COVID-19 and Israeli Bombs Leave Gaza’s Hospitals Badly Struggling

Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
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An emergency room in Gaza on Tuesday during Israel's airstrikes.
An emergency room in Gaza on Tuesday.Credit: Mohammed Abed / AFP
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab

The Gaza health care system, still battling the coronavirus, is having a hard time taking care of the wounded falling victim to Israeli airstrikes this week, Gaza health sources told Haaretz.

They say the enclave’s hospitals are suffering both a shortage of equipment and problems with the power supply. “The situation here is very difficult, I can’t describe the horror in words,” a Red Crescent coordinator in the Gaza Strip said.

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According to a Gaza resident who declined to be identified by name in an Israeli newspaper, “The number of wounded is constantly increasing. The bombings are in civilian areas, so there’s tremendous overcrowding in the hospitals. There’s a shortage of blood for the wounded. Everyone here is under pressure.”

A Palestinian boy receiving treatment at a hospital in northern Gaza.Credit: Mohammed Abed / AFP

Gazans of course remember the 2014 war and fear a deterioration of the current situation. Dozens of people, mostly Gazans, have been killed in this week’s airstrikes by Israel and rocket attacks from the Strip, the most intensive fighting between the two sides since the 2014 war.

Even before the pandemic and between episodes of fighting, Gaza’s health system suffered defective infrastructure and a shortage of equipment and staff. Most hospitals were not prepared to treat coronavirus patients. A report by Physicians for Human Rights this month includes data on a serious shortage of specialists, as well as full occupancy in the hospitals due to the pandemic.

While in Israel nearly 60 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, in the Gaza Strip the sick are still dying and the percentage of positive tests is high. By early May over 5 million people in Israel had been vaccinated, while for the West Bank and Gaza combined the number was about 300,000.

Prof. Iyad Khamaysi of the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa visited Gaza last week with a delegation from Physicians for Human Rights. “The health care system in Gaza faces many challenges, including old medical equipment and a shortage of disposable equipment. In Israel we throw this equipment into the trash after one use, and in Gaza they’re forced to use it repeatedly,” Khamaysi said.

A man carrying a wounded girl at a Gaza hospital.Credit: Mohammed Abed / AFP

He said Gaza’s electricity and water infrastructure was further slowing efforts. “The drop in the power supply during the day, sometimes reaching a total outage, undermines our ability to perform operations and respiratory activities,” he said, adding that the R number, the number of people each coronavirus carrier infects, was very high in the Strip.

“There is no possibility of establishing coronavirus wards, there is full occupancy of hospital beds, and I’m afraid they’ll have to evacuate or release these patients to provide urgent treatment for the wounded,” he said. “Treating the wounded will overburden the medical system, and the system for treating COVID-19 patients is also likely to reach the point of collapse.” Gaza residents are saying they have similar fears.

Dr. Mahmoud Said, a clinical psychologist who specializes in PTSD, was also in Gaza last week. “In the whole Gaza Strip there are only seven mental health centers, with only 20 to 30 patients. There’s a shortage of staffing; in each center there is one specialist and a nurse who accompanies him. Some have a social worker,” Said told Haaretz.

Due to the coronavirus, Israel tightened its blockade and restrictions on the Strip this year. Said added that the embargo has led to a shortage of medicine and slowed the development of doctors and other medical staff.

A wounded man being brought in for treatment in northern Gaza.Credit: Mohammed Abed / AFP

“It’s very hard to advance the health care system under a curfew. It’s impossible, for example, to hold conferences. Israel has to approve the list of medicines that arrive in Gaza, and very often some of them aren’t approved. That’s likely to harm patients who need psychiatric and antidepression drugs,” he said.

“Gaza residents are dealing with many traumas and are showing signs of distress that resemble the signs characteristic of prisoners. The mental health situation there is particularly serious due to the long curfew on the Strip that prevents exits and entries. This limited mobility clouds the people’s emotional health. Gazans are also dealing with an economic and existential struggle for survival, which causes prolonged emotional pressure.”

Sheren Falah Saab is taking part in the Haaretz 21 project that promotes voices from Israel’s Arab community.

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