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Gaza caught between full lockdown or collapse of health sector amid COVID-19 surge

A health catastrophe looms on the horizon of the Gaza Strip amid the already fragile health-care sector, while the government hesitates to impose a full lockdown due to the deteriorating economic situation.
A Palestinian man and his wife ride a donkey cart past street art showing doctors mask-clad due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in the Nusseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on November 16, 2020. (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED / AFP) (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The deteriorating health-care system in the Gaza Strip warns of a health disaster due to the increasing number of coronavirus cases, as 32% of daily tests turn out positive. Since March, 21,461 cases have been registered in Gaza, with 9,627 active cases as of Dec. 2, and about 111 deaths.

Rami al-Abadla, director of the Infection Control Department at the General Hospital Administration of the Ministry of Health in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “The COVID-19 infection rate in the Gaza Strip foreshadows a larger spread of the virus. In addition, many cases are still unregistered because some infected people do not inform the ministry of the people they came in contact with.”

Abadla warned, “The coming period will be difficult. The number of critical cases is expected to rise due to the lack of medical equipment and shortage of [medical] oxygen needed for such cases.”

The government in Gaza is considering imposing a complete lockdown, but Abadla explained that this would be a tough option in the Gaza Strip, saying, “A full lockdown would help reduce the number of cases, but the situation in the Gaza Strip is different.” He explained that a lockdown would not have the desired results since there are overcrowded neighborhoods where the virus can easily spread.

He said the economic situation is another reason for steering clear of a lockdown, explaining, “Many families depend on daily wage work to provide for their needs, and a complete lockdown may worsen their economic situation. Still, the lockdown option is on the table and we could end up implementing it.”

On Nov. 30, the Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip issued a statement to change the daily protocols for PCR tests and focus on the most urgent cases. The statement read, “The central laboratory is unable to handle the increase in the number of COVID-19 cases as well as the people registered to have come in contact with infected individuals.”

Abdel Nasser Soboh, director of the World Health Organization’s office in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “The infection rate in the Gaza Strip exceeds the health-care system’s capacity, as it needs a lot of external support in order to be able to provide the necessary services.”

The first coronavirus cases were registered in the Gaza Strip in March among travelers, who were then placed in government quarantine centers. The virus spread further within the community in August, after which the government imposed a full lockdown for about two weeks only and began to tighten precautionary measures on educational facilities and public places.

As the number of COVID-19 cases surged, it has become difficult for the Ministry of Health in Gaza to receive all infected individuals and isolate them inside quarantine centers. In mid-November, the Ministry of Health decided to resort to home quarantine for both locals and expats. An exception was made for those who do not have the appropriate conditions to isolate themselves at home and those whose health condition requires special medical care — they have been transferred to government quarantine centers.

Mohammed Nassar, a resident of Nuseirat camp in the central Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor how overwhelmed the Ministry of Health is due to the surge in cases, saying, “I started having COVID-19 symptoms on Nov. 20 and it took forever to convince the nurse to conduct a [PCR] test to see if I was positive or not; he told me they had very few swabs available in the clinic. Finally, I was able to do the test on Nov. 22.”

He added, “Two days after the test, on Nov. 24, the result came back positive, and unfortunately I had been in contact with my wife and six daughters, as well as my parents. Immediately after my test results came back, I called the Ministry of Health and we are still waiting for someone to come and test my family since we all have symptoms now.”

Although Nassar always wears a mask and takes all the necessary precautions, he still caught the virus without knowing how.

“It seems that the Ministry of Health is completely falling behind on its responsibilities; the only medical care my family and I received was from the UNRWA health clinic in Nuseirat camp, which sent Acamol pills and antibiotics for my daughters and me,” he added.

During a Nov. 26 visit to the Gaza Strip, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini warned of an “imminent collapse of the health-care system in the Gaza Strip due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” especially in light of UNRWA’s financial deficit.

Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in the Gaza Strip issued a statement Nov. 29, stressing that “2 million people in the Gaza Strip are at risk of contracting the coronavirus, while 20% of infected individuals are critically ill.”

As a result of the chronic deficit in the health-care sector, Hamas deputies in the Palestinian Legislative Council — which has been suspended due to the Palestinian division since 2007 — established a parliamentary committee to support the health-care sector, with the aim of mobilizing efforts and communicating with international bodies to provide the necessary support for the crumbling health-care sector to face the coronavirus pandemic in the Gaza Strip.

This committee, headed by Hamas leader Khaled al-Zahar, handed over a letter to the director of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Gaza, Ignacio Casares Garcia, addressed to President of the ICRC in Geneva Peter Maurer, requesting a set of urgent needs for the health-care system to face the pandemic in Gaza.

Meanwhile, it seems that the coronavirus has made its way to the top of the political pyramid in the Gaza Strip. On Dec. 1, Hamas issued a press statement announcing that Yahya Sinwar, the movement’s leader in the Gaza Strip, has tested positive.

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