Doctors Warn of Gaza Strip’s Collapse After First Coronavirus Cases Surface

Medical and human rights organizations call on Israel to lift its blockade of the Strip to boost supplies of medical equipment and protective gear

Jack Khoury
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A man wears a mask in a bakery in Gaza City on March 22, 2020.
A man wears a mask in a bakery in Gaza City on March 22, 2020.Credit: REUTERS / MOHAMMED SALEM
Jack Khoury

The announcement Sunday that the first two cases of the coronavirus had been diagnosed in the Gaza Strip transformed the situation there from a state of readiness for the prospect that the virus would surface in the densely populated enclave to a sense of major anxiety.

“We knew that it would reach here too, and that has made everyone tense,” a Gaza resident told Haaretz. Even though the two patients diagnosed in Gaza contracted the virus in Pakistan and have been in isolation since returning, Gazans remain on edge. “Maybe they had contact with an employee at the border crossing or with someone else who is not in quarantine,” another Gaza resident said. “The concern is that we will ultimately lose control, and everything will explode. That’s what’s making everyone anxious.”

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 70Credit: Haaretz

The concern that Gazans have felt over the pandemic went up another notch Sunday with an announcement that 29 people who had contact with the two Gazans would also have to be quarantined. They include a Hamas commander in the general security service in Gaza, Tawfik Abu Na’im, and his deputy as well as a district governor.

In response to the threat, hospitals in the Strip have shut down all of their outpatient clinics.

Following the diagnosis of the first two patients, Israel’s Physicians for Human Rights organization urgently requested that the director general of the Israeli Health Ministry, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, provide assistance to medical authorities in Gaza, including medical equipment that it lacks due to its reliance on Israel. Although the enclave also shares a border with Egypt, Israel controls access to most of the Gaza border crossings.

“Dealing with the corona crisis in the Gaza Strip is dependent upon Israel’s control of the border crossings,” said Ghada Majadle, the director of the occupied territories department at Physicians for Human Rights. “In light of the ongoing siege, Israel is responsible by virtue of international law to provide the required means to the Health Ministry in Gaza.”

Officials said that the Strip has only 70 intensive care hospital beds and that its hospitals are not well-equipped with disinfectant or with masks or protective suits for medical personnel. The international cooperation director of Gaza’s Health Ministry, Dr. Abdul-Latif al-Hajj, also warned of shortages in respirators.

Medical professionals in the Strip have expressed concern that the territory lacks the equipment and expertise to address a coronavirus outbreak, particularly in an enclave that is so densely populated. Officials in Gaza and representatives of human rights groups have called for the lifting of the Israeli blockade and for permitting large quantities of medical equipment to be sent in. According to Gaza Health Ministry Spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra, the situation calls for international pressure on Israel to permit the serious shortages of medical equipment to be addressed.

According to accounts given to Haaretz, there has been a significant drop in the number of people on the streets of Gaza City and other major towns in the Strip since the two cases were diagnosed. As in Israel, many Gazans have been stocking up on food, even though there is no shortage. As in the past, it appears that the real problem isn’t a shortage of merchandise, but that many Gazans are strapped for cash.

A mother of five who asked not to be identified by name didn’t conceal her fear over what might be to come: “We constantly hear messages to calm us down, as if everything is under control, but who knows what could happen if the disease explodes? The idea that [even] the major world powers are having trouble dealing with the disease terrifies us.”

Government authorities in Gaza as well as the Hamas Islamist movement are meanwhile attempting to project a sense that things are indeed under control. The police and the security forces affiliated with Hamas have issued new directives banning all gatherings, including people congregating at retail centers, wedding halls, restaurants and cafes, or any place of entertainment.

The Gaza port, including cafes there, has been shut down. Fishermen have been allowed to go out to sea, but the fish market will be closed.

A woman wearing a protective mask browses food supply items in Gaza City on March 22, 2020.
A woman wearing a protective mask browses food supply items in Gaza City on March 22, 2020.Credit: MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

Police have even barred gatherings at mosques and have prevented families from putting up mourning tents following the deaths of loved ones. Weddings cannot be held at either wedding halls or in private spaces. On Sunday, pictures surfaced of a bride and groom wearing surgical masks leaving the bride’s home in the presence of a very small group of friends. They had no party.

Government offices in Gaza have begun operating on an emergency footing, providing only basic services. Only essential staff are coming to work, even at the health and interior ministries.

Of major concern in Gaza is how to prepare the health care system for a major coronavirus outbreak. Large numbers of Gazans who have returned to the territory are in quarantine, including those who have returned from Israel.

According to official data, there are 2,071 residents of the Gaza Strip in home quarantine, in addition to the 1,271 at special isolation facilities. In addition, 637 Gazans have left two weeks of quarantine after it was found that they were not infected. Beyond several existing medical facilities that have been converted to isolation units, 14 isolation facilities have been opened, including two at hotels as well as a closed compound at Rafah.

In the event they are needed, all 700 rooms at Gaza’s hotels and other overnight accommodations will be converted into isolation areas, a senior Gaza Health Ministry official said, and schools would also be used.

The director of Gaza’s outpatient hospital clinics, Dr. Mazin Hinde, said that although border crossings out of Gaza have been shut down, Gazans are still permitted to return to the territory, and they may not understand the seriousness of the situation there. “The problem is that there isn’t sufficient preparation when it comes to the return of patients to Gaza, since they are running the risk of being infected outside [of Gaza] and then infecting others in the Strip. That’s the main concern,” he said.

Medical personnel warn that Gaza was on the verge of collapse even before the pandemic, noting that just five years ago, a United Nations report cautioned that the Strip could become unfit for habitation by 2020. But the coronavirus threat actually surfaced at a time when contacts have been underway with Israel and Egypt in an effort to head off any such collapse.

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