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What happens if Coronavirus reaches the Gaza Strip

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What if the Coronavirus reaches the besieged Gaza Strip? 

While the question carries great urgency for all Palestinians living under Israel’s military occupation, the Gaza situation is particularly complex and extremely worrying. 

Nearly 50 countries have already reported cases of COVID-19 disease, one of several epidemics that are caused by the Coronavirus. If developed countries, such as Italy and South Korea, are struggling to contain the deadly virus, one can only imagine what occupied Palestinians would have to face should the virus strike. 

In fact, according to health officials, the Coronavirus may have already reached Palestine following a visit by a South Korean delegation in the period between February 8 and 15, which included a tour in the major Palestinian cities of Jerusalem, Nablus, Jericho, Hebron, and Bethlehem. Nine people who were on the delegation tested positive for Coronavirus after their trip, although it is not known when they contracted the virus.

The Palestinian Authority scrambled to contain the fallout of the news, which caused palpable panic among a population that has little faith in its leadership, to begin with.  PA Prime Minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, “hoped” that the “owners of the unknown facilities” would exercise personal responsibility and shut down their business and other establishments that are open to the public.

The PA Ministry of Health followed this by declaring a “state of emergency” in all hospitals under PA jurisdiction in the West Bank, designating a quarantine center near Jericho for those arriving from China and other areas that are hard hit by the Coronavirus.

For Palestinians however, fighting an outbreak of the Coronavirus is not a straightforward matter, even if the dysfunctional PA facilities follow the instructions of the World Health Organization (WHO) to the letter.

Palestinians are separated by an Israeli matrix of control that has excluded many communities behind large cement walls, military checkpoints, and impossible to navigate army ordinances that are inherently designed to weaken the Palestinian community and to ease the Israeli government’s mission of controlling Palestinians and colonizing their land.

What can the PA do to come to the aid of tens of thousands of Palestinians in the so-called Area C of the occupied West Bank? This region is entirely under the control of the Israeli army, which has little interest in the welfare of the Palestinian inhabitants there.

Such questions would have to be considered in the context of what WHO refers to as “health inequalities” among Palestinians, on the one hand, and between Palestinians and privileged illegal Jewish settlers, on the other. 

In some way, many Palestinian communities are already quarantined by Israel, but for political, not medical reasons. An outbreak of the Coronavirus in some of these communities, especially the ones that are cut off from proper healthcare and well-equipped medical facilities, would prove disastrous. 

The worst of fates, however, awaits Gaza, should the deadly and fast-spreading virus find its way from all directions through the hermetic siege, which engulfs this minuscule, but densely populated region.

Gaza, which is enduring its 12th year of Israeli siege and is still reeling under the massive destruction of several Israeli wars, has already been declared “uninhabitable” by the United Nations. 

However, the misery of Gaza never ceases to unfold. Not a single UN report on Gaza’s ailing medical facilities or preparedness for at least the last ten years has used any positive or even hopeful language.

Last March, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory, Mr. Jamie McGoldrick, bemoaned Gaza’s “chronic power outages, gaps in critical services, including mental health and psychosocial support, and shortages of essential medicines and supplies.”

In January, the Israeli rights group. B’Tselem, spoke of an unprecedented health crisis in besieged Gaza, one that is not fueled by the Coronavirus or any other such epidemics but by the fact that Gaza’s barely functioning hospitals are desperately trying to deal with the fall-out of the thousands of injuries resulting from the Great March of Return which has taken place on the Gaza side of the dividing fence.

B’Tselem has already reported on “the unlawful open-fire policy Israel is using against these demonstrations, allowing soldiers to shoot live fire at unarmed protesters who endanger no one, has led to horrific results.”

The Israeli group cited moderate estimations provided by WHO that, by the end of 2019, Gaza physicians had to perform limb amputations on 155 protesters, a number that includes 30 children. This, in addition to dozens of protesters who have become permanently paralyzed because of spinal injuries.

This is only a small part of a much more multifaceted crisis. Not only measles and other highly contagious infectious diseases are finding their way back to Gaza, water-borne diseases are also spreading at an alarming rate.

Ninty-seven percent of all of Gaza’s water is not fit for human consumption, according to the WHO, which begs the question: How could Gaza hospitals possibly confront the Coronavirus epidemic when, in some cases, clean water is not even available in Gaza’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa? 

“Even when it is available, doctors and nurses are unable to sterilize their hands because of the water quality,” according to the RAND Corporation.

WHO director in Palestine, Gerald Rockenschaub, spoke assuredly about his meeting with PA Minister of Health, Mai Al-Kaila, in Ramallah on February 25, where they discussed the need for more  “preparedness measures” and “additional priority preparedness actions” in the West Bank and Gaza.

WHO also announced that it is “coordinating with local authorities in Gaza” to ensure the Strip’s preparedness to cope with the Coronavirus.

Such soothing language, however, masks an ugly reality, one that WHO and the entire United Nations have failed to confront over the course of a decade. 

All previous reports on Gaza by WHO, while accurately detailing the problem, did little to diagnose its roots or to fashion a permanent solution to it. Indeed, Gaza’s hospitals are as dysfunctional as ever, Gaza’s water is as dirty as ever and, despite repeated warnings, the Strip is still unfit for human habitation, thanks to the brutal Israeli siege and to the silence of the international community. 

The truth is, no amount of preparedness in Gaza – or, frankly, anywhere in occupied Palestine – can stop the spread of the Coronavirus. What is needed is a fundamental and structural change that would emancipate the Palestinian healthcare system from the horrific impact of the Israeli occupation and the Israeli government’s policies of perpetual siege and politically-imposed quarantines – also known as apartheid. 

Ramzy Baroud

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

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28 Responses

  1. VQTilley on March 5, 2020, 4:13 pm

    This is a flipping nightmare. Gaza is the worst possible environment for dealing with COVID-19. This is terrifying.

  2. Eva Smagacz on March 6, 2020, 5:52 am

    Occupied Palestinian Territories already way down on the life expectancy charts while Israel have one of the highest life expectancy in the world.

    If I was a population health officer in Gaza I would have sleepless nights right now.

    Gaza, with it’s high population density could experience very high transmission rate, but that will be modified by high unemployement, relatively few entertainment venues and shopping malls, and a very young age profile of the population.

    I doubt that there is a single coronavirus testing kit in Gaza, there are absolutely no ICU beds (in western sense of the word), so virtually all cases will be treated at home. This would increase death rate per 1000 considerably from quoted 3.4%

    The isolation is likely un-enforceable with the enormous destruction of the housing stock in repeated Israeli attacks.

    Assuming coronavirus type L will enter Gaza, and 80% of population is eventually infected, that makes 1600000 infected, 160000 serious and critically ill people and 55000 – 80000 deaths.

    • echinococcus on March 6, 2020, 1:39 pm

      “I doubt that there is a single coronavirus testing kit in Gaza, there are absolutely no ICU beds (in western sense of the word), so virtually all cases will be treated at home. This would increase death rate per 1000 considerably from quoted 3.4%”

      First off, Gaza wouldn’t be so terribly struck because its elderly population is very small — one already dies young in Gaza, and this virus does not infect the young (and when it does it doesn’t cause much harm.) On the other hand, it would practically wipe out the few remaining old people of Gaza.

      Looking at it from the US, though, we are not much better protected over here: the main thing needed is test kits and we almost don’t have any due to the principle of for-profit medicine — the Chinese test is not being used, so that some US company can make a huge profit, if and when it can produce enough tests. Someone who asked for a test to be done w/o official sanction just got billed over $3,200.-. As for treatment in the ICU, the typical American generally has to choose between treatment and bankruptcy — we have to pay for the very effective social medicine in Zionist-occupied Palestine, too…

      Be that as it may, expressing a “death rate per 1000” as a percentage (“3.4%”) is a totally novel take on numeric communications.

      • Bumblebye on March 6, 2020, 11:33 pm

        I think you could be mistaken, Gaza’s health profile is not as good, up & down the age ranges, due to the siege, the wrecked sewage and water facilities, the widespread stress, etc. There could indeed be a higher death rate than elsewhere.

      • Eva Smagacz on March 7, 2020, 5:55 am

        echinococcus, you said:

        “Be that as it may, expressing a “death rate per 1000” as a percentage (“3.4%”) is a totally novel take on numeric communications”

        You are, of course, absolutely right.

      • Eva Smagacz on March 7, 2020, 6:00 am

        Echinococcus, one more thought:

        The 3.4 % does, indeed reflect the age distribution of societies where calculations have been made. So your point of Gaza having few older people is valid.

        On the other hand, there are many people with underlying serious conditions, who are not adequately treated already. And those who will develop into the serious/critical status will not have medical treatment.

      • jw500 on March 20, 2020, 1:52 am

        That’s a bunch of BS. Testing is free. And no one pays “sticker” price for healthcare. The sticker price is inflated for sure.

  3. Elizabeth Block on March 6, 2020, 11:19 am

    The Israelis are probably hoping that Coronavirus will do their dirty work for them. I think you all know what dirty work I am referring to.

    • kev on March 8, 2020, 1:57 am

      I think that this is entirely possible. Consider: Israel apparently just seized 6 merchants traveling from Gaza. This is often done in order to try to coerce them into cooperating with Israel and informing on their neighbors in Gaza. Or just interrogating them for whatever information that Shin Bet thinks they can get, or just as an additional intimidation/collective punishment act…

      But what if some clever fellow got the idea to pass these 6 individuals through an intentionally infectious environment and then just return them to the almost hermetically sealed Gaza? Or maybe just detain some more fishermen, do the same, return them to Gaza. Israel can introduce the Covid-19 virus to Gaza at will and watch as people die, if Israel chooses. And they will of course be clever about it, they have to have plausible deniability.

      The question is, will Israel choose such a path, knowing that their own citizens might suffer from a very increased epidemic in Gaza? It is possible for it to jump the border through animals even if no people are allowed passage. Or will Israel reason that an epidemic in Gaza would also justify them to fully lock down Gaza and shoot to kill any Gazans that approach the border. And then maybe send in a few “token” medical supplies and claim that they are aiding Gaza, hasbara.

      I think that if Covid-19 arrives in Gaza it will be very, very important to try to determine the vector. Biological warfare is criminal.

      • jon s on March 10, 2020, 5:30 pm

        Kev, you have a sick imagination , but you’re in line with a long tradition of blaming the Jews for intentionally spreading disease ,an aspect of the Medieval blood libel.

        In reality it looks like there’s increased cooperation between Israel and the PA in response to the coronavirus, a realization that we’re in this together.

      • Bumblebye on March 10, 2020, 8:29 pm

        So, jon s, you would reject Naeim Giladi’s claim of being intentionally sent to poison Palestinian wells with typhoid?

        Because even something true must be antisemitic and thus critics silenced.

      • Mooser on March 10, 2020, 9:07 pm

        “blaming the Jews for intentionally spreading disease”

        Like the insistence on Jewish endogamy?

      • Mooser on March 10, 2020, 9:11 pm

        “Kev, you have a sick imagination ,”

        “Jon s” why don’t you tell us what we can rule out, what Israel will not do, after reading this.

        Or is that the product of a ‘sick imagination’?

  4. Rashers2 on March 8, 2020, 5:47 pm

    @kev, Sadly, I can’t berate you for “putting ideas into the head of…” because reading your comment on Mondo’ will almost assuredly not be the first time this disgusting thought will have entered the minds of senior enforcers of the Occupation and would be par-for-the-course for Bennett and numberless other of the Arab-hating Ziopaths running that sh*t show.
    @Eva Smagacz points out, while there may be few extremely elderly in Gaza, this is because life expectancy is already low. The population is kept on a just-above-starvation calorific intake under the siege, the agriculture has been depleted as a result of successive “lawn mowings” and, since much of it happens near the perimeter fences, by deliberate contamination from herbicides; the fishing catch is also much-diminished by illegal reductions in the waters available to fishing vessels. These factors and the effect one may infer they have on the Gazan diet, coupled with the almost ubiquitous absence of potable water, are not conducive to generally healthy immune systems. COVID-19, if it has reached or reaches Gaza, will likely therefore seriously affect or kill people of younger average ages than it does in the West. Clinical isolation or “self-isolation” are impractical against the spread in what is a two million-strong Kz with a chronic shortage of housing stock – hence extensive, multiple-family dwellings. Temperatures in April in Gaza should go up to 29⁰ centigrade, and to above 32⁰ in May. One saving grace for the enclave may be the approaching warmer weather, which seems to reduce the spread of most `flu’ viruses: whether this is true for COVID-19, however, remains to be seen.

    • jon s on March 11, 2020, 1:20 pm

      Why hasn’t Hamas invested more in health care?
      Why havent they built more hospitals? Or just use hospitals to steal helium from their supplies to use in their balloons ? And we remember their use of hospitals and other civilian facilities as launch sites, arms depots and operational command posts.

      • eljay on March 11, 2020, 1:46 pm

        || jon s: Why hasn’t Hamas invested more in health care?
        Why havent they built more hospitals? … ||

        jon s, you’re absolutely right. It’s time:
        – to shift to the Palestinians all of the financial support Israel currently receives from the U.S. (which, according to (some) Zionists, Israel doesn’t need anyway);
        – end Israel’s on-going air, land and sea blockade of Palestine; and
        – allow the Palestinians to solicit investment in and development of Palestine.

  5. Ossinev on March 11, 2020, 3:03 pm

    @jon s

    “And we remember their use of hospitals and other civilian facilities as launch sites, arms depots and operational command posts”

    Classic Zionist colonial bullshit.
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/24/gaza-hamas-fighters-military-bases-guerrilla-war-civilians-israel-idf

    Some day all this disgusting inhumane propaganda and its use to avoid blame for atrocities may come to haunt you. Then again you are so deep in the cesspit of denial and perpetual victimisation it`s probably too late.

    You claim to be one of the “we” who “remember”. The civilised world will increasingly remember those “we” who resorted to brutalisation and murder and will increasingly shun and your kin you as grotesque pariahs.

    • jon s on March 13, 2020, 5:17 am

      Ossinev,
      Are you saying that Hamas did NOT use hospitals, mosques, schools, as launch sites, etc.?

      In fairness I’ll point out that at present( even before the coronavirus crisis) there seems to be a defacto strategic alliance of Hamas and the Netanyahu government, for which Netanyahu has taken a lot of criticism from the more extreme elements in his coalition.

  6. Ossinev on March 13, 2020, 10:20 am

    @jon s
    Are you saying that Hamas did NOT use hospitals, mosques, schools, as launch sites, etc.?
    https://www.972mag.com/when-jewish-militants-dug-underground-tunnels/
    Sauce for the goose ?

    • Eva Smagacz on March 13, 2020, 12:31 pm

      Ossinev, Ossinev,

      Haven’t you learned yet that in Zionist political ideology (that’s you @jon S) inherent virtue of the action depends entirely on ethnoreligious category of a perpetrator?

    • jon s on March 13, 2020, 2:45 pm

      Ossinev,
      A great term that I learned here on Mondoweiss: “whataboutery”. That’s what you’re doing.

      You don’t deny Hamas tactics using civilian facilities this way , you’re just saying that Jewish militias did the same 75 years ago. And that makes it legitimate?

  7. Ossinev on March 13, 2020, 3:04 pm

    @Eva
    A small (OK tiny) part of me still hopes that some neurotic Zionists can be persuaded to switch their focus away from the bottom of their “ethnoreligious” cesspit to the light at the end of the truth tunnel.

    • echinococcus on March 13, 2020, 11:58 pm

      It’s unreasonable hope that flups up everything, always.
      Some people may happen to understand things, of course.
      The problem is that the rare cases of Zionists who finally turn human is not of any help in the general scheme of things; what we need is the general population, that who is still unmoved but not because they give a damn about Zionism (or “antisemitism”) or the liberals who are so eagerly active trying to keep all discussion within their restricted circle of trendiness.

      • jw500 on March 20, 2020, 1:50 am

        You people are hilariously deluded. The world is getting increasingly tired of Islamists. You murder each other more than any other group in the world. You exaggerate tiny sins of Israel and ignore your own horrible sins. Europe is fighting to save itself, India is taking increasingly aggressive steps in the name of self-preservation, and China imprisons a million of your people in reeducation camps. America will never become a Muslim nation. We value our freedom too much. But all you talk about is Ziopaths because Jews finally (after 2000 years) have the power to carve out a tiny piece of land for itself. How many millions and millions did Muslims kill to get where they are and still today they kill in vast numbers.

      • eljay on March 20, 2020, 9:39 am

        || jw500 on March 20, 2020, 1:50 am ||

        Every Zionist makes the (Zionism 101) argument murderers exist, so it’s OK to rape, but jw makes it with such passion!

      • Mooser on March 20, 2020, 6:51 pm

        “Every Zionist makes the (Zionism 101) argument…but jw makes it with such passion.”

        True, true, “jw500”, and others, too. It must be terribly difficult for the Moderators and Editors to select the best pro-Israel comments for publication.
        I like “jw500’s” evocation of Jewish power:

        “Jews finally (after 2000 years) have the power to carve out a tiny piece of land for itself.”

      • eljay on March 20, 2020, 8:24 pm

        || Mooser: … I like “jw500’s” evocation of Jewish power:

        “Jews finally (after 2000 years) have the power to carve out a tiny piece of land for itself.” ||

        Nothing can stand in the way of “Jews … itself”. Not for another ~930 years, anyway.

      • Mooser on March 21, 2020, 1:45 pm

        “America will never become a Muslim nation.” “jw500”

        Don’t be so sure. They already outnumber us Jews by well over a million in the US. already. And the demographics aren’t going our way. The US may not always be a Judeo-Christian nation, like it says in the Constitution.

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