Under blockade and bombs, Gazans fear Covid-19 disaster

Under blockade and bombs, Gazans fear Covid-19 disaster
5 min read
28 August, 2020
Fear has gripped Gaza after the first community outbreak of Covid-19.
Gaza is one of the world's most densely populated territories. [Getty]
Worry and fear have gripped the densely populated Gaza Strip after the first public outbreak of Covid-19, prompting authorities to immediately announce a lockdown and curfew until Sunday.

Officials confirmed four cases of Covid-19 from a single family in Al-Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza, with a further 80 cases reported in three days across the coastal enclave.

Since the start of the pandemic, Palestinian officials and international health figures have expressed concern about the potential impact of the virus on Gaza, one of the world's most densely populated territories with a severely debilitated health sector.

Despite the global spread of coronavirus, extreme Israeli restrictions on movement in and out of the besieged territory have curtailed the transmission of the virus. 

In order to limit the spread of Covid-19, Palestinian authorities have imposed a strict 21-day quarantine in official facilities for anyone returning from abroad. Until the recent outbreak, Gaza had recorded 109 confirmed cases and one death, all amongst those in government-run quarantine facilities.

The entire Gaza Strip has been placed under lockdown since the discovery of the new cases, with schools, universities, mosques, shops, and markets all closed. There are now a total of more than 117 active Covid-19 cases, with three recorded deaths.

Gaza's only power plant was forced to shut down last week after Israel cut fuel supplies, triggering a severe electricity crisis

"We made great efforts during the past period to prevent the virus from finding its way into the Gaza Strip, and we now are making greater efforts to prevent its spread within society," Gaza's Ministry of Health spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qidra told The New Arab.

"We expected that the virus would ultimately (infiltrate) the Gaza Strip due to the nature of the virus, human error and points that cannot be controlled," he added, noting that the ministry cannot determine the source from which the virus entered. Given the density of Gaza, "every case of coronavirus infection may result in hundreds of new cases," he said. 

Read more: What the coronavirus outbreak means for
Palestinian refugees

Authorities are taking samples from residential areas where infections have been reported, but a lack of equipment is hindering efforts to contain the outbreak. 

"We have a shortage in testing swabs, medicine, alongside the electricity crisis, all this affects our work with respect to fighting the epidemic," Al-Qidra told TNA. "The international response for the medical aid we're asking for is minimal and doesn't meet our needs".

Palestinian health officials in Gaza have on multiple occasions in the past few days called on international health organisations to take concrete steps to support the health sector in the Gaza Strip. 

In addition to enforcing a lockdown, security services in Gaza have restricted access between major cities with cement blocks, sand barriers, as well as checkpoints in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus. 

Gaza's interior ministry said that they may have to resort to closing down squares and public spaces if the situation worsens. The European Hospital in Gaza has been designated as a treatment centre for those infected with coronavirus. 

Israel's blockade has devastated Gaza's vital economic and civic sectors, most notably the health system

Israeli blockade 

The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007 that has devastated all of the coastal territory's vital economic and civic sectors, most notably the health system. Even before Covid-19 there were 50 percent shortages of medicines, medical equipment and laboratory supplies. 

Al-Qidra says that if the situation gets worse the Ministry of Health may have to suspend other services in order to tackle the pandemic.

"The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is concerned that the already stretched health system in Gaza would not be able to deal with more than a few dozen coronavirus patients who need the ICU," Suhair Zakkout, ICRC spokesperson in Gaza, told The New Arab.

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"Gazans can't face the virus alone. They need all the international assistance they can get to make sure they are equipped to deal with this crisis. We also urge all authorities and entities concerned to find an immediate solution to the fuel shortage in the Strip," he added. 

The ICRC has provided supplies and equipment, including vital ICU equipment, chlorine, personal protective equipment (PPE) and hospital supplies, and carried out infrastructure improvements in the hospital assigned to treat Covid-19 patients in Gaza. However, Zakkout said that "this cannot cover all the needs." 

In a survey done by the ICRC last month, the people of Gaza were the most concerned among Palestinians that the health system could not respond to an outbreak of the virus.

Israel has bombed Gaza almost daily since 6 August in response to incendiary balloons

To make matters worse, Israel cut fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip in response to incendiary balloons launched from the territory to pressure Israel to ease the blockade. Israel has bombed Gaza almost daily since 6 August in response to the airborne devices.

The end result was that Gaza's sole power plant was forced to shut down, triggering a severe electricity crisis and daily power outages of up to 20 hours a day. 

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The lack of power disrupts sewage treatment and pumps, meaning water is in short supply in the midst of a pandemic in which handwashing is a vital preventative measure. Current electricity rates mean only a quarter of Gaza's water needs can be met. Local authorities have resorted to operating 16 water wells, previously shut down due to high salinity, due to power shortages to compensate. 

The Insan Center for Human Rights in Gaza warned of "the danger of the catastrophic effects of the spread of the virus, in light of the deteriorating humanitarian conditions and limited health capabilities." 

"The Israeli occupation must be held responsible for all the consequences that occur to the Gaza Strip as a result of the spread of the epidemic, as it controls the crossings," the centre added, calling on the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other international bodies to urgently send supplies.  

The international community must "put pressure on the occupation to open the crossing, to bring in fuel, and lift the blockade imposed on the Strip, in order to save it from the humanitarian catastrophe that might occur if the situation continues as it is." 

Ali Adam is a journalist and researcher whose work focuses on issues linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Follow him on Twitter @_Ali_Adam_