Gaza medics struggle to save COVID-19 patients, bombing casualties

In the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave, hospitals are running out of fuel and supplies, struggling to keep up with demand.

A Palestinian health worker prepares a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine in Gaza City February 22, 2021.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian health worker prepares a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine in Gaza City February 22, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“The Health Ministry is fighting on two fronts in the Gaza Strip. [The first is] the coronavirus front and the other front, which is more difficult, is the injuries and the wounded,” said Marwan Abu Sada, the director of surgery in Gaza’s main Shifa hospital.
The medical establishment in the Gaza Strip was already struggling to cope with a high number of coronavirus cases before the security situation exploded last week. Now, hospitals are struggling to treat rocket and shrapnel victims – and people who could have COVID-19 are failing to even be tested or treated at all.
Among Gaza’s 30 hospitals, one is non-functioning due to the escalation and the others are only partially functional, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported. Among its 93 health centers, the majority (57) are non-functioning.
Hospitals were already overcrowded, according to Sacha Bootsma, head of WHO’s Gaza sub-office. She told The Jerusalem Post that Shifa, for example, normally has nine intensive-care unit beds to treat these types of traumatic injuries. Now, there are more than 20 cases in Shifa’s ICU, so they had to mobilize other ICUs to be able to treat all the injured – “and the injuries are terrible, horrible types of injuries,” she said.
Medical officials in Gaza are concerned that, “in a few days, all hospitals will be full,” Dr. Medhat Abbas, head of the local Health Ministry’s International Relations Department, told the Post. “We are starting to add beds in corridors.”
He said at a time when the country is supposed to be social distancing, people are packed together like sardines. More than 35,000 people have become homeless and displaced as a result of Israeli rocket fire, according to foreign media reports.
THE MATTER was exacerbated over the Shavuot holiday, when the Israel Defense Forces destroyed a six-story residential building, causing damage to several adjacent buildings, including the one that houses the city’s main COVID-19 PCR testing lab, known as the Rimal Clinic, which has been forced to stop operating, Bootsma said.
“We are doing an assessment of the lab to know which, if any, equipment was hit and whether the lab will be able to resume testing,” she said. “Until the lab is back in operation, Gaza cannot do any reliable COVID-19 testing.”
She said there are less-accurate rapid tests available.
The explosion also damaged Health Ministry offices and, according to foreign media reports, injured at least two ministry employees.
In the past, Israel would give warnings to residents to evacuate buildings before it attacked, Bootsma said. In recent days, however, she claimed that the military has not provided its usual warnings, resulting in more civilian casualties.
In response, a spokesperson for the IDF told the Post that, "The IDF only attacks military targets after examining whether the expected military benefit from their attack is not excessive in relation to the expected incidental damage to civilians and civilian structures.
"The terrorist organization Hamas places its military assets in the heart of dense civilian areas," the spokesperson continued. "The IDF acts in accordance with international law and takes as much precaution as possible to reduce harm to civilians during its operational activities."
Moreover, she said that the rocket attacks have been increasing daily, leaving sick residents fearful of leaving home to seek medical attention.
“There are no safe rooms for civilians,” Dr. Abbas said. “You do not know at what time they are going to attack. It is risky to move in the streets.”
THE END of the second wave of COVID-19 in Gaza was just winding down when the escalation started. Hamas had just agreed to lift lockdown restrictions for the second half of Ramadan, which allowed large gatherings. But the decision worried health officials that the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave could see another spike in coronavirus cases.
But then the escalation started and it is hard to know the results, Bootsma said, adding that as many as 45,000 displaced and other people in need have gathered in 58 schools for refuge. With such large numbers in each school, it is likely that sick people are spreading the virus now, too.
Hamas has been attacking Israel for the last week, as well, mainly targeting civilians. The terror organization has lobbed almost 3,500 rockets at the Jewish State, killing 12 people and injuring dozens of others.
The organization is listed as a terror group by the United States, Canada, Japan and the European Union.
Since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, tens of thousands of rockets have struck Israel. Israeli officials say that thousands more Israelis would be dead if not for their investment in bomb shelters and safe rooms and, of course, the Iron Dome anti-missile system, which blocks some 90% of all rockets from striking populated areas.
ON SUNDAY, a separate Israeli strike on Hamas’s terror tunnels was responsible for the deaths of two doctors who lived in a residential building above them.
The doctors were neurologist Dr. Moeen Alalool – one of the few in the Gaza Strip, who was killed with his five children, and Dr. Ayman Abu Aouf. The latter was head of the Internal Medicine department at Shifa hospital.
“He used to teach medical students, including one of my own sons,” Abbas said of Abu Aouf.
He described how after the apartment building collapsed, rescue workers searched for the dead. They found the doctor at around 6 a.m. the next morning.
“Everyone was shaking,” he told the Post. “There was just mourning and crying. He was very decent, polite. Very generous. One of the best people you could ever know. His death had nothing to do with politics. He was very peaceful.”
The IDF explained that the attack was on the underground facility and that its collapse caused the foundations of the homes above to collapse, too. It said the casualties were “unintended.”
Bootsma said that she understands from Israeli claims that Hamas bases itself in residential and office buildings, schools and banks. But for citizens, she said, they see residential buildings being destroyed.
UNITED NATIONS Secretary-General António Guterres warned after the event that the safety of healthcare workers must be guaranteed.
“Protection of health workers and health facilities is an imperative in all circumstances,” Guterres said in a briefing. His statements were published on the WHO website. “It is essential that the norms of international humanitarian law be fully respected. In particular, health workers and infrastructure should always be protected – and I call for leaders on all sides to ensure respect for these vital humanitarian laws.”
The current security escalation could “unleash an uncontainable security and humanitarian crisis,” he said.
“COVID-19 testing and vaccination has been severely impacted,” Guterres said. “This creates health risks for the world as a whole.”
Gaza has reported more than 100,000 COVID-19 cases and close to 1,000 deaths. Bootsma said that so far, only 38,500 of Gaza’s more than 2 million people have been vaccinated – and that as a result of the violence vaccination has stopped, despite Gaza still having some 24,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine available for use – enough to inoculate 12,000 people. A shipment of 10,000 doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine was supposed to arrive this week, she said, but the crisis has delayed its delivery.
“I expect that we will see quite a number of unreported cases and deaths [from COVID-19] because people are not going to the clinic and not seeking treatment,” she said.
Moreover, fuel for generators that power Gaza’s hospitals was running out, until Israel delivered four trucks worth of fuel to the coastal enclave on Tuesday. Gaza is also running out of medical supplies, Bootsma said. More supplies were meant to enter on Tuesday but were halted when rocket fire resumed near the crossing.
“We are really running out of medications, consumables that are needed to treat the severely injured patients in the intensive care units,” Bootsma told the Post. “In our point of view, this is already a humanitarian crisis.”
Reuters contributed to this report.