Al-Jazeera / September 15, 2020
Gaza is now in the grip of the coronavirus. The blockade preventing aid reaching the Strip must be dismantled.
In late August, the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, found a foothold in the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated territories in the World.
Since then, infections have spiked significantly, with nearly 1,000 new positive cases reported in the last two weeks alone.
Now, Gaza faces a health catastrophe that will be difficult to contain and mitigate without swift and significant aid.
The detection of community transmission in the Strip marked a grim turn in what had been a relatively successful prevention strategy. From the onset of the pandemic through much of August, fewer than 100 cases had been reported – all among travellers returning from Israel and Egypt and all of whom were systematically quarantined.
Gaza is particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Its weak healthcare system barely serves the daily needs of the area’s nearly 2 million people and is not equipped to handle a pandemic that has overwhelmed even the most advanced healthcare systems in the world.
That system has been debilitated by years of blockades, violence, and a dearth of funding. It suffers from ubiquitous shortages of drugs, equipment, supplies, and personnel.
The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that Gaza’s hospitals can handle only 350 COVID-19 patients. But with more than 1,200 cases already, the virus will likely sicken thousands of people. And with fewer than 100 ICU beds and even fewer ventilators, COVID-19 could push Gaza’s healthcare system over the brink.
To make matters worse, the pandemic comes against the backdrop of renewed violence and access restrictions. In August, during a three-week escalation between Israel and Hamas, Israel tightened the blockade, banning the entry of construction materials and fuel to Gaza, which has forced the enclave’s only power plant to shut down. By early September, the Strip regained calm after a successful – yet likely temporary – Qatari-led de-escalation agreement. Still, the Qatari mediation does not lessen the effects of Gaza’s blockade, nor will it prevent a future outburst of violence.
All this is taking place in communities reeling under the weight of a decade-long humanitarian crisis – triggered by 13 years of blockades with varying degrees of restriction and periodic war.
There is a real risk that Gaza cannot withstand the economic shockwaves of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 80 percent of people in Gaza depend on humanitarian aid to survive, and the long-term socioeconomic repercussions of a months-long lockdown could be devastating. Thousands of Gazans have already completely or partially lost their income, which has exacerbated a high unemployment rate estimated at more than 50 percent prior to the Coronavirus.
A chronic shortage of humanitarian funding for Gaza, exacerbated by major recent cuts in US funding, has made the delivery of even the most basic services a challenge. The Trump administration’s 2018 decision to end US funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was and remains deeply problematic.
Now, more than ever, this policy needs to be reversed. The virus knows no borders, and this is no time to politicise aid. Quite the contrary, in the face of the worst pandemic the world has experienced in more than a century, global efforts should come together to mitigate these risks worldwide.
Amid lockdowns and a blockade, Gazans now face a “quarantine within a quarantine”. It took only a few cases for the virus to spread quickly inside the Strip. At the very least, the terms of the blockade need to be revised to help the population cope with the pandemic and the area’s long-term humanitarian crisis.
Israel should commit to ensuring that the blockade is not used as a form of collective punishment against the Palestinians living in Gaza. At the minimum, Israel should allow construction material or goods aimed at humanitarian aid, development projects, or the health sector to enter the territory. It also should refrain from banning fuel – a basic and critical commodity.
International donors – including the US – must increase their support to help Gaza through the worst of the outbreak. They should immediately provide medical equipment including ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE), and testing kits.
In March, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire to focus on ”the true [COVID-19] fight of our lives”. This call is true in Gaza today more than ever. Parties to the conflict must put down their guns and set politics aside in order to help prevent greater hardship on a population that has already suffered tremendously.
Sahar Atrache is Refugees International’s Senior Advocate for the Middle East.