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Palestinian Authority reimposes lockdowns amid lack of vaccines

A year after the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in the Palestinian territories, the government reimposed total lockdown measures in several governorates in the West Bank amid the unprecedented rise in cases and deaths and the drained health care sector.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel officially launched on March 8 its vaccination campaign against COVID-19 for Palestinian laborers who hold work permits in Israel or in its settlements in the West Bank.

Staff at Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s paramedic and Red Cross service, vaccinated workers with the Moderna vaccine at checkpoints and military crossings and in the industrial areas in the West Bank. Around 700 Palestinian workers received the vaccine as part of a pilot campaign.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) had announced on Feb. 19 that it reached an agreement with Israel in which Israeli authorities would vaccinate 100,000 Palestinian workers.

Palestinian Ministry of Health spokesperson Kamal al-Shakhra said in statements to Palestine TV on March 8 that Palestinians and Israelis agreed on all details to vaccinate workers after deliberations between them, with the participation of the ministries of labor and health and the PA-affiliated General Authority of Civil Affairs. 

The two sides agreed that Palestinian medical staff would eventually administer the vaccine to workers at the agreed-upon Israeli checkpoints and crossings, according to Shakhra. He said the first day of vaccination, led by MDA, was a pilot campaign only, and Palestinian medical staff would begin administering the vaccine. This will allow them to tally the workers who received the vaccine and allow the Ministry of Health to follow up on the development of their health condition, he added.

The health situation in the West Bank is critical in light of increasing deaths and coronavirus cases — and more so now with the outbreak of the British and South African strains. This has drained the operational capacity of hospitals, which have become incapable of receiving patients in intensive care units due to lack of beds.

The dangerous pandemic curve pushed the Palestinian government to renew a total lockdown in many governorates in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus. Nablus Governor Ibrahim Ramadan announced shutting down the governorate completely from March 6 to 13, with the possibility of renewing the lockdown.

Ramallah and Al-Bireh Gov. Layla Ghannam also announced a lockdown in the governorate beginning in the evening of March 6 until the morning of March 14. Bethlehem, Tulkarem and Qalqilya governorates made similar decisions.

The lockdown included banning movement between the cities and villages and halting internal and external transport completely, as well as closing industrial and commercial facilities except for bakeries and pharmacies. The work of ministries, public and private institutions, schools and universities was also suspended.

The West Bank alone, excluding Jerusalem and its outskirts, recorded 17 deaths and 1,619 COVID-19 cases on March 8, despite the total lockdown in some governorates.

The director general of supportive medical services at the Ministry of Health, Osama al-Najjar, told Al-Monitor, “We are now at the worst stage since the coronavirus broke out in 2020, despite the expertise in dealing with the virus. There are no vacant beds at the hospitals, and dozens of patients are waiting in their houses.”

Najjar added, “The situation of the pandemic is bad, and it is set to get much worse amid the wide outbreak of the British strain. We have reached our maximum capacity, and we can only bet on people’s commitment to the health measures now,” he added

“The spike in cases is worrying, and we hope the government’s total lockdown measures and citizens’ commitment will curb the infection curve so that we can welcome more patients in hospitals,” he said.

The Ministry of Health does not have accurate data about the number of infected people with the British strain, which Najjar asserted has dangerous symptoms that are affecting children and youths. Oxygen cylinders and intensive care units are urgently needed, he added.

“We have detected 800 cases exhibiting the British strain through random testing samples on patients. We expect 90% of the new cases to have the British strain,” he said.

Najar said the Ministry of Health, through its committees, has advised the National Emergency Committee led by Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh to impose a total and strict lockdown, including a strict curfew, for two consecutive weeks to break the new strain chain. But the measures that were taken did not meet these criteria, he said.

Given the tough pandemic situation, the Palestinian Ministry of Health is racing against time to secure coronavirus vaccines from companies it signed purchasing deals with. But the vaccines have not arrived yet.

Minister of Health Mai al-Kaila said during a meeting with rights and legal organizations on March 7 that the problem in securing vaccines is not financial, as the necessary financial budgets to purchase them have been approved and the funds have been transferred to some companies. The problem is with the companies in providing the doses and meeting the terms of the agreements, she said.

The Ministry of Health said on March 2 it has received so far 12,000 vaccine doses from different sources (Sputnik from Russia and Moderna from Israel) — 2,000 of which have been sent to the Gaza Strip and 9,800 to the West Bank.

Kaila told Al-Monitor, “The ministry signed contracts with AstraZeneca to supply the vaccine. We are still waiting for the vaccines to be transferred to us as per the agreement.” Unfortunately, they have not arrived, although several dates have been set for the provision, she said.

On whether Israel has suggested giving vaccines to the PA, Kaila noted, “We are ready to receive vaccines from any party — but without conditions. We are ready to pay provided that the vaccines are produced by an internationally acclaimed company.”

She added, “Israel did not propose to supply us with vaccines. If it does, we can buy them without any problem.” She indicated that the decision not to request vaccines from Israel is in the hands of the Palestinian leadership.

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