Palestinians and Israelis warn of catastrophe after the discovery of the first two cases of coronavirus in the densely populated Hamas-ruled coastal enclave.
Following the diagnoses, the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Interior announced a series of measures and warned that anyone who violates the measures would be punished. The measures include the closure of all wedding halls, restaurants and coffee shops, as well as a ban on gatherings, especially during funerals. Friday prayers in all mosques in the Gaza Strip have also been suspended until further notice.
A senior official with the ministry called for calm and self-restraint and to avoid spreading rumors in the Gaza Strip after the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health announced that two Palestinians who returned to the Gaza Strip from Pakistan last Thursday tested positive for the coronavirus.
The two patients attended a conference on Islam in Lahore, Pakistan, between March 11 and 15, sources in the Gaza Strip said. According to the sources, thousands of Muslims attended the conference, ignoring guidelines published by the Pakistani authorities banning such gatherings because of the coronavirus.
Palestinian health officials in the Gaza Strip called on Palestinians who had come in contact with the two patients to immediately contact the Ministry of Health.
A third Palestinian from the village of Karawet Bani Hassan, near Nablus, who attended the same conference was also diagnosed with the disease upon his return from Pakistan last week.Yusef Abu al-Rish, a senior official with the ministry, said the two patients have been in quarantine since March 15th at a field hospital near the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Dozens of other Palestinians who entered the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing in the past three weeks have also been placed in quarantine, he added.
There are 20 coronavirus quarantine facilities in Gaza's south, including empty schools, hotels and medical facilities which are currently housing more than 1,200 people who have just returned to the blockaded coastal enclave.
According to a report by the Palestinian Authority health ministry, the quarantine centres are located in Rafah, Deir al-Balah and the southern city of Khan Younis. Another 2,000 Palestinian returnees have been self-quarantining in their homes.
The discovery of the two quarantined cases confirms the importance of the measures taken by the Ministry of Health regarding Palestinian travelers returning to the Gaza Strip, Abu al-Rish said.
The news about the discovery of the first coronavirus cases in the Gaza Strip was received with concern by many Palestinians there.
“Until now we believed that the Gaza Strip was the safest place in the world,” said Ayman al-Ghul, a social worker from Gaza City. “Today’s announcement about the two cases came as a surprise to many people here. Many people are afraid and don’t know what to do.”
Schoolteacher Amal Saftawi, also from Gaza City, expressed deep concern that the virus would spread among many people. “The Gaza Strip is a very small place with a high population,” she noted. “We could face a catastrophe if a large number of people are infected with the virus. I’m not sure our hospitals would be able to cope with the situation. Many people are afraid to leave their homes.”
Shortly before the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the Gaza Strip, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said he had appealed to Qatar and Turkey to provide emergency aid to the Palestinians to prevent the spread of the disease.
He said the emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Tamim al-Thani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed readiness to provide the Palestinians with money and other forms of aid to help combat the virus.
Haniyeh and other Hamas officials called for an immediate removal of the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip in light of the outbreak of the virus, saying it endangered the lives of two million Palestinians living there.
The officials warned of a “catastrophe” in the Gaza Strip if the virus spreads among the two million Palestinians living there and called for international pressure on Israel to ease restrictions and facilitate the delivery of testing gear and other medical equipment.
“The Gaza Strip has been under siege for the past 14 years,” said one official. “As a result, our hospitals and medical centers are lacking in medical equipment and medicine. There’s also a severe shortage of disinfectants and other sanitizing materials because of Israeli restrictions.”
A special committee consisting of health and security officials two months ago has been preparing for the possibility that the coronavirus may reach the Gaza Strip. The committee decided to focus its efforts on conducting tests on Palestinians returning to the Gaza Strip from abroad through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt and the Erez border crossing with Israel.
Several Palestinian factions also warned that the Gaza Strip may be on the verge of a “catastrophe” because of lack of medical equipment. The factions said that there was a shortage of ventilators and testing kits in the Gaza Strip, adding that the 65 intensive care beds in the local hospitals would not be able to cope with a large number of patients.
Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) on Sunday said that it had coordinated the delivery of hundreds of coronavirus detection kits into the Gaza Strip, as well as 1000 protection kits and 100 litres of sanitizer gel to the Palestinian Authority into the West Bank.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that Gaza’s healthcare system would not be able to deal with an outbreak of the deadly disease in the densely populated enclave home to nearly 2 million people.
Hamas violently took power of the 25-mile coastal enclave in 2007 and a blockade imposed by Israel has sharply reduced the supplies of fuel, electricity and medical supplies making it doubtful that the medical infrastructure would be able to contend with such a crisis.
Israel has also for years restricted the imports of dual-use items that could be used for both civilian and military purposes. According to a 2018 study by the Rand corporation, 70 percent of technical equipment (e.g., pumps, water purification chemicals and hydrogen peroxide) needed to maintain water and sanitation has been prevented from entering the Strip.
The Strip’s weak healthcare infrastructure with less than 3,000 beds in total is unable to cope and the responsibility for caring for the sick.
Israel’s Btselem NGO said that the spread of the deadly coronavirus in the Gaza Strip would be a disaster of horrifying proportions, and blamed the “unique conditions” of the Strip caused by the ongoing Israeli blockade.
“The spread of Corona in the Gaza Strip will be a disaster of horrifying proportions,” B’tselem said in a statement. “The combination of population density and the results of the blockade- including the collapse of the medical system, extreme poverty and dependence on humanitarian aid, the collapse of infrastructure and difficult living conditions that affect the health of residents even before they are exposed to the virus - are all linked together in a nightmare scenario.”
Eitan Dangot, the former commander of COGAT told The Jerusalem Post that Israel’s blockade on the coastal enclave was “an advantage” as anyone coming into the Strip was made to self-quarantine for two weeks.
But with the two cases diagnosed on Sunday, Gaza needs considerable medical aid as well as material and professional support from the international community to control the outbreak of the coronavirus.
“They are absolutely not prepared. They are in a race against time in preparing, moving people who need to be quarantined, getting medical care which is already lacking and more,” Dangot warned.
“Gaza should be on high readiness,” Dangot said, explaining that officials in addition to setting up field hospitals near the Rafiah crossing, Gaza should prepare a program that can be supported by Israel’s health ministry and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
“It would be a significant problem in Gaza if corona breaks out there, especially because the Strip is so densely populated and the virus can spread quickly there. The virus can also cause an internal explosion which can affect the security situation with Israel,” Dangot said. “Israel cannot be blamed, Israel is suffering already from this virus.”
On Sunday WHO toured quarantine and health facilities in Gaza as well as delivered lab testing kits and personal protective equipment to health care workers dealing with the virus. While local health authorities are taking the virus seriously, there are substantial capacity gaps including essential medical supplies and equipment such as lab testing kits.
WHO stated that the organization supports the establishment of a field hospital at the Rafah crossing with 38 beds, 6 intensive care unit beds and 30 for patients in moderate condition. Another 50 rooms will be established as a quarantine area for travelers. The Gaza European Hospital will also be designated to absorb and treat additional cases should the field hospital reach full capacity.