Palestinian Authority seen losing control of the coronavirus pandemic

Experts blame government for lack of strategy and planning – while citizens couldn’t care less about safety measures

PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting to discuss the UAE’S deal with Israel to normalize relations, in Ramallah last month. (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting to discuss the UAE’S deal with Israel to normalize relations, in Ramallah last month.
The epidemiological situation in the West Bank has become extremely dangerous, say experts, who blame the lack of both a government strategy and a commitment by citizens.
On Sunday, the Preventive Medicine unit at the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry announced that novel coronavirus infections were on the increase across societal sectors, with many centers of contagion yet to be identified.
Meanwhile, the flu season will soon arrive.
Dr. Waleed al-Basha, a microbiologist and a lecturer at An-Najah University’s Faculty of Medicine in Nablus, told The Media Line the official number of coronavirus cases represented only a third of the real figure.
“We have lost control of the spread of the virus. For instance, I’m visiting [the West Bank city of] Jenin today, and hardly anyone here is wearing a mask – as if it were something weird to do,” Basha said.
The situation deteriorated due to the government’s lack of a strategic, step-by step plan, as well as the absence of strict safety-measure enforcement, he explained.
“While dealing with an epidemiological situation, safety measures don’t come in the form of campaigns,” he stated. “One day, there’s a policeman to monitor people’s behavior; another day, there isn’t.”
Basha added that people had been acting as if the situation were completely normal, assuming the virus was not that serious.
“There’s no planning. The dangerous deterioration in the situation proves there isn’t,” he related.
“For example, Jordan implemented a strict three-month closure and was one of the safest countries, but as soon as authorities reopened things and became lenient in implementing the safety measures, the virus spread widely,” he said.
Basha nevertheless points out that a complete closure is not the answer, as countries cannot not implement such a policy in the long term. Rather, there must be a strict system of safety measures that are constantly monitored by authorities.
“Citizens must be bound by the law. Otherwise, it will not work,” he said. “And even if we try to close things down, we don’t have the ability to completely close down cities and villages.”
He urged that a law be enacted to stringently fine those who do not follow the measures. As just one example, he cited facemasks.
“Anyone without one should be fined – citizens, officials, everyone,” he stated. “Our officials should always set an example for citizens by wearing masks and committing to safety measures, as most people aren’t aware of the danger of the virus.”
On Thursday, the Central Command of Israel’s military imposed a month-long ban on Israeli citizens entering Area B of the West Bank, which the 1995 Oslo II Accord stipulates as being under PA civilian control and Israeli security control. It did so in an effort to stem a rise in cases among Israeli Arabs, many of whom visit the area.
Israelis are already banned from entering Area A, which is under complete PA control.
Area B comprises about 22% of the West Bank, and Area A, where the Palestinian cities are located, makes up about 18%.
As of Monday, more than 72,900 Palestinians had been infected by the coronavirus.
PA Health Minister Mai Alkaila said on Monday that the Gaza Strip recorded 453 new coronavirus cases in the previous 24 hours, the most yet in a single day. The WAFA news agency reported 383 new cases and seven deaths in the West Bank.
In addition, Alkaila said that 297 patients in the West Bank and 310 in the Gaza Strip had recovered.
Samer al-Assaad, director of preventive medicine at the PA’s Health Ministry, clarified to The Media Line that after a period of stability in the number of infections, there was now a slight increase, which, with winter coming, had been expected.
“This increase is normal in comparison to countries around the world. The number of infections is increasing everywhere,” he said.
Assaad points out that the origin of infection is unknown for most people who have recently fallen ill, as many carriers are not tested.
“Citizens aren’t really committed to the safety measures,” he noted.
“Where gatherings still take place, their commitment to wearing masks isn’t at the required level, and social distancing isn’t practiced, while there are people around infected with the virus, so logically, there will always be undiagnosed cases,” he said.
Imposing a full closure would not be an easy decision, he said, adding that it has been used as a tool to reduce the number of cases, but cannot solve the problem.
“The epidemiological situation is currently escalating due to the ease of the virus’s transmission during the winter and people’s lack of commitment to safety measures,” Assaad stated.
“Look at Jordan, for instance. They imposed a full closure,” he said, “and now they are dealing with thousands of cases.”
The Emergency Committee in the Nablus Governorate decided on Sunday to impose a five-day evening closure starting Monday from 7 pm until 6 am amid a large increase in infections and fears that hospitals will soon reach maximum capacity.
Shawki Sabha, head of the Palestinian Physicians Union, told The Media Line that the situation will become dangerous when hospitals can no longer receive patients, adding that the West Bank is not properly prepared.
“Globally, it’s expected that over 70% of the population will be infected, but the issue is how many of these cases require hospitalization,” he said. “It could lead to a total collapse of the medical sector.”
Sabha notes that, based on international standards, Palestinian hospitals lack equipment and preparation.
“Yes, we recently expanded our facilities because of the pandemic, but it’s still not enough,” he pointed out.
He adds that the danger is not in the number of infections, “but in the number of those who need admission to hospitals.”
The virus has spread so much that it can no longer be brought under control, he stated. The government tried to stop social gatherings, but without success.
“Weddings were forbidden, but they were happening anyway in homes and elsewhere, sometimes in closed spaces, especially now with winter weather,” Sabha said. “Cafés and restaurants are open, all amid a lack of commitment by people to safety measures.”
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