Middle East Monitor / April 14, 2020
While the developed world has advanced technology to tackle the coronavirus Covid-19, the Gaza Strip stands alone using simple and primitive methods, having been devastated by an Israeli-led blockade since 2007. It is one of the most densely-populated places in the world, and one of the poorest; hundreds of thousands of people live in ramshackle refugee camps and bombed-out buildings.
Having been in effective “lockdown” for 13 years, Gaza is entitled to ask the rest of the world how it likes being isolated and unable to move freely. Is everyone bored with quarantine yet, and the closure of your airports and borders? Welcome to our lifestyle.
Nevertheless, the Palestinians in Gaza prove to the whole world that it is impossible to be broken despite all the obstacles they face. With simple and limited capabilities, the authorities in Gaza have built 1,000 quarantine rooms in the Gaza Strip. According to the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health, the quarantine centres are in Rafah, Deir al-Balah and Khan Younis. “More than 1,270 people are quarantined at hospitals, hotels and schools after crossing into Gaza from Israel and Egypt,” explained the ministry. “We are working now with all our efforts to complete the construction of the quarantine centres.” This is expected to be done within 10 days.
From the beginning, the authorities in Gaza have taken sweeping steps to contain the virus. “The two men who returned to Gaza and were found to have the virus,” said the ministry, “were placed in quarantine immediately after crossing into Gaza and did not mix with anyone.” Nevertheless, as a precautionary measure, the authorities closed all wedding halls and restaurants, and banned street markets.
Ordinary people on the street received the news of the arrival of Covid-19 in Gaza with mixed feelings. Their underlying stoicism convinces them that whoever is able to face the occupation can face anything else. Nevertheless, they can’t hide their anxiety as they know that the local health sector has been devastated by the blockade. “Until now we believed that the Gaza Strip was the safest place in the world,” said social worker Ayman Al-Ghul in the Jerusalem Post. “Today’s announcement about the cases came as a surprise to many people here. They are afraid and don’t know what to do.”
Even so, volunteers have come forward to help make quarantine easier. Hotel owners have placed their rooms at the disposal of the authorities for quarantine purposes. Moreover, civil society groups, businessmen and market owners have distributed food, clothes and hygiene products. What the Palestinians in Gaza are doing in the face of Covid-19 reflects the extent of their social solidarity, despite all the difficulties that they face every day.
What are the prospects for a besieged enclave which has 40 intensive care beds for a population of two million? Since the imposition of the Israeli-led blockade on Gaza in 2007, it has been engulfed by a humanitarian crisis. The territory has been described as the world’s “largest open-air prison”.
According to a 2017 UN report, the Gaza Strip would be “unliveable” by 2020. Well, here we are, with the blockade still in place despite the coronavirus pandemic; extensive poverty; a crippled health sector; and poor living conditions. The place provides perfect conditions for the virus to spread. “If the outbreak reaches the magnitude where you need more than 40 ICU beds to treat patients, it… could well turn into a disaster of gigantic proportions,” said the head of the World Health Organisation’s Palestinian office, Gerald Rockenschaub.
The supply of medicines, medical disposables, laboratory materials and equipment has been affected badly by the siege. We simply can’t forget that all of the border crossings are closed to Palestinians; the Rafah crossing is controlled by Egypt and Erez is controlled by Israel. Only emergency cases with prior permission might stand a chance of getting out for treatment. “All patients and patient companions from the Gaza Strip must apply for Israeli permits to exit the Gaza Strip in order to access hospitals in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, and Israel,” the WHO pointed out in a report last year. “Access has been particularly problematic in 2019, with the patient permit approval rate declining.”
Daily power cuts mean that dialysis machines, heart monitors, scanners and other vital hospital equipment must rely on back-up generators. They are, however, intended for emergency use, and so tend to break down and need both spare parts and fuel, which are also in short supply due to the Israeli blockade. It’s a vicious cycle of deprivation and difficulties.
With the world’s focus on the pandemic, it may draw attention to the fact that the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are facing the crisis under occupation and siege. In the absence of any semblance of access to the human rights that everyone else takes for granted, the Palestinians cannot enjoy peaceful lives, essential social services and access to the wider world. Israel should, as a matter of urgency, lift — not simply “ease” — its blockade and enable the people of Palestine to take the path to normality that has been denied them for so long. The prosperity and development of the whole region will benefit from this, not just the Gaza Strip.
Eman Abusidu regularly contributes to Middle East Monitor