On the Brink of Its Own Coronavirus Crisis, Gaza Appeals to Israel and the World for Help

Faced with shortages, poor equipment and a sore lack of protective gear, Gaza’s doctors work in fear, with everyone betting on underfunded prevention

Jack Khoury
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Palestinian health workers prepare a stretcher at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees school at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, March 18, 2020.
Palestinian health workers prepare a stretcher at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees school at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, March 18, 2020.Credit: AFP
Jack Khoury

Gaza’s Health Ministry issued an urgent appeal to the World Health Organization for critical medical equipment in the event of a coronavirus outbreak, with senior officials warning of catastrophic consequences if the virus manages to spread in the coastal enclave.

“We are asking the UN and the international community to give us immediate support, including ventilators and intensive care equipment to deal with the epidemic,” Health Ministry spokesman Dr. Ashraf al-Qudra told a press briefing on Tuesday.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 70Credit: Haaretz

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The ministry said there is an immediate need for some 150 ventilators to cater for Gaza’s two million people. According to a senior ministry official, there are currently only 65 machines, and they are already in very high demand. Most of the equipment used in hospitals is in poor condition, he warned, and there just won’t be any means to treat those who are ill if the virus spreads.

“We are focusing our efforts on preventing the virus from spreading and averting all possibility of contact with patients,” the official said, “we make sure that anyone arriving from Israel or Egypt immediately isolate themselves.”

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

“If there is a massive spread we will lose control and this will create a huge disaster,” he added.

Medical personnel at several hospitals in Gaza deplore the shortage of protective equipment as well as basic disinfectants. “The Hamas government is trying to send out the message that there is control, and that until now there have only been two cases, but we work in fear,” a doctor at a hospital in northern Gaza told Haaretz, “I don’t know what will happen if there’s an outbreak.”

Amid global shortage, little help forthcoming

“We know there is a worldwide shortage,” a doctor at Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital said, “but we expect the World Health Organization will be able to provide at least a few dozen machines immediately, and Israel as well, as the power in control of the border crossings. We expect Egypt too and other Arab countries to provide immediate aid, before it is too late,” he added.

Officially, Gaza should be receiving aid from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, but according to senior officials in the Gaza health system, and Israeli officials familiar with the matter, no assistance has been sent to fight the spread of the coronavirus. For the Hamas government, the matter is clear: “Israel bears full responsibility for the lives of 2 million civilians in the Gaza Strip,” al-Qudra told journalists on Tuesday.

A bride and groom arrive to take wedding pictures, Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip, March 23, 2020.
A bride and groom arrive to take wedding pictures, Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip, March 23, 2020.Credit: AFP

Israel acknowledges there’s a significant shortage in equipment, but besides several hundred testing kits and 1,000 protective suits for medical crews that were sent to Gaza via the WHO, there are no estimates for if and when further equipment will be provided, particularly ventilators, the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories told Haaretz. No medical equipment will be transferred from any Israeli hospitals to Gaza.

Earlier this week, international organizations held a training session for 30 Gaza physicians at a compound at the Erez border crossing - but resources are scarce and the main effort still focuses on preventing the entry of any people who are ill.

Gaza health authorities are using the few hundred test kits they have received in the past two weeks only on people coming in from outside, or those suspected of being in contact with people who have caught the virus.

According to al-Qudra, 144 people have been tested so far, and only two of them tested positive. Both were returning from Pakistan. The number of people in isolation has risen to 1420, while 1969 people are in home isolation after 102 were released in the past two days after their 14 day quarantines.

A man looks through a fence as he waits for Palestinians returning from abroad, Rafa border crossing, Gaza Strip, March 8, 2020.
A man looks through a fence as he waits for Palestinians returning from abroad, Rafa border crossing, Gaza Strip, March 8, 2020.Credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

‘It’s as though we are lepers’

Meanwhile, people returning to Gaza via the Rafah crossing with Egypt, and who have been put in isolation in schools and other centers, have complained of poor hygiene conditions and shortages in basic needs, such as food and drinking water.

“It’s as though we are lepers,” a person kept in confinement told Haaretz. “We have no problem remaining in isolation, but we should at least get basic amenities. We are eight people to a room, sleeping on classroom floors.”

“The question is whether we could spread the virus to each other, and then how would they stop it from spreading throughout Gaza,” they added. “The conditions we are being kept in are a recipe for the spread of infection and disease.”

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