Only 16% of West Bank, Gaza Adults Got Two Shots of COVID Vaccine

As an occupying power, Israel has an obligation to provide suitable health services to the Palestinians, says Physicians for Human Rights

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Students getting COVID shots in Ramallah on Sunday
Students getting COVID shots in Ramallah on SundayCredit: Majdi Mohammed/ AP

Only around 16 percent of Palestinians eligible for coronavirus vaccination have received their second dose since the global vaccination campaign began in late 2020, and only 30 percent have received even one dose.

According to Palestinian Health Ministry data, 655,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and 220,000 in the Gaza Strip have so far received at least one dose of the vaccine against the virus SARS-CoV-2. The number of Palestinians eligible for vaccination stands at 2.8 million, out of a total population of 4.9 million.

On Monday, the Palestinian Authority launched a vaccination campaign among West Bank residents aged 16 to 18. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said the West Bank currently has 70 vaccination centers.

According to the World Health Organization, the PA has received 2.8 million doses of vaccine over the past several months, mainly through the COVAX program. The remainder were purchased by the PA or donated, mainly by China and the United Arab Emirates.

The Palestinians would need twice as many doses to fully vaccinate all 2.8 million eligible recipients, but even many existing doses remain unused.

A senior member of WHO’s delegation to Gaza said that “the response rate has been low” to the vaccination campaign the organization launched in Gaza a few weeks ago. “That necessitates explaining and raising awareness of the vaccines’ effectiveness.”

Queue for coronavirus vaccines in Gaza, two weeks ago.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS - AFP

Gaza’s health system is still recovering from the impact of May’s war between Hamas and Israel, as well as from previous waves of the virus, he said. Moreover, he added, there’s a shortage of anesthesia due to import restrictions imposed by Israel, and this has affected the performance of operations.

“Gaza’s health system has limited resources, and treating coronavirus patients has led to additional shortages,” he said. “It’s barely functioning.”

A nonnegligible number of Palestinians are evidently afraid to get vaccinated. The ministry’s Facebook posts on the vaccine have received a plethora of comments claiming that the vaccine is deadly, or that the Palestinians are being given inferior vaccines.

Others protested the fact that the PA has imposed sanctions on the unvaccinated to encourage vaccination. Last week, for instance, Shtayyeh announced that PA employees who don’t get vaccinated would be put on unpaid leave. Getting vaccinated, he said, isn’t an issue of “personal freedom,” because “freedom ends when you are hurting others.”

A medical source from the West Bank said he feared that prejudices and inaccurate information about the vaccines were slowing vaccination rates among adults, especially people over 60. “Older people fear the side effects, like heart problems and stroke,” he said. “Some are basing themselves on incorrect information published on social media.”

On Monday, Physicians for Human Rights issued a report titled “This is How Israel Evades Its Responsibility for Palestinians’ Health” on the Palestinian health system, including how it has coped with the coronavirus, and how Israeli policy has affected Palestinian healthcare. The data in the report is dated to April but the organization says that now, there have been 1,062 daily coronavirus tests for every million Palestinians, compared to 14,000 for every million Israelis. Therefore, data from the West Bank and Gaza doesn’t necessarily reflect the real spread of the virus.

Moderna vaccines against the coronavirus in the West Bank, donated by the U.S., last weekCredit: Majdi Mohammed/AP

Over the last day, 2,411 new cases were reported in the West Bank and Gaza. The West Bank currently has 52 patients in intensive care, including five on ventilators. The intensive care occupancy rate is 60 percent.

One of the pandemic’s main effects on the Palestinian health system, the report said, stems from the fact that it depends on patients being referred from Gaza and the West Bank to hospitals in East Jerusalem or elsewhere in Israel. This requires the patients to obtain entry permits from Israel. Gazan patients also need Israeli permits to go to hospitals in the West Bank.

But due to the restrictions on movement due to the coronavirus, patients’ access to such hospitals has been delayed or prevented entirely. The affected patients include many being treated by oncologists or cardiologists at East Jerusalem hospitals.

The report said that under the Geneva Convention, Israel, as an occupying power, has an obligation to provide suitable health services to the Palestinians. But ever since the Oslo Accords transferred responsibility for civilian affairs to the PA, Israel has evaded its responsibilities in this regard, it charged.

Israel has so far given the Palestinians 4,500 doses of the Moderna vaccine and has also vaccinated 100,000 Palestinians working in Israel or the settlements itself. A deal under which it would have given the PA another million doses was scrapped after the PA claimed it hadn’t been told the doses were due to expire soon.

The report said that most West Bank hospitals did not open dedicated coronavirus wards. Instead, a few hospitals were designated as coronavirus hospitals. It attributed this decision to the general weakness of the Palestinian health system.

Getting an anti-coronavirus vaccine, Ramallah, last year.Credit: Nasser Nasser / AP

While a strong health system like Israel’s can afford to create a COVID ward in every hospital, it said, “A weak health care system, which oversees small hospitals with meager resources, cannot. Instead, despite the restrictions on freedom of movement, it must refer COVID-19 patients to hospitals far from their homes.”

The medical source from the West Bank agreed that this decision stemmed from the fact that most hospitals lacked the necessary resources and personnel for a coronavirus ward. But the designated hospitals were insufficient to meet the population’s needs, he added, and their staff suffered enormously under the caseload.

During the previous wave of the virus, he added, one of the biggest problems was a shortage of ventilators. “The number of patients was bigger than the number of ventilators. That’s a very difficult situation for the doctors and health experts, who have to decide who to put on ventilators.”

The report also compared general health differences between Israel and the West Bank. For instance, the average lifespan in 2018 was 75.9 years in the West Bank compared to 82.8 years in Israel. Infant mortality that year was 12.8 per 1,000 births in the West Bank, four times the Israeli rate of 3.1 per 1,000 births. And the mortality rate for children under 5 was 20.9 per 1,000 in the West Bank compared to 2.9 per 1,000 in Israel.

Moreover, it said, the West Bank had only 1.45 doctors per 1,000 people that year, less than half of Israel’s 3.14 per 1,000 people.

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