Spare a Thought for Gaza: COVID-19 is Arriving in the World's Largest Open-Air Prison

Published March 26th, 2020 - 06:00 GMT
Gaza City, Feb 2020 /AFP
Gaza City, Feb 2020 /AFP

As of Wednesday 25 March, Gaza has two confirmed cases of COVID-19. Both patients have recently returned from Pakistan and are now placed in quarantine at the El Maydani Hospital in Rafah City. There are a further 1420 returnees in quarantine (in hotels, schools and resorts) although, to date, none of these are displaying symptoms of the virus.

The blockade and isolation of the Gaza Strip since 2007 has made the situation extremely dangerous in the face of a widespread outbreak. The Gaza Strip is a tiny piece of land (365 km2) with two million inhabitants packed into one of the most densely populated areas on earth.


Three major wars and more than 13 years of strict blockades have left medical services very fragile and in an extremely weak position to respond to a viral outbreak of any kind, but particularly one as contagious as COVID-19.

Three major wars and more than 13 years of strict blockades have left medical services very fragile and in an extremely weak position to respond to a viral outbreak of any kind, but particularly one as contagious as COVID-19

Frequent electricity outages, the difficulty in accessing medical supplies, an already weak health service, and the trauma – both physical and mental – left behind from decades of war and violence with Israel means that the Palestinian National Authority, the de facto government in Gaza, and the international community must act quickly and efficiently if they want to minimise the deaths from COVID-19.

Medical equipment and supplies are vital if Gaza is to respond to an outbreak. Karl Blanchet, Professor in Humanitarian Health at the University of Geneva, argues that the protection of health workers is essential when responding to COVID-19: “it is a priority for government and humanitarian organisations to protect healthcare staff by providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to healthcare workers.”

PPE allows health workers to be protected whilst treating patients, and therefore allows them to stay for longer on the frontline. It also means patients who arrive into hospitals suspected of carrying the disease less likely to contract it during testing. PPE also means health workers are less likely to spread the virus to family members with whom they live.

Before the current cases were identified the Ministry of Health for the State of Palestine identified key equipment needs, included 300,000 disposable face masks (approx. $10,000), 3 million disposable latex gloves ($68,000), and high-grade PPE equipment for medical staff ($5100)

Close quartered living spaces in Gaza will only increase the risk of the spread of the virus from one household to another. Before the current cases were identified the Ministry of Health for the State of Palestine identified key equipment needs, included 300,000 disposable face masks (approx. $10,000), 3 million disposable latex gloves ($68,000), and high-grade PPE equipment for medical staff ($5100).


The Palestinian Health Ministry reported 55 cases of COVID-19. (File/AFP)

However, Dr Khamis Elessi, Associate Professor and Head of the Evidence-Based Policy Unit at Islamic University of Gaza, told me that considering the recently confirmed cases, and the unprecedented rate of spreading by this virus, these numbers will need to be raised by eight or ten times.

Testing kits are in extremely high demand and remain essential to measuring and limiting the amount of cases. Governments are expected to give priority to their own citizens before offering health to other nations.

Foreign aid, on which Gaza has been forced to depend, is likely to be extremely precarious when it comes to testing kits. Professor Blanchet says that this is a “human rights issue, which needs to be prevented by lobbying politicians.” In other countries manufacturers are utilising their equipment to transition into the production of medical supplies, such as masks and ventilators.

“Unfortunately in Gaza we don’t have factories for such equipment, testing devices, and medical supplies. We only have electricity for 8 hours per day and another 8 hours without electricity.”

But according to Dr Elessi this is extremely difficult in blockaded Gaza: “Unfortunately in Gaza we don’t have factories for such equipment, testing devices, and medical supplies. We only have electricity for 8 hours per day and another 8 hours without electricity.”

This means that Gaza must rely on imports, either through Israel or Egypt, if permitted. But since the “disengagement” plan of 2005 Israel assumes no responsibility for what happens within the Gaza Strip and treats it like a foreign country.

The policies on Israel’s Occupied Territories have led directly to the situation which Gaza now finds itself in with COVID. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem recently called Gaza the “biggest open-air prison in the world.” When seeking to avoid a widespread outbreak of a highly infectious virus, a prison is obviously not the best place to be.

The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem recently called Gaza the “biggest open-air prison in the world.”

Training doctors and nurses to respond to this deadly virus is a challenge for countries across the world. Dr Elessi says that, in this respect, Gaza has been quite lucky. Six years ago, the Faculty of Medicine in which Dr. Elessi chairs the Evidence-Based Medicine Unit started a programme on anesthesia and intensive care medicine for doctors which has now produced 80 graduates who are well placed in different hospitals to respond to a potential crisis.

More recently, the Ministry of Health has also started to train some nurses and medical staff on skills related to treating COVID-19. Nevertheless, he insists, Gaza still needs lots of PCR testing kits, ventilators with their spare parts and senior doctors with a specialty in intensive care, pulmonology and infectious diseases from abroad, either to treat patients or train other existing medical staff. But due to the already enormous demands on health systems across the globe, this could prove very difficult. Encouraging signs can be seen, however, in Chinese experts arriving in Italy in recent weeks to share their experience and knowledge of the virus.

Encouraging signs can be seen, however, in Chinese experts arriving in Italy in recent weeks to share their experience and knowledge of the virus.

In response to the news that COVID-19 has now been detected in Gaza, the Palestinian National Authority has asked that “the United Nations lift the illegal and inhuman blockade on Gaza Strip quickly to meet the urgent needs of the respiratory and intensive care systems.” Whilst nations focus in on themselves and citizens lock themselves inside their houses, we must not be deaf to calls for assistance from places that have experienced humanitarian crises for decades.

 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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