Palestinian struggle continues with coronavirus

Thirty-seven of the victims were infected after a Greek religious tourist group carrying coronavirus visited Bethlehem.

Palestinians workers in a protective suits get ready to disinfect mosques and churches as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Saturday, March 7, 2020.(AP Ph
Palestinian workers get ready to disinfect mosques and churches in the West Bank city of Ramallah [Majdi Mohammed/AP]

With 39 confirmed cases of coronavirus infections in Palestine as of Monday, the Palestinian Authority is struggling to cope with the pandemic with its limited resources and weak healthcare system.

Thirty-seven of the victims were infected after a 51-member Greek religious tourist group, who visited Bethlehem in early March, tested positive once back in Greece. The Greek authorities then notified the Palestinian government, which, in turn, tracked down all those who had been in contact.

The last two cases were discovered in the northern city of Tulkarem where one man who works as a labourer in Israel was said to have been infected by his Israeli businessman boss, who himself was infected while outside Israel.

The latest case was of a medical student who returned home on March 9 from Poland, where he studies medicine.

Immediately after the discovery of the infections, the Palestinian government ordered the entire city of Bethlehem closed off. It also started widespread testing and quarantine for people suspected of carrying the virus.

Palestinian government spokesman Ibrahim Melhim told Al Jazeera his government is operating on a “multi-pronged strategy” in order to stem the spread of the disease.

He said one effort is keeping the public updated to prevent misinformation and social media rumours. For that, he said, the government established an official website that included details on each case’s medical progress, gender, location and age.

“We hold two press conferences daily to keep the media informed and to maintain accurate information about our current situation for the public,” Melhim said.

Conflict’s effect

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, exposed the Palestinian government’s vulnerabilities caused by the conflict with Israel, which retains strict military control over the Palestinian territories.

While Melhim acknowledged the Palestinian Authority and Israel have a high level of coordination at the moment in order to contain the coronavirus, he said Israel is still refusing to release funds it deducts from taxing Palestinians. The money is desperately needed to increase the authority’s ability to combat the disease.

About 400,000 Palestinian workers from the West Bank travel to Israel daily and pose a serious risk of carrying an infection back from Israel, according to Melhim.

Israel announced on Monday its total coronavirus infections climbed to 277 confirmed cases.

He also said the Palestinian government is also monitoring the situation in the besieged Gaza Strip, which has the potential for a devastating contagion because of Palestinians who travel to Egypt or work in Israel and end up coming back infected.

“We are fighting on two fronts: one against the pandemic and the other against Israel’s brutal military occupation,” he said.

Melhim said the Israeli army and the illegal Jewish settlers “still mount constant closures, incursions and attacks against civilians, which complicate our efforts in combating the pandemic”.

Lack of resources

The Palestinian government was caught off guard after the discovery of the pandemic because it lacked enough medical equipment to screen patients and provide adequate quarantine facilities. As a result, all patients are being treated in local hotels because there are not enough hospital beds to cope. 

The government of Qatar donated $10m for the Palestinian government to support its containment efforts. Kuwait also followed up with $5.5m in emergency financial assistance. Melhim said Palestinians appreciate all the help they can get from Arab states, and appealed for others to assist in the fight.

The family of student Muntaser Hattab said it is likely he was infected after he returned home to the occupied West Bank, denying official claims he was stricken with the virus in Poland.

Baraa Hattab, Muntaser’s brother, told Al Jazeera over the phone from Tulkarem his brother took a direct Rayanair flight from the Polish capital Warsaw to Amman, Jordan, where he spent a day with relatives before he crossed the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge into the Palestinian territories.

He said his bother still displays no symptoms of the disease at this point and was never stopped or checked by anyone on his way home.

“My brother was never stopped or tested for any signs of the disease during his trip,” he said.

Follow Ali Younes on Twitter: @ali_reports

Source: Al Jazeera