The corona pandemic comes to Gaza when the Strip as a whole and its health care system, in particular, are already in a desperate state.
Last Sunday, the first two cases of COVID-19 were discovered in the Gaza Strip. This is exactly the scenario authorities in the Gaza Strip have been trying to avert for weeks by strictly monitoring and isolating people returning to the Strip, preventing gatherings and shutting down schools. Now that the virus has entered Gaza, they must adjust to a new reality of community transmission.
This is a particularly ominous prospect given Gaza’s unique predicament, an area under occupation and siege with a health care system already plagued by severe shortages of funds, medical equipment, medicine, and staff, and it raises several concerns regarding preparedness for the coronavirus.
Will Gaza’s health care system be able to stem the spread of the virus?
Global monitoring of the pandemic’s spread indicates that every infected individual will likely infect 2 to 2.5 other people – a pace similar to that of the Spanish Flu and much higher than the Swine Flu that hit in 2009. At the moment, stopping the spread depends on two main factors, screen testing for the virus and isolating those who tested positive to prevent continued spread. In the current conditions, it is unlikely that the authorities in Gaza will be able to provide the necessary response. So far, only 92 tests have been administered in Gaza, and it’s unclear how successfully the authorities can enforce isolation in one of the poorest and most densely populated places in the world. Add to that the debilitated water and sewage infrastructure, which makes it much harder to maintain the required standards of hygiene and protection during an epidemic.
Can Gaza’s health care system withstand a patient surge?
Gaza’s population faces a tremendous risk as a result of Israel’s policies over the last decade: its health care system is experiencing severe shortages as a result of the Israeli siege now in place for more than ten years, as well as military assaults that have damaged hospitals and medical facilities and injured hundreds of people, who are still receiving care. Israeli restrictions also limit medical training, which has resulted in shortages in many specialty areas, and crisis budgeting has created a chronic shortage of medicine and medical supplies. This means Gaza’s health care system has trouble meeting needs in ordinary times, and many patients are referred to hospitals outside it for treatment. Now that the crossings have been closed, most of these patients are no longer referred for treatment outside Gaza, and, with the addition of the expected corona patients, Gaza hospitals are on course to facing unmanageable workloads.
Shortage of protective gear and ventilators
Aside from the patient surge and shortage of skilled staff, there are shortages in supplies specifically needed for treating COVID-19. Gaza currently has only about 70 ICU beds, some of which are already occupied. This is merely a drop in the ocean given that Gaza has a population of over two million. International data shows that countries where hospitals were overloaded, primarily Italy, had extremely high infection and death rates.
The corona pandemic comes to Gaza when the Strip as a whole and its health care system, in particular, are already in a desperate state. Without help, Gaza residents will face an unfathomable disaster. What is needed to prevent this scenario is massive aid from Israel and from the World Health Organization to help stem the spread of the virus and treat those infected with it. In these moments, when people’s lives are on the line, this isn’t just Israel’s obligation under international law and the law of occupation, it is the humane, moral thing to do.