Gaza is already on its knees – if coronavirus spreads, the fallout will be catastrophic

The mental trauma of 13 years under blockade had taken its toll on so many – and that’s before you factor in the spectre of Covid-19 that lingers at our borders

Muneeb Abu-Ghazaleh
Thursday 09 April 2020 11:21 BST
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A couple of weeks ago, we Palestinians drew breath as something we had been dreading materialised. The first two cases of Covid-19 were reported in Gaza.

Luckily, they were quarantined on arrival. Since 15 March, anybody who enters Gaza has to stay at one of our quarantine centres – hurriedly created out of schools and hotels that are no longer functioning – for 14 days. These centres currently accommodate 13 people with coronavirus and so far, none have been reported beyond their walls.

There are just two civilian entry points into Gaza, so ironically, it has not been too difficult to keep track of who is coming into the country. We are already used to tight controls at our borders.

We have been under blockade for 13 years – if it can help contain the spread of this deadly virus, then it’s about time we saw something positive from it. But as with everything here, this situation is overshadowed by so many negatives.

For most of the population, the tight restrictions needed to keep this pandemic at bay means everything else is spiralling out of control. I fear for my family and, as an aid worker for Islamic Relief, for all Gazans.

Already, our ability to move in and out of this tiny strip of land has been at the mercy of Israeli authorities. But before, at least some could cross the border for medical treatment. Now, nobody is allowed to leave – and the basic primary healthcare facilities that were here have closed.

This morning, a woman phoned my colleague, asking for help as her daily cancer medication has run out. We tried to help her, but we couldn’t find the medication she needed at local pharmacies or hospitals – she would have had to cross the border. And now, she has nowhere to turn to. I cannot imagine how it must feel to know that today she has had her last pill, with no substitute tomorrow.

Already, families here live hand-to-mouth. According to the UN, 53 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, and 62 per cent of households do not have enough food to eat.

With the closure of schools, markets, cafes, shops, and everything else that keeps this precarious economy going, all these people who depend on a daily income have nothing. The concept of being able to have savings is a fantasy for most people here.

And already, the mental trauma of 13 years under blockade had taken its toll on so many, with the UN reporting that half of both adults and children need mental health support.

With those who were just about managing now having no idea where their next meal will come from, mental health problems are bound to increase. And that’s before you factor in the spectre of Covid-19 that lingers at our borders, plus the inevitable further restrictions on movement.

For my 12-year-old son, being confined to our homes brings back memories of conflict. "When is the war coming, dad?" he asks me, thinking this is what immediately follows restriction of movement. For his whole life, he has been confined to this tiny strip of land just 360km long – a quarter of the size of London.

Our lives had always hung by a precarious thread, but if the coronavirus were to reach the community, that thread would snap, and that would be disastrous.

Across Gaza, lack of funding over the past few years has meant that public services, as well as water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure have deteriorated. There are daily updates from the Ministry of Health, which people can tune into online, on TV or radio, with information about how to keep clean and safe. But for many, sanitation is not a priority. Putting food on the table is struggle enough.

After years of blockades and restrictions, there are so many people here who are already in poor health – so if they were infected with the virus, it could be deadly. Of children under five, seven out of 10 suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. It is highly likely that if people were to become infected, intensive care beds and ventilators would be in high demand. As it is, we have very few of them: 70 ICU beds and 62 ventilators for two million people.

Gaza is notorious for its power cuts, and we are getting about eight hours of power a day at the moment. But as spring leads to summer and the months get hotter, we always have less, as people use more electricity to keep cool. And you never know when the fuel for back-up generators will run out. If people need to rely on ventilators to breathe and if the power-cuts continue, the results could be deadly.

As aid workers race to mitigate the impact of coronavirus on communities, non-critical activities that involve high exposure to others have been suspended. Every year during Ramadan, Islamic Relief distributes food parcels to low-income households around the world. With the holy month just weeks away, we are putting plans in place to do this in a way that doesn’t put people at risk.

And for now, our operation is prioritising three things: providing the quarantine centres and municipality with hygiene materials like soap, chlorine and disinfectant spray, and food aid for families who have lost income specifically because of this situation.

Children like my son have only ever experienced life under siege, their community impoverished and in dire health. Gaza is already on its knees – and if Covid-19 were to spread, this humanitarian crisis would bring us crashing down. It would be catastrophic.

Muneeb Abu-Ghazaleh is Islamic Relief Country director for Palestine – Gaza

Islamic Relief UK has launched an emergency coronavirus appeal to support vulnerable communities in Gaza, Syria and Yemen as well as local partners in the UK. You can donate here

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