Gaza still needs our help, let us not give up on it in these testing times, argues Maddalena Dunscombe
Last week the first two cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the Gaza strip. As one of the most densely populated regions in the world the spread of coronavirus has the potential to decimate Gaza’s population.
Enclosed in an open air prison, the two million people of Gaza are already suffering from severe shortages in medical supplies and equipment, food and basic goods. The Israeli blockade is responsible for a serious health crisis in the region, and there are fears that if the coronavirus takes hold and spreads rapidly among Gaza’s two million population there will be a massive humanitarian disaster.
According to the WHO’s Palestinian office the restrictions imposed by Israel and the last twelve years of conflict have left the hospitals of Gaza in an extremely vulnerable state. Serious staff shortages, lack of medical infrastructure and in particular an insufficient number of ventilators will lead to many thousands of deaths.
Matthias Schmale, director of the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA), warned of the impossibility of keeping the spread of the virus under control in such a densely populated area, stating that it would be “an illusion to think you can manage [an epidemic] in a closed-off space like this.”
Hamas authorities, anticipating the severity of the situation, are currently planning 1000 isolation rooms to be built near the Egyptian border. Israel has transferred medical supplies as well as hundreds of COVID-19 testing kits to Gaza. But far more must be done. The WHO report that there are still only sixty intensive care beds available in Gaza, and less than sixty ventilators.
Prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, Palestinians suffering from serious diseases were permitted to travel into Israel or the West Bank to seek treatment unavailable in Gaza’s poorly equipped hospitals. It is unlikely that this will continue during this epidemic. Prime Minister Netanyahu has imposed severe restriction on movement within Israel already. Concern is growing that Palestinians will not be allowed to travel out of Gaza for treatment, regardless of the severity of their symptoms.
To leave Gaza for treatment is already an immense struggle: whilst those in a critical state may currently travel to Israel or the West bank for treatment, those with family already living in these areas are denied access. The Israeli government insists that until family members living in Israel or the West Bank return to the Gaza strip, patients will be denied permission to leave.
Palestinian journalist, Abdalhadi Alija, commented that lockdowns, travel bans and Israeli-imposed quarantines have been a part of daily life in the Gaza strip since 2006: “outside the Gaza strip, there is always a government and institutions that could make life easier, provide services, health care, and economic support, while in Gaza, that is a daydream.” He continued that the people of Gaza will be completely overwhelmed by Covid-19, “with the destroyed health care system, bad nutrition, and lack of resources. Israel is causing a long-term catastrophe in an unprecedented way.”
It is not only accessibility to adequate healthcare that is a cause for concern. Palestinians (and Israelis) fear that the right-wing Israeli government will use coronavirus as an excuse to attack civil liberties. Using sophisticated technology, Israeli’s surveillance system already hacks into phones, laptops and computers of both Israeli and Palestinian citizens. Technology initially developed in order to gain intelligence on Palestinian freedom fighters has recently been used to warn the public about the coronavirus. Residents from Tel-Aviv reported only last week that they received personal messages from the Israeli government letting them know if they had been in contact with someone who was suspected of having the virus, instructing them to stay in their homes. We can only imagine how such technology might be used in future.
Over the coming months we must not allow our own difficulties to prevent us campaigning against what is happening in Gaza. In the UK, the fifth richest country in the world, we see the strains our economy and health system is being put under by this virus. In Gaza it is likely to be a death sentence.