Gazans take coastal walks to escape 'double confinement'
Life in Gaza, controlled by the Islamist group Hamas since 2007, was mentally taxing even before the novel coronavirus outbreak brought additional hardship, including nightly curfews and tight movement restrictions.
"There's a lot of mental pressure in Gaza. We suffer from it," said 40-year-old Walid al-Louh, wearing a New York Yankees cap.
"People come out to walk along the seashore, just to let off steam."
As the pandemic has dragged on larger crowds of men in tracksuits and women, their running shoes just barely visible beneath their long robes, stroll or stride briskly along Gaza's Mediterranean coastline.
"I used to walk before coronavirus," Louh told AFP. "There were maybe dozens of people walking then, but now its hundreds and hundreds."
One of the new devotees is Hanadi al-Akawy, 32, who said she walks five kilometres (three miles) a day with her husband "to get rid of psychological pressure".
|People come out to walk along the seashore, just to let off steam
- Walid al-Louh, 40-year-old resident
'Window of freedom'
Gaza's densely-packed population of two million was, in the early phase of the pandemic, seen as uniquely protected given the movement restrictions already in place.
The coastal strip has only two entry and exit points, the Erez crossing to Israel and the Rafah crossing to Egypt.
The flow of people through Erez is tightly controlled by Israel, which has fought three wars with Hamas since 2008 and maintains a crippling blockade it says is necessary to contain a hostile Islamist group.
As the virus began to spread globally, both crossings were almost completely closed, and Hamas imposed strict quarantine measures for the small numbers of people allowed in and out.
Gaza's health infrastructure is weak, partly due to the blockade, so when the virus began to spread within the enclave, Hamas imposed draconian measures to contain it.
Those included nightly curfews and a mandatory 5:00 pm closing hour for businesses.
Gazans began to lament their "double confinement," referring to coronavirus restrictions and the blockade.
Gaza has so far recorded 10,985 Covid-19 cases, including 48 deaths, and Sunday's infection number was 490, the highest yet for a single day.
However, fears that a raging pandemic would devastate the enclave's vulnerable and impoverished population have not materialised.
But, said psychiatrist Samir Zaqout, the additional stress brought by the pandemic was "too much" for a population that already felt imprisoned.
The Gaza-based expert said that watching people take their coastline jaunts reminded him of prison inmates relishing their daily walk in the exercise yard, before being sent back to their cells.
"People do what they can to let out their emotions," Zaqout told AFP. "Walking is a part of that, especially since the seaside is our only window of freedom."
|People do what they can to let out their emotions. Walking is a part of that, especially since the seaside is our only window of freedom
- Samir Zaqout, psychiatrist
'Walking is life'
Zaqout said Hamas had not done enough to mitigate mental health issues in the strip.
According to a 2017 study published by the PLOS ONE scientific journal, the Palestinian Territories had the highest rates of depression compared to a group of 20 countries surveyed, from Morocco to Afghanistan.
A 2020 poll from the British charity Islamic Relief said that 80 percent of 2,000 workers surveyed in Gaza reported having "mental problems" caused by the pandemic, which reduced their already limited income.
On Gaza's corniche, Marwan al-Assar told AFP he had been jogging along the coast for years, but until recently had been alone.
"Now people are copying me," he said. "The culture is growing."
With a body-builder's frame visible under his yellow rain coat, he described himself as a "hero" for encouraging others to join him.
"It's good for the spirit!" he said, resuming his stride. "Walking is life."