers and babeies of Bethlehem," and for all the staff who continue to fight together to conquer the invisible enemy.. whilst never losing hope.
To discover more about the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem and to make a donation click here.