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Foreign caregivers on frontline of Israel virus fight

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Each time Maria, an Indian care worker living in Israel, goes shopping she is consumed by fears of bringing the coronavirus into the home of the 91-year-old woman she looks after.

Maria is among tens of thousands of foreigners, mostly women from India and the Philippines, who care for Israel's elderly population, often while facing a precarious immigration status.

In normal times, they hardly stand out on Israel's busy streets lugging cumbersome bags of groceries or doing other daily tasks.

But as the virus has spread, foreign domestic workers have emerged as essential frontline caregivers.

Some faced expulsion to their home countries over visa violations before the crisis.

None are known to have been repatriated since the pandemic began.

In a telephone interview before a visit to the grocery store, Maria, 31, said she was "terrified of catching the virus and passing it on."

The woman she looks after in Jerusalem has severe Alzheimer's.

During the call she occasionally had to raise her voice to be heard above the inarticulate cries audible in the background.

"I used to be able to go out for half an hour when one of her (six) children visited," said Maria, who has lived in Israel for 11 years, and asked that her last name be withheld.

"But they all live outside Jerusalem, so they can't even help me with the shopping. I'm completely alone with her," she added.

"Between her screams and confinement, sometimes I feel like I am going crazy."

- 'Distress calls' -

Israel has recorded more than 14,300 cases of the novel coronavirus, including more than 190 deaths. The vast majority of fatalities have been among people above 70 years old.

While support for the elderly has become an urgent priority during the pandemic, working conditions for domestic caregivers like Maria have suffered, said Meytal Russo of the Kav La'oved organisation that protects the rights of foreign workers in Israel.

"We receive a lot of distress calls from domestic support workers, especially those working with elderly people who need a lot of care," she said.

With relatives unable to visit and offer assistance because of coronavirus restrictions, domestic helpers "are effectively working non-stop," she added.

Such unregulated working conditions are at odds with the strict residency rules Israel imposes on domestic workers.

The bureaucratic difficulty of extending a work permit beyond five years -- even if their employer continues to need their services -- means that many stay on illegally.

In many cases, having a baby in Israel also amounts to a work visa violation.

According to the NGO United Children of Israel, some 600 families were threatened with expulsion earlier this year before the pandemic, after delivering babies in the country in violation of their permits.

- Missing families -

Expulsions have been suspended amid the virus outbreak, but so too have trips home to see family -- rare visits often planned months in advance.

Francis Vaz, a 37-year-old Indian caregiver on the outskirts of Jerusalem, jumps on his phone each night as soon as the nonagenarian he cares for goes to bed.

"The hardest part of this crisis is not knowing when I will see my two-and-a-half year old daughter and wife again," he said.

"I was thinking of going to see them in December for Christmas. Now I don't know anymore."

On top of fears of infecting those they care for and longing for family, some are struggling with concerns that relatives at home may contract the virus.

"I think about it all the time and I'm scared," said a 40-year-old Filipino caregiver who works in Jerusalem and preferred her name be withheld.

"I'm afraid of catching the virus, afraid of transmitting it to the elderly woman I look after and afraid for my husband and two teenage sons under confinement in Manila."

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