Coronavirus: Gaza Joins International Panic

MOHAMMED OMER

Palestinians work on the production line of sterilizing gel at a cleaning materials factory in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, March 17. Gaza authorities declared a new set of precautionary measures amid concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus in the coastal enclave. (MAJDI FATHI/NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2020, pp. 8-9

Gaza on the Ground

By Mohammed Omer

MORE THAN 180 COUNTRIES have already reported cases of novel coronavirus—from China, Italy, South Korea, Iran and Japan—and all are struggling to deal with the deadly virus. Less visible in the headlines is that it has also hit the West Bank, Israel and Egypt. In this pandemic virus, Gaza is not an exception.

Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, Gaza was suffering from the lack of medical supplies and medicines, due to the harsh Israeli blockade. With only 3,000 remaining hospital beds available to the 2 million people living under military occupation, Gaza doctors dread the onslaught of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The United Nations has issued repeated warnings about the collapsing Gaza health system resulting from the 13-year siege and repeated Israeli military assaults. Now, Gaza is panicking as it is facing the deadly virus with primitive equipment and ill-equipped hospitals.

As of this writing, Gaza has 12 confirmed cases. The enclave also lacks sufficient testing kits, with Israel providing just 200 kits in March. At the same time, Israel boasted that its Mossad intelligence service was able to procure 500,000 test kits from undisclosed nation(s).

The Ministry of Health in Gaza has already enforced the medical isolation for 1,400 Gazans suspected of having contracted the virus from their travels to Egypt, the West Bank and Israel. The continuing outbreak of the COVID-19, in the West Bank has raised a number of concerns and dilemmas among people in Gaza about how to contain the virus if it spreads. Policemen began inspecting passengers at Rafah Crossing with Egypt, but appear with simple masks that provide no protection to travelers or police officers. In mid-March, the Gaza Ministry of Health turned a school East of Rafah into a quarantine space for incoming Gazans who have been to Egypt.

“We are not safe—there is no system put into place,” says Majed Taha, father of four children, who decided to stop his kids going to school even before the official decision came to close all schools in Gaza.

“Gaza is the worst place to have such deadly coronavirus—hospitals are simply not ready,” he added. Even under normal circumstances, “it takes months to wait for a surgical intervention in Gaza.”

Recently, B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, spoke of an unprecedented health crisis in the besieged Gaza as the barely functioning hospitals desperately tried to deal with the thousands of injuries resulting from the “Great March of Return.” Desperate young people have been demonstrating every Friday on the Gaza side of the dividing fence with Israel since March 2018, protesting the closure, unemployment, and shortages of goods and opportunities. An estimated 190 people have been killed and more than 9,300 have been injured, including 6,106 injured by snipers leading to life-changing wounds in many.

The U.S. cut in all aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)—the organization dedicated to assisting Palestinian refugees—has made the situation even more acute than any time before. The United Nations has declared that Gaza health care is at “breaking point.”  

In March 2019, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory Jamie McGoldrick warned of “chronic power outages, gaps in critical services, including mental health and psychosocial support, and shortages of essential medicines and supplies.”

Meanwhile, Qatar has pledged $10 million to help Gazans deal with the coronavirus outbreak and the World Bank has transferred a grant of $7 million to Palestinians to address the coronavirus crisis.

Unable to access goods, Gaza is experiencing a lack of protective gear for hospital medical teams as well as testing kits. Even hydrogen peroxide is currently banned from entering Gaza. The Strip only has 60 breathing machines, which are vital for treating serious cases of the virus. There is also a limited number of qualified staff members to deal with the crisis. No one knows if the pledged assistance will translate into immediate actions. If history is any indication, the answer is no.

On March 19, Michael Lynk, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, said he is worried about the potential impact of the novel coronavirus on Gaza due to its collapsing health system. He urged Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to live up to their international legal responsibilities.

“I am particularly worried about the potential impact of COVID-19 on Gaza. Its health care system was collapsing even before the pandemic,” said Lynk.

“Its stocks of essential drugs are chronically low. Its natural sources of drinkable water are largely contaminated. Its electrical system provides sporadic power. Deep poverty amid appalling socio-economic conditions is prevalent throughout the Strip,” he added.

“Coronavirus is a death sentence to all of us here in Gaza,” says Nida’a Abu Saleem, a 21-year-old student.

“Being locked in a cage, we thought we were protected, but in fact, one patient is all it takes to put 2 million at risk,” she added. “The one thing that I know for sure, is that with the coronavirus outbreak becoming a global concern—Gaza will remain in the margins, without much media attention.  

“We never made a choice to live in a cage, and we should not die in that cage either,” she concluded.

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