Concern of potential coronavirus outbreak in Gaza grows

While there is no diagnosed case in the blockaded coastal enclave, how can the Hamas-run Strip deal with the virus?

Palestinian workers, wearing masks amid coronavirus precautions, bake bread at a bakery in Gaza City March 8, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMED SALEM)
Palestinian workers, wearing masks amid coronavirus precautions, bake bread at a bakery in Gaza City March 8, 2020
With the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic, concern is growing in Israel over an outbreak in the blockaded Gaza Strip.
While there are no reports of Gazans being infected with coronavirus, the threat of the highly infectious COVID-19 triggering a full-blown humanitarian crisis in the densely populated Gaza Strip is real.
On Sunday, Gaza’s Hamas-run government closed both the Rafah pedestrian crossing with Egypt and the Erez crossing with Israel. Hamas similarly closed all schools, universities and kindergartens until the end of March.
Hamas seized power of the 40-km-long coastal enclave in a 2007 coup. Home to two million people, the strip remains in ruins following the three wars Hamas has fought against Israel. Despite the billions of dollars in international aid, minimal reconstruction has been carried out.
The blockade against the Strip has also sharply restricted the supply of fuel, electricity and medicine, making it doubtful that the medical infrastructure would be able to contend with such a crisis.
For 13 years, Israel has restricted the import of dual-use items that could be used for both civilian and military purposes. According to a 2018 study by the Rand corporation, 70% of technical equipment (e.g., pumps, water purification chemicals and hydrogen peroxide) needed to maintain water and sanitation has been prevented from entering the territory.
As of Sunday, there were 38 Palestinians diagnosed with the virus in the West Bank. In an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease, last week Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced the total closure of Palestinian territories.
On Saturday when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced new restrictions for Israelis to combat the spread of the virus, he warned that the country was fighting a war against an “invisible enemy.”
Defense officials have repeatedly said it’s in Israel’s interest to ensure that basic needs are met in Gaza. They have been examining ways to improve the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip to avoid a violent escalation leading to a fourth war.
While coronavirus is not a typical military conflict, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority are concerned that the number of infected individuals will spike. On Thursday, the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), along with representatives of international organizations, held a meeting to evaluate the ongoing situation.
“COGAT and the PA are cooperating closely and effectively to manage the outbreak of the virus,” said the head of the civil affairs department of COGAT, Col. Sharon Biton. “The coronavirus, like other viruses, does not recognize geographic borders.”
On Friday in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus to Gaza, Israel delivered 200 coronavirus test kits to the coastal enclave, and the Hamas-run Health Ministry announced that 2,667 Gazans are in home quarantine and another 19 Palestinians who returned from Egypt have been tested for the virus.
While the Health Ministry said that medical professionals have the equipment to test samples of suspected cases, Israel is concerned that should Gaza experience an outbreak of the virus, its weak healthcare infrastructure with fewer than 3,000 beds in total would be overwhelmed.
A field hospital at the Erez crossing has been set up by an American NGO, but it is not yet functional and is expected to face a shortage of medical staff. The American decision to cut $300 million in funding for UNRWA has also worsened the humanitarian situation in Gaza as it operates 21 primary health clinics visited by more than four million patients per year.
According to Haaretz, Qatar has pledged $10 million to help the Gazans deal with the virus and the World Bank has transferred $7m. to the PA.
The newspaper also reported that Jamie McGoldrick, the humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, will coordinate between Israel, the PA and Hamas.
In a statement, COGAT head Maj.-Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon said it was a “first-rate Israeli interest to prevent an outbreak of the virus in the Gaza Strip and curb its spread in Judea and Samaria,” adding that the spread of the virus “could endanger the health of the citizens of Israel.”