Palestinians Are Concerned as West Bank and Gaza Hit COVID-19 Records

Amid 1,068 new daily cases – the highest number yet – the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are making do in part with a lockdown of institutions and businesses that violate health restrictions

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A Palestinian man and his wife ride a donkey cart past street art showing doctors mask-clad due to the coronavirus pandemic in the Nusseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, November 16, 2020.
A Palestinian man and his wife ride a donkey cart past street art showing doctors mask-clad due to the coronavirus pandemic in the Nusseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, November 16, 2020.Credit: MOHAMMED ABED / AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

A total of 1,068 new coronavirus cases were diagnosed on Tuesday, 486 of which in the West Bank and 582 in the Gaza Strip – the highest daily figure in the two Palestinian territories since the outbreak of the pandemic.

In addition, there were 90 new cases reported in East Jerusalem, boosting the number of active COVID-19 cases in the three locations to 9,335. Medical authorities in the West Bank say, however, that the actual number of infected residents is apparently triple the official data.

The new figures reflect a particularly major spike in cases considering that at the beginning of the week, there was an average 840 new cases a day and that last week the daily average ranged between 500 and 730. As of the middle of the day Wednesday, there were an additional 1,251 cases, including 600 newly diagnosed patients in the Gaza Strip.

A healthcare worker in protective gear collects a swab sample from a girl to be tested for the coronavirus in Gaza City September 21, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

Palestinian Auhtority Health Minister Mai al-Kaila has said that there are no plans to impose a full lockdown in the territory under its control in the West Bank, and that the PA is continuing to order isolated closures of specific areas or institutions and is enforcing required restrictions on the wearing of masks and social distancing.

The Hamas-run government that controls the Gaza Strip has ordered the closure of stores and a halt to commercial activity every evening from 5 P.M. to the following morning. This week, the authorities in Gaza reported that they had shut down 44 stores for violating the health restrictions and dispersed 19 gatherings at homes of mourners and at wedding celebrations. In addition, citizens have been detained for 48 hours for violating the regulations.

The traffic police in the Gaza Strip have issued dozens of tickets to motorists who were not wearing masks and unregistered merchant stalls have been removed from the streets. Repeat violators are subject to prosecution and 15 days in prison.

Palestinian police officers issue a ticket to a pedestrian who is not wearing a mask, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, October 21, 2020. Credit: AP Photo/Nasser Nasser

In the West Bank, the sharpest increases in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases over the past several days have been in the Nablus and Salfit districts. A special emergency committee has decided to halt traffic in the Nablus district between various villages and Nablus itself every day from 6 P.M. to 7 A.M. in the hope of curbing the spike in the pandemic.

In Bethlehem, in the middle of the week, the magistrate’s court and land registry department were closed after some of their employees were diagnosed with COVID-19. The four day shutdown is aimed at allowing medical personnel to identify who was present at the courthouse and land registry so they can be tested for the virus.

A special committee has also been established in the city to consider arrangements for Christmas celebrations amid the pandemic. In most years, the celebrations are a 50 to 60-day event, but this year they are expected to extend over just a few days during which there are to be limitations imposed on the events.

A combined total of 667 people have died of the coronavirus in the West Bank and Gaza since the outbreak of the pandemic, including 11 on Tuesday alone. The Hebron district, which is home to 760,000 residents, has recorded the largest number of fatalities – 214.

By comparison, in the Gaza Strip, which is home to about two million Palestinians, so far 54 people have died, including four as of earlier on Wednesday. In the Nablus district, which has a population of 400,000, the comparable figure is 69.

A Palestinian man with his children wearing protective face masks rides his motorcycle by police officers in Gaza September 22, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

On the other hand, the Palestinian health minister reported that medical teams that sought to do COVID-19 testing in the Hebron district were barred from doing so and expelled. She didn’t specify exactly where such incidents occurred but noted that a similar incident occurred in Kusra in the Nablus region.

Health Ministry spokespeople in Gaza and the West Bank have repeatedly said that the primary concern is over a possible increase in the number of patients requiring hospital care and the prospect that medical staff, medical equipment and other available resources could be insufficient to meet demand. At every possible opportunity, they have implored the population to comply with health directives and take proper precautions.

The Health Ministry spokesman in Gaza, Ashraf al-Kidra, said the failure to follow health regulations shows “incomprehensible disregard and apathy.” He took pains to note that at the beginning of the week, five young COVID-19 patients were in intensive care in Gaza – proof that the disease does not only affect older people, as many still think.

One partial explanation for the “disregard and apathy” in Gaza is reflected in data from a survey conducted in September by the Islamic Relief nonprofit organization among more than 2,000 laborers in various sectors in Gaza. Their average monthly wage has plummeted from $244 to $29. Ninety-two percent of those surveyed said they had not received any government assistance or non-governmental assistance in the form of food or financial help. They reported having to forgo medicine for sick relatives to buy food and about 82 percent reported suffering greater emotional distress than usual.

Palestinian employees wait to receive their wages via an ATM, amid the coronavirus outbreak, outside a bank in Gaza City November 2, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Under their circumstances, many of them perceive the threat from an unseen virus that they believe hits only a minority of the population as smaller than their concerns for the survival of their families.

Meantime in the West Bank, another hospital – Al Hilal in the Jenin area – has been converted to treat coronavirus patients, bringing the number of coronavirus treatment centers in the territory to eight. Another two hospitals will be added to the list shortly.

Seventeen medical staff have been trained in the past two weeks to treat coronavirus patients and another 40 are expected to undergo the training. This week a Russian medical team of three doctors and three nurses arrived in the West Bank to treat COVID-19 patients.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said the situation in Gaza is highly concerning and that his health ministry would soon supply the Gaza Strip with 15 additional ventilators.

Both the West Bank and Gaza are expected to receive coronavirus vaccines, once they are approved for use. Health Minister Al-Kaila said the Palestinians would receive the vaccines via the World Health Organization’s COVAX project, which has been working with a number of governments, international social welfare organizations and the private sector to supply the vaccine to poor countries.

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