GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Some people with COVID-19 symptoms are avoiding testing to protect their income.
Suheir, who works in the Jabalia refugee camp in the north of the Gaza Strip, started coming down with COVID-19 symptoms in early April. But her colleagues encouraged her to come to work and hide her condition from management so that the kindergarten, their only source of income, would not shut down.
Suheir, who asked that her last name be withheld, graduated from the Faculty of Commerce at the Islamic University in Gaza in 2012, but she has not been able to find a job in her field despite several attempts. She started her first and only job since graduation as an accountant at a kindergarten about a month ago. She earns $140 per month, and this is currently her only source of income.
Suheir said, “If I get tested, I will not be able to work for days or longer. If the kindergarten closes, my friends would lose their livelihood too, since I was in contact with all of them.”
On the seventh day her symptoms worsened, and she took a PCR test at a governmental hospital. She told Al-Monitor, “I felt bad because I had been in contact with several people daily, from the moment I left the house until I reached work. But I was strict about wearing the mask and keeping my distance to avoid transmitting the virus to them. I am worried I might have passed on the virus to others.”
The tests in the governmental hospitals in Gaza take three days to produce results, and Suheir continued to work. She said, “When the result was confirmed positive on the third day, I notified work and stayed in. Ever since, I have been scared for my family, who had so far not caught the virus because I had been quarantining after work.”
For the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Ministry of Health in Gaza announced April 13 that it is providing rapid COVID testing in several local hospitals.
Walid Sabah, director of coordination with non-governmental institutions for the Ministry of Health, said in an April 13 press statement, “The ministry managed to provide the rapid test service for free in cooperation with civil institutions to facilitate things for citizens and enhance community engagement in reducing the pandemic spread.”
Suheir said, “The coronavirus is no longer as feared in Gaza because many of them have already caught it. People now consider it like the regular flu that a person can recover from. Many of them prefer not to take a test to avoid quarantining and keep their only source of income.”
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip reached 49% in 2020. Half of Gaza’s population lives in poverty, according to statistics from the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor.
The holy month of Ramadan began this year with Gaza's highest infection rates since the virus started to spread in August 2020.
According to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, the infection rate in the enclave began to rise March 28 and has reached a 38% positivity rate in daily tests, counting 1,000 cases some days.
According to the Ministry of Health, the total number of cases since August 2020 has surpassed 84,579 and there are 20,484 active cases. The death rate in Gaza also reached a new high on April 12, with 17 COVID-19 deaths in one day, bringing the total coronavirus fatalities in the Gaza Strip to 702.
The Hamas government in Gaza was able to keep the city relatively COVID-free at the beginning of last year with compulsory quarantines for the few citizens returning to the Strip through Israel or Egypt. In August 2020, the virus began to spread through the community.
On Dec. 3, 2020, the Ministry of Interior imposed a general lockdown on Fridays and Saturdays in addition to closing schools, mosques and wedding halls as part of measures to combat the virus. When the restrictions were lifted on Jan. 7, cases began to increase until they peaked in April.
The Gaza government re-imposed the restrictions this month.
Muhammad, who owns a clothing shop in Gaza City, suspects he contracted the virus. However, he told Al-Monitor, “If I got tested and my infection was confirmed … the police might close my store. I took basic precautions to protect my customers from infection.”
Muhammad, who did not reveal his full name, said Ramadan is a vital opportunity to recoup some of the losses, adding, “No one will compensate us during lockdowns. This shop is the only source of income for my family.”
Muhammad said he has no way to access the vaccine. Speaking to Al-Monitor after his recovery, he said, “I am afraid of getting infected again with the huge increase in cases, but I cannot get the vaccine because it is available in limited amounts that are barely enough for the elderly.”
The Gaza Strip, which has a population of about two million, has reportedly received enough vaccine doses to inoculate about 40,000 people, including a shipment from the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative.