Opinion

Gaza Diaries: Three stories of life during the coronavirus pandemic

“Despite going through two wars as a doctor in 2012 and 2014, the fear of this experience was greater than what I’ve been through before, its terms are way more than I imagined.”
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For decades, Palestinians in Gaza have learned to survive against forces that, while invisible, are made by humans . . . not nature. Now, COVID-19 is very much the deadly equalizer. Gaza’s two million residents have been invited to share in a global story, as equals, where the virus impacts all no matter who they are or how self-determined and strong they may otherwise be. 

The siege imposed on Gaza puts patients at risk, with the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing and the Rafah border under Egyptian control remaining closed for most. Though a limited number of people are permitted to enter Gaza, those who do must quarantine for 21 days.

In early March 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic struck the occupied Palestinian region, which prompted the Palestinian Prime Minister to declare a state of emergency and the implementation of restrictions designed to suppress its spread. 

The first two cases of COVID-19 in Gaza were reported in Gaza City on March 21. Since then, the total number of cases in Gaza has risen to 72, with only 11 active cases of the virus as of July 10th, and one death, according to the Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, the Hebron district has become the epicenter of the virus in Palestine with 4,155 active cases as of the same date, raising the total number of confirmed cases and the death toll in Palestine to 6,225 and 30 respectively.

The following are three diaries from Palestinians in Gaza. They come from from different periods of recent life in Gaza, just before the pandemic and once it hit. Each diary shares their personal experience with us, and explains what has changed about life in Gaza, and what hasn’t.

Khalil AlSaqqa

“I have seen enough death in this city and it still hovers above us every minute”

Khalil AlSaqqa

Saturday, Feb 22

It’s the beginning of a new week, the first week in the 25th year of my life. I woke up at 7:30 am wishing that this week would be great. Got breakfast. Drank coffee. Went to work. I volunteer as a site engineer to get the experience needed so that I can have a decent paid-job. Since the current situation in Gaza it is difficult to be a civil engineer as it depends on the projects granted by the donors and because of the large number of graduates, there’s a large unemployment rate. At 2:00 pm I went back home and I helped my mom make french fries as she prepared burgers for lunch. It was joyful and delicious. After then I went to my room to work on a STEM camp preparation as a part of an initiative – I am also working voluntarily as a financial coordinator. It’s a different experience but I like numbers. However, I do my best to get a paid job. At 6:00 pm, I went along with my father to give condolences to our relatives. At 7:00 pm I started watching a TV show and browsed my social media accounts. At 10:30 pm I went to bed and it’s been 4 hours now and I could not sleep.

Sunday, Feb 23

It’s 8:00 am, my dad came to wake me up to eat breakfast with the family. I like this habit because it makes me feel connected and loved. Last night was rough since I couldn’t sleep. I remember seeing the clock at two in the morning and I’m still awake thinking about my future self, how would I get a job? Or should I travel to pursue my master’s degree then try to find work and live abroad because I can’t imagine living my life in Gaza where we are exposed to war at any moment.

I went back home from work early so that I could have a bath before the electricity cut off. As I entered my parents’ house the electricity went off, and I was forced to delay my bath because there is no hot water without electricity. It’s 2020 but still, we can’t have electricity all day long.

During the day, I saw a friend who lost his cousin due to heart failure and he was so depressed and he looks miserable. I couldn’t help him because my feelings from two years ago when my grandmother died immersed back into my head.

Monday, Feb 24

The third day in my 25th year was full, as I along with my team visited the places we will set up the STEM camp to do a technical evaluation. Then I had to set up a meeting with our local partner to discuss some decisions on some outstanding matters related to financial affairs. Later that day I was going through some scholarships a friend sent to me and it was disappointing to not find my country Palestine in the eligible countries in one of them, some are closing because of the deadline and some don’t meet my interests in pursuing my master’s degree. My father’s voice interrupted me when he told me to get ready because we were going to attend the funeral of one of our relatives who died peacefully in his sleep. On the way, I had a strange feeling that I was no longer affected by death anymore in this country that sees martyrs every day. However, I don’t like attending funerals, I have seen enough death in this city and it still hovers above us every minute. In fact, just yesterday, an Israeli bulldozer abused the body of the Palestinian martyr Mohammed al-Na’m, who was shot by the Israeli occupation forces at the separation fence in Khan Yunis, south of the Gaza Strip.

Tuesday, Feb 25

It’s 1:00 am, I just woke up on the bombing sound of Israeli aircraft. Again, I woke up at 3:00, it’s the thunder this time. I don’t know if this was my brain working in my sleep and didn’t want me to sleep or is it just the normal life in Gaza.

Today was routine, I did nothing but went to work and it was boring since we finished the building, and tomorrow a committee from the ministry of health will come to check their new clinic. However, I doubt it if this was routine or should I go attend a funeral or give condolences to someone somewhere. But I am happy that to my knowledge nobody I knew died today.

Wednesday, Feb 26

Every morning I hope today will not be routine. I always feel I want to have a change and make a difference but every time I feel that I am limited and helpless. I and my supervisor felt great and pleased today at work since we are finished with the clinic and the ministry of health committee was satisfied. I am preparing myself to move to a school building project.

At 5:00 pm my father and I are going to offer my condolences again. Like it is not enough deaths yet. It’s upsetting because I had that feeling that there is nothing new could happen but death. I believe Gaza is not a city but a disease. Sometimes I envy those who die because they will not be suffering anymore. However, the irony is that on our way in the car, the What a Wonderful World -Nick Cave and Shane MacGowan’s song- popped up on the radio.

Thursday, Feb 27

It is 2:00 am and cannot sleep. I feel sleep disorder is getting worse and I am overthinking everything.

It’s the weekend. I made no plans and I will just wait for a friend to call me so we can have a good time. I was watching TV when my father came in and told me that he spoke to a friend of his in UAE and he wanted me to send my certificates and CV. I am excited about traveling since I get to have my own lifestyle and responsibilities. I go out every weekend at night with my friends chilling at one of the cafes smoking the hookah and playing cards. When I go home I open music and go to sleep.

Friday, Feb 28

Friday is the only routine day that I like. My father wakes me up early in the morning to go to the market to buy the necessary vegetables and fruits as we do not have time to buy them during the week. When we come back from the market, we prepare breakfast all in a joyful atmosphere. After that, I go up to my room and relax while listening to music or watching TV. In the evening I go out with my friends to take a walk and go to the beach to have fun and have a quality time trying to entertain ourselves.

Update from Khalil as of June 30th: “Four months have passed, and not much has changed. I still grasp on to anything that can help me make it from one day to the next. People here have witnessed a life that is way worse than the COVID-19 pandemic, this explains why life in Gaza didn’t take a long time to get back to normal – back to Gaza’s abnormal normal, you know. I’ve been assigned as a volunteering site engineer on a construction project – And I’m still fighting to survive this city.”

[Khalil Alsaqqa, 24. A civil engineer from Gaza, Palestine. He is a volunteering site engineer at Khatib & Alami. He is also volunteering as a financial coordinator.]

Ibrahim Al-Nabulsieh

“Despite going through two wars as a doctor in 2012 and 2014, the fear of this experience was greater than what I’ve been through before, its terms are way more than I imagined.”

Ibrahim Al-Nabulsieh

Friday, April 17

Friday prayer was announced, which we still pray in our homes due to the spread of the coronavirus and the closure of mosques. I performed the noon prayer with my small family, my wife put lunch as I sat with her and my children Amr, 4 years, and Mustafa, 3 years, we were chatting as we used to before lunch, talking about the approaching month of Ramadan, in matters of our lives and the latest developments of the coronavirus in Gaza and the world. It was a few moments before my mobile phone rang, it was my supervisor at work telling me that I was chosen for a big mission in the Gaza Strip.

I was a little shocked and silent for a moment when my wife asked me about the reason for my silence, and who called me. I told her that I was chosen to be part of the staff at the Rafah Crossing Field Hospital for those with COVID-19 in the Gaza Strip, and I must be in the hospital starting tomorrow at 8:00 in the morning. There was a great silence at home, as my wife and I were confused.

I went to my father, hesitated, and I told him along with my mother and my siblings about what I am about to get into, and I was surprised by their great reaction. They were the first to encourage me as all of them had pushed me to go to work in the hospital, as it is a national, religious, humanitarian, and moral duty. Tonight, I filled my heart watching my kids and their faces were the last thing I saw before I fell asleep.

Saturday, April 18

Today was not like any other normal working day. I bid farewell to my mother, father, brothers, wife, and children as my brothers took me by car from my home to the gate of the Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza Strip.

The field hospital for coronavirus patients is located at the end of the Rafah crossing, or as a doctor who accompanied us to the location said, “we’re crossing between the two continents ‘Asia and Africa’.”

The place was very gloomy. Every step we take brings us closer to the global pandemic and the deadly dangerous virus. The hospital consisted of 3 departments, a section for working staff, a section for the field hospital and patients, and a quarantine department for recovering cases where patients remain a full month in place, and every week they are examined to ensure their safety. 

The staff was made up of eight people: two doctors, three nurses, one administrator, and sterilization and cleaning workers. We got together and received some important instructions in dealing with the situation. We all looked forward to the moment we could enter the hospital, where the COVID-19 patients were being taken care of.

The hospital work schedule was divided into full time shifts for 24 hours — from 9 AM to 9 AM — due to the preparation process before and after meeting patients. A PPE insulating suit is worn while meeting with patients, and the entire suit is sprayed with chlorine after leaving, then completely washed, and new clothes are worn.

Tuesday, April 21

My first face-to-face encounter with COVID-19 patients was today. Four new cases entered the hospital. It was my first encounter with the patients. My first interaction was with three cases at one time. I felt a great dread in the place, and the matter was further increased by a blackout of the electricity for a minute until the generator was operational. In that minute I felt great fear. I will never forget this minute in my life.

The Israeli siege imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2006 prevented the construction of a high efficiency field hospital. This hospital, which was composed of large tents, and some “barracks” where the sun of the day was burning, and the cold of the night was severe. But our goal was higher and greater than all these obstacles, and the safety and security of our people, avoiding this dangerous pandemic was our supreme mission.

Wednesday, April 27

Today is my tenth day at work, my wife sent me a video of my son, Amru, laying sick and telling me, “Baba, I’m sick and I want medication.” I felt lots of pain and immediately started making calls to check on him and make sure he’s fine and secured, my brother who is a doctor assured to me that he is fine and didn’t want me to be distracted from my job. I still spent my night sick worried, it’s not easy to be far from your kids in such times. 

During my stay in the Rafah Crossing Field Hospital, my university duties were also on my mind, as I am doing a Bachelor’s in Health Administration at Al-Quds Open University and I’m graduating this semester, so I had to find some time between the endless workload to submit the electronic activities required of me to the university. I also finished my final exams online while in the quarantine center. Life must go on, and nothing should stop us, no matter what.

Sunday, May 3

Today was our last day at the Rafah Crossing Field Hospital for treating COVID-19 patients in the Gaza Strip. We handed over the mission to competent colleagues managing the work for 15 days in the field hospital. We were sad to leave the place because we were aware of the great mission that we work with. Our hearts were broken due to the hope that we and the patients would leave together. I left behind five patients still receiving the necessary care, and my goal was to leave the hospital with all my patients completely healthy.

Today, we leave the hospital and head to quarantine for 14 days, in order to ensure our safety and that of our loved ones.

Update from Ibrahim: “After returning from my work mission at the Rafah Crossing Field Hospital for COVID-19 patients, we were quarantined for 14 days to ensure our safety, and then I was assigned by the Ministry of Health to work as a nursing team official at the Turkish Al-Sadaqa Hospital for 21 days. Currently I am self-quarantining to ensure our safety, and I am ready to work where ever I am needed to help all patients.”

[Ibrahim Ramzi Ali Al-Nabulsieh, 30 years is a Gaza doctor, has a Nursing Diploma, and a Bachelor of Health Management. He is lives in Nusseirat camp in the central Gaza Strip and is married with two children

Meera AlBaba

“I’m lucky to have had come back home before everything escalated.”

Meera AlBaba

Friday, May 15

This Ramadan feels different. A bit strange, but definitely intimate. I happen to crave emotional and mental intimacy quite a lot. The abnormality, however, brings me back to Ramadan of 2014. The heat and bombing are not present, but the coziness of seeking shelter in loved ones at home and the uncertainty are almost identical. 

Saturday, May 16

The weather is very strange today. It’s cold and foggy like a perfect winter afternoon. It’s funny saying that we live in a pandemic when the streets and markets are even more crowded than before. 

The fog at sunrise reminds me of school days. Waking up at dawn and hurrying up to find a taxi so I won’t be late for school. I was 12 and Gaza was so different, certainly much more fun.

I went out without a mask because I don’t see it necessary under my circumstances. I carry a hand sanitizer in my bag like I’ve been doing for the last 10 years or so. It almost feels pretty normal and it’s been a month since I last read the updates on the coronavirus. 

Sunday, May 17

I’ve been journaling since the start of this semi-lockdown. Something I’ve been trying to do for a while. It actually helps me contain my anxiety. Though insufficient to replace the pills, it remains lovely still. My aunt invited me to Iftar at the last minute. She lives around the corner so it wasn’t a hassle. We prayed together after. Then had tea and a delicious dessert. I always miss these family little gatherings when I’m traveling. I’m almost convinced that these social settings were one of the main reasons I came back and didn’t want to settle abroad. I can’t deal with cold weather and loneliness. I need to be around loud laughter, kids, and delicious homemade food. I’m too weak and sentimental like that. 

Monday, May 18

Work emails, canceling orders, and overthinking has been the theme of this day. Again, I have to state my privilege. I’m grateful for my supportive parents who helped me pursue my passion and my love of always moving between places. Nevertheless, creating a business abroad while living in Gaza and also being under an informal global quarantine is dreadful, to say the least. I live in and operate from Gaza, my storage unit is in Istanbul, and I ship globally. So, it’s triple the trouble, triple the effort, and triple the risk. I’m yet grateful. I’m lucky to have had come back home before everything escalated. My days are relatively short and the weather is lovely.

Tuesday, May 19

The whole family is invited for Iftar today. I hate eating outside during Ramadan, I’m too attached to the comfort of my own home and rituals. My Arabian cup of coffee and my mom’s homemade qatayef are my favorite companion in this holy month. Nothing beats my mother’s food. Just stating facts LOL. Don’t know when have I turned into an introvert, or if this is even the right term to use. Again, I love the comfort of my own home. Familiarity is needed. No wonder that my separation anxiety burns a hole in my chest when I’m abroad. 

My mom always said: “Heaven can’t be without people”, that’s why I enjoy drinking tea with my people more than I enjoyed laying on the beach in Barcelona in 2016. This is also a privilege to have the choice of leaving. Most people can’t.

Wednesday, May 20

Not feeling great today. I keep thinking about how all my work plans got either postponed or canceled. Shipping issues, events, working on the new collection, digital marketing, and etc. Still, this holy month is needed. Soul-cleansing, praying, and reciting the holy book are keeping me grounded. Ramadan is genuinely my favorite month of the year. It teaches self-discipline and forces me to reflect. I feel very disconnected from the material world and I grow humbler and more grateful. I consider myself a highly religious and spiritual person. So I feel closer to my creator at these blessed times. 

I always think about the duality of my faith and the fashion world. Every time I go to Dubai to attend a fashion-related event I feel overwhelmed. I can’t do it for long. Fashion is truly beautiful but the industry can seem like a superficial bubble sometimes. Yet, it’s my temporary distraction and optional escape from my politicalized reality. It’s my other outlet away from my heavy roots and history. So, I stand in between being a fashion creative and collateral damage/demographic threat trying always to navigate the two worlds and make sure I won’t lose myself and identity. 

Thursday, May 21

Three days until Eid and the streets are packed like when the final ceasefire was announced in summer 2014. The heat is not helping so I try to avoid going out during the day, but it’s even more packed at night. I love it though, seeing the streets full of women at late at night without feeling like the reputation is held by the tiny thread of ‘time’. Seeing more women in public spaces is always refreshing. I’m trying to plan my Eid visits, so maybe I will visit some of my distant relatives that I haven’t seen in months like I usually do. The only thing making me hesitant is the usual questions related to my marital status and the constant reminders ‘to hop at the marriage train before I start chasing it from behind’, as two relatives told me three years ago. I’ll turn 28 this October and I’ve never felt younger. 

Mahmoud Darwish in one of his poems once referred to Palestinian women in Gaza as ‘women with no desires’ and this sentence still infuriates me to this day. I, like many of my peers here, hold within a sea of desires that can drown nations and start wars. However, this place, like many around the world, is not deserving of its women. 

Update from Meera: “Street noise, humidity, and the sea. Typical Gazan summer. Everything seems back to normal, or at least it looks like it. Channeling all my energy into working on my brand and planning the next fashion season. So much worry, but I’m trying to keep my faith”.

[Meera Albaba is the creative director of the Palestinian contemporary RTW clothing label MEERA ADNAN. Currently residing between Istanbul, Dubai, and the “City Under Siege”. The label aims to reclaim the narrative, challenge political restrictions and social conventions, and build a platform for Palestinian creativity that we would like to have in future Palestine.]