UN official: Coronavirus spike could cause collapse of Gaza health system

It ‘is in poor shape because of years of under-resourcing’

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
The UN is scrambling to avert a collapse of the Gaza Strip’s beleaguered health system should there be a serious coronavirus outbreak.
The densely populated and impoverished enclave’s healthcare system does “not have the capacity to deal with the large number of cases,” UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the Palestinian Territories Jamie McGoldrick told The Jerusalem Post.
A sharp rise in those stricken by the disease “would lead to a breakdown of the health system itself,” he said.
The absence of enough ventilators is particularly worrisome. There are only 60 ventilators in the Gaza Strip for all medical emergencies for the population of two million, McGoldrick said. That means some already are in use for reasons not related to the coronavirus. There is also a lack of testing kits, protective gear and intensive-care equipment for patients on ventilators.
“Everyone around the globe is chasing the same equipment,” he said.
The UN has set aside $34 million for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to cover a 90-day period, starting now. It is part of the UN’s $2 billion COVID-19 global humanitarian response plan.
But only some $5m. has been raised for the Palestinians from donor countries, McGoldrick said. Out of the $34m., some $14m. will go directly to healthcare in Gaza, and $6m. will go to healthcare in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
“If we could get $11 [million] or $10 million, we could be in good shape,” he said, adding that the UN has turned to Arab countries, including Qatar and the Emirates. Qatar has already given $2.7m. to impoverished Gaza families.
The plan is meant to augment a larger Palestinian Authority program that it controls for the West Bank. But in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip,the UN has taken a lead role.
THIS SITUATION is different than past healthcare emergencies in Gaza, where the Palestinians were at risk due to unique local situations, McGoldrick said.
“This is unlike another emergency,” he said. “This is a global phenomenon. People are facing their own domestic demand and needs, and so we need a very strong case to be seen as an attractive proposition for donors.”
“Everyone is desperate,” McGoldrick said. “The people in Gaza are more desperate because of the situation there. Gaza is very overcrowded. The health system is in poor shape because of years of under-resourcing.”
A coronavirus outbreak in Gaza would put stress on a system that was already overloaded from dealing with the high number of injuries from the weekly “Great March of Return” protests that were mostly halted by the end of 2019, he said.
Thirteen-years of Israeli border restrictions and closures “has taken its toll on the economy and public services including health,” McGoldrick said.
“There is only so much you can stretch a system before it snaps,” he added.
There were nine coronavirus cases in Gaza and 97 in the West Bank at last count. But testing has been limited primarily to those with symptoms who had been outside the two regions. The concern for both regions is that returning Palestinians could bring the virus with them.
In Gaza, it is possible to monitor the entry of Palestinians either from Egypt through the Rafah crossing or from Israel via the Erez crossing.
Those who arrive in Gaza are sent for 14 days to one of 22 local quarantine centers, some of which are set up in hotels or schools, McGoldrick said. Some 1,800 people are in isolation, and those centers need assistance to provide bedding and food, he said.
Those entering the West Bank are also expected to be quarantined but not necessarily in isolation centers. The PA has asked some 150,000 Palestinians working in Israel or the settlements to return home, but it is unclear how many people will do so, McGoldrick said.
“What we are trying to do is to raise awareness” of the danger, he said. The more prepared Gaza is with the right equipment and funds for additional supplies, along with a pipeline by which they can be received, “the safer we will all be.”