Gaza City – A rapid rise in coronavirus infections in the Gaza Strip has reached a “catastrophic stage”, with the blockaded Palestinian enclave’s medical system likely to collapse soon, health officials warn.
COVID is spreading exponentially in Gaza – one of the most crowded places on Earth – especially in refugee camps, and the health ministry has warned of “disastrous” implications.
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Dr Fathi Abuwarda, adviser to the minister of health, told Al Jazeera the recent spike in infections could soon become uncontrollable, with hundreds of people contracting the virus each day and nowhere to treat them.
“We have entered the catastrophe stage and if we continue like this, the healthcare system will collapse,” Abuwarda said. “The best solution is a full lockdown for 14 days, which will allow medical teams to control and combat the virus, with only shops that provide food supplies kept open.”
Abuwarda said the health ministry had prepared Gaza’s European Hospital to treat COVID-19 patients, but the hospital’s capacity was insufficient, with 300 of its 360 beds already occupied.
“In the Gaza Strip, there are about 500 [hospital] beds scattered across the coastal enclave…. But considering some 5,000 Palestinians live in each square kilometre in Gaza, these hospitals can’t accommodate all cases,” he said.
A lack of coronavirus testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPE) is also complicating the fight, as Israel continues to impose restrictions on medical supplies reaching Gaza.
Gaza has been under a tight land, air and sea siege for more than 13 years by Israel and Egypt, cutting it off from the rest of the world. Early hopes that Gaza’s isolation would spare it from the pandemic were dashed as the densely populated coastal region came under severe threat with a dilapidated healthcare system that is unable to handle the onslaught of patients.
On August 24, only four Palestinians were reported to have been infected with the virus in the Gaza Strip. As of Monday, 14,768 people had contracted COVID-19, with 65 deaths. The number of critical cases stands at 79.
Officials say Israel’s siege is a death sentence for Gaza’s COVID-19 patients.
“The Gaza Strip lacks oxygen-generating machines, ventilators, protective gear, and hygiene materials,” said Dr Basim Naim, head of international relations in the Hamas-led government.
“Thirty-two percent of basic drugs and 62 percent of drugs and materials for medical laboratories are not available.”
The former minister of health called on the international community and aid agencies to immediately intervene to stop the “imminent catastrophe”, accusing Israel of restricting the entry of medical supplies under “the pretext of security”.
“Hamas’ leadership will not accept the death of the Palestinian people either by starving or by leaving them to die by the pandemic,” said Naim. “We call on the international community to provide us with the financial resources needed to purchase all necessary items to combat the virus.”
Salama Marouf, head of the government’s information office, underscored the need to bring life-saving ventilators into Gaza. He added that “all measures are on the table now, including a full lockdown” to get infections under control.
Officials say despite Egyptian mediation, Israeli still refuses to allow ventilators into Gaza, making granting that permission conditional upon the return of soldiers’ bodies kept by Hamas since the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza.
The Gaza Strip – a 100km-long (45-mile) coastal area home to more than 2.1 million Palestinians – was one of the last regions to be hit by COVID-19 worldwide.
But many people here ignored advice to wear masks, held large wedding parties and protests against Israel’s occupation, and continue to socialise at mass gatherings.
Abuwarda highlighted the “lack of commitment” among Palestinians when it comes to wearing masks, social distancing, and practising proper hygiene. “We must count on people’s awareness to stop the spread of the virus,” he said.
The influx of coronavirus patients into regular hospitals also threatens those with other illnesses.
“These hospitals are not fully prepared to deal with COVID-19 patients and will negatively impact the medical service provided to normal patients,” said Naim.
Many Palestinians were in favour of the government taking drastic measures to curb the rapid spread of coronavirus.
But some officials say they cannot impose a general lockdown as people’s minimum essential needs would go unmet because of the deteriorated state of the economy.
Ahmad Abu Mustapha, 35, an electrical equipment shop owner, called on the government to apply a full lockdown to “help save lives” even if it inflicts economic pain.
“We fear for ourselves, our families and children. We want a full lockdown even if this harms us economically,” said Mustapha.
Journalist Hassan Islayih, 32, agreed on the need to shut down movement in the Gaza Strip, noting “people’s awareness is not as it should be”.
“Today the situation is dangerous. Some people will lose their jobs, which is sad, but there is no other solution than a full lockdown,” he said.