A Palestinian doctor checks the temperature of a child at UNRWA school in Gaza (photo: AFP)
The first two cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the besieged Gaza Strip on Sunday by the Palestinian Health Ministry.
Two Palestinian men — aged 79 and 63 — who had travelled from Pakistan and entered Gaza through Egypt tested positive for the virus late Saturday and have been in quarantine in Rafah, a town near the Egyptian border, since their arrival on Thursday, the Gaza Health Ministry said.
Because of Israel’s siege since 2007, movement on border crossings between Egypt and Israel is restricted and the vast majority of Gaza’s population of two million people are virtually prisoners in the enclave.
The fact that until this week there were no reported coronavirus cases in the Strip weeks after the virus spread in neighbouring Israel and Egypt testifies to the cruelty of the siege which cut off Gaza from the world for over 13 years.
On 14 March, Gaza reversed roles and closed its border crossings with both Egypt and Israel to stem the spread of the virus inside the coastal enclave. Schools, public markets and event halls have all been shut over the past two weeks. Almost 1,300 people returning from abroad have been placed into quarantine. Sanitation crews have been spraying disinfectant in streets and public buildings.
Belal Aldabbour, a Gaza-based medical doctor, said that the Strip’s best hope now is to “isolate itself completely from the world and delay the inevitable as much as possible, hoping a vaccine appears soon”.
Otherwise, “with a population density of 5,200 per square kilometre and poverty rate of 75 per cent, people will suffer both hunger and Covid-19 infection”.
UN humanitarian coordinator Jamie McGoldrick warned this week of the frightening consequences of any potential coronavirus outbreak in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza after the Islamist movement Hamas seized power in the coastal territory in 2007 following an election victory over its rival Fatah.
In 2012, a UN report predicted that Gaza would be unliveable by 2020, where basic infrastructure “is struggling to keep pace with a growing population”. Gaza has no air or sea ports, and the economy is heavily dependent on outside funding.
UN bodies, local and international NGOs and humanitarian agencies have long called for the end or easing of the Israeli siege, citing Gaza’s fragile health system which is on the verge of collapse. Incapacitated by wars, decades of systematic de-development, and impoverishment, Gaza has a severe water crisis, power shortages, high rates of unemployment and crumbling infrastructure.
In addition to severely restricting movement for the population, the Israeli blockade limits the import of medicines and other essential items. But Tel Aviv sent 200 coronavirus testing kits to Gaza in recent days.
According to +972, an independent Palestinian-Israeli online newspaper, Gaza has a total of 2,895 hospital beds, or 1.3 beds per thousand people, and 50 to 60 ventilators for adults.
Abdel-Nasser Soboh, head of the World Health Organisation’s sub-office in Gaza, said the Strip is only prepared to handle the first hundred cases of the virus. “After that, it will need further support.”
The health system is further aggravated by the emigration of many Palestinian health professionals due to Gaza’s economic crisis, according to +972. More than 35,000 Palestinians have left the Strip since 2018 alone, among them dozens of doctors and nurses. A Health Ministry official declared they would need at least 300 to 400 more doctors just to close the gap and meet the population’s minimum needs.
Gaza’s population density — an average of 6,028 persons per square kilometre — could make any effort to contain the spread of the virus futile.
“The threat of Covid-19 looming over Gaza is perhaps a last opportunity to say what many refuse to hear,” wrote Hamid Abuselim in +972. “Gaza’s problem is not a lack of humanitarian aid, as urgent as it may be. It is territorial, demographic and political.”
“Right now, while Israel’s Jewish citizens enjoy the land and its resources, Palestinians are denied that same right and barred from returning to their homeland. And while the international community largely focuses on the threat of Israeli ‘annexation’ of its illegal settlements in the West Bank, many do not care about the unnatural reality experienced by the people in Gaza,” Abuselim added.
UNRWA, the relief agency that feeds a million people in Gaza and runs 20 health centres, told the British paper The Independent on Monday that the organisation is two months away from completely running out of money.
Gaza officials told the paper that they only have eight ICU beds prepped for coronavirus cases and a week’s supply of protective kit, like masks, goggles and gowns for medics. Forty-two per cent of the essential drug list is missing, as is 60 per cent of supplies used for investigation and diagnosis.
Qatar announced $150 million in aid to the Gaza Strip over a period of six months, to support UN humanitarian programmes in the Palestinian territory and efforts to contain the new coronavirus outbreak, the state-run Qatari Committee to Rebuild Gaza said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly