Ahmed Abu Artema
The Nation / May 16, 2020
The besieged territory has been starved of basic resources for years, its health sector eroded. What will happen if Covid-19 comes ?
These days, some Palestinians in Gaza joke that something good has finally come of the crippling siege Israel imposed on the tiny coastal enclave more than a decade ago: It has delayed the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic currently ravaging many other parts of the world. As of this writing, there have been only 20 cases confirmed in Gaza, with no deaths. Yet, while it’s probably true that the siege has slowed the entry of the virus into Gaza, if and when it does reach the general population, the destructive effects of the siege and repeated Israeli military assaults on Gaza’s health care system and civilian infrastructure will result in a public health catastrophe and the unnecessary deaths of many people.
In some ways, it feels like the calm before the storm in Gaza now—which is to say, the calm before a tornado touches down in the middle of a hurricane. Since 2012, the United Nations has warned repeatedly that Gaza would be unlivable by 2020, and now we are finally here, with the new and unexpected burden of the pandemic having been added to the deliberate, man-made humanitarian crisis we were already facing.
Gaza is one of the most densely populated and isolated places in the world, with about 2 million people living in a territory of 141 square miles. Under the siege, Israel grants permits to only a small number of Palestinians to exit Gaza for urgent reasons, such as medical treatment, and rarely permits foreigners to enter. As a result, Palestinians in Gaza have been living in quarantine for 13 years. In addition to this forced isolation, since the outbreak of Covid-19, the Palestinian government in Gaza has been quarantining those returning from abroad through one of the two entry points. The three-week quarantine takes place in special units before people are permitted to return to their homes.
Health sources in Gaza report that preparations to confront the novel coronavirus are now sufficient for 150 cases at most. According to the Ministry of Health, Gaza faces critical shortages of drugs, laboratory supplies, blood, testing kits, personal protective equipment, and hospital beds. There are only 110 intensive care unit beds available and fewer than 100 ventilators.
As elsewhere, people with underlying conditions are most vulnerable to the pandemic, but in Gaza their situation is made worse by the fact that the health care system was already in desperate shape because of Israel’s siege and military attacks. As a result, doctors have been forced to transfer many patients who require life-saving treatment to hospitals abroad. With the arrival of the coronavirus, however, Israel has closed Gaza’s crossings, leaving patients unable to transfer to hospitals outside the strip.
Among those patients is my 4-year-old niece, Ro’a, who was supposed to have heart surgery in occupied Jerusalem in March. The closure of crossings delayed her surgery and left her in limbo, because Gaza hospitals lack the resources to perform the procedure.
Meanwhile, life in the Gaza Strip goes on, but at a tense and cautious pace.
After the first cases of the virus were discovered in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, in early March, all schools and wedding halls in the West Bank and Gaza were closed, and gathering in Gaza’s parks, beaches, cafés, and restaurants were banned. As in the United States and many other parts of the world, we in Gaza are staying home most of the time in order to physically distance.
In an unusual scene, mosques in Gaza have been closed, including for Friday prayer, which is the most important weekly gathering for Muslims. While Muslims awaited the holy month of Ramadan that began last week, Palestinians in Gaza debated whether it would be appropriate to reopen mosques a month after they had been closed. The controversy was finally resolved when it was decided to keep them closed. This means that the Tarawih prayer that Muslims usually perform nightly in mosques during Ramadan will take place at home this year. This hasn’t happened since the First Intifada against Israeli military rule, when people were forced to stay in their homes for long periods, sometimes for weeks, and all public activities were disrupted by the curfews imposed by the Israeli army, which threatened to shoot any Palestinian who dared leave their home.
Churches in Gaza have also taken precautionary measures; the Church of St. Porphyrios in Gaza City closed its doors to Christian worshippers on Easter, in compliance with public safety measures. Instead, they performed the prayer through a live broadcast on Facebook.
Meanwhile, even as the virus itself has hovered around the edges of Gaza, its economic impact has penetrated deep inside. The interruption of public life has meant that thousands of Palestinian workers have lost their livelihoods, compounding what was already a sky-high unemployment rate (as much as 40 percent of the general population, and 60 percent of young people, were unemployed before the outbreak). Street vendors and drivers have lost their sources of income because people stopped going to their jobs and students stopped going to school.
The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted many voices around the world to demand that government budgets be devoted to health, scientific research, and medicine instead of armies and arsenals of weapons. This lesson is the most important thing that humanity can draw from this plight. Surely, the billions of US taxpayer dollars that the American government gives to Israel every year to enforce its racist military rule and displacement of the Palestinians people would be better directed to building hospitals and helping people instead of hurting them.
Even if Gaza manages to dodge the coronavirus disaster, the future of the 2 million Palestinians trapped in the besieged strip, including my children and niece, will be bleak as long as the siege and blockade remain in place and Israel continues to deny Palestinians our freedom and basic human rights. Now, in this time of crisis when Palestinians and Israelis are confronting a deadly, invisible menace that doesn’t respect borders, is the time to finally lift the siege.
Abu Artema is an independent Gaza-based writer, social-media activist, and one of the organizers of the Great Return March